Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The B&N v. Kindle Fire v. DC Comics debacle

So, here's the rundown.

Amazon has introduced the "Kindle Fire", their next generation Kindle and lightweight, relatively cheap competitor to the iPad.  As part of their launch, they announced that Amazon had signed a deal with DC Comics to carry about 100 graphic novels exclusively on the Fire in digital format.

DC also has several other outlets through which digital comics can be bought, but not these hot-selling graphic novels (at least hot-selling in paper form).

Barnes & Noble heard about the deal and loudly announced that they would be removing all of the exclusive graphic novels from their physical shelves.  Not their digital store, but the regular 'ol graphic novels from bookstores.

This is a few months before the holidays, which is when, I assume, B&N has a lot of foot traffic and sells a lot of comics.  Its intended to sound the alarm for any publishers looking to make exclusive deals not to do so, lets B&N, now the only bookstores more or less left in the US, will totally rain on your parade.  The "Books-a-Million" chain, which I've never seen (its not in Austin) has also pulled the same list of graphic novels.

I've been watching the situation with muted interest.

1.  I do not own an iPad or Kindle
2.  I likely will not own any digital device like that until late 2012 or much later
3.  I actually own physical copies of a remarkable number of the books on the list, some of them for over 10 or 15 years, so I've only partially been paying attention as - I'm not worried about where I can get those books
4.  I don't buy graphic novels at B&N, anyway.  Doing so is kind of a bad practice as you can get a better selection while helping out your friends at your local comic shop by buying your graphic novels from a better curated comics selection.  Buying graphic novels at B&N is like buying your meat at Target.  Its there, but...
5.  I haven't bought a book from a book store in years.  Generally, I find Borders and B&N pretty unpleasant in a late-90's box-store way.  And I never have a "book emergency" where I can't wait a few days for Amazon to put something in my mailbox at a greatly reduced cost.

Will this whole dumping of 100 graphic novels screw B&N, Amazon or DC?  I have no idea, in truth, but I have opinions (about everything!  Just ask!).  But this situation is a lot of guess work, and I don't work in book store retail or have all the info, obviously.

I tend to think that people do not buy that many graphic novels randomly off the shelf.  I tend to think that if they're looking for a book and its not at the one store they tried, they'll just go to Amazon and buy it.  Or, in some cases, their LCS.  People aren't helpless and B&N sort of trades on convenience.

If its gift shopping for the holidays, that's a whole different ball-game.  I suspect if B&N doesn't have it, the shopper will continue with their holiday shopping, just like if they were looking for a red scarf and the store only had blue.  That's the mind-set of the Holiday shopper, I think.*

I am possibly wrong about this.  But it seems the number of Aunts and Grannies who just buy random comics off the shelf because little Raoul or Petunia likes Spider-Man is a really small number.  Children's books, yes.  $20 comics with unfamiliar characters, no.  I think they pick up their cellphone and I imagine the conversation goes like this: "They don't have Sandman, but they have Naruto.  Is that okay?  No.  All right.  I'll just go to Amazon."

Frankly, I have a hard time seeing B&N not just losing the sales to other retailers, and if they explain to customers looking for a book that they've inconvenienced a shopper because of some grudge?  I know the look of disappointment that would cross my face and the "can you believe these jack-asses?" story I would tell my friends over dinner about how B&N was behaving like a teen-ager doing more harm to themselves than to anyone else with their sulking.

"You're a store!" I'd say, in my usual urbane and witty manner (as I removed the monocle from my eye,  my cigarette holder elegantly balanced between my fingers.  I might adjust my smoking jacket whilst sipping upon a highball before releasing a light guffaw with an ever-so-delicate hint of old European culture in my voice).  "Carry the product!  I don't care about your personal problems.  Why would you turn down my money?"

Was this a bad move by DC?

It all depends.  Will an exclusive with Kindle Fire start people buying comics online?  Will it actually affect sales in stores?  Have these books already hit market saturation for the audience that still wants print?

There's just a lot of variables here.

What I don't get is limiting yourself to Kindle Fire with your digital efforts in graphic novels.  Snubbing iPad users seems a lot more dangerous to me in this game than anything to do with bookstores.  DC's digital efforts are still in their infancy, and while its a time for experiments, its also a time to give your baby as many advantages as possible.  Singling out the Fire as too many eggs in a single basket with the graphic novel effort seems like an unnecessarily risky move. 

Look, its true that B&N needs to draw a line in the sand lest their stores and their digital strategy get side-lined.  In a lot of ways, dumping DC's books is probably a low-risk/ high-profile gambit.  Comics are something the press likes to talk about, so they'd get attention, but its not like they just said they'd quit carrying the latest Janet Evanovich novel, or something that will generate real revenue over the holidays.

DC made a deal that sounded, probably, like it would get them some marketing attention and tie them in with a cool product.  Very future.  They likely did not see B&N going for the nuclear option.

DC Publisher and not-ready-to-deal-with-the-press-spokesman Jim Lee heard about the issue and said to the world "please be patient" (ie: we have no idea what we're doing with our digital strategy.  Do not judge us.).

*So you're probably looking at a 2 week window from December 10th-25th where buyers who are worried about Amazon's shipping time would panic and bother spending 30-50% more for a book just to make sure they had it in hand.


JMD said...

I'm not sure I would say that B&N is akin to Target with respect to buying graphic novels. Big bookstores like B&N actually keep certain titles in print that otherwise would not be and introduce lots of folks to authors they might not know. I've browsed graphic novels at these types of stores before and have seen others doing so. One of the problems with the comics industry that has been identified in the past is its exclusivity with respect to the comic shops, which may be intimidating (or more likely, unknown) to those with casual interests. Selling graphic novels - and even comics - at B&N seems like a good idea, as those stores receive a lot of foot traffic. If someone buys "Watchmen," "TDKR," or heck, even "Fables" or "The Walking Dead" at B&N, that brings them closer to visiting an independent shoppe. Why's that a bad thing?

Paul Toohey said...

I'd hope that outside your comic buying, you do most of your book shopping at local bookstore Book People...

The League said...

The relationship is certainly an odd one. I found out via this very blog a couple months ago that a comic that had sold not-particularly-well in comic shops was killing it in Troll Bookorders and at bookshops, but that was a kids comic.

As I said, I have no idea what the actual retail experience is at B&N, and I'm not familiar with their numbers, especially vis-a-vis the comics direct market.

But my experience is that the selection is always spotty, the 20 or so titles that don't move through the store with great regularity are often mangled on the shelves, or make no sense. They'll have volumes 3 and 6 of a series, but nothing else. Its never a well-managed section of the store.

Like Target, its a product they've got on the shelf, but like Target's meat, its offered as a "well, as long as you're here" matter of convenience.

B&N certainly didn't pioneer comics in regular stores (I was buying comics at Bookstop in high school), and I'd appreciate the perceived gravitas of B&N more if I felt they actually cared about those books nearly as much as they do putting the latest Ann Coulter or Guiness Book of World Records books front and center.

I don't think its a GOOD thing that these comics are off the shelf, and I'd agree that there's likely some cross-over from B&N to comic shops, but I don't think either of us know how great that cross-over actually is. I'd guess its just as likely its B&N to Amazon, given the aforementioned avoidance of comic shops and from anecdotal evidence.

Look, I want to like Book People here in Austin, but its a cost thing. 1) I shopped Amazon from right after learning of its existence, through the unprofitable years, etc... and 2) in the free market, I don't value the Book People experience enough to pay half-again as much for the same book. If they could find a way to be even marginally more competitive, it'd be an easier sell.

I know Book People is not something Austinites say anything bad about, and as far as brick and mortar stores go, its the one I shop at about once per year (usually for other people). But I find shopping there to be a drag 4 out of 5 times. But I will admit, I had a good chat with the guy who works their "mysteries and thrillers" department last winter.

Simon MacDonald said...

In my honest opinion B&N over-reacted on this issue. Yes, I understand they have a policy that they will not carry books that have an exclusivity contract with another bookseller but that was just a bad move. What's happened here is that they've just given a lot of free publicity to DC and Amazon.

While I agree that buying books at big box stores like B&N is a bad idea if you have got a great LCS but for a lot of folks that isn't an option. There are lots of towns and cities out there without a decent comic book shop that rely on B&N to get a book. Yes, they could order it off Amazon but you'd be amazed how many people don't buy their books on-line. In the past year I've derided one friend that bought all the Walking Dead trades at Chapters (B&N equivalent) and another who grabbed the entire Song of Ice and Fire series as well. I could've got the Walking Dead for my buddy at a huge discount from my LCS and the Song of Ice and fire is deeply discounted on-line. However, that's not the way they think. They've been conditioned to head to the book store for books.

I think this was a great move for DC. The exclusivity deal is not permanent. It is only a short window where these books will only be available on the Kindle Fire. After that deal expires expect them to show up on Comixology and all the other digital services. With the press bump the Kindle Fire brings and the furor over the B&N thing DC is getting lots of free publicity for their books which can only be good.