I am not a fan of science fiction. The closest I came was watching the old black and white Superman TV show from the 1950s, which was already in syndication when I was growing up in the 1960s. I did not watch Star Wars for the first time until I met my wife in the mid-1990s, almost 15 years after it first came out.
I bring this up because the last thing in the world I would ever consider doing is going to ComicCon – the four day “comics convention” held every July in San Diego. But earlier this spring, I watched the movie Paul, which is about two comic book “fans/nerds” from the UK, who fulfill their lifelong dream of attending ComicCon, and then rent an RV to drive across the American West to visit all the iconic “real-life” locations associated with aliens and sci-fi (Roswell, NM, Area 51). Long story made short – they meet a real alien along the way, help him to meet up with his mother ship and go home – a 2015 version of “ET”. They write a comic book about their adventure, and the following year, they are “star” presenters at ComicCon. The movie is a hoot, and worth watching.
So it was fortuitous a few weeks ago when I spotted Rob Salkowitz’s book called “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture”. Partly because of my interest in popular culture, and partly because of the movie Paul, I found the book fascinating. Written in 2012, it is slightly dated, yet provides a detailed description of not only the ComicCon event, but also what is happening in general within the comics industry. The parallels to the catalog industry are everywhere.
First and foremost, ComicCon is no longer just about comic books, which have dropped in circulation tremendously in the past 10 years. There was a time when individual comic books would sell a million copies. Now, a bestseller of a red-hot book (usually tied to a movie release) will only sell 150,000 copies. Over 70 million tickets to the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight were purchased, but fewer than 70,000 people purchased the July 2008 issue of the comic book Batman: the Dark Knight.
This change came about starting in the 1980s, when most comic publishers discontinued newsstand sales, where unsold copies could be returned to the publisher for a refund. Instead, the publishers began selling to a “direct market” system that shipped comic books exclusively to specialized comic books stores, on a nonreturnable basis. Initially this seemed great for everyone: comic book fans got the convenience of a one-stop shop (kind of like catalogers using co-ops) and publishers had higher margins, no returns, and could charge more for books targeted to hard-core comics fans.
However, in the 1990s, comic books stores eventually began to cater only to comic book nerds, and were not inviting places for women, kids or the occasional casual comics fan. At the same time, publishers discovered that by targeting the hard core comic book fan, they had unwittingly made the subject matter increasingly insular, which further pushed comics out of mainstream. Death seemed eminent. (This is similar to catalogs that continue to only seek products for a small base of existing customers, excluding new product categories and potentially new customers along the way).
ComicCon was one of the reasons that comic book publishers were able to revive themselves, largely by association with Hollywood. They developed new comics solely for female audiences, especially teens. They developed hit movies around popular comic heroes. And much of this “revival” owes itself to ComicCon.
ComicCon is now one of the major ways the comics trade finds new customers (particularly women), and extends the comics genre into other media, especially movies.
I won’t recap the whole book, but one theme that I found particularly interesting was the need for the comics industry to always have heroes, or more specifically, superheroes. Despite the breadth of comic content and styles, American comics are still primarily identified in the public consciousness with superheroes, and the future of comics in popular culture is tied to the future of the superhero.
That got me thinking about heroes in the catalog industry. When I first started in catalogs 30 years ago, there were actual heroes in our industry. You saw them at the DMA’s Catalog Conference. They had their picture in the catalog – or better, they had their name on the cover. They were known not just to the catalog industry, but to the general public as well.
There was Lillian Vernon – the original “kitchen table startup”. There was Pleasant Rowland, founder of American Girl, who built a doll empire that was the antithesis of traditional girl’s dolls like Barbie. In my opinion, her hero status only improved when she sold American Girl to Mattel (makers of Barbie) for $800 million. Leon Gorman led LL Bean from a small hunting supply company he took over upon his grandfather’s death to a $1+ billion business, which truly did drive a number of LL Bean “lifestyles”.
There was Chuck Williams, founder of Williams Sonoma, and Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End, who made customer service a huge priority (Period.). Richard and Jim Cabela were heroes to sportsmen, but also heroes within cataloging and retailing. And working at Brookstone, we were always in awe of Richard Thalheimer, founder of Sharper Image, especially when James Bond used a Sharper Image credit card in A View to Kill. There were even heroes among vendors, like Larry Quadracci, who elevated catalog printing – at the time basically a commodity service – to a special “experience” when printing with Quad.
What set these heroes apart – many of whom are still alive – was not that they were good business managers. What set them apart, at least within the catalog industry, was their fame and ability as merchants. They were innovators in finding, sourcing and presenting products in such a way as to compel customers to respond. They made shopping from their companies an “experience”. They also had personalities. Some worn them on their sleeves, some were simply low-key Yankees. But those personalities made a name for the person and their companies.
Sadly, in my opinion, there are no such heroes within the catalog industry today. This is partly a reflection of the fact that many catalogs are now part of multi-titled conglomerates where devotion to the business plan and the bottom line outweigh focusing on products or the customer. I’m sure some of these multi-title leaders are far better business managers than the catalog heroes of old. But do they have charisma? Does their individual personality show through in the catalog? Are they heroes to their customers or even their employees? No way.
In answer to the question on the heading of today’s piece, the heroes are all retired. Yes, there are some well-known individuals left within cataloging, but no heroes. Instead, they have been replaced by Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tony Hsieh (Zappos) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).
The comics industry managed to revive itself, partly through the influence of ComicCon, and partly through their promotion of superheroes in popular culture. The catalog industry is never going to revive itself to pre-2007 levels, but individual companies could benefit and grow by having “hero” CEOs or merchants. Unlike the comic world however, catalog heroes cannot be “created” by a talented artist. The person has to have the right talent, the right personality, the right product niche, and a great deal of luck. But a few heroes in our industry would be very helpful right about now.
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by Bill LaPierre
VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics
Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235