The Man Who Sold the World
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for September 13, 2007
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)
"For years there was practically nothing selling to kids. DC and Marvel obviously don't want to create kids comics, or can't, or in DC's case pays lip service to them with the Cartoon Network stepchild line. A small number of kids will read their parent's old comics, Little Lulu, Disney, old all-ages superhero stuff without any of the current 'mature readers' rape or mutilation stuff."
- Evan Dorkin
For some weird reason, my copy of the Publishers Weekly comics news email arrived a day late, so I'm only getting to this now: On the opening day of Diamond's Retailer Summit in Baltimore, MD, Diamond Comic Distributors unveiled what's sure to be one of the biggest industry-related announcements of the year: The company had developed a software package called ComicSuite, which uses Microsoft's Retail Management System as the base for an end-to-end inventory tracking system for Direct-Market retailers. Heidi MacDonald broke the news:
Diamond presented its new Comics Suite software at an afternoon seminar. The new system allows comics shops — many of which do not use computerized inventory systems and rely on paper and pencil cycle sheets — to use barcode scanning to automate inventory control, sales and reorder activity.
Store owners surveyed by PWCW were cautiously enthusiastic about the new system — although it is expensive, Diamond is making it affordable for as many shops as possible by offering an 18-month interest-free loan to purchase both the software and hardware, if necessary. It's an offer that many retailers found tempting. "We're going to have to give it a very serious look," said Katie Merritt of Green Brain in Dearborn, Mich., echoing the thoughts of many retailers. While almost everyone is in favor of computerizing sales information, the devil is in the details — the system is expensive, and some shops have problems with the Microsoft software itself.
MacDonald also notes as an aside that beginning next January, Diamond will require all products available through its catalogs to carry barcodes and Universal Product Code information.
Tom Spurgeon did some legwork and dug up information about the software packages retailers will need to implement Diamond's new initiative in their stores. The two basic programs (Microsoft RMS Single Store Operations and the ComicSuite add-on) will run some $1600, with the service plan for the RMS Annual Maintenance Plan for a single store adding another $200 to the cost. Retailers who own multiple locations will presumably need separate copies of the base RMS software for each store, plus another program (Microsoft RMS Headquarters, $3000) to coordinate information between stores. Cost for a single-store service package for this program hovers around $500, with the amount rising as branch outlets are added to coverage; while Microsoft's own page for RMS Headquarters doesn't mention specific prices, the ordering pages for third-party resellers such as POS Global indicate that an annual service package for four stores will set you back some $700 or so.
One final note about software: The ComicSuite plug-in isn't purchased by retailers — it's rented, at a cost of $100/per year after the first year.
There isn't enough available information about Diamond's new initiative to be able to really discuss it at the moment. All I have are questions. Questions like:
- The system as designed is being described in Diamond-centric terms. How difficult will it be to include ordering information and tracking for other distributors, such as Last Gasp or Baker & Taylor?
- If this system does get wide implementation in the Direct Market, to what extent will it serve as a deterrent against others who might wish to compete against Diamond? At what point would the sole distribution agent of a given market, possessing both exclusivity deals with the vast majority of comic-book publishers and ownership of the industry-standard POS tracking system, cross the line and become a monopolistic entity in excess of what the law allows?
- How much integration will there be between retailers' systems and Diamond's own online network, if any? Does the system share sales information with Diamond? If not, does Diamond have any plans to begin using ComicSuite to gather sales information from client retailers? When and how would they go about implementing such plans? Will the resulting data be shared with client publishers and retailers? Would receiving such data require an exclusivity agreement with Diamond?
- It's currently possible to export data from Microsoft's proprietary database protocols to other varieties, such as the open-source MySQL. Is there anything in ComicSuite that might complicate this process for retailers who, for whatever reason, might decide that Diamond's system isn't working out for them, and want to use something else?
- Microsoft's RSM system currently works for both Windows XP and Windows Vista. How long will this be true? Will forced upgrades be an issue down the line? Will such upgrades affect system functionality?
- Can upgrades and changes to the ComicSuite software be forced automatically on Diamond's end?
- One of the features of Microsoft's RMS package is its ability to encrypt spreadsheets, email and even webpages. How many of these DRM functions does ComicSuite have enabled right out of the box? Will communications between Diamond and their client retailers be encrypted by ComicSuite and/or Microsoft RMS? If so, to what extent will retailers be able to pass along Diamond emails, spreadsheets and the like on to other retailers? How much control will retailers have over this feature?
- How integrated is Microsoft RMS (and, by extension, ComicSuite) into the underlying operating system? Do its features and/or restrictions extend into Microsoft's native browser, email and document programs?
- To the extent that ComicSuite and/or Microsoft RMS utilizes web and email functionalities, is it possible to configure these to use, say, non-MS programs such as Firefox and Thunderbird?
- What does the end-user license agreement say?
The first two points are the ones that really intrigue me. For weeks, Rich Johnston has hinted at the possibility of major players from the bookstore market dipping toes into the Direct Market, and that Diamond might eliminate the penalty against re-orders from non-exclusive publishers as a stick to fight back against them. It seems to me that this announcement trumps all of that by a good country mile. Will the ComicSuite system bring much-needed improvements to the market? The obvious answer would seem to be "yes," but let's be clear: Steve Geppi's latest initiative is almost certainly as much a power grab as it is an act of forward-thinking altruism — he didn't get to be a rich man by giving away interest-free loans, after all.
Related: In comments at Johanna Draper Carlson's site, Simon Jones gives some basic info on ISBN and UPC pricing. Elsewhere, Connecticut retailer Hal Kinney notes the really important controversy to arise from the Diamond Retailer Summit.
Postscript: The above essay led to the below follow-up, which I posted online the next day.
Yesterday's ruminations on Diamond's new point-of-sale tracking system brought an email from North Carolina retailer Dustin Harbin, who offered the following commentary:
Hi, Dirk — I was at the Retailer Summit; in fact, the only reason we attended was for the POS presentation, as we have been sniffing around this issue for awhile. The questions you pose are good ones, especially the basic ones like Vista/XP compatibility in the future. I can answer a couple of them, based on the presentation.
1. The system does allow you to include non-Diamond items. I suspect this is more a function of the RMS system than anything the ComicSuite programmers chose to do. The RMS system is a broad-based inventory-control package: From what I can see, ComicSuite is just additional functionality tailored to Diamond retailers. How your Baker & Taylor numbers jibe with your Diamond numbers, specifically in terms of reporting, is what worries me. Having to sift through 18 different tables and reports when it's time to order new books is a super-headache.
2. This question was half handled/half sidestepped by the presenter, related to her answer to #1. It sounds like the RMS allows for all sorts of things, which Diamond is happy to claim credit for. However, I see nothing to say that Diamond could morph ComicSuite into something that makes multiple distribution channels prohibitively time-consuming to maintain.
5. Great question. Heidi is incorrect: The cost of the system ($5000-ish for the top end) is not expensive, except maybe for the smallest of retailers. You can upgrade an existing crummy computer for a few hundred, once the price of the software itself is out of the way. However, upgrading to Vista will be not only expensive, but incredibly time-consuming. Most retailers I know are small-focus Luddites: They have an almost religious attachment to whatever system they learned to operate a computer on. Windows 95? No problem? 98? Flashy! For these dealers, Vista will require new PCs as well.
Customer service and tech support is where I think the big soap opera will happen in the beginning. The initial release of any software exposes bugs and problems, but the idea of DIAMOND handling these bugs and problems makes it hard to pee straight.
My sincere thanks to Dustin for his informative observations.