Evolution of the Direct Market Part VII

At the end of my last column, I alluded to a letter-writing campaign that I initiated in 1980 that had a dramatic impact on the evolution of the Direct Market. After rereading the article, I realized that I had erred, as my first effort to influence Marvel was actually in 1979. It is easy for me to get those years confused, however, as they were so exciting and full of changes for both the comics market as a whole, and for Mile High Comics. Even with careful consideration I still have quite a hard time keeping the chronology exact. What I can relate with great certainty is that the months of January and February of 1979 were a period of time when I was very, very frustrated. The comics market was growing for us, but there was never enough working capital to fund the growth in sales at my four retail stores, and my back issue mail order business. Even with small periodic infusions of working capital originating from the sale of some of the precious comics from the original Mile High/Edgar Church collection, I was barely able to keep our company checking account covered.

It was in the context of this frustrating environment that I finally decided that I had had enough of dealing with the comics publishers through Seagate Distributing. While I certainly appreciated that Phil Seuling had greatly enhanced the opportunities for comics shops through his creation of that innovative new distribution company that sold "directly" to comics shops, the fact remained that having no advance information about upcoming issues other than title, cover price, and ship date made pre-ordering comics two months in advance very risky. In addition to the risk entailed in that lack of information, there was also the crippling cash flow effect of Phil's requirement that everyone had to prepay for their comics with their initial order form. This onerous policy tied up thousands of dollars in precious working capital, oftentimes for many months. I knew these policies were greatly holding back the growth of Mile High Comics, and I strongly suspected that others within the comics retailing community would hold similar opinions regarding their own companies.

It was that absolute belief that I was not alone in being frustrated that led me to send out approximately 300 form letters to everyone who's address I could locate in the comics world. Because there were not that many comics shops in the world in those early days (500?) I even sent copies of my letter to some acquaintances I had made in the science fiction book publishing business. The letter I sent to everyone was a cover letter asking for support, along with a copy of a long letter I sent to a lower level executive at Marvel, berating Marvel for their lack of professionalism in dealing with comics shops. In that letter, I asked for several radical changes from the methods in which the business was presently operating. The most important considerations I requested were 30-day billing for accounts that could prove credit-worthiness, advance information about the story contents of upcoming issues prior to the time of order, and the creation of co-op advertising and co-op racking programs.

Aside from the above specific requests for change, I also pointed out in the letter that it was my absolute belief that the newsstand business for comics was rapidly dwindling, and that comics shops were the one hope of rebuilding the comics business before it entirely collapsed. For clarity purposes, I need to emphasize that my letter to Marvel was not at all diplomatic. I was scared and angry when I composed the letter, and I wrote with a level of brash candor that only youthful inexperience (and stupidity) can rationalize. To paraphrase my basic theme, I asked rhetorically "Why should I commit the rest of my life to working within the comics world if you idiots are rapidly running Marvel into the ground through your remarkably stupid and unprofessional policies?"

To my great delight, when I sent the Marvel letter around to the comics retailers and publishers on my list, I received support from all quarters. I don't know the exact number (since not everyone sent me a cc:), but I believe that of the 300 people to whom I mailed my letter, over 100 sent letters of support of my positions to Marvel. Not everyone agreed with all of my points, but they all thought enough of what I wrote to chime in on some level. The net result of this effort was that when my wife, Nanette, answered the phone in our Boulder store one morning in April of 1979, she found herself speaking with Ed Shukin, the Vice President of Marketing for Marvel Comics. When Ed got me on the line, he explained that the gentleman I had written my letter to actually had no power to influence events, but that he did. More importantly, he had taken all the letters that had been sent in supporting my positions to Jim Galton, the President of Marvel. After reading the various opinions expressed in the letters. Mr. Galton wanted to meet with me. When could I fly to New York? I promised Mr. Shukin that I would immediately look into airfares, and call him right back.

Quite honestly, when I hung up the phone, my knees were shaking. You have to understand that 1979 was an entirely different world from what we have now. Today, it is not at all unusual to go to a comics convention and run into the Presidents of Marvel and/or DC, not to mention any number of other comics companies. During the 1970's, however, the only way to interact with the executives at the big publishers was to live in the New York area. Even living in New York, if you weren't someone like Phil Seuling, the odds you would ever meet an executive from the big publishers were almost nil. To get this call from Mr. Shukin was the equivalent of being called before Congress to justify my actions. I knew darn good and well that if Mr. Galton was annoyed with me that he could make one phone call to Phil, and that my days of buying Marvel comics at a decent discount were over. In rereading my letter after Mr. Shukin's call, I got this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when it finally dawned upon me that I had been so vehement in trying to make my points in my prose, that I had crossed the line from blunt candor to the point of spiteful rudeness. That realization crystallized in my mind that unless I handled this situation very, very carefully, that this trip to New York might very well lead to the end of Mile High Comics, and all of my most cherished dreams.

To be continued...

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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