A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Carlo J. Caparas and his Komiks Distribution Problem

Carlo J. Caparas’ Pilipino Komiks, Carlo J. Caparas’ Tagalog Klasiks, OFW Super Stories, Gwapo and Super Funny Komiks. 5 weekly, 32 page Filipino comics titles with interior colored pages of serialized and short stories featuring the art of known comics veterans such as Hal Santiago, Steve Gan, and Louie Celerio and the writing of known comics luminaries of the past: Carlo J. Caparas (obviously), Elena Patron, and Gilda Olvidado, all with a print run in the hundreds of thousands and selling at an affordable, price-busting Php 10.00. All were announced to come out simultaneously on September 4, 2007. What could possibly go wrong?

Those who weren’t part of the humongous collective komiks reading experience of the 1970s and 1980s usually put off airs with raised eyebrows saying that the stories and art of these “traditional” mainstream komiks of yesteryear are “old style”, formulaic, dumbed-down, “wholesome”, predictable and done to death. That is their opinion.

With a nationwide population of approximately 84 million and a potential untapped 70 million (largely lower income) 16-64 year old reading populace, there is most certainly a diversity of taste and preference in reading matter and its a sure bet that there is a segment in this vast cosmos of public preference that go for this kind of komiks. Whether it is the biggest segment however, remains to be seen.

Traditional mainstream komiks is a mere specie of the uncatalogued komiks genus that is not only seeking to tap the now acknowledged NOSTALGIA MARKET, one of several new and rising market segments in the Philippines today, but also non-komiks casual readers as well, from all age groups and income classes of society who don’t read or regularly purchase foreign or local comics. And at only Php 10.00, it’s a no-brainer to try and sample one.

Taste and preference in “art” or comics styles are subjective, ever-changing and recurring. The reality is that at any given period of time, what is lousy and trite to one is not so to the other. In the business of comics publishing, it’s the numbers that count. Are the numbers out there to support the business venture to keep it going? Are there more readers who support this allegedly lousy and trite kind of product at any given point in time?

On the assumption that we have a potential market of 70 million CASUAL and functionally literate readers who can read or understand basic Tagalog, a print run of say, 100,000 copies a comics title PER WEK, selling at only Php 10.00, the publisher’s risk is most certainly and safely spread out and apparently minimized.

If you want to sell a few expensive copies of high art or foreign inspired local comics to a discriminating and elite few, the lower income mass market is not for you. But if you’re out to convert more than a million readers who are not comics collectors or connoisseurs into regular readers, then the lower income mass market is the way to go. If you want printed komiks to regain its dislodged number spot in today’s media landscape, then the lower income mass market is for you.

This is what Abante Komiks did a few years back in late 2002. They were gone by 2004. What happened?

Abante, published by Anerto Publishing Corporation, is one of the top three TAGALOG tabloid newspapers circulated nationwide, the other two being Bulgar and Pilipino Star Ngayon. Both are in mixed Tagalog and English, distributed nationally and have a combined circulation of approximately (and conservatively) 1.5 million A DAY.

Abante had more than five genre’ themed comics with titles such as: Abante Thriller, Abante Drama, Abante Horror, Abante presents Xerex Xaviera, Abante Action, Abante Komedi, and Abante Romance.

Like Caparas’ comics, Abante’s comics appeared weekly, were allegedly circulated in the hundreds of thousands all over the country, each title were in 32 pages, neatly and crisply printed in decent newsprint, in color (computerized), and whose creative stable were also sourced from the traditional mainstream comics of Atlas Comics (now owned by the Ramos family of National Bookstore) with artists such as: Louie and Joey Celerio, Rod Manuel, Danny Ocampo, Vic R. Geronimo, Al Abet Chuela, Jess P. Olivares, Baggie Florencio, Elle Ortizluis, Rod Empania Manuel, Manny Pantaleon, Rol Enriquez, and Alfred Pacolor. Their main writers were Ofelia Concepcion, Tristan Lee, Danny Ocampo, Joanne R. Villamar, Geraldine Cornista, Almira Danganan, and Issa Uyco. All were shepherded under the editorial direction of Willie Fatal.

Abante’s Komiks were widely advertised through the Abante news tabloid, in radio, and in Manila, had stickers on newsstands, transport terminals, taxicabs, buses, cars, and jeepneys, announcing their comics line.

Unlike Caparas’ comics however, Abante’s comics contained one finite 32 paged finished story per issue with a price tag of P15.00 (higher by P5.00) and did not benefit from the former’s more intense pre-publicity fueled by Caparas’ being bestowed a National Artist award by President Macapagal in Malacañang for his more than 800 prolific Tagalog comics writing, got support from Joe Lad Santos’ chairing the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, the events leading up to the komiks caravan featured in the more than 5 Tagalog tabloid and magazine publications of Philippine Journalists, Inc. (publishers of People’s Tonite, People’s Journal, Taliba, Insider, etc.), and added exposure on television, radio, and the roving komiks caravan during the 2007 national elections from February to May, 2007.

With such minimal difference between the two enterprises, we now come to the question of WHY Abante’s entire comics line ceased circulation in only about two years of operation?

As previously mentioned, the content, the production side of the operation, is an entirely subjective issue. One man’s junk is another idiot’s “art”. Though some may think otherwise and raise some points to the contrary, the incontrovertible fact is that the production side of comics publishing is not the end all and be all of the whole operation.

Other than production there are other, equally important components to consider: marketing, distribution and collection. So far, Caparas and Co. have now seemed to have hurdled the production and marketing side having partnered with the media and owners of Sterling Paper Corporation. All that remains is distribution and collection. It is here where the present difficulty lies.

Let us begin with the obvious: Carlo Caparas and Co., Anerto Publishing Corp., and National Bookstore do NOT, repeat: do NOT, have their own respective NEWSSTAND/banketa distribution systems. By this we mean that each do not have their own distribution company or corporate division with paid employees handling the matter.

Unlike their 20th century predecessor, the Roceses who monopolized the komiks industry for about 50 years, they started their operations by taking care of independent magazine, newspaper and comics dealers who became loyal to them come hell or high water.

In 1964, after establishing Pilipino Komiks Inc. (PKI), and its office transferred to the garage of Liwayway Publications at Commandante Street in Sta. Cruz, Manila, Don Ramon Roces and co. made this garage area or sector the “traditional drop-off place and pick-up area for Manila agents of practically any publication particularly ALL komiks-magazines (Source: Cynthia Roxas, et. al., “A History of Komiks of the Philippines and other countries”, Islas Filipinas Publishing Co., Inc., 1984 ed., p.29)

In short, that garage area at the Liwayway Magazine Manila office was the spot where Don Ramon’s comics were given preference by his loyal distributors in circulation as against his other competitors who were also dropping off their comics for distribution at the same place. Later, Don Ramon put up his own distribution company: Circulation Service Inc. (CSI) to handle the marketing and distribution of PKI’s revived comics titles at the time: Pilipino Komiks, Tagalog Klasiks, Espesyal Komiks and Hiwaga Komiks. He maintained his hold on the entire industry’s comics distribution system after that.

In the United States during the early years of its mainstream comics industry up to the 1970s, Walt Disney, Dell, Archie, Charlton, Fawcett, EC, Warren, Atlas/Marvel, and National/DC (among others) had their own distribution divisions sometimes even partnering with existing magazine distribution companies specializing in the exclusive distribution of that company’s comics titles nationwide.

Whether it be a formal or informal arrangement, if the comics publisher has a sympathetic, fair and loyal distribution network, he likewise resolves the collection problem. A satisfied distributor is more than willing to turn-over the share of the sales proceeds back to the accommodating publisher.

More than anything else, accommodation by the publisher is crucial. As opposed to the distribution of any print publication, the electronic content of television, radio, and the multi-task celfones of today, rely on airwaves and cable networks to simultaneously transmit in split-seconds, without large-scale human intervention, their electronic content to millions of tv sets, radios and celfone units nationwide.

Distribution of a print publication like comics rely heavily on human intervention: labor. The printed comic book is physically transferred from publisher to distributor to reader which take time and costs money. In transporting the tangible comic book from publisher to reader, one has to pay for (among others) transportation costs, freight, and distributor’s percentage. The party who makes that transfer happen is the distributor, or the newsstand/banketa dealer.

Getting other people to distribute your comics nationwide is no walk in the park. Distributors do not grow on trees. Their service does not happen automatically, especially if they are not even your employees.

To stress: Carlo J. Caparas and Co., Anerto Publishing Corp., and National Bookstore, do NOT have their own respective newsstand/banketa distribution system. How then do they make other people—the various individual dealers and dealers’ associations---to distribute their comics in the ubiquitous newsstands? Answer: by paying them MONEY to do it.

How is money paid? Answer: Usually by the common arrangement of CONSIGNMENT. The publisher physically delivers copies of his comics titles to several distributors who promise the publisher that as soon as an issue is sold, they will—after x period—turn over back to the publisher, in addition to the unsold copies, a percentage of the purchased comics’ cover price.

If the distributor’s percentage share is low and is not even sufficient to cover the expenses for transportation and display of the comics for sale, then there is obviously no deal. There will be little or no distribution that will result. The whole publishing enterprise will fail. This was foreshadowed somewhat during a rainy July 26, 2007 press conference at the NCCA Building in Intramuros, Manila by Carlo J. Caparas who publicly declared that he was entering the komiks publishing field with partner, Sterling Paper Corporation.

The vision and promise were grandiose. His voice near stentorian and passionate with conviction. But as the discussion continued to the NCCA auditorium and the newsstand dealer groups and distributors, mostly from NMACDAP (Newspapers, Magazines, and Comics Deales Association of the Philippines) present allowed to raise questions particularly on how Caparas’ comics were going to be distributed nationwide, a cloud of doubt seemed to have formed even when it was drizzling outside.

Caparas’ mass market and mainstream comics are priced at Php 10.00. When the Caparas panel was asked how much was the percentage share of the distributor from the cover price, the answer given was 20% or Php 2.00 per Php 10.00 copy sold. Php 8.00 went back to the publisher.

The distributors fell silent for awhile until one by one, each began to explain why a 20% percentage share was not enough to even pay for the cost of transportation especially from Manila to the provinces. It was claimed that carrying bales of unsold newspapers should not be overburdened by unsold komiks. Some asked whether Caparas and Sterling were willing to foot the transportation and freightage cost but the latter likewise fell silent and weakly answered that they are still studying the matter. Or so it was claimed.

The Caparas panel soon turned to its Sterling accounting people to help answer the questions while Caparas fell silent on the side; listening. There will be transparency, it was promised. There will be no hoodwinking. Payments will be made through the Philippine National Bank, some sacrifices will have to be made in the first couple of months, and so on.

At that point, some of the distributors got up from their seats and went out of the auditorium one by one, murmuring that they won’t get anything out of this deal.

If it happens that only a relative few distributors decide to carry Caparas’ comics, then it is possible that not many copies will be sold. If Caparas and Co. or the NCCA decide to subsidize the dealers’ transport and other costs, their income earnings will be affected. If Caparas and Co. decide to lower the pay to the creatives or the printing people, they may lose the latter’s services eventually or the quality of the work will suffer. But if Caparas and Co. decide to raise the cover price so the percentage share of the distributors would increase, there may be no buyers.

Your comics may have good story and art but if its not even properly or regularly displayed on the magazine rack, or the buyer can ‘t find it, you lose a sale all because of a distribution problem.

To my mind, Caparas and Co. need not deal with ALL of the distributors and print so many copies in the hundreds of thousands. If they can only afford a Php 2.00 percentage share for distributors then they have every right to maintain that stand. All they have to do is cut down on the initial print run to say, 30,000 to 50,000 copies, and choose only those dealers who are truly committed to helping them achieve national circulation. Let it grow by starting small.

He may not know it, but many people are hoping that Caparas and other mass market based local comics succeed. We don't want another Abante comics snafu. But to do this, one has to meet the distributors' need which is a fair percentage share of the cover price. It may vary from one distributor to the other and entail a lot of work, but that is how it is done.

Of possible help is the experience of the Philippine Daily Inquirer with its nationwide distribution problem. To lessen its distribution costs, it put up printing presses in key cites in the Visayas and Mindanao. As soon as the day's issue is approved on final lay-out, it is simultaneously e-mailed through the internet to its Visayas and Mindanao printing presses thus saving on freight and transport costs by distributor middlemen. Once the day's e-mailed issue is printed in the Visayas and Mindanao printing presses, its distribution people commence the circulation going directly to the point of sale newsstand dealer. Or, nearby dealers go to these presses and pick up the copies for further distribution.

The drawback here however, is that if the comics pages are e-mailed, there is a possible risk of its being infringed or copied by unscrupulous employees or outside third parties. To lessen the risk, perhaps one should consider getting Fidelity Insurance to protect against dishonest and erring employees and also Business Interruption Insurance.

Be that as it may, the distribution aspect of the enterprise should not be belittled or ignored. Distributors are the publisher's broadcast transmitters in human form. If this breaks down, so does the comics publishing enterprise.


PKBIZ Recommends: "Boogie Oogie Oogie A Taste of Honey" at You Tube.


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