“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
That’s what the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote nearly 2000 years ago, and as an emperor who never wanted the job, facing a crumbling empire and a devastating pandemic that would last 15 years, it seems appropriate for our current situation.
This essay came about when Hero Initiative’s Jim McLauchlin asked for my opinion on the disruption happening in our industry caused by Covid-19. It’s implied that he saw me as someone who was beaten up in the previous recession, but actually survived, who could share some relevant experiences and lessons (because now everyone is about to go through the same thing). But I think he may simply have a deadline due for an article this week and just found a sucker to do his homework. Either way, here goes.
Everyone’s first priority, obviously, has to be short term survival. We’re all going through this. And it’s extremely hard to think about the long term when you have to cover rent and staff in two days and your bank account is a disaster, and that short term focus his where you need to be.
But once those needs are met, then what? As someone who’s been there (at least as much one can possibly compare)… take a breath. Be present. Be observant. If you manage to get out of the drowning river, don’t rush to jump right back in after you catch your breath.
This is a time where one can very easily drive themselves mad trying to fix the problems we will find ourselves in over the next several weeks. Because the solutions to those problems are, largely, out of our control. Some see this as pessimistic, but my point is that by accepting the severity of what we’re going through now, you free up your mental bandwidth to focus on the long term.
It’s Covid’s world now. One where every challenge is either immediate, or it’s a game of predicting long term alternate future timelines like Doctor Strange in Avengers: Endgame.
May through July just moved into your “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” box, and everything else is now about post-August strategizing of all possible outcomes, and preparing for how to respond when they finally arrive.
We’re at an actual war of sorts, hence I’m more than happy to take this advice from Winston Churchill.
When asked “Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”
Without pause or hesitation, he replied:
“Conservation of energy.”
Here are some of the most pressing challenges I see for myself as a creator and publisher, and in many cases for the industry at large, and what we’re doing to prepare ourselves.
· Currently, the entire industry is "on pause", and no one has any true idea how quickly the stores or comic cons will be coming out of it, or even how many. Will we lose 300 shops? 1000? Half of the cons? No one knows.
· Comic convention season, Summer 2020 is canceled. The resistance to some people accepting this has been pretty surprising. That’s a $700 million hit to our industry (and a $4 Billion hit to peripheral businesses).
Don’t be naive about how quickly they’ll come back. Conventions are going to be fighting for event space this fall (including comic cons butting up against medical conferences, dog shows, or whatever), and it's impossible for them all to capture the revenue and attendance that "would have been." This will also create more events pushing into the winter and holiday season, which presents a whole other set of challenges.
· Diamond, the industry’s basically sole distributor of comics to the thousands of comic book shops in North America has paused distribution of all new content, and has notified publishers that the earliest they can hope to be paid is over the next 19 weeks, in partial installments.
· Over 100 million people are now affected by state or municipal "shelter-at-home" restrictions, which affects thousands of stores. Those somehow operating as if nothing has changed will soon be mandated to close from an inevitable national shutdown.
· Printers are slowing down production and also have legally-enforced staff limitations. In the event that the distributor may reduce or cancel any pre-orders currently in place, we're holding off on going to press with new comics until things are all clear.
· Despite what you may have seen in the news, at the time I’m writing this, the new stimulus loan programs for small businesses only just now became available to apply for, and we're all still at the mercy of the government's execution on it.
· Washington D.C. is telling companies to smile and retain or rehire staff because it's safe to assume we'll receive funds to cover them, but that's hard to do when you don't know how long it will be before that money comes. Very frustrating.
Proactive Actions We're Taking:
These are best-effort tactics and they can change in an instant, depending on what the government's responses are, from the Federal on down to the city level.
· During the shut-down, we're staying on top of every and any govt. aid program. That includes SBA Disaster relief loans just announced by the White House, to state and city grant and lending programs, to a $100 Million fund the city of Chicago has put together for small businesses. I figure be proactive if there’s any chance you’ll need them, even if you currently don’t.
· Retailers may purchase product directly from us at a massive 75% off of retail
· Our webstore has been marked down to 50% off for all physical comic book product to encourage buyers.
· We're committing to every rescheduled comic con we were previously confirmed guests for, whenever possible.
· We’ve beefed up our livestream and video promotion capabilities significantly. Something that’s been on the back-burner anyway. This has been a great time to tidy up several things like this.
· We're engaging with hundreds of comic book shops on private forums and private email lists and participating in the ongoing discussions everyone is having about the latest developments in the industry.
· Our fulfillment partner has implemented an extensive safety protocol for all product shipping out, and let our customers know. From avoiding incoming shipments for 36 hours, to sanitation protocols, to requiring any employee who is symptomatic staying home for 14 days.
· We’re conscientious of our team’s health. As a culture of comic con-going (and germ-encountering) workers, there has always been top-down encouragement to follow a protocol of taking immune-boosting vitamins and supplements, eating a healthy whole-foods diet, and self-care. There’s no shortage of strange looks I get for hauling around a whole apothecary of herbs and supplements on every trip, but it’s kept me free of “con crud” for a decade and I’m happy to share what I do.
And right now more than ever, if anyone needs to take time to do nothing, for our own sanity, it’s granted.
So What’s the Future Hold?
There are enough doom and gloom scenarios right now, so this is a focus on positive food for thought. In no particular order:
It’s a long shot, but we may find ourselves in a situation where the government gets its act together and provides some real relief. Increased payouts, mortgage and rent freezes, and medical coverage. And we emerge later this year with the comic con market back in action, stores re-opened, and millions of people flush with disposable cash thanks to extra govt. checks, increased unemployment payments for gig-workers, and suspended mortgages and rents. People craving escapism and rushing out to catch up on all of the comics they've been missing. God forbid the millions of adults burdened with a trillion dollars of college debt find any of it forgiven. Can you imagine the impact that extra disposable income would have for our industry?
But even as that’s not likely to happen…
I can't emphasize enough how encouraging the data has been for our industry in the last year. NBI Bookscan shared amazing new stats on the burgeoning kids' market among other things, at the ComicsPro retailer summit just two weeks before COVID-19 stormed into the US.
What’s undeniable is that the comic book market has been having massive, genuine growth. Not some bulls--- NASDAQ voodoo kind of growth, and there's no reason to see the medium slow down after we come out of this. In fact, comic books historically do better in recessions. The interest in comics is real. It's tangible product, and not reliant on Wall Street's ups and downs (although many of the publishers who make comics are funded by investors who are).
Streaming TV has actually driven readership of print books up, especially for manga.
Kids comics have grown by 30% year-over-year in the book stores. 30%! Dav Pilkeys comics alone sell more than all of Marvel and DC combined. That’s how big the kid’s comic market is.
When I think about how many tens of millions of ten year olds are reading comics now, and how much content they’re going to want - the diversity of content they’ll want - in another five years, I’m more excited about the future of the medium than I’ve ever been.
How does this change your outlook to think about the positive aspects of what’s inevitably coming? It may affect your decision whether to slug it out over the next year, close shop for good, or go dormant and work on a revamp in 2021 when the dust settles.
And last, there’s a new tech solution called ComicHub that may free up countless bottlenecks in comic book promotion between publishers, comic shops, and readers that we’ve been stuck dealing with for my entire 24-year career. Despite a failure to launch a new digital reward component to their platform recently, the system is being employed by over a hundred stores and growing. In my opinion, ComicHub is the kind of 21st century tech solution that we have desperately needed to fix the outdated weaknesses in our system and to save independent shop owners from catalog overload.
To say this is an odd time would be an understatement. No one living today has experienced the combination of a pandemic, a financial crisis, and mandated self isolation, all while the world is so tightly connected by technology and modern conveniences.
So when I say to truly let it sink in just how bad the current present situation is, know that it’s only because if you don’t, you may spin your wheels and burn out before reaching all of this positive development to come.
What do you do once you accept our current situation, and you can’t predict your publishing schedule for the next six months? You can’t prep for any comic-cons with any certainty? You don’t know what the hell you can do about pretty much anything?
You wait. You observe. You rest. And you get ready to move like hell once you see the right path forward.
Beyond comics, a post-Covid Earth may experience a post-WWII level of global restructuring. For perspective, spend some quarantine time reading up on (or YouTubing) the Bretton-Woods Agreement, or the years 1913-1917 when America formed the Federal Reserve, IRS, Income tax, and the mandatory public school system. Sometimes society is completely restructured and the rules are changed, usually following a major disruption. I think we’re there again.
Don’t overburden yourself with busy work. Be ruthless about conserving your energy and mental bandwidth. Be like Churchill. You’re going to need it.
Throughout the world now inefficiencies in just about every system are being exposed, and mercilessly gutted. Comics is no exception to this - change is here.
I’ve been allowing myself time to scour all the news and digest information waiting to spot a significant development. Just one of those “Holy s---, this is big”, once in a decade, or once in a lifetime game changing events - one that can possibly change the entire course of our industry by the end of the year - and focus our time on that.
There have been three such instances in just the last two weeks… and I think there are more coming.
I offer my lessons from the hits of the last recession in hope of helping prepare everyone for what’s coming, and how to conserve their energy where needed. At that time, choices were made by larger players as to who be helped, and who would be thrown onto the fire, and my business was definitely the latter. Followed by that was a corporate raid, six-figure thefts, and a series of predators sniffing around to pick up the broken pieces of things, but we’re still here. Still rebuilding from it all, but here. And now, the fire is consuming everyone. That doesn’t mean any of these difficulties are easier for us to go through, but the emotions are processed much faster, and if I can help anyone else do that, it’s worth it.
For now, we’re doing everything we can to come out of this strong, and doing our best to keep those “weapons of reason” sharp and at the ready to meet the future.
- Josh Blaylock
P.S.: For anyone looking for a place to gather any positive news coming out of the wreckage of Covid-19, to counter all the fear porn, I recommend futureloop.com/c19. And for positive news in human development overall, futureloop.com.
And for a little dose of daily mental hygiene for a stressful time, Ryan Holiday has been posting great updates on the Daily Stoic YouTube page, Dr. Daniel Amen’s instagram feed has been fantastic, and for a positive outlook on where the future is really going, check out any keynote talk on YouTube or podcast interview with Peter Diamandis.
[The views expressed herein are those of its author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Newsarama or Future.]