Monday, February 25, 2008

The Golden Age... of Excuses

I love the comic industry but sometimes I wonder why? It's dysfunctional, slow to change, needy and belligerent. But it can also be wonderfully creative and loyal to a fault.

Overall, I can't think of another way I would have preferred to earn a living over the last 15 years, than running my shop, Comickaze Comics books and more and I hope it remains as fulfilling for another 15 years.

But, as with the recent dustup between some direct market comic retailers and small press publishers and the bloggers who love them, the seeming inability of folks to empathize with others they disagree with even as they rely on them for their much of their success, I'm not so certain that another 15 year run is going to come to fruition.

While I was looking for some historical context for ;)an interview I recently did with Alan David Doane (Comic Book Galaxy's ADD) I came upon this piece I wrote for ICv2 back in 2004, in response to a few retailers who I felt that, in attempting to safeguard their business, were missing the bigger picture. You know, that forest and trees things.

I was very disappointed to see the comments of Joe Krolik and Ilan Strasser in their recent Talk Back contributions. Partly because they seem to be under the impression that things that don't fit their business plans are bad for everyone else but mostly because of their ironic conclusion that the best way to protect a Direct Market that is too small to support line growth in things like graphic novels, and more specifically manga, is to make it even smaller.

The direct market is finally beginning to emerge from the hole it dug for itself in the early to mid 90's. Much of the reason is because publishers have finally grasped that there is an even larger market for their previously published work than just back issue buyers. Trade paperbacks, the repackaging of previously published work, allow everyone access to classic and/or hard to find stories in complete story arcs at reasonable prices, and the (re)introduction of first run graphic novels allow long form complex stories to be told in a fashion that now makes comics attractive to book readers previously unenamored with the "juvenile" format. Even better for the direct market retailer, stock was easier to replenish (even Marvel's!) than the flighty back issues, the higher unit price really contributed to the bottom line, and it's working as consumers are buying more and more both in and out of the DM.

Now to specifically focus on Krolik and Strasser's concern over the (over) abundance of Manga. Mr. Krolick states it will, "...leave in its wake desolation and ruin in chains and independent stores alike as the boom becomes a bust. A very fast bust. A very big bust." and, "Better a smaller stable market for quality product than no market at all after an indiscriminate glut." Mr. Strasser believes, "product gluts (Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, comics) lead quite quickly to declining sales."

There's a very simple answer. If you don't like the topic on a talk show, change the channel or turn it off, and if a product line isn't performing for you, don't order it. Quit running around like Chicken Little, raging against the falling sky and essentially asking for the publishers to help keep the Direct Market small. Or perhaps you could study why something that is working so well for many of us isn't working for you and perhaps you could begin to enjoy the success that we are. I also feel that Strasser is doing a huge injustice to comics by comparing them to sales of "collectibles" like M:TG and Pokemon, although that could be a reason for his difficulties with manga. Manga consumers "read" their comics and even share them with others; they are not treated as collectibles and I have never had a manga customer ask which titles were more likely to go up in value.

I for one owe a considerable amount of my growth to the introduction of a wide selection of graphic novels, and most certainly manga, to my product mix. This graphic novel category now accounts for approximately 40% of my comic sales volume and is up 24% over last year's record sales at Comickaze.

Where manga is contributing the most to my store is in helping me capture hundreds of new customers, especially females, who never felt there was a reason to visit comic shops. Manga is a format, not a genre and within the format there are as many or more genres represented as there are in Western comics, but unlike most Western comic publishers (excluding DC Comics), manga publishers offer an incredible range of product from beginning readers all the way to adult. Manga offers us a chance to sell books to an entire family, at increasingly consumer friendly price points and on far a more regular basis than most Western comics. Where customers are complaining about $7/issue for "fan favorite" JLA/Avengers, I have customers flocking in monthly to spend $10 a pop for not just one manga GN but two, three, four+ every week. And its kids, young girls, and moms!!

In other words, new customers, far outside the normal demographic of the Direct Market, and those we so desperately need if we are to increase the customer base and grow this industry. A byproduct of this new business has also been the opportunity to introduce my manga customers to comics like Oni's Scooter Girl, Pounded and Blue Monday as well as SLG's Outlook Grim, Ghouly Boys, Serenity Rose, Lenore and many more.

Look, I'm not unsympathetic to the fact that there is an awful lot of product coming and most of us have very little knowledge in this area but we can't allow that to scare us into submission. It's time to engage your customers, ask them what their favorite titles are and make sure you keep those in stock. If you're not tracking sales so that you know which titles are moving and which aren't, it's time to start. And if your bookshelves are screaming under the weight of trying to carry every volume of every title, try cutting back to the first two or three and most recent two or three volumes and leave the middle volumes for special orders. I'd also suggest talking to other retailers where possible. I get a tremendous amount of info on manga from retailers in the CBIA Forum (, where retailers like Chris Butcher of The Beguiling in Canada have offered rundowns of all titles offered in Previews each month. Other CBIA members include manga publishers Tokyopop and ADV Manga and in the past have included Viz, ComicsOne among others. We also have the ability to buy, trade and/or sell overstock with other retail members so even when the best laid plans go awry, it doesn't hurt so much.

Speaking of Tokyopop, I have to thank them for their new layout in Previews, pointing out the demographic, genre and key selling features of each title offered in a quick, clear fashion. They are also offering a fantastic 40-pocket spinner rack, similar to the one being used by a major book chain, for those who meet a minimum order level for backlist titles in the month of October. I haven't seen an offer like this in 10 years, when DC and Marvel had rolling graphic novel metal racks for a minimum STAR System order. These are the kind of things I expect from the Big 3 publishers but am frequently left wanting. Thanks Tokyopop!

One of the best things about owning your own business is that you get to decide how it is run and I would never consider suggesting that your choices are wrong, for you. I just want to let those of you who are frustrated with this or any other category you stock know that there are many ways to overcome those frustrations if you wish, and if not, please don't hamstring those of us who do, by asking our vendor partners to move backwards.

In closing, I'd like to share a bit of wisdom given to me in one of my first management positions. In the world, there are three types of managers. Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen and those that wonder what happened. I believe we are poised to make a huge push into the entertainment marketplace taking back sales that have drifted away to DVDs, CDs and Video Games but only if more of us choose to be the folks that "make things happen" and I challenge each of you reading this to be such a person.

Six months after this piece, as another local retailer whose strategies seem fairly in line with the 2 above, shut down one of his three locations, we decided to expand Comickaze to dedicate more space to what I feel is the best selection of comics and graphic novels in San Diego. Same center but twice the space (and twice the rent!).

Not coincedentally (if you ask me, at least) 6 months later we won the first of 3 consecutive Best of San Diego (Comic Shops)from 2 local magazines. And yet here I stand, making the same arguments that I was 4 years ago and retailers and publishers alike stare at me like I'm a martian. The scary difference is that today, it is no longer a matter of do we all need to make changes in the way we do business but can we make them fast enough to stay ahead of the changes wrought by format changes and the embrace of online and digital content. Oddly enough, that previously mentioned retailer closed another location leaving him with one, at the same time, we began preparing to open a 2nd location!

I remain the eternal optimist. What? Why are you looking at me like that!

Monday, February 04, 2008

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

Goodness Gracious! Hot on the heels of another retailer sore point, Boom! Studio's decision to bolster weak orders of their new title North Wind by posting the entire series for free online but only AFTER taking three issues worth of irrevocable orders for the book from Direct Market Retailers, comes the ComicsPro Position Paper on Convention Pre-Sales.

The last few weeks saw the blogosphere jump as a group of retailers, the newish trade group ComicsPRO, dared to publicly propose that comic publishers stop selling new releases at comic conventions, before the books are available to the comic retailers also. Their main concern was that this head start frequently takes sales that would normally be made in DM shops leaving retailers with product that becomes more difficult to sell. Most of the hue and cry came from pseudo journalists who seemed to be looking to drive traffic to their respective sites or possibly to maintain the incoming flow of free review product from publishers. Can't kill the golden goose now. Unfortunatley the incestuousness of those blogs causes the same erroneous information to appear in so many places that the old adage, "repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth", comes into play.

Now for those of you who don't know me, let me quickly say that I am the founder of the Comic Book Industry Alliance, the largest and probably longest running group of Comic Industry Professionals, including retailers, publishers and distributors. The group has accomplished a lot over its 10+ years as well as garnering some animosity (deserved and undeserved). I am also a member of ComicsPRO. Not a full member, I can't vote on things but I endorse what they are trying to do enough to offer some financial support. With all of the complaints levied against comic shops as being unprofessional it really is hard to understand the uproar over a group actively seeking to work together to raise not only their own standards but the standards of the industry.

Too, the group was borne out of direct response from publishers and distributors who claim that it is too difficult to work with 2000+ individual retailers, and stating their desire for a group that could speak for retailers with one voice.

ComicsPRO is a new and relatively small group. ~100 dues paying members to date, give it somewhere between $10,000 and $30,000 of operating captal (depending on whether members are full or associate). This means that most of the work is done by member volunteers and as such they are going to stumble as they move from crawl to walk to run. And yes, this paper was a stumble, not in intent but in execution. To assume ill intent, such as these retailers wanting to harm the very publishers that they're investing so much time and money in, is ridiculous.

Truth to tell the ideas behind the paper are not new, I addressed them right here almost two years ago as I broke down what I felt were the responsibilites of creators, publishers and retailers within the market. Check this out, just one of the points you can read by clicking the publishers link above:

Stop debuting projects at conventions AND use conventions for what they are really for, OUTREACH. The only shops that are damaged by convention debuts are shops that ARE ALREADY SUPPORTING YOU. As hard as it can be to get shops to carry your work, why make life less rewarding for those who are buying in to you? You should know what conventions you're attending in advance, create a flier listing all known area retailers who suport your product line and in conjunction with these retailers develop a bounce back reward program that will drive these motivated buyers into those shops. These shops are your sales reps for these communities the other 361-364 days of the year, don't cut them off at the knees by selling into their customer base and running off at show end. Sow the seeds, tell the customers that you know that Comic Shop A will be there for all of their current and future needs and if they take this flyer in this coming week, not only will they discover a great shop but they'll get an exclusive freebie.

So just to get everyone on the same page lets just lay a few things out. Publishers believe that pre-selling their work at conventions, seeds the market helping retailers sell more books. The problem with that is that most publishers making this claim year after year, are the same ones claiming that they must sell at conventions because so few of their books are being sold in the Direct Market. So which is it? If this outreach is really working, doesn't it seem at some point, we'd actually see the proof?

It's also odd that some publishers claim that they are selling to new customers or customers who don't have a comic shop. I have to wonder, if these folks have no outlet for or knowledge of the product, where is the need to have the newest product available for them in advance of any other retail outlet? Wouldn't everything be new to them?

The truth is that every book pre-sold (especially those sold without prior warning) affects a retailers ability to sell their copies. If a publisher tells me that they are offering me a NEW RELEASE, I look up my sales history to determine how many copies I've previously sold of books with a similar theme, creator(s), character(s)... If history shows I should sell 15 copies in the first month but 5 of the customers who historically would have bought it from me get to buy it weeks or months early at a convention, I'm potentially looking at reduced sales of 33%. It also means that the publisher is no longer delivering a NEW RELEASE, at best it is a recent release. Don't force retailers to start using preorders to force customers to buy in store, unless you want to start seeing zero orders when nobody turns in a preorder.

Sure, over the next month or two, I may sell them but I may have sold more. No matter whether they eventually sell or not, I never catch up to what would have sold and by tying up the money invested in those 5 unsold copies (x all of the other titles pre-sold at the show) a series of harmful results is triggered. Ironically, harmful to the publishers as well as the retailer.
  1. It keeps me from being able to spend that money restocking other books, books from many publishers, possibly even the one pre-selling.
  2. It negatively impacts sales history. Now, the next book in the series will get orders based on affected sales. This could prevent Diamond from accepting the listing or increase the cost of printing based on a lower than optimal print runs.
  3. It makes retailers suspicious of all future offerings and they could just decide to forego that publishers work. Decreasing the venues carrying that publishers work.

Have you seen Previews lately? Its not getting any thinner. There are plenty of listings and the ones from publishers not actively competing with retailers for consumer dollars are going to be rewarded with more orders.

In the mean time, any publisher soliciting through Previews that would like to make more money in the direct market and at conventions while also eliminating a lot of stress and expense, give me a call or an e-mail. If you're willing to talk honestly and listen to a few suggestions with an open mind, I'm positive we can work out a WIN-WIN scenario that will give you the results that are currently eluding you and forcing you to do things like pre-sales and airfreighting titles at the last minute all to break even year after year.