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An Open Letter to Comics Retailers

August 4, 2011

This is a bit of an open rant. I’d like to start with both an apology, and a request that you take the following with a grain of salt and an open mind. I’m not intentionally trying to offend anyone.

From Warren Ellis’ famous Come in Alone column to Frank Miller’s infamous Wizard rant, creators have been lamenting the state of the industry for some time. I also know there are many retailers who not only have strong opinions, but are also actively working hard to expand the comics industry, both in variety and economic viability. My hats off to all of you. I hope you take this (very minor) rant from a fan and a customer well.

A few preliminaries:

I live in Toronto and don’t often travel

I’ve rarely had the money, and I’ve never had the constitution. I really envy the bulk of the population that can hop into a plane, train, or boat and not be violently ill. Some of us just aren’t cut out for it.

So, I haven’t visited many comics retailers outside Toronto. I have been to shops in Vancouver, New York, and Chicago, to name a few.

That being said, I’m not picking on Toronto stores. I think what I have to say applies to many of the shops out there.

Let’s assume you opened the comic shop to make money

I don’t think I’m far afield on this one. If anything I say in this post makes your blood boil, remember that I would never advocate you sacrifice your current business or customer base. Never. I want you to survive. And prosper. Because I want to shop at your store.

Will specialty book stores, in general, survive Amazon, e-readers, and chain outlets?

For me, the answer is: yes. I think it can be done. I want it to be done. I can’t see the need for good retailers going away. But I think the emphasis here is on ‘good’ retailer. I think a good retailer:

  • Is involved in the community: They donate to charity. They provide a gathering place for community residents. They know the people in the area well.
  • Understands their stock: They have subject matter experts that can answer questions, provide recommendations, and talk about the industry in general.
  • Understands their competitors: This doesn’t just mean knowing the enemy, but also being able to point a customer to a store better suited to their needs. That customer will remember the kindness when recommending shops to others.
  • Understands their customers: The business has made a point of understanding the demographic they’re looking to attract, and has chosen their inventory appropriately.
  • Has reasonable policies: This means having policies that are both fair and clearly marked. Surprise sales, mystery prices, arbitrarily kicking out customers who were never clearly informed they couldn’t bring pets into the store: not reasonable policies.

I think specialty bookstores that take these things to heart can survive. Many specialty shops (not just comic shops) have recently opened and thrived, even in the current economic downturn. Many of these have followed the above guidelines as a baseline, but have added a lot more techniques to their arsenal.

Without further ado:

Consider the cost of collectibility

The latest thing seems to be ‘dealer incentive copies’ and ‘convention extras’…comics that are produced in limited numbers and can only be bought by retailers or customers at a premium (by ordering more of the regular edition of the book, or buying an extended membership pass).

Consider the cost of this. If you have to order 300 copies of an issue to get a dealer incentive instead of the 250 you think you can reasonably sell, you are stuck with 50 extra copies that you may have to sell at a loss. You may need to wait a decade or more for those 50 copies to gain any collectible value. Worse, you don’t have the money to invest in 50 copies of other books that would add variety and possibly expand your customer base.

And yes, I say possibly. These are suggestions. But, in the long run, shrinking variety destroys creative industries. The larger book market respects this, and many retailers have taken active interests in promoting authors. If Shakespeare & Co. didn’t promote (and self-publish!) Ulysses, James Joyce may have shrank into obscurity. As a bookseller, what you promote in your store can have that type of lasting impact on the world. And that impact will bring customers back to your store.

Consider used books

A corollary to the above is that many shops try very hard to have the most obscure, ‘hot’, collectible books in the store. This may be a mistake, for several reasons.

You may never have the ability to compete with the older, established shops in this regard, who were able to scoop up large collections for dirt cheap in the 70’s, when nobody understood the value. Also, all the golden and silver age books will be out of your financial reach to acquire for a price that would allow you profit.

On the other hand, expanding your trade and hardcover books and scaling back on the back issues may help sales. You’ll have more ‘selection’ in the store than you ever could by trying to acquire the original issues, and they’ll move faster. Buying them used at a fair price could help customer loyalty and provide you with cheap inventory.

Consider regular books

I know. You’re a comic shop. But one of the best shops in Toronto (sadly now gone) was Unknown Worlds, a store that had almost a third of the store devoted to fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks. I think they bought their books new, and didn’t understand the 90-day return policy that most publishers have. I’m speculating here. I don’t know why they folded shop.

I do know they were an awesome shop. It was one-stop nerdvana, where you could pick up the latest sci-fi pulp with that week’s comics.

I know most shops have cross-merchandised into toys, trinkets, card games, and other knick-knacks. You don’t have to give those things up.

But consider having novels in your shop. Or books on drawing, animation, and multimedia. This is the place where the future of comics is coming to shop.

The last thing to consider on this front is that it may never make up your core business, but it lends an air of respectability to the non-nerds who wander in. They see something that’s familiar and grounds them. Giving a small measure of comfort can help open up more doors, and make them more liable to come back. And buy comics.

Consider the look of your store

Many of the most famous bookstores of the last century were known as much for their decor as for their stock. It sounds trivial, but it isn’t. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. And it doesn’t have to happen all at once.

Steady work at improving the look of your store can reap huge dividends. It can help develop strong ties with the community, making it a ‘local watering hole’ or hangout for the residents. Increased foot traffic always means at least a small increase in sales.

Categorize trades by subject matter, then alphabetical by author

I’ll be the first to admit that sorting the big ‘shared universe’ publishers (DC, Marvel, Wildstorm, Image) by publisher and then by character/storyline makes sense.

But sorting the publishers who don’t do the shared universe thing into their own shelves, or mixing them in by character on the racks with Marvel/DC/etc is missing an opportunity.

First and foremost, customers used to the average bookstore won’t shop this way. They’ll never find anything.

Secondly, you lose the ability to showcase a single creator’s entire body of work.

Lastly, by grouping books by genre (horror, western, sci-fi, contemporary fiction, historical) you get to group creators together regardless of their publisher or country of origin. Ernest Hemingway and Jorge Borges are both in ‘fiction’, not ‘American’ and ‘South American’, or ‘Random House’ and ‘Penguin’. This allows customer’s to discover more books based on a previous interest. If a customer comes in looking for western comics, and has to sort through a thousand superhero trade paperbacks to find the few books he’s looking for, he’s not coming back.

Enough with the boobs. Seriously.

Full disclosure: I like a beautiful woman as much as the next straight guy. Guilty. But…making women and children wade through dozens of square feet of figurines that couldn’t ever be considered anatomically correct…is just not cool. I could list a litany of offenders here, but blame isn’t the point of this.

This can probably be traced to the mature audience revolution in the eighties, when many creators balked at the Comics Code and decided to write stories with more violence, sex, language and gore in them. And that stuff has it’s place. Every Chapters has tons of books with this stuff.

But I can’t remember the last time I went into Chapters and saw a five foot tall poster of a half-naked woman dripping in blood, either.

Guys. Seriously. Enough. You can argue that they contribute to your bottom line, and they probably do. I’m not asking you to burn them all, never carry them again, or escort folk to ‘the back room’ in order to buy them.

Just keep the displays to something reasonable and tasteful. Trust me, you want women and children in your store. You really want kids in your store, cuz they make their parents buy stuff. Lots of stuff.

Consider seminars and workshops

Quite a few cities have cartooning classes, colleges, and schools devoted to animation and commercial art and design. Consider teaming up with folks to offer seminars, workshops, and lectures about the medium.

The Lomography shops offer cheap photography classes on the weekends. Yes, these are designed almost exclusively to hook attendees into using that shop for their photo developing, film purchasing, and potential camera purchases. Guess what? It works.

This type of thing makes you part of the local community, as well. By engaging with the local artist community, you end up with potential customers, referrals, and potential future creators who will remember you.

Bookstores have often instituted weekly readings and events by the staff, often for children, to bring customers into the store. Andrew Laties book Rebel Bookseller has information (and financial budgets and targets) for this type of thing. These events are not just community goodwill exercises, but core parts of his business model.

Write testimonials, and have a featured book section

Quite a few stores do this already, but consider having a physical take-away in the store for customers. Even a single folded sheet listing the 10-20 books you think every customer should read is a great take-away.

This is a great opportunity to engage with other retailers. By spreading the cost out, more can be printed, and you get a free referral from other stores. Antiquarian shops do this, and they cater to collectors as well. Networking with other shops can help your business.

Consider charities

I’m not talking about the plastic collection jar near the register, but actual volunteer work in a charity. Charitable donations of comics to children’s hospital wards and schools are not just a tax write-off, but an investment in future clientele.

And remember that their are several comics-specific charities out there, the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund being the most well-known. Donating a portion of proceeds to these charities from events can help fill them.

Remember to have fun

As I said at the beginning, don’t sacrifice your current business model, or what makes your store unique. These are just suggestions. If you take them to heart, implement them slowly, and within your budget. Don’t bet the farm on anybody’s recommendations. Stay alive, and keep selling comics.

Even comics publishers are now moving to a digital distribution model. All this really means is that as physical unit sales of individual issues drop, the more important it becomes to differentiate on product knowledge, local community work, and the experience of comics. Some stores are starting to make this transition now. I hope other retailers consider it, too.

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