The Retailer’s View: Punching the Ouroboros

THE END IS WHERE YOU START FROM

At the end of last year, I tendered my resignation at the comic shop I was managing. During my last year of employment, I had grown to feel out of place in the company, and was eager to try something different. I thought I’d take some time off to write more. I didn’t. Instead, I realized that I didn’t want to stop working behind the counter – I just wanted to do it on my own terms.

At the beginning of this year, I announced that I’d be starting a comic shop. This, is the story of January.

COLD TURKEY

Leaving the old store was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. As it turns out, the decision to leave was the easiest part of leaving. The hard part came in the form of things like not being able to process shipment or see all of my regulars. As weird as it sounds, I loved the work, all the way from figuring out how to order from a variant to matching customers to books that they were going to love. Right now, it still feels as though there’s a little part of my identity that’s missing, even as I fill that space with what’s to come. That said, I think I’m coping rather well. The wife has had to pull me out of a few funks and otherwise, the work of setting up a new shop is keeping me occupied. Quite honestly, everything would be fine if it wasn’t for the intensive detangling process it takes to set up a business.

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THE GORDIAN KNOT

Have you tried to set up a business before, faceless mass of readers? A few of you almost definitely have, and you’ve got a knowing grin slowly crawling across your face right now. Know that I hate you with admiration, in the way that a commenter would lovingly shake the hand of a comic creator were they to ever meet in person.

Anyway, laying down groundwork for a business is like trying to punch the face of an ouroboros or wrestle a gordian knot. Tasks require other tasks in order to be completed, everything pulling on itself at you gently try to work at the problem with great swinging fists. You need a business plan to do almost anything, but to get information for your business plan, you need a location. To get a location, you need to prove you have a viable concern before people will even talk to you beyond offering vague numbers. To do that, you need to work on your business plan, but your business plan can’t be completed until you get SPECIFIC numbers from a landlord. Also, the insurance folks won’t give you a good quote unless you give them a location. Specific to comics retail, Diamond won’t give you information regarding your retailer discounts until you have a business license, which you also need a location for, but again, you can’t really give the loan people and the landlord the business plan without those specific numbers.

This goes on and on and gets more complicated the further you dig inwards. Suffice to say, it takes a while to untangle. As it stands, we’re still waiting on a location to be locked down to my satisfaction, after which all things will move at a blistering hyper speed. Everything is ready and being held in place, I’m just waiting for the foundation to be ready before I set the weight of everything on top of it.

IN THE MEANTIME

There’s a lot to do when you’re in the “hurry up and wait” portion. First and foremost, it’s important to do your homework. Not only do you need to keep track of all the spinning plates, you need to keep track of where the industry is going, and grab numbers for that. You need to dig your hands into the area you think you’re going to open in and pull out everything you have. What’s the make of the population? How’s the economy? How might one area benefit you over another? Does that balance with the budget you have to pay the lease when you get those numbers? Do those locations have viable parking options? If not, do you need to talk to the community league about potential problems before an audit is done, and your business is deemed unsuitable for the space? What specific licenses and permits might you need in your specific region? There’s a hell of a lot to research and ask about while the larger cogs are slowly grinding and catching.

© DIsney

How is this relevant? Who cares. That right there, is shirtless Chris Pratt, and he is always relevant.

Aside from that kind of research, you should also consider what you should have in place for when you announce your store. First and foremost, you need a name. The earlier you have one, the better, because then everything you make will have that name on it. After that, get a website locked down. In this day and age, there is no excuse for a business not to have a website, even if it’s just a simple landing page with your location and hours on it. Build a website or have one built while things are happening. Make a list of all the things you want that site to do, and make sure it will do those things. Once that’s started, start grabbing social media accounts. Contemplate the ones that you might actually use on a regular basis (or those that you’ll begrudgingly use due to their ability to reach the audience you need) and start locking those down. In all instances, attempt to make sure you can match your business’ username across all platforms so that your customers don’t have to blindly feel around to find you on anything – they can just type a phrase, and find you everywhere.

Another thing you can do? Start up an inventory. Use whatever you have, and start cataloguing in some format. If you have a pretty sizeable comic collection, I’d suggest starting with pulling everything you have the stomach to part with. Try and put as many things that you own into the store’s inventory. If you’re having a tough time, try to contemplate the future. Do you think you’ll be successful? Successful enough to buy back many of your dearly departed items in a few years time? Then get rid of it. The more you can add to your store inventory, the better you look to loaners, and the less you’ll have to spend at start up. If you still can’t bring yourself to part with too much, you might have to ask yourself if you really think the business will be successful if you’re willing to hold back a lot of choice product that could be sold to keep you afloat.

Beyond that, there’s hundreds of other things to consider. Even though I’ve spent the better part of a month attempting to research and pin down everything, I can almost guarantee there are things that I’ll discover I’ve forgotten, and I will have to deal with the consequences that as they come. That said, if I’ve done any of this right, in a few months, I should be opening my doors to an audience built from years of hard work, and a few months of carefully metered anticipation.

Here’s hoping things work out.

[Brandon Schatz has spent the last eight years working behind the comic book counter, and he will soon be opening Variant Edition in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

The Retailer’s View: This Time, It’s Personal

I was pacing the store shovelling mouthfuls of poutine into my mouth. The store’s owner and my replacement were going over initial order numbers for February, talking about comics I wouldn’t be around to sell. I wanted to interrupt on almost every line order to chime in with advice, but I know that wouldn’t be helpful. I know what to order if I’m around to sell comics. I don’t know what to order when I’m gone. This was why the poutine was important. It was the only thing keeping me from burbling over and offering opinions I had no reason to give.

Because: Canada.

Because: Canada.

It was a few days before Christmas, and I was having trouble letting go. I’d been at the store for over eight years, and had taken quite a bit of ownership over the culture of it, from the general atmosphere, right down to the ordering process. I wanted it to stay the same… but it can’t. It won’t. It shouldn’t.

Comic shops are like thumbprints, their make-up determined largely by parentage and circumstance. It starts at the root with the owner or manager of the shop, and the kind of experience that they want to build. While an owner should always endeavour to be inclusive when marketing to their customers, even the most delicate hand and even-tempered sales tactics give way to taste. People find it easier to market to those with similar tastes, and will sometimes do so without thought. For instance, when you hear the words “I’ve never read a comic before, what do you recommend?” – what is your first thought? What is your go-to book? I used to respond by asking what genres they were looking for, or what movies, tv shows or books they liked to read before moving onto the next step, but even then, personal bias would bubble up in my recommendations and would inevitably affect my sales and clientele.

Beyond that, there is a myriad of other things that affect the shape and feel of the store. Some of it comes down to what you’ll tolerate in the walls of your shop. What kind of jokes do you allow to pass? Is judgement passed on what is purchased, either positively or negatively? How active is the sales staff when you walk into the shop? Do they leave customers to their own devices? Do they say hello or offer a helping hand unprompted? When a customer offers up a fact, is it contested when it’s wrong? If so, how and when? Are female customers noted? Are they treated similarly to a male customer, or does the atmosphere change? The answers to all of these questions and hundreds more affect who walks through the doors of a shop, and with what frequency. It will affect everything – what is purchased, how it’s purchased, when, why and by whom.

Going further out from there, a store’s location will often affect what is sold almost as much as who is selling and how. At my old digs, we had three locations at one point, and each couldn’t have been more different from each other in terms of demographic. They were owned by the same three guys, but each sold product in vastly different ways. The stores located in more residential areas did far more in items like Pokemon cards and superhero comics than the one located close to one of the local universities, where Magic the Gathering and indie fare was more appreciated. By and large, the people who worked at any location for any long stretch of time fit in with the vision the owners had for the stores and what the location demanded almost naturally. Going against the grain didn’t mean you were a poor worker, but it did mean that you didn’t quite connect with the product and the customers, and that you eventually found your way to other opportunities.

Having an identity crisis can be hazardous to your shop's health. (flips a table, yelling) METAPHORS!

Having an identity crisis can be hazardous to your shop’s health. (flips a table, yelling) METAPHORS!

A word of gentle advice to all those working at comic shops: it might be a pretty great gig, and you might enjoy what you’re selling, but always ask yourself if you fit. Are you constantly railing against the customer flow or the direction of the store? Is it causing audible distress or cognitive dissonance in the shop? If so… well, don’t quit, but at the very least, attempt to examine what you’re looking for. While shops can be changed, they have to be willing to change, and you have to be willing to put in the hard work to make it so. Almost everyone has a breaking point – even owners – and sometimes the best thing to do for the store and the industry in that situation is to recalibrate and reassess. That’s what I did.

At the end of 2014, I tendered my resignation as manager at my old shop. Since people have and will ask me, I didn’t leave because I don’t like the owners or the business or the people who frequent the store – I left because I felt as though I didn’t fit what the store wanted to be. Originally, the intent was to take some time away from the front lines and to just be a fan of the medium for a while – which probably begs the question, why am I still writing Retailer’s View columns. Whelp, the answer is simple: I took a look at stepping out from behind the counter, and decided that it felt too uncomfortable at this point in my life. I like standing behind a counter and slinging recommendations. I like shaping my corner of the comic book industry, and matching people with books they’re going to enjoy.

So I’m starting a new comic shop.

As you might have already guessed, the next few Retailer’s View articles will be about some of the hoops you have to jump through to get a store started. It’s not going to be a soup to nuts thing, as a lot of what I would have to say is specific to the time and place we’re setting things up. That said, you’re going to get a look at the retail experience from a place not often explored: right from the ground floor. Already, it’s a little strange and pretty scary, but armed with the knowledge I’ve amassed over the past eight plus years of working behind the counter and a whole lot of product, I think things will work out. Regardless, even during this state of gestation, I can see the importance of personality and location, and what it will mean for the new venture moving forward. It starts right at the beginning, in the very foundations, and it will inevitably grow from there. Hopefully in time, I’ll get to show you all what it becomes.

Until next time.

[Brandon Schatz has spent the last eight years working behind the comic book counter, and he will soon be starting a store of his own. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

The Retailer’s View // Top Sellers and Bottom Dwellers

A couple of news bits and a personal announcement to tackle this week, so let’s get right to it.

MILLION AIRS

About a week ago, Marvel started to make a big deal over Star Wars #1 eclipsing 1,000,000 pre-orders from various retail outlets. While the company hinted at some of this quantity coming from less traditional sources, the number is still quite impressive, boasting the best direct market numbers for a single printing of a single issue in over twenty years. Despite all of the headache inducing rabble that I’m about to detail, that’s a number everyone involved with the creation, sales and marketing of the series should be proud of.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pound my head against my keyboard while I detail the variant structure of this particular release.

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Check it out, it’s Bucky O’Hare you guys. Shut up, it is too.

As you’ve probably heard by now, there are an impressive amount of variant covers being produced for this comic. To start, Marvel tossed a grand total of 13 wide-market variants on top of the regular comic for all retailers to order and obtain. These 13 books had qualifiers that ranged from “1 for every 15 copies ordered” to “1 for every 500 copies ordered”. Four of them required retailers to exceed 200% of their Original Sin #8 numbers in order to get any books in – which is probably the clearest indication of where Marvel wanted the book to be in terms of sales. Original Sin #8 clocked in at an estimated 90,478 copies sold, which means they were probably aiming at the 200,000 as a “worst case scenario”.

These alone wouldn’t have brought Star Wars #1 even close to the 1,000,000 mark – so where does all that extra push come from? Many are pointing in the vague direction of alternative distribution and awaiting news on what nerd box corporation sprung for a few hundred thousand copies – and while that’s probably part of the answer, a good chunk is also coming from the retailer exclusive variants Marvel offered retailers.

In one of their missives to the retail community, Marvel let it be known that any retailer or retail group could have their own variants produced. These variants would be completely unique and would potentially utilize some big name talent to create a unique image that would appear on a cover exclusive to that retailer. The catch? You had to order at least 3,000 copies and order 200% more of the regular cover than you did for Original Sin #8. It appears quite a few retailers have taken them up on this offer, as the total of variants floating out are currently sitting at 57. Now, some of these are black and white “sketch” variants of the retail exclusive variants, which you could seemingly produce as little as 1,500 copies of, but the point remains: Marvel went full variant crazy when pushing this book. Will it work for them? In the short term, of course. They’re going to have one of their biggest January’s in a long time thanks to Star Wars alone, probably, and there will almost assuredly be enough product on the shelves to meet whatever demand might arise. In the long term? When a company digs this deep into variants and qualifiers, I always worry about the long lingering after effects. The practice of asking retailers to potentially overextend themselves to chase rare items almost always ends with product chocking out storage space and back issue bins. It manipulates the regulatory curve of supply and demand, and takes cash on hand and turns it into dead weight that’s harder to turn over, both of which can and will result in various levels of hardships. Too much of this and a store, a company, or an industry breaks. And wouldn’t that be fun.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Last week, the DC solicitations for March revealed a culling for the company, and the internet had some words about it. Because of course it did. The company is heading into their big move across the country with quite a few stagnant books and a line-wide crossover eating up their publishing schedule. In short, it was the right call to dust a large portion of their books in order to arrive back in June with a refocused creative direction. That said, the sheer volume of titles on the chopping block still makes this feel like a defeat of some kind.

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What DC needs here is for their PR department to pick up the copious amount of slack that’s roped on the floor. I know they’re already having a hard time convincing people that Convergence is going to be a big, important thing with the structure they chose, but they really shouldn’t be spending too much time and effort on that. Convergence is a crossover series, and it’s been designed as a two-month respite from The New 52 universe. Each and every one of their 40 two part minis seem to nudge the reader in the ribs and say, “Hey, remember when this was happening?” – and it’s going to do very little in the way of drawing a wide audience. June, on the other hand, stands a chance to be spectacular, and the company should be teasing it now. As it stands, DC looks like it’s flailing as a large chunk of their newly launched books limp to an end, and others that were a bit long in the tooth drop along side them. They need to come out and say this is all in service of something, or else people are going to run with a less positive narrative. It’s all about perception, and right now, DC is losing the battle. Here’s hoping they win the war.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE

As of December 31st, I will no longer be the manager of a comic shop. After spending a little over 8 years at Wizard’s Comics, I’m moving on to a different role within this great industry. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that is yet – but I thought it would be pertinent to let you all know of this change, as it will clearly effect what I write for this site. A hint regarding the future: while I won’t be a store manager, I will still be writing similar articles about the industry for Comics Beat, and they will start on January 12th. You might be surprised. You probably won’t be.

Until then, you’ll probably see me contribute the odd news post or opinion piece here or there, but otherwise, I will be busy putting together the next phase of my life – so if we don’t talk until then, have a fantastic holiday season!

The Retailer’s View: A Confluence of Events (Part One)

2014 is swiftly drawing to a close. In the midst of making sure my shelves will weather the upcoming Christmas season, I’ll be placing my final orders for the last dribs and drabs of product that will grace the new comic book shelves through to the end of this year. Most of the year’s events have drawn to a close, save Spider-Verse and Axis which sees Marvel through this quarter of the year. Two weeks ago, I made the mistake of thinking that I would have time to relax before having to stress about the next incoming ordering monstrosity.

I should really know better at this point.

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Oh, honeycomb, won’t you be my baby, well, honeycomb, be my own.

Acknowledging that moving cross country and restaffing an editorial department might be distracting for its staff, DC officially announced it’s two month fill-in event today, CONVERGENCE. The event will replace the New 52 line-up for two months, April and May of 2015, with a framing 9-issue mini-series, starting with a zero issue, and spinning into 40 two part mini series.

--from The Beat’s coverage of Convergence.

 

Which is to say, at some point over the past year, DC decided to marry the twin hells of ordering weekly comics and scuttling their entire regularly scheduled ongoings for a month or two in a bid to drive me to an early grave. Or they took a look at what their production schedule would look like with an upcoming move across country and thought they might want to alleviate the stress on their staff. I honestly prefer the version where it’s somehow all about me, because I write diatribes on the internet and I am very hard done by.

Elsewhere, Marvel had been releasing several teaser images displaying interesting takes on previously ran stories, all with the promise of something big in the summer of 2015. As we found out on Friday, this was all in service of their upcoming return to Secret Wars. While details are still pretty vague on the Marvel front, they seem to be pushing an angle that would see their line drastically altered while all of this plays out, promising sweeping crossovers not only in their comic book line, but various forms of other media. What this means has yet to be seen, but in my nightmares, I picture a world burning as I try to punch in numbers for several reality-shifted titles for several months.

Admittedly, these are early days, and what we know about both events amounts to very little. While DC has been very specific about formats, they’re playing fast and loose with concepts. Marvel, on the other hand, has provided a bunch of concepts, but no shape or format. Attempting to parse a plan of attack for either at this point would be something akin to a group of blind men trying to figure out what an elephant looks like, so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to go over some best case scenarios and build the shape that I’d like the events to take from a retail standpoint over the span of two articles (because you guys – there’s a lot to talk about). Some of this might be a little dry (and ultimately pointless in the face of decisions that have already been made), but providing a guide to what retailers are looking for in events such as these can’t hurt.

CONVERGENCE

Of the two, Convergence is being built as a necessity, more than something extravagant. Even if the concept was born out of creative decisions, the execution is all business, marrying the need for DC to pump out enough books to fill out their budgets while simultaneously alleviating editorial and creative pressures during the big move. As such, it’s already on the back foot, appearing as though it’s a fill-in event, something that is decidedly not their main line of books in any way, shape or form. If they don’t tackle this perception in the marketing, April and May might be a couple of DC’s worst months as many opt out of the two months of content.

One of the things the company should have done right off the bat, is get a name to help out with the main series. While I’m sure the new-to-comics writer Jeff King is a remarkable talent, if I walk up to my customers and tell them who is operating at the core of this event, I will inevitably be met with a “who?” from most parties. The inclusion of Dan Jurgens and Scott Lobdell as event consultants does offer a bit of name recognition, but not the kind that’s going to sell books. Again, talented as they may be, I haven’t been able to get those writers to move the dial up on any books that I’m selling, and when you are building two months worth of content, you need to be able to attach an element of interest to the creative, even if the creator in question is only consulting and helps bang out plot points.

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An illustration of this point can be found in the sales of DC’s three weekly titles. Batman: Eternal is scripted by a rotating team of solid writers with superstar Batman writer Scott Snyder providing some plot work, sharing the workload with James Tynion IV. That book sells like gangbusters. Meanwhile, New 52: Future’s End launched with a free first issue, and a cracker jack creative team attached, but nobody who pushes into the stratosphere. The weekly Earth Two book is operating under similar conditions, and was sold as a sister title to the main Earth Two book. There is almost no reason for someone who isn’t already following Earth Two to follow the weekly, and my sales are definitely reflecting that. Had their been a more recognizable writer at the core, and had the marketing been something a bit deeper than do you like Earth Two, things would be quite different.

Jeff King should be paired with someone like… say, Warren Ellis. Or Grant Morrison. Or – dipping into the impossible for a second – Alan Moore. If this event has really been long in the planning, hiring a “get” to even just sit quietly in the corner of one or two Skype meetings in order to give more of a push would do wonders for the core – and if the core is strong, the books spinning outward will be all the better for it.

Going out from there, the announced slate of 40 two-part minis can and should be entirely self sustaining. DC should take great pains to let people know that there is zero knowledge required to check out both the main Convergence series and the minis that surround it. That’s how I’m going to sell things. While I know that Convergence is spinning out from the events of Superman: Doomed, Future’s End and Earth Two: World’s End, I’d never place that baggage on the event, unless it is earned. If DC puts out a product that pulls to heavily on prior knowledge, I might as well gather up almost every copy I’ve ordered of Convergence and set fire to it to keep warm. Nobody likes feeling like they don’t know what’s going on, and while it’s easy to wave a hand dismissively and say “they can catch up”, that’s a sure fire way to nab some pretty anemic sales. With so many entertainment options out there, both within the industry and without, “complication” is not a selling point, it’s a reason to jump ship. The less connective tissue the better.

As for the content of the two-part minis, DC should definitely be using the two months as an opportunity to truly get creative. If I had my druthers, about 25% of the books would feature regular creative teams being let loose. Let folks like Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello and Jeff Lemire and Gail Simone loose on your multiverse with a license to say or do anything. The other books? Run completely wild with surprising concepts and creators. Run it like Marvel’s recent Edge of Spider-Verse mini-series, handing out a framework and stepping back to see what unfurls. Becky Cloonan, Brandon Fletcher and Camerson Stewart have already proven they can spark some interest, let them all punch through two issues of something unique. Dig around near and far, and grab from all walks. Would Los Bros Hernadez be interested in something? How about folks like Rick Spears or Ales Kot? What about Bryan Lee O’Malley? Turn off the house style, and really make the month interesting. Get new readers coming to your line, instead of producing the same old, same old. Business as usual combined with a glorified fill-in event will only lead to disinterest, and I can guarantee the company isn’t expecting much from this line of books, so my not take a few massive risks? Who in their right mind would blame you given the fact that you’re moving across country while it’s happening?

Now, launching out from there, regardless of what the company attempts in the two months, the line should look quite different. Keep what’s been working, and otherwise, shake up the line. If this is done in tandem with an interest line-up of books during Convergance, the company will be able to drum up some vague interest, and capitalize on it completely when they double down and per some of the strange infiltrate their line.

Whatever happens, I can guarantee sales will give a fairly accurate representation for the amount of hustle the company is putting into producing the line. It will all be about perception, as retailers are going to be naturally wary of a line that doesn’t include Batman, the book by which all sales are literally measured.

TO BE CONTINUED…

On Wednesday, I’ll tackle what is known about Secret Wars, and how Marvel could potentially structure it to get the biggest bang for their buck. Until then, please comment with your thoughts below. I’m contemplating running this as a three parter, ending with your input on Friday, but that’s really up to you folks.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

The Retailer’s View // Scheduling Issues

Navigating monthly orders is a bone-numbing pain. I feel as though this is something I write a variation of in most of these columns. The sensation clearly remains. It’s a thankless process that rarely ends happily, with hundreds of order codes to run through and thousands of bits of data to think of. In the end, you will always mess up on several orders. You’ll discover this months down the line when you’re staring at empty shelf slots a couple hours into new comic book day or a section choked with product on the following Tuesday. At best, you can use your knowledge to mitigate any huge losses, and come out winning more often than you lose – but you’ll still lose, and you’ll still lose often.

How’s that for a cold open?

When I was going through last month’s Previews, I ran straight into the listing for Eric Stephenson and Simon Gane’s They’re Not Like Us and immediately took the internet to drop some misspelled opinions. I had been looking over the solicitation for a month at that point, and had been wondering what I was going to do when the time came to punch in some numbers. Over the course of the month, I waited for an interview to pop up regarding the book so that I’d have a little bit more to go on than what was in the solicitation. Nothing was forthcoming, so as I stared at the listing, I went through the contents of my gut to see what it thought.

I knew that the series would be good – or at least, would be a book that would appeal to me. I was familiar with Stephenson’s work through Nowhere Men and Long Hot Summer and was a fan. Gane, I knew from projects like The Vinyl Underground and Paris, and knew him to be an amazing draftsman. There was preview art and a cover that boasted contributions from the amazing Jordie Bellaire and Fonografiks with the promise that both would be a part of the series. These were all things that filled me with confidence in my ability to move this book, and gave me a vague idea as to the audience that I would be aiming for with it. I was also clearly worried about the book’s schedule, and how it would effect the sales and interest in the series.

As much as I liked (and like) Stephenson as a writer, my internal notes were telling me that this was a series that probably wouldn’t ship on time. I was basing this purely on the track record of his most recent series, Nowhere Men, which started off with a strong opening (both critically and sales-wise) before petering off into obscurity as the book slid further and further off schedule. By the time the sixth issue shipped, my sales were but a fraction of what I had started with for all of the usual reasons. Some took the waiting period as a sign that they should give up on the singles and wait for the collections. Others forgot about the book’s existence and plot and decided to leave it on the shelf when it finally arrived. Still more pulled it out of their budgeting calculations as other books moved in to fill the gap. The result had clearly left a bad taste in my mouth, one that led to my ordering dilemma.

They're Not Life Us

Now I should note, shortly after sending the tweet out into the wild, I was greeted with a chorus that pointed to a google document Nowhere Men artist Nate Bellegarde had posted claiming full responsibility for the delays. I had not seen this, and plugging around the comics internet digs up very few news sites that actually linked to the information. This is unfortunately the fate of late books – no matter the reason (and Nate in particular had and has some very good reasons for the book’s disappearance), lateness results in disinterest, and disinterest results in lower sales. This, of course, translates to a hesitance on the part of a retailer in ordering a creator’s new books, which brings us back to the main point.

Armed with some incomplete information, I was ready to place an order far lower than I normally would for a book I think people are going to enjoy. The reverberating effects of this notion are quite wide-ranging. For example, I’m a guy who regularly checks comic book news sites, and has built up a network of folks who are ready to hand me some extra information should the situation require it. I’m not the norm when it comes to retailing. Others are just going to go on the information they have at hand – the concept, the names of the creators, and their past performance in store. More still won’t even order based on that – they’ll just plug in a token “Image number” brush their hands off, and call it a day without a second thought.

Going out from there, you’ll have readers who are similarly minded, who will see Eric Stephenson’s name, and assume that this title will be late before it’s even had a chance to prove itself. While many of you reading this article are the type to keep up on this kind of information, the majority of people buying comics at comic shops are very passive in their extracurricular consumption, opting to just read the comics as they come in without dipping their toes into the minutiae of it all. Most of these people will be getting information about this series from aforementioned retailers who don’t have a view of the bigger picture, and this might honestly result in middling sales for the series – at least to start. If memory serves, Nowhere Men was a series that was severely under ordered, and the quality of it pushed it through several printings of almost every single issue. This could very well be the case for They’re Not Like Us, and it could have quite healthy sales through to the end of its run, which would be nice – but regardless, damage will be done. People will go into shops and come up short – and while we’re living in a wonderful age where you’d be able to go to Image directly and nab a DRM-free digital copy, sales will still be lost in the transition – and that’s a problem. Hopefully, in this case, a very small one.

A regular schedule is key in terms of the success of a series, and of a creator. The comic market is littered with the corpses of books that launched strong, but flagged as delays hit. While some launch strong enough to weather the storm through to the end, nearly all of them proceed with a smaller audience. If the delays persist, the numbers will continue to shed at an accelerated rate along side of it, resulting in a monetary lesser for all those involved. Take a look at any sales chart, and find any book that has hit a patch of delays, and you will inevitably see the pattern. While there are some exceptions (there always are) the vast majority of books shipping on a delayed schedule lose readers at an equal pace. Books that don’t ship don’t fit into a store or a reader’s budget as well as books that show up as promised. Moreso, books that don’t ship stop being part of the conversation. Less is said about the story and more about the delays, until that becomes the story. People become okay with waiting, and so they do. Waiting breeds forgetfulness, and forgetfulness breeds death. The cycle continues, on and on.

If you’re in the business of producing comics, the most important thing you can do is hit your deadlines. Even a bi-monthly schedule is better than a promised monthly that doesn’t ship. The ideal, I think, is the <em>Saga</em> model, wherein you ship an arc on a monthly basis, delivering on the due date as promised on time, every time. In between the arcs, you can take a break. Let readers stew with a cliffhanger, and release your trade so stragglers can catch up. Offer retailers the chance to breath, sell a trade, and build up your audience. Come back guns blazing with another arc that comes out consistently. Because while delays within a story arc will kill you, delays between arcs will not. People are trained to deal with these gaps. Most serial media consumed thrives on gaps building pressure and audience in the interim. That’s the reason why sequels are a better bet to make money than a movie’s initial release. Come out with a good product, give the people an experience that has them clawing for more, and then let them wait. Let them stew. Time things right, and you can keep getting bigger and bigger. Start screwing up with your deadlines, and you’ll start to see that intensity and momentum dry up and fall away.

Almost definitely what I'm talking about right now.

Almost definitely what I’m talking about right now.

As the publisher of Image Comics, I’m sure Eric Stephenson already knows all of this information. He has enough sales data at his finger tips to know how delays effect a book, and how the model Saga has been running on is the ideal. It’s the way Jim Zub has been running things with Skullkickers from the start of his run, and each time his book has come back, sales have gotten stronger and stronger. It’s the way Antony Johnston has started running Umbral and The Fuse, and while I think it’s a little too early to say much about what those books are doing as a whole, I can say that the schedule has done well for his books in my store particularly. It’s a smart way to run a series, and honestly, I think it should be adopted by the industry in general. I honestly believe that instead of shipping books like Batman and Amazing Spider-Man on a never ending schedule, building in tangible breaks can do wonders. I worked a version of this when DC decided to soft launch a few of their books this October after building in a glorified skip-month in September. The results? I’ve sold twice the amount of Catwoman and three times the amount of Batgirl than what I did in August. Green Arrow admittedly stayed the same, but considering the fact that the title was coming off a run that was so indelibly tied to the previous creative team more than the character (at least in my shop), that’s not a small feat, as loss roughly equalled gain. In that particular case, DC would have done better pushing a publication gap for a couple of months before a big return. Sure, they would have missed timing the launch with the return of the Arrow television show, but in the end, the title would have been all the better for it.

Consistent shipping will do almost as much for a book as its perceived quality will. While a quality book can get by with delays, the results will almost always be lesser for it – at least in terms of periodical sales. For a perceived mediocre book, delays will result in death. Readers will stick with something if it comes out regularly, and they’ll stick around even longer if you can hit that final note and give them something to ponder over a break – but give them the slightest excuse to walk away, and they will, even if it’s a book they enjoy. Retailers, for their part, will always react to this, and they’ll carry a perception around as a result. They’re Not Like Us is a series that’s going to have perception working against it from the start, even though the creators have yet to do anything to truly earn that. It’s unfortunate, but in a business where the people ordering books are sifting through information for over 2500 listings a month, it is what it is.

Hit your marks. You’ll be glad you did.

The Retailer’s View // Speculative Non-Fiction

Death_of_Wolverine_3_Cover

The Death of Wolverine has gone over exceedingly well – or at least it has in my shop. Putting aside sales numbers (which were apparently great), the event has garnered quite a bit of attention in the medium and the shop in general. After putting a few copies in the window, we get a steady flow of people who either haven’t read comics or haven’t read comics in years walking into the store, wondering what’s going on – and as any retailer will tell you, getting people through the door is often half the battle. Local news affiliates stopped by the store to interview me about the Wolverine statue that folks are pushing to erect in the city in the wake of the runt’s impending death, which has garnered a few more drop ins. And a bonus? The story has been pretty great and has featured quite a bit of reader retention. I mean, the first three issues could have been terrible, and a certain amount of people would have stuck out to the bitter end, but quality books are far easier to sell, and ease is always appreciated. In the end, I should have no problem burning through the hefty order I placed, which is a calming notion. Unfortunately, the whole thing seems to have awakened more speculators, which is really sticking in my craw.

First things first: I would never begrudge a person who wants to make money off of their comic purchases. Doing so would be blindingly hypocritical coming from a man who puts food in his mouth by doing the same thing on a bulk-purchase scale. If you want to buy several copies of Harley Quinn a month and sell a few of them on the internet for a few extra scheckles, go right ahead! Go forth and reap those rewards. My problem comes up when the speculative market starts to overwhelm the reading market, creating shuddering blips in supply and demand that end up distorting the value of comics, perceived or otherwise. That’s when things get dangerous, and we’re getting closer and closer to the tipping point with each and every event these days.

When most people think of speculation, they think of the decadent excess of the 90s, when retailers were purchasing comics by the pallet and customers were buying them buy the case. Despite the fact that the industry was drowning in product, there was the idea that certain comics were going to be worth money, based off of past performance. Pouncing on this, comic companies did everything and anything they could do to get some quick, easy money. Multiple covers were produced, holograms and foil and glow-in-the-dark inks were introduced into the printing process, and everyone generally went crazy manufacturing inflated demand for a large supply, never stopping to scale back and look at the quality and contents of what was being sold. In the end, the basic retail forces of proper supply and demand reasserted themselves. Things crashed, and crashed hard.

You can find these everywhere. One is watching you right now. Another phones you weekly, but never speaks.

You can find these everywhere. One is watching you right now. Another phones you weekly, but never speaks.

Our current market is a reflection of what happened in the nineties, both in terms of its’ current shape, and the effect that speculation is having on it today. While I feel as though the quality of the product has never been higher in terms of storytelling and paper stock, quantities are nowhere near what the industry was shifting even just a decades ago. Some of that is due to the general attrition that has come to once strong mediums like radio, television, music and movies, but a good deal of it emerged from the sense of worth that comics have been stuck with since the speculative bubble popped. Not only were people purchasing comics by the handful expecting to make a mint, people were buying $2 comics for wildly inflated prices. Both parties have been unhappy to learn that their investments have largely not paid off. Every single day, I get at least one call from someone hoping to unload a collection of “really old comics” on me for stacks of cash, and almost every single day, I have to inform said parties that their piles of comics are worth next to nothing. Whether I’m telling them that they won’t see a large return on their bulk purchase, or that they spent $20 on a book that is only worth cover price, the fact remains: I am telling them that their comics are worthless. Most eventually take that bit of information and simplify it to “comics are worthless”. A person with that idea floating around in their head certainly isn’t predisposed to discovering or rediscovering the medium – and that’s a huge problem that the boom left the current industry with.

Compounding this is the fact that bulk speculation still occurs today. There are still people out there buying piles of The Walking Dead and Harley Quinn in hopes that they will be turning a profit on said books in the near or far future. Hell, there are retailers who purchase copies of books and deliberately short stack the shelves and keep stacks of books in their back room, all in the hopes of getting more cash at a later date. While I can’t really blame anyone for doing this, or making money off of a book when demand is tight and supply is high, it always puts a deep dark pit in my stomach. Playing with or deliberately creating blips in supply or manufacturing and manipulating demand never ends well. It’s dynamite in the short term, but it can not be relied upon in the long term, and it is often irreparably damaging. You can take a look at any economy that has toyed with building and manipulating supply and demand for profit and see the effects. The short term is always wonderful, but the long term? The long term is often nightmarish. And sure, everyone and everything can and often will recover, but not without incurring loss. The comic industry has been through such a period once. It’s threatening to do it again, as multiple covers and gimmicks sweep through the culture again, everyone searching for the quick dollar and the easy sell.

I’m not going to pretend like I’m not a part of this: I ordered far more Death of Wolverine than I could sell to readers. I did this, because I knew that speculators would want to get their hands on some copies, and that some would want multiples. I knew that these same speculators would look at the variants offered, and place down extra money to procure them. I increased my orders because I knew that ordering less would leave my readers high and dry. They’d be waiting for second printings while other people slid their copies in bags, never intending to read them or return to the store. I would damage my relationship with my regular customers for those with temporary deep pockets. In such a situation, I am damned if I do place a big order, because I’m enabling something that will clearly not end well, or I am damned if I don’t, because my regular customers will suffer. In the end, I try to do my best to make sure that my regulars are served, and leave the rest to be what it will be. That’s all I really can do.

Now, to really illustrate my outlook on this, I want to share with you a recent encounter I had at the store. A man walked in, looking to purchase any and all of the Death of Wolverine #1 variants that we had. One of everything. I gladly did this, and offered him a discount, because he was dropping a sizeable wad of cash on what was essentially the same book reprinted however-many-times-over. Four weeks later, the man returns to buy all of the Death of Wolverine #3 variants. A note: he did not come to the store to grab our #2s. He was just hitting the store as it was the most convenient place for him at the moment. After purchasing the books, he asked if there was a way we could offer him a discount of some kind for whenever he came through the door. I asked if he would be interested in grabbing issue four and it’s various covers from us. He said he didn’t know, because he wasn’t sure where he’d be. I let him know that we give discounts to people who subscribe to or pre-order certain series, because it helps us know what to order. He then said, (and this is word for word), “So even though I’ve spent more in your store in one month than some of these guys spend all year, you won’t give me a discount?”

3Months to Die (Wolverine 8-12)

More like “rad-mantium”, amirate?

Now, I never said I wouldn’t give him a discount, but at that point, his voice was getting sharp and irritated, and I was in no mood. He was essentially asking me what I valued more: his admittedly arbitrary patronage (a further note: I had never seen this man before in my eight years of working at the store) or someone who came in week after week, month after month, and kept us in business. I kindly informed him that discounts were reserved for regular customers, at which point, he stormed out of the establishment. I doubt I will see him again. That said, I really doubt I was going to see him before or after October 15th when the final issue hit, and he purchased that last of the run. At the end of the day, I’m not losing sleep over that one – and I have the added bonus that the copies he was going to procure will probably end up in the hands of someone who will come back.

In the end, that’s all a store can do. People will always come in and do as they will – the only thing you can control is the way you act and react to them. As a retailer, you will never be able to stop speculation – but you can do everything in your power to temper the effects. Make sure that above all else, you are serving your regulars, and that you have the product and mindfulness to keep pushing to make more people come into and return to your store. The easiest way to do this? Don’t speculate yourself. Purchase to match demand as well as you can, and when you don’t, resist the urge to mark up your final copies. There’s a reason why the comic companies priced the comic the way they did: that’s what they believe the contents within are worth. $3, $3.50, $4… that’s the real monetary worth of a comic, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. Be good in your ordering, be great to your customers, and reward those who are good to you in return. If enough retailers do this, the industry shouldn’t have trouble moving forward.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

The Retailer’s View: Eventful

In August, I went on vacation with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancée) and took some well deserved time away from the store and the world of comics in general. Being Mr. Manager for a shop and writing about comics on the internet doesn’t allow for a lot of extracurriculars, so stepping away for three weeks was a welcome change.

When I returned to the store a week ago, I was met with the sight of the first week’s worth of Future’s End books spilling from the shelves, and almost a longbox of The Death of Wolverine sitting in a box as overstock. Immediately, I felt my heart tighten. This sensation was exacerbated when the first customer of the day walked through the door, grabbed a handful of each lenticular and foil embossed cover and inquired as to what the investment value of the books would be. I smiled even as my veins filled with poison, and I told them what I tell everybody: if there was a science to making money off of comics, I would be a far richer man than the one you see today.

SUDDENLY TIGERS

SUDDENLY TIGERS

Let’s take a few steps back and give a little context for Future’s End and The Death of Wolverine. Given the fact that you’re reading an article about comic book retail on the internet, it’s probably safe to say you know the basics, so we’ll skip past the bits about the how’s and why’s of both series and go knee deep into the retail bits.

As detailed in my first column for this site, DC’s methods for this year’s round of lenticular covers were informed by last year’s madness. In an effort to bypass issues with supply not meeting demand, the company asked that retailers submit their final orders for the books at the end of May. For normal comics, the final order cut off for a book usually arrives three-and-a-half weeks before said issue will hit the shelves, allowing retailers to adjust numbers using relatively current data. Placing orders at the end of May meant extrapolating demand using a set of data that would be better utilized for books shipping in late June or July, which made things hard to balance. On top of that, there were a heap of other troubling things to deal with, such as:

  • Finding a balance between last year’s artificially high demand and this year’s guaranteed supply.
  • Guessing how the line would tie into the weekly shipping Future’s End series, and how that would or would not effect certain books in the line.
  • Trying to set numbers for titles that had yet to debut, such as Grayson.
  • Dealing with the late announcement of the creative teams for each title, and attempting to inform readers about the books that would and would not feature the book’s regular team.
  • Guessing what other retailers within driving distance would order and how it would effect short and long term demand.
  • Discovering some kind of alchemy that would tell me which customers would leave and arrive in the course of a quarter of the year, including the crap chute of “how many students from the nearby university will want to open up files and/or grab comics”.
  • Guessing whether or not the Booster Gold issue was the start of a new ongoing or mini-series or just a one shot.

All of this while dealing with the more regular considerations such as trending audience interest, spending budgets, and oh yeah, placing initial orders for books that were going to start shipping in July, which were solicited alongside them, and due on the same day.

The fact that I have yet to sell out of any of the new lenticular books is a minor miracle, especially considering the fact that I placed my bet on these covers selling only slightly better than the books would sell during a regular month. On the other hand, there are more than a few that I splurged on that didn’t quite ignite interest. Will I sell them all? Probably. The covers are still quite the draw, and will probably turn over regularly in the back issue bins – but for more than a few books, it will take more time than usual to turn my orders into a profit. Luckily, I’m running the kind of store that can weather a line of books taking a bit longer to sell than usual. I shudder to think what would happen to a store who couldn’t easily absorb such a stock. Even if they push through, their purchasing power for the upcoming Christmas season will be severely truncated, causing an ever expanding ripple effect due to a couple of bad hunches.

Death_of_Wolverine_3_Cover

Now, on the other side of things, there’s The Death of Wolverine. Instead of matching DC pound for pound with a bit of line-wide craziness, Marvel opted for the safer track: one big bet on one big event. The comparative risk between the two ventures couldn’t be more different. Over at DC, their event is a gamble that involves almost their entire regular superhero line. Over at Marvel, it’s a gamble that involves the death ($) of one of their most recognizable characters ($$). A decent order was going to be placed on the title regardless, but there were a few things that made this pill a little harder to swallow than most:

  • Marvel was going to ship the book weekly, which meant that proper order adjustments were going to be nearly impossible under the best of conditions.
  • The company was not soliciting the book under the best of conditions – which in this case meant all four issues were solicited early, and with a final order cut off date of July 14th – whole seven and a half weeks before the first issue would hit the stands.
  • The first issue carried with it no less than eight different variants, all requiring different order thresholds to hit – a logistical nightmare.

In the interim, the company didn’t make things any easier. In between the solicitation copy hitting the publication and final orders coming due, they dribbled out several changes to the line up, including foil embossed covers (only the first issue was going to carry that “feature”), along with a price jump “order what you want” Canadian variants (which feature the same covers as the original books with photoshopped CANADIAN features like our flag and the word “CANADA”) and a smattering of more qualified variants. Does your head ache yet? Oh, just you wait.

Death_of_Wolverine 3_Canada Variant

Ohhhhh, Canada.

Two of the variants on tap for issue one – the “Deadpool” and “Skottie Young” covers – required retailers to match All New X-Men #25 orders at 250% if they wanted to get them in. While I generally dislike all variant covers, qualifications like this always grind my gears. First, a retailer has to take a look at their numbers, and determine if this is a smart thing to do. Now, in this instance, All New X-Men #25 was a book that sold an estimated 63,827 copies, so for simplicities sake, let’s say there is a shop out there that ordered 64 copies of that book. Forgetting whether or not they sold through that many copies (because it doesn’t matter to Marvel or Diamond), that means they would have to order at least 160 copies to even qualify to get those covers. Will the money you bring in grabbing all of those extra copies match the money those special covers bring in?

Bonus questions: say you decide against beefing up your numbers. How many customers will you lose out on because they were looking for that specific cover? How many of those customers would have bought more than one copy of The Death of Wolverine? How many would have bought the whole run from you, but are now going to do so elsewhere? How many would have eventually set up a file at your shop? These are all crazy questions, but every retailer has them swirling in their head when they place these orders – and I haven’t even gotten to the really crazy parts yet.

In addition to the 250% covers, Marvel offered variants ranging from “1 for every 50” copies ordered, all the way to “1 for every 500” copies, so even if you could make those 250% numbers work with relative ease, they teased you with something even more unattainable. Dare you go for broke and claw up to 500 copies for your store? If you sell it, and a few of the other variants, will it offset the cost of unsold copies? Even if you attempt to stretch your fingers for this goal, and even if you sell those variants… is it really worth it in the long run? Couldn’t money spent on 500 copies of Wolverine – many of which will end up being remaindered somehow – be put to better use by bringing in a wider range of products? But again, if you don’t try and get that cherry variant, will you be losing out on big money? Can you really afford not to?

The final knife in Marvel’s game to sell a ton of this book came in the form of some bonus ordering incentives. This bit will be easier to show you as a picture than anything else. For issue one and four:

Death of Wolvering Percentages

click to embiggen

And for issues two and three:

Death of Wolverine Percentages

click to embiggen

On the surface, it appears as though they’re helping you out. Want to try and get those crazy variants? We’ve made it a little easier on your wallet, champ. Congrats. Go nuts. Reality happens to be a bit darker than that though. As always, Marvel could give a crap about whether or not you’re selling their books. All they want to do is make sure you’re buying their books. You could purchase 500 copies and set fire to them all for all they care – once they have your money, they’re good.

Now full disclosure: my chain went for the gusto and ordered 500 copies. We took a look at all of the information at our hands, looked at what the books were going to cost us with Marvel’s extra discounts added to the mix, and worked out a system where the numbers worked for us. Given my own personal druthers, I would have gone more in the direction of one of Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows and make the principled stand. I would have ordered something that matched reader demand more than collector demand, but I manage a store that was built and funded by other hands, and at times, I end up serving other interests. I end up walking into the store and seeing a longbox worth of comics sitting in overstock. I also end up seeing a guy spend enough money on a small handful of the variants to offset our cost for the entire set of 500, so it all balances out, I guess. Where was I going with this? Ah yes.

Imagine you’re a retailer. What do you want to order? This goes for both events, by the way, DC’s Future’s End and Marvel’s Death of Wolverine. How do you place your orders? What things do you want to keep in the front of your mind? Do you want to expend the extra effort it takes to put together orders for an entire line of lenticular covers months in advance, or do you opt for the simple solution of ordering what you’d normally order? Do you become bothered by the idea that if you just do regular numbers, collectors might raid your supply and you won’t be left with enough copies to satisfy those who pop into your store every week and grab comics from the shelves? Do you bother adjusting your numbers in order to get variant editions, or do you just let things lie? Will you allow the promise of big money balloon your orders up? Do you make that gamble?

These are the questions that plague a retailer’s mind when they set about ordering your comics month in and month out. Not only are they dealing with variants and odd shipping schedules and order thresholds, but they’re doing so for hundreds of titles each and every month. Not all of them require the same amount of thought, but they all require a modicum of consideration – especially when you have to make sure you order within a budget. You can’t just do all the math for determining orders for an event book and call it a day, you have to consider what that order will do to the rest of your budget. You have to keep things on track so that they don’t spiral out of control – because while there isn’t a science to making money on comics, there’s a surefire way to lose it all: getting lost chasing big money instead of focusing on the actual money you have to spend.

The Retailer’s View: Greed, Avarice, Power, and Responsibility

Sensational Spider-Man #0The first superhero comic I paid for with my own money was Sensational Spider-Man #0. It arrived at the pharmacy my mom worked at one cold December before school had let out for winter break. In those days, I would walk to my parent’s work after school and sit in the back reading comics until she finished and drove me and my sister home. It was a pretty sweet set up, and let me get into comics gently. Most of the books on the stands made little to no sense for me, operating on stories that had been set up months, if not years in advance, and requiring an access to titles that sometimes didn’t make it to the pharmacy’s comic book rack. Then, it arrived.

Wrapped inside a polybag with the intent to stay out of the prying hands of children, it sat on the shelf taunting me, a new beginning for a character I had grown to love on television, complete with a snazzy lenticular card attached to the cover. It was beautiful. It was also $7 Canadian, a veritable fortune to me at that point in my life. Eventually, I scraped together the cash and popped that sucker open. It was a bit confusing (although not as confusing as the last bits of the Clone Saga that immediately preceded it to the shelves), but all in all a satisfying read. It was also the first time I heard the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”.

While the phrase itself sometimes elicits groans from crusty old Spider-Man fans who already know Peter Parker’s deal, I’ve always been in the camp that enjoys seeing the phrase float through an adventure every now and then. Not only was it good advice for a fictional superhero, I find it’s just a great phrase to ply to several aspects of reality – especially comics retail.

As a retailer, I have a certain amount of power. For many people, I’m the face of the comic book industry. I am the person in control of the environment they walk into when they first decide to get comics. I’m the person who has hand picked what sits on the shelves, and in what quantity. That’s a lot of power to have, and it needs to be wielded responsibly. If I’ve created an unwelcoming environment, or if I have a poor selection on the shelves, I run the risk of having a new customer walk in, only to walk right out again. That would be irresponsible of me as a business, and as a representative of this industry.

A good comics retailer should always be thinking about what their store and selection is saying to people about the comic book industry. Are you upset that people think of comics as “just superheroes”? Does your store happen to feature a majority of those books on the shelves? That might be part of the problem. While it’s easy to shrug and say “superheroes sell”, that’s not the entire truth. Superhero books often sell themselves, whereas other titles need you to be a little proactive. If you want to reflect certain ideals in the comic industry and if you want to build it up, you absolutely have the power to do so at your finger tips.

Before I go on, I should say that there isn’t one good answer for being a great comic book retailer. There is an audience for all things, and if you want to focus on a certain aspect of the culture in the comic book industry, than more power to you. I like to focus on keeping my store’s content fairly broad and I emphasize a culture where everyone’s favourite comic is valid. I can do this because my temperament allows it, and it makes for quite a wide ranging customer base, which is always good for business. Many people don’t have this capacity, and focus on a small subset that aligns with their interest – and while it sounds like I might be shaming that practice, I really have no problem with folks who know what they like and market accordingly. Honesty will get you far in this business, and pretending to be something that you’re not will often only end in heartbreak. This industry is large enough to take on all comers, whether your focus is on superhero books or back issues or independent zine style books – but if you want to survive and thrive, you have to be honest with yourself and passionate about the product. What you can’t do is feed yourself with one hand, and decry yourself with the other.

Over the past few weeks, dozen of people have sent me links to things Chuck Rozanski had to say about his experience at this year’s San Diego Comic Con as a retailer. For those of you who don’t know, Chuck is the President of Mile High Comics, a site and shop that specializes in comics and collectibles for premium prices. After San Diego this year, he took to the internet to lament what would amount to a $10,000 loss from having attended the show. As he notes in the newsletter, he made a considerably greater amount of money at a smaller convention with the same set up than he did at San Diego, and he has some ideas as to why that is – mainly, publishers are cutting him out of some seemingly well deserved profits using booth exclusive product.

“…the comics publishers with booths at the San Diego convention have so cleverly exploited the greed and avarice of comics fans through limited edition publications that are only available through their own booths, that there is no longer enough disposable income left in the room to sustain us.”

A "completely" "accurate" depiction of the money available in comics.

A “completely” “accurate” depiction of the money available in comics.

He has quite a bit more to say on the subject, but the crux of it is in that quote. He is upset that comic book publishers are cutting him out of their business model when he attends shows, and sees that as an affront to his business. I don’t entirely blame him, because in many ways, that’s exactly what is happening. Rozanski is not wrong, just a little blind to the hypocrisy of it all.

Mile High is a site and a business that makes no bones about what they do: they buy comics and sell comics in a very specific and managed way, offering a wide selection of back issues to collectors on the hunt. Over the years, I’ve been the recipient of rants regarding their business practices, including a perceived “over-pricing” of items, done so deliberately to work with their frequent site code word sales that slash the prices of many books to manageable levels. While I don’t dabble too much in the back issue market outside of business, I know that if I’m stuck for pricing a back issue, I can always look at the Mile High price and knock it down by anywhere from 25-50% and come up with something palatable. I know that I would never purchase from them if I was looking for a decent price. Again, I don’t intend for that to be a knock on their business structure – they’ve been around longer than I’ve been into comics, and you can’t quite argue with a structure that allows you to weather a $10,000 with a few internet posts and a shrug and not the immediate or impending closure of your business. The market they are aiming for exists, I just don’t happen to be a part of it. That said, Chuck’s line about publisher’s preying on the greed and avarice of comic fans is fairly chuckle worthy. By now, you can probably see where I’m going with this, but in the interest of clarity, let’s lay things out.

As a business, and a successful one at that, a retailer will always prey upon the so-called greed and avarice of their customers. The crux of business comes from a consumer’s basic needs. The comic book industry, which provides entertainment more than it helps sustain our body’s basic needs, falls into an area of wants, rather than needs. Nobody needs comics, they want them – and if a publisher or retailer is doing their job properly, they can get consumers to want a lot of their product. Attaching the names of a couple of the deadly sins to the process does make the whole enterprise seem quite lascivious, but I do believe that was Chuck’s intent. He wants publishers to feel bad about selling their exclusive wares directly to the customer. To be fair to him, he’s not upset because they’re doing it (and he shouldn’t, considering how Mile High has an armful of variants exclusive to their store as well in stock), but the fact that they won’t let him in on the cash and prizes end of the deal – which is ridiculous.

Just like Mile High Comics, the comic book publishers are running a business, pure and simple. It behooves them to get product to customers in the most efficient form possible, both in terms of delivery and cost. These days, brick and mortar stores aren’t really doing the trick. In a world where digital product can reach the eyes of the consumer with a few clicks, you have to have a better reason that “existing” to bring in the customers when cutting out the middleman allows an easier and more cost effective product for all those involved. The same goes for conventions. If a publisher and a retailer are placed on equal footing, what incentive does the publisher have to sell you their product below the listed retail price? What more are you offering them? Surely it’s not distribution, because they are already there and have the structure to distribute just fine.

Now I know that some retailers out there like to think they are owed. For years, the direct market carried comic book companies, and how are those companies repaying retailers? That’s a question that’s always struck me as disingenuous. Expecting a publisher to continue to support you with product due to past performance would be like a store continuing to order copies of Spawn as though this were still ’92. Yes, at one time it was a monster, but these days, it’s nothing more than a solid performer in a larger and different market place. Does Todd McFarlane get upset with retailers because Spawn doesn’t sell like it used to? And if he did, would you listen?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a publisher selling comics directly to the fans, just like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way that Mile High, or any comic book store, sells comics to customers. Business functions on needs and wants, and the perceived equal exchange of goods and services. If one party isn’t getting what they need, the business ceases to be. If the playing field within the industry has changed, it behooves a business to change alongside it – otherwise the losses will start to mount. That’s just how business works. Nobody is owed anything. If you keep moving, you’ll have the power to stay in business and effect change for years to come. If you stop, the power ebs and you might find yourself searching for another line of work. This isn’t a great secret, it’s just how things go, even in an industry as wonderful and romantic as comics. Keep moving. Keep growing. Act responsibly. Be the change you want to see in the industry. Then everything will be fine.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and works on building his comic book recommendation engine over at Variant Edition. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]

The Retailer’s View: Antagonistic

by Brandon Schatz

There was a piece hovering around the comics internet this weekend about the industry’s supposed need of more shit-talkers. It was an interesting and well-intentioned conversation, but the premise was flawed from the start. The industry doesn’t need destructive forces. It currently has its fill of that. What the industry needs is more constructure forces. It needs companies and retailers and creators and fans who will ask uncomfortable questions and confront uncomfortable answers.

When I write these pieces, I always try to stay constructive. It would be very easy to tears strips off a publisher or a creator and cry doom at the top of my lungs and call it a day. Have you ever tried to build a house? What a condescending question. Sorry about that. The point is, building a house is hard. Knocking it down is a whole lot easier. If you build, it means you have a place to work and live for a while. If you break, you have a pile of rubble to kick around. Is this metaphor working at all? Regardless, I want to build something – or at least help do it. To do that, I need a foundation. If I’m going to stress the metaphor even further, I need a basement. This is going to be that basement.

A few words of warning: this is going to be rough, and broad. The intent is to hit upon all the key parts of the industry, and provide a basic structure for what the basic roles are, and what they should accomplish. There is very little finesse involved at this stage, as the concrete is poured, but nobody expects a basement to be fancy – or at least, not when you’re providing the bones. I need to shut up about houses.

The comic book industry, broken down to its foundation, as seen by a retailer. Here goes.

reading

READERS

A reader is a person who likes comics and reads them in their spare time. A singular reader has likes and dislikes, and their money spent reflects this.

As a collective, readers are the hot molten core of the industry. Without them, there would be no reason to exist, no reason to produce. As a mass, they have an indirect effect on what is made, and a more direct effect on what sticks. Their job, if you can call it that, is to purchase and consume. That is it. That is all.

Readers are not arbiters, no matter what anybody says. They do not settle disputes and their purchases should say nothing more than “I like this” and “I don’t like that”. While some would shame and call readers to task for their habits, at a basic level, the industry should be allowed to provide the experience of entertainment unencumbered, first and foremost. Shades and layers can and should always be plied atop of this foundation, but readers shouldn’t be required to keep up with the inner machinations of comic book companies, or the ethics of creator compensation or the like. As long as the urge for entertainment is being sated, then the readers are sated.

CREATORS

A creator is a person who likes comics and creates them – sometimes as a job, sometimes as an outlet. If a creator is working in the comic book industry, there is something about it that speaks to them in a way that other mediums can’t quite sate. This is why they are here, and not there, after all.

Creators craft stories that they want and need to tell. Why would they do anything else? Why should they do anything else?

Creators are not responsible for making the landscape of the industry diverse. Their first responsibility should always been themselves, first and foremost. Readers can tell if a creator is hacking a book out, and they usually react. More than anything, readers wants to connect with the material, and the easiest way for that to happen is for the creator or creators to feel connected as well, to form that connection at inception. When this happens or as this happens, the reaction between creator, creation and reader is pure. It satisfies need, and fuels the industry with content. This is what is needed. This is the goal.

CRITICS

A critic is a person who likes comics or admires the craft. At their best, they can take a comic and reverse engineer it, pulling out various bits of writing and art and ably seeing how parts function separately and together.

A great critic uses opinion sparingly to inform an audience of personal bias while providing readers with the means to make an informed decision. Therein lies the key difference between a true critic, and a fan. A fan lives and breathe opinion and uses that in an attempt to sway readers. There’s nothing wrong with this, but ascribing a critical nature to a screed based more in opinion than craft is selling the art of critique short. Having the money to have internet access and the wherewithal to stake out a piece of internet real estate does not make you a critic, it makes you a person who has access to the internet. That said, there is never, ever anything wrong with having or sharing opinions. That’s what I’m doing here, after all. What I’m presenting here isn’t fact so much as it’s my interpretation of certain facts. I would also not describe myself as a critic, but a retailer with opinions.

marvel-logo

PUBLISHERS

A publisher is a person or a group of people who like comics. People might say otherwise, but there’s a good reason they chose to work in the industry – and it sure as hell isn’t the money.

Publishers make comics because they love them. In a perfect world, they might do this without any other motive, but because it’s our world, they have to serve the needs of the business so that readers have something to read and creators have something to create.

Publishers have it rough. Keeping a balance of art and business is hard, as evidenced by the trail of broken ongoings left in the dust of time. Nobody starts a project with intending for its life to be cut short. No one creates a character with the hopes that their time will come before it’s due – but it happens. Readers don’t connect, either emotionally or physically. The business doesn’t support the art, and so something has to give. If something doesn’t give, then soon, the company goes along with it. So yes, it would be great if a book like Ms. Marvel would go on forever, and yes, it might be great if there was one or two less X-Men or Batman books on the schedule – but a publisher can’t ignore the information that readers give them. That said, they can and should ignore the information that a reader gives them. There is nothing worse than a reader or a fan calling dominion over public opinion. Again: a reader is not an arbiter. A fan is not an arbiter. They are singular. When part of a mass, when measured in sales, they are a force to be listened to and reckoned with, and not before that.

DISTRIBUTORS

A distributor might not actually like comics – although that is more my personal opinion than actual fact. Currently, the comic industry’s physical distributor is nearly singular, with a few bits and bobs trickling out to newsstands from magazine distributors. It’s legal digital distributor is similar, though infinitely more complicated to get into in this particular article. Rest assured, that will be explored in full at a later date. Anyway, distributors are often just a means to an end – and to that end, ours are a little problematic. For instance, this week, I was shorted the entirety of my All New Ultimates order. This is something that occurs far too regularly, along with miscounted quantities and scads of damaged product. In a perfect world, a distributor would get content out without much or any conflict, allowing retailers and readers access without barrier. Which brings us to:

reading comics

RETAILERS

A retailer is a person or people who like comics. Or at least they should. They are the nexus of all points, where the needs of readers and creators and publishers and distributors all meet. Retailers pay for product. They are also paid for product. As such, they carry with them some immeasurable responsibilities. They need to be fans, they need to be businesses, and they need to be critics, and they need to know how to properly measure out doses of all three. Retailers who don’t do this? They don’t need to exist.

I am a retailer. I order books, and I make sure comics get into the hands of the people who want to read them. That is what I do. That is my goal. I know full well that I’m not needed. If there was a system that moved people straight to the product, we wouldn’t need to exist. And yes, I know, “the future is now”. ComiXology and the like provide that very service to people, combining the retailer and distributor into a singular entity. (More to the point, Marvel’s Unlimited app does something similar, though it condenses the retailer and distributor roles even further into the publishing realm.) Yet, retailers still exist. Are they vestigial appendages to an old system? Are they a vital part of the future of the industry?

The answer to both questions are “yes”. There are retailers out there who are a means to an end. They exist because they’ve always existed, and were once a vital part of the industry – but they are no longer required. These retailers will disappear into the ether, providing a service that can be obtained elsewhere, with easier access. There are other retailers, however, that will remain, despite the changes the industry will face. They are the ones who take upon all rolls, and balance them with aplomb. They are the readers, they are the fans, they are the distributors who know and care about the wants and needs of their customers. They are the ones who seek to work with the publishers, even when the publishers might be seemingly working against them. They are the ones who can’t help but love this industry, and claw for the best. They are the ones who address hard questions and attempt to deal with the consequence of hard answers, balancing art and commerce so that readers and creators don’t have to.

This industry needs good retailers. At least for now. Who knows, in the future, all comics might be digital. I’ve long suspected the fact that single issues will disappear in the physical format, leaving stores as a place to obtain physical collections for all those who wish for their favourites to take up tangible space in their lives. Whatever happens, the industry will need all of it’s cogs to work in perfect or near perfect order to continue. It will need a solid base to grow from. Hopefully, we can all make that happen.\

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and stares at passive keyboards and empty word documents, making secret wishes and bargains that will surely come back to haunt him. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]

The Retailer’s View: On Rocket Raccoon Orders Topping 300,000

by Brandon Schatz

When Marvel first announced the Rocket Raccoon book, I was fairly excited. Pairing the character with Skottie Young just as interest would crest for the movie seemed like a no-brainer, one that I could use to sell a few copies to interested parties. I was expecting healthy sales, but nothing that would eclipse the character’s parent title – especially given how stylized Young’s art is. What I hadn’t counted on was for Marvel to play their hand almost perfectly, netting a fairly unprecedented 300,000 copy order before the book’s final cut-off. How in the world did they swing such a huge number – especially with a relatively small amount of incentives? Let’s break things down.

art by Skottie Young

art by Skottie Young

It starts at the core: with creator Skottie Young. Over the years, Young has built himself as a brand quite handily. Choosing projects that played to his strengths, and running with the swell of goodwill garnered by his spot-on series of hilarious “baby” covers, the man went from some punk kid drawing the Human Torch Tsunami book, to an overwhelming creative force through sheer force of will and talent. Witnessing this, Marvel offered him Rocket – a book that not only fit his art style, but his story telling sensibilities – and while almost any comic can sell given the right bit of zeitgeist and marketing, there’s no comic that blows up this big without the core being so strong from the get go. Take a look at the numbers for any of the big two’s recent events. Marvel and DC (and pretty much any company) would have killed to have numbers like this for one of their events – books that they push so hard and stack so high with talent that they can’t help but move tens of thousands of copies without breaking a sweat. Rocket seemed to accomplish a lot more, using relatively less.

The numbers on this series are indicative of Marvel’s creative direction as of late. While you won’t find a shortage of people decrying their tactics or stories, there’s little you can do in the face of numerical data – and while the industry isn’t pulling in the numbers it did in it’s heyday, any upswing that’s occurring within Marvel is down to some genius marketing on their part. If we’re talking Rocket and the Guardians of the Galaxy specifically, it begins with the relaunch of Guardians a year ago on the back of the movie development, and the creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Steve McNiven. Combining a bit of meticulously planned timing with that specific creative team (and the regular round of marketing and variant thresholds), the series launched to an estimated tune of 211,312 copies for issue one – or, if you want to nitpick, 80,344 copies for the prologue issue #0.1. To put that in a kind of context, the previous ongoing Guardians book from 2008 debuted to a paltry 36,282 copies. Why? Well, there clearly wasn’t anything wrong with the creative team – after all, they formed the basis of what would become the current phenomena – it was a matter of marketing and timing. Quesada, for all the good he did for the company, never quite understood the cosmic side of the Marvel universe (a fact that he’s admitted in several interviews over the years) and as a direct or indirect result, when good books were coming out in this realm, the marketing never gelled. The same goes for any comic shop – if your proprietor doesn’t understand the appeal of a certain title, there’s a good chance that book won’t get a big push within the walls of that store as focus tends to remain elsewhere. As a business entity, it always pays to ignore taste (to an extent) and push through the blocks set up in your mind in order to gain the largest audience for the property in question. This is a lesson Marvel has clearly learned.

Everything about the release of Rocket Raccoon makes sense. A great creator matched with a great concept, dropped not a month before he stars in a big movie. An announcement made months in advance of regular solicitations to build up pressure alongside the movie, allowing retailers to hear whispers from their customers long before orders are even available to place, culminating in a fever pitch when orders are due. And then, there’s the fact that Marvel let the numbers slip the week before retailers had to set their Final Order Cut-Off numbers, allowing lazier retailers to shake their head and wonder if they’ve ordered enough themselves. Everything about this launch was perfectly timed, and should result in solid sales – at least for Marvel. As for possible sell through, that remains to be seen. Some of this hypothetical 300,000+ print run involves incentive covers running off of qualifiers that have goosed the numbers – but considering the fact that Marvel put heavier incentives on the first issue of Guardians and still came up with a smaller number speak volumes for what they’ve put together here.

art by Paco Medina

art by Paco Medina

Now before I call it a day, there remains another facet of this marketing tale left unexplored: that of the Legendary Star Lord book from Sam Humphries and Paco Medina. In all of the hubbub for this, I you’d be hard pressed to find people talking about this book, which I think is a shame. For all the good Marvel did in marketing Rocket, they really dropped the ball on Star Lord – which is to say, the numbers are probably very healthy, but could they be as healthy as they could have been? This should have been announced the week after the Rocket Raccoon announcement. The company should have been out there pounding the pavement with preview art and concepts. I’m a big fan of the works of both Humphries and Medina, and think they are a great match for this character – one that might not be as zeitgeist grabbing as the dude responsible for years of amazing variant covers and the gorgeous art that graced the Marvel Oz books, but still, there should have been more happening. As a result of some personal hustle, I have pre-order numbers that are quite comparable to that of my Rocket Raccoon numbers. That’s down to marketing – and while I understand there will never be a time where companies like Marvel or DC will treat all properties equally, it always pains me to see a marketing opportunity lost. I want books in the hands of people who are going to enjoy them, and I can’t always do that by myself. The comic book industry needs everyone to pull their own weight the keep it running, and while a 300,000+ run of Rocket Raccoon is nice to see, it would have been great to see even a 200,000+ run of Legendary Star Lord announced as well.

That said, it isn’t over until it’s over, and who knows? Maybe in a few months time, retailers will be swimming in Rocket Raccoon #1’s while scrambling to get second prints of Legendary Star Lord. The market is a strange and wonderful place, and in the end, despite, it’s always the readers who have the final say. Hopefully, we get two very healthy ongoings out of this, as I feel both books will deserve a healthy readership. Time will tell.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and stares at passive keyboards and empty word documents, making secret wishes and bargains that will surely come back to haunt him. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]