[The ComicsPRO annual meeting held last month was an important event in the continuing flux of the comics and media world, and ComicsPRO board members wanted to make sure that the word got out. President Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff, Concord CA and Carr D’Angelo of Earth-2 in Northridge and Sherman Oaks graciously made time to talk to us during the busy schedule to give their impressions of the meeting and the events surrounding it. Or as Field put it, “It was such an eventful meeting we wanted to get some better word out about it.” Although we’re late in posting this due to a tech glitch, the issues it discusses are just as relevant as they were a few weeks ago -– and even more so in light of the Diamond Retailer Summit starting tomorrow in conjunction with C2E2.
As we’ve noted here before, with Borders sinking, comics sales growth in bookstores has definitely slowed. The local comics stores -– although often the butt of Android’s Dungeon type jokes -– are in truth a dedicated sales force of passionate evangelists for comics that almost every other category would envy. Flaws and all, the LCS system is integral to comics thriving as a business; ComicPRO’s efforts -– it was the biggest meeting for the organization yet — towards fixing those flaws and getting everyone on the same page are a key part of that. ]
THE BEAT: What was the big story at ComicPRO this year?
JOE FIELD: When I look at I see that we had attendance that was up by more than 20%. But the big subject was the health of the direct market. Obviously there’s lot of talk about digital, a lot of talk about the mechanics of the business and what we can do better. But there are big plans coming out of this meeting. There’s a whole increased sense of better communication and willingness to work together. It’s pretty much across the spectrum a positive experience.
THE BEAT: When you talk about the health of the patient, how is it looking? Green around the gills or rosy cheeked?
JOE FIELD: Obviously one of our goals at ComicsPRO is to try to grow the number of stores but also within that to grow our own businesses. It seems from the health of each of the individual patients in the room that we’re all a lot healthier than it might seem from the outside.
CARR D’ANGELO: I would argue with the premise that we are even green around the gills. The presence of so many larger number of retailers and the largest number of vendors, suppliers and publishers and the fact that they are there speaks to the vitality of the direct market. But while digital is being discussed, the point of every digital program is that you can’t even talk about digital without having brick and mortar retail market. They’re not selling digital comics by themselves in that market either. The message I’m hearing from publishers is they still need brick and mortar and they want to keep it going with their support.
THE BEAT: The general consensus that comics aren’t like CDs is more than wishful thinking—studies have shown that people treat digital and print differently and it is a separate product. But Diamond had just announced their digital initiative — was that discussed?
JOE FIELD: Yes, definitely and their plans look good at the outset. I think there is some color to be filled in between the lines. But their goal as the distributor of comics into the specialty market is to try to maintain the health of the direct market and I think that they’re continuing that strategy. Depending on how it plays out is something we won’t know for a few months. I do think they’re on the right path. And if anything, everyone still comes to this meeting whether it’s supplier or retailer, with the goal of making digital an additive thing and not just in additive in terms of the total number of dollars in the market but additive to the print market. What happens in digital can be a sales driver for print. And it seems that’s everyone’s goal is getting things that economically make sense – so far it number don’t work for for a heavily digital model.
THE BEAT: Let me ask you both — this digital model — whether it’s codes, gift cards, is this something you want to bring to your business in some form?
JOE FIELD: Speaking for me, I am interested in doing whatever I can to take care of my customers and grow my customer base. If they want redemption codes, if they want gift cards, whatever they want. I’m there to serve what my customers want and if this plays into it then I’ll be in it.
CARR D’ANGELO: I’ll second that. We evaluate every product that we have in the store based on margins and our ability to sell it, all those things. I’m not sure I see this as much as a necessary product but in the same way I look at DVDs. There are DVDs I carry because some of my customers want me to carry All-Star Superman DVDs. It’s a product line that has to be evaluated like any new product line. But it is a product.
THE BEAT: ComiXology was there — were there other digital players at the event?
JOE FIELD: [There were several] but they have not been involved on any of the panels, they’ve been here more in an observational capacity. But I’ve worked with comiXology for a while.
CARR D’ANGELO: In terms of digital providers, Dark Horse has their thing, IDW has iVerse, the publishers who were invested in that were here.
JOE FIELD: Some of the publishers are working with multiple platforms so, in that respect they were representing that end of it.
THE BEAT: I guess the reason I bring that up is that even a few years ago players would come to retailer events but they were looked at with scowls. Obviously that’s evolved quite a bit. Is it more an air of everyone being in it together now?
JOE FIELD: I think everyone is in it together, and I think we have seen that the really solid intentions that players like iVerse and comiXology have is to try to help our business and try to move more print comics and graphic novels. Two days ago at the DC day, Jim Lee gave the analogy – he held up a piece of dental floss and said this is the digital market and held up a piece of paper and said this is the print market. And given how much we talked about digital here, it seems to me that the one complaint or comment that I’ve been seeing from retailers is that we’ve probably talked about digital too much. For it being dental floss we spent too much time on it. Obviously talking about this on the Beat, it’s an online audience; it’s predisposed to digital. People reading this are going to say there should be everything digital, but it’s a lot longer trajectory than a lot of digital advocates would want.
THE BEAT: Yes, I’ve seen some sales figures and if you ever saw them you would be happy to have your products in comics stores.
JOE FIELD: When you see that the total size of the digital comics market is somewhere between $600K and $1million dollars for 2010 yet the total size for the comics market both mass and specialty is just about $700 million…that’s a pretty huge difference.
CARR D’ANGELO: I think the same rule applies to digital as to print now. I think everybody is on the same page here. It’s not about moving the existing customers for Marvel and DC to digital. If you take the paper analogy and move them to digital it doesn’t do anything for anybody. It’s you take the same people and move them to a different medium. The message that is coming out is that if digital can be anything it’s gotta be reaching people who aren’t going into comic book stores, and bringing them into the medium with whatever long term prospect that brings.
THE BEAT: There seems to be some concerns that the direct market is flat and we need some new products as the Ultimate audience is moving on.
JOE FIELD: There has been talk of what kind of product needs to be out there in order to keep the market juiced and when we looked at the terrible headlines about January being down and all of that, well it, was down it was down but DC was missing four of its top five books — if you put it on a title by title basis it was not nearly as bad a picture. What we are also looking at is we have a situation with the market is not geared to be a first quarter business.
CARR D’ANGELO: Right.
JOE FIELD: The publishers need to really realign that because we are a 12 months a year business and a 52 weeks a year business really. In a sense, on your clock the New Year should be the starting point for the comics business. In some ways New Years Day for the comics business is actually the first Saturday of May [the traditional date for Free Comic Book Day.] [general laughs]
THE BEAT: What was the message that retailers were sending to publishers that they wanted them to hear?
CARR D’ANGELO: I think it goes back to what you said, we’re a 52-week s a year business. It’s not just griping about late comics. We need product and business year round and we need a plan in place for that kind of business. That’s what’s going to build the audience is to have something that people keep coming back for. I think that’s how retailers and publishers are going to work together to rebuild and keep it a more exciting medium. We’re primarily in the serial fiction business and on that the trains to have to run. That was what we said to DC and what we’re sharing with other publishers how do we make the business work 52 weeks a year as the center of pop culture.
THE BEAT: I see Matt Price put something up about DC day and what was the main takeaway from that. I see John Rood [DC Executive VP Sales and Marketing] gave a talk about comic shops as the centers the centers for pop cultures bringing the “Comic-Con” experience to consumers year round.
JOE FIELD: I think what DC is trying to do is leverage all the different parts of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. to make them work for us — maybe get specialty market retailers a little more involved in being weekly comic-cons and being a place where [customers] can talk about not only comics but what’s going on in movies and video games and TV and what not. And further working on some of their licensees and building a bigger business for us by getting us more involved in the process.
CARR D’ANGELO: I think that’s it. There was a lot of talk about getting all the coordination of DC and the online game and the movies and getting their characters out there. And they are more in control of that than they ever were before whereas Warners and DC used to be very separate things, now they have a wonderful brand, and characters that people love. It’s about how to do you transfer that love to the people who are coming into stores.
THE BEAT: What was the Marvel takeaway?
CARR D’ANGELO: [Laughing] I think it’s already out there about having characters die. [Marvel Senior VP of Sales David Gabriel joked that a character would die every quarter, following up on the success of Fantastic Four #587.] Marvel is also been aggressive about promoting their work to the outside world. And it does work and they get those news breaks that wake people up. Heidi, I disagree with one of your comments that people know all know that comics still exist. Not everyone knows that there are comics out there and everybody doesn’t know that Fantastic Four is still being published and that’s what David Gabriel and Marvel were talking about. They really have a campaign to work with media outlets when something happens. When something happens on Grey’s Anatomy it’s news; when something happens in Fantastic Four it should be news. Getting that coverage does bring people in. It’s not always the same size wave as Captain America #25 or the Spider-man/Obama comic but I don’t think anybody can say they didn’t get one new returning customer – and my God do we need returning customers – from things like Fantastic Four 587 being the headline story on the Associated Press for a 24 hour news cycle.
THE BEAT: Luckily it happened before the world went nuts![general laughter]
CARR D’ANGELO: Those are the concerns of why it can’t happen every time. A lot of times things go out and fizzle because a country has a revolution and what Spider-man did that week isn’t as interesting!
THE BEAT: What do you think the concerns of the stores coming for the first time were?
JOE FIELD: I think the general thing is that the retailers who come to ComicsPRO are the ones who are really carrying the message of what’s going on in the business to a wider audience. And want to be out in front of the curve. In the room we have retailers who have been open for less than a year and others who have been open for more than 35 years, so there’s a breadth of different experiences levels and knowledge bases that we all bring together. We’re learning as much from each other as we are from presenters.
THE BEAT: Do you think John Rood is right, is making a comic shop the mini weekly Comic-Con is doable?
JOE FIELD: I think it’s already true to a large extent. The larger shops have that pop culture awareness and have been the mini comic-cons every week for years now. And I think it’s interesting to get that perspective from someone who comes from outside the comics business and is now working inside that. If some of the muscle behind the large companies can push that forward a little bit more, hopefully we’ll see more people want to open stores and the stores that are already open will get more healthy.
THE BEAT: I know there are always issues of distribution. There has been some talk of secret shoppers and how they operate. I have a note from a retailer who was concerned that the secret shoppers were reporting other things to Diamond. How is that program impacting? [As part of their Tuesday shipping program, participating retailers contribute a few dollars each week to pay for a secret shopper program to check compliance.]
JOE FIELD: It’s interesting. We learned this week that there in the first several weeks of the program there have been 14 violators breaking street dates found through the secret shopper programs and that’s something that is a concern. But every one of those retailers that did break the street date is now suspended from the program for 30 days. On top of that, gathering some of the information is…it cuts both ways. If the report comes back that the store looks perfect and everybody is treated with respect and didn’t sell the comic that was street dated for the following day and store lights were working, all the little nuts and bolts these secret shoppers are looking for, the retailer is going to be happy, of course.
If they are saying they brought up some criticism from the secret shoppers, retailers have two options. They can look at it and say. okay there are things I can improve, or they can complain about it and say that’s untrue. And in some cases I think there is a sense that a secret shopper—who comes to a store specifically on a day that’s a set-up day for everyone now—isn’t going to get the best picture of the store at that point. So that there may be flaws in the reporting that don’t give an accurate assessment of how that store operates or how it looks or how people are treated on a day-to-day basis. So I think what Diamond is trying to do is gather some information about stores, and their set-up on a scale system—do they have a store hour sign that’s usable, do they have lighted store signs outside that work. There are bunch of different points out there.
CARR D’ANGELO: one thing I think is part of that too, they have to give the secret shopper something to do otherwise they are given a list of three comics, they walk in ask for three comics and leave, this at least creates a some kind of “Shopping experience.” They are invited to spend some time in the store, make some observation and help to accomplish the overall goal. I imagine there will be some discussion of certain issues like really, who brought up the TV monitor question. [General laughter}
JOE FIELD: One of the other interesting things to come out of the secret shopper program is that retailers are going to be visited probably about once a quarter or 3 or 4 times a year. So there’s going to be a chance to get some repeat information and see if things change from visit to visit and it might be interesting to see a different set of secret shoppers have a different opinion of the stores they go to.
THE BEAT: It sounds like a lot of them aren’t even typical comics shoppers. Many of them are older women coming in and asking for Spider-Man, which is…anomalous.
CARR D’ANGELO: I think these are not set up as typical comic book stores shopper and some of the stories have been eerily parallel that is makes us wonder how does this one woman and her nephew get from state to state in one day. [general laughter]
THE BEAT: But overall Tuesday delivery has been a success?
JOE FIELD: I think Diamond has worked out a lot of potential bugs in it. It is allowing retailers to be much more prepared for Wednesday and it is improving the look and feel of the stores for new release days. We’ve been pushing for this for a long, long time, and it’s nice to see it happen and then to see what kinks need to be worked out. It’s is one of those moves that could help new people looking at opening stores because things can be run a little more professionally than they could three months ago.
THE BEAT: It seem a lot of things that were asked for a long time are actually happening and allowing the industry to move forward in a challenging retail environment overall. I wrote recently that the books at the top of the book charts were not what are considered traditional comics more YA stuff and fantasy adaptations. Do you think these things could have more crossover to comics shops?
JOE FIELD: We just had breakfast sponsored by Terry Nantier and Papercutz and talking about a property like Geronimo Stilton. There are hundreds of thousands of copies of those books out there in the market and Scholastic chapter books have 10 million copies in print. And the GNs are in the hundreds of thousands in print but most of those have come in the mass market. Having someone like that here, being able to show us those numbers and make us more aware of it – things that maybe a number of our retailer members hadn’t been aware of before. That’s another piece of the whole thing that can help pay for our trip here.
THE BEAT: The overall reports are of another great ComicsPRO meeting. What’s the general mood?
JOE FIELD: There’s a trajectory here. A lot of retailers have been at all five of them and the energy in the room in this time around seems to be so much better. There’s been a tremendous amount of work going into this thing so it’s nice that we’re getting something out of it.
CARR D’ANGELO: I think energy is a good word. One of things is overall the energizing from the retailer and publisher’s interactions. One of the best examples of that is Todd McFarlane was there for Image and Jim Lee was there for DC. Todd McFarlane as a creator, publisher and toymaker is here interacting directly with us and he has so much energy about wanting the retailer and publisher base to be connected, with so many ideas. Will everything get accomplished? That remains to be seen, but there is so much progress about how technology and information can be used to make us all work together better. It was really great to hear that from someone like Todd who changed this business forever. And now he seems to be focusing on it in a way that we haven’t seen from him in a while. One of the thing we herd over and over was “I can’t believe I just spent half an hour talking about comics with Todd McFarlane.” He’s really cool. He’s an evangelist.
JOE FIELD: I think everyone came to this really wanting to push things ahead and it sure looks like that’s the case. Every one of the suppliers came with ideas of what we can do to sell more of their product or just get a little more mature as a business and I think we’re there. I think there’s a lot of life in the old girl.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.