The Retailer’s View: The Problem With Free Comic Book Day

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When you bring up the subject of Free Comic Book Day with some retailers, they automatically bristle.
I used to experience this reaction quite a bit back in my past life as a comic shop manager. Every year, I’d lobby the store owners to do something interesting forFree Comic Book Day, and every year, I’d get a dismissive response.
“The day doesn’t make us any money,” was the most common refrain – and they weren’t wrong. Sales on any given Free Comic Book Day were often no different than that of a regular Saturday. I argued that the lack of money was a direct result from our lack of any form of advertising for the day. They begged to differ.
One year, I decided to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. Armed with a budget of zero dollars, I approached my one of the owners with a proposition.
“If I can increase sales on Free Comic Book Day by at least 50%, will you give me a budget to do something cool next year?”
The owner agreed – and so I set about my work. The store had just nabbed a Twitter account which I mobilized to spread the word. I used my own social media presence to spread the word outside of the pre-engrained circles. I couldn’t print posters (as that was a “cost”, the owner explained, and would negate the terms of the bet), so I gladly told every single person who walked through the doors about the upcoming day. We managed to make double our regular Saturday numbers during that FCBD. The owner grudgingly admitted that I “might” know what I was talking about.
The following year, I was told I would be getting no money to promote Free Comic Book Day once more.
“If you can make it work without using any money, then we really don’t need to spend it,” came the reasoning.
“But it cost me a lot of time,” I explained, “A budget would save some of that.”
“Well if your time is a cost, then you lost the bet anyway,” he responded.
I quit later that year.

Your Problematic Fave

By Brandon Schatz, with contributions and editing by Danica LeBlanc

Over the past 17 years, Free Comic Book Day has been providing the industry with a lot of well needed attention. The event started in 2002 after Joe Field floated the idea in a retailer column much like this one, a year prior. From there, the idea was developed and attached to events of broader media appeal – mainly the release of big superhero movies, starting with 2002’s Spider-Man.
From there, the idea has been evolved in all aspects. Titles are curated and limited while companies have experimented with supplying completely new content instead of reprinting something old. Retailers themselves have built huge events around the day, some running large sales and hosting a myriad of different signings. While there are still many that view FCBDlike my old boss did, many have pushed it to levels that border on “spectacle”, giving the event itself a certain amount of “quantity prestige”. On the surface, that looks pretty good – shops filled with people milling about, happily nabbing free comics and generally soaking in comic book pop culture. Below the surface, however… there are problems.
I started to explore this idea after a tight group of retailers that I trust started frankly discussing how difficult the day can be. In many cases, the scale of the day has gotten to the point where the spectacle of it all has become more of a burden. This industry always pushes the idea of “bigger and better”, with today’s volume being a measure of success at all other costs. This idea has permeated the foundation of Free Comic Book Day, and has started to poison the roots.
At some point, for far too many in the industry, the day has become about the attention, and not about what the attention means. You start with a little advertising, and then you want to go bigger. So, the next year you add a sale, and it gooses the numbers a bit, so you go bigger. You have a signing. You grab a food truck or two. You push the boundaries, get some media attention. More and more people start showing up. You look at your numbers coming in, and they’re looking pretty good too. That day’s sales are remarkable. You’ll need to beat them for next year.
But at what cost?

With each little addition, something gets taken away. It starts with the free comics, which aren’t really free at all. They are subsidized at all levels of the industry, with retailers paying their chunk as well. That’s the starting cost incurred. When you add a sale to the day? That’s a loss in profits coming alongside the cost of getting the comics – let alone causing a bit of chaos at the till as discounts need to be figured out.
You’re having a signing? That’s pretty cool – but unless the person is local, you’re probably paying a bit to make that happen. Not only that, a signing is a thing that is generally only interesting to folks who are already into the medium. Add to that the fact that a larger crowd generally means you’re covering more for staffing in some way shape and form and… if a retailer is not careful, that robust number they see at the end of the day could cost them more than they gained in sales.
Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Free Comic Book Day should just be about profits. It should primarily be about bringing people into the medium in a comfortable way, as originally intended. Big events with weird sales and signings often make this extremely difficult. Comics are hard enough to get into at the best of times. After all, there are how many new titles hitting the shelves each and every week? Where does a person start?
When FCBD was smaller – and when shops run smaller events – it becomes a whole lot easier to engage the public as they are coming in through the doors. Lured with the promise of free comics, the people arrive. Given the opportunity to talk about what they enjoy so that they can get matched with the right free comics… the people stay. They come back.
It is a thing retailers always accuse the publishers of doing: pumping through volume today, at the expense of tomorrow. The bigger thing makes more money, so make the bigger thing bigger. Don’t focus on engagement, focus on the circus of it. It works for a while… but then the attrition sets in.
In my opinion, a good Free Comic Book Day doesn’t do a whole lot more outside of offering free comics, and using that as a way to introduce people to comics, and your store’s culture. Personally, that means I want to be able to have points of contact for every single person who walks through the door. I want someone to be able to talk with them if the person is comfortable with having conversation, and I want that person to be engaged and matched with things they’ll love. That’s my main goal. A spectacle isn’t going to get me to that end goal. As a result, we’re never going to have the biggest event in town – and that’s more than okay. The events that we have see multiple people open files. We see return customers following up on both the free offerings and graphic novels picked up on the day. Others tell their friends and family about us. We see a future return, one that sustains over multiple visits instead of the one big bang.
Obviously, this is my ideal for an FCBD event – running the shop at a slightly bigger scale, but with protocols in mind to maintain the store’s flavour. That said, what we do might not be what another store does. And that’s okay. Everyone has different business philosophies, and we’re all just plugging along, trying to make our vision work. To that end, here are some things I think store should be asking themselves in general about what they offer as a Free Comic Book Day experience:

  • What do you want your event to do? Reach out to outside readers? Show appreciation for the folks who have been keeping you in business? Both?
  • What is your event saying to someone who doesn’t frequent your store?
  • If you want to run a sale, will it be additive to the FCBD experience? Will it be additive to your shop going forward (like say, taking the opportunity to clear out dead stock)? What are the costs of doing this on FCBD, in terms of general profit, till confusion and/or general ease for customer engagement?
  • If you want to add bells and whistles, what are the costs involved? Not just monetarily, but in time and effort as well (which really are spendable commodities that should be considered in equal measure to money spent)?
  • What are you expecting as a return for the event, both in terms of the day, and in terms of tomorrow?
  • And most importantly? Are you happy with your event as it is? If not, go through these questions until you find something that might work for you.

As noted in the anecdote that kicked off this column, I have some experience in tackling a store’s engrained culture, and I know it is not something that can or should be changed overnight. If you want to adjust your event, have a general aim, and move your store towards it. And if you’re already happy? Well, that’s good too. I wish you well with your future endeavours – but always keep an eye out for ways to evolve in ways that really showcase the experience you wantto offer from your store. Be the best version of that, and never stop building towards it.
In the end, we all live and die with the decisions that we make. Might as well go out on your own terms rather than anyone else’s. That’s honestly why I write these columns and make a general nuisance of myself in retailer forums. You can only sit back and watch people hand-wring for so long – especially when they don’t want to change the path that they’re currently walking down. Die on a hill, or fight for the next one. That’s the choice, folks.
So let’s make some good ones.

7 COMMENTS

  1. My wife and I got our local comic place every FCBD as a regular date day and I ALWAYS try to invite a few other people especially if they are FCBD newbies, they go all out with having local artists set up in tents promoting work as well as cosplay contests and they are always running some sort of trivia for the people in line with fantastic prizes, one year I won 2 imax 3D tickets to see Captain America Civil War with a refillable popcorn bucket, and this year within 5 minutes of leaving the Uber I got to answer a question that won me $50 gift card to the comic shop.
    They use FCBD not only as a store promotion but to showcase local artists as well as charity events. But I rarely see people go JUST for the handful of free comics, they often leave with multiple purchases, so if a comic place is saying FCBD doesn’t lead to profits I think maybe they aren’t doing something right

  2. I own a shop (since 1992). It’s my best sales day of the year by far. Yes, the comics aren’t free for retailers, but the sales increase far out ways the costs. I don’t really have any extra costs, sometimes I will run a local billboard for a couple days, but I just put up a poster in the window and let people know starting about a month off. But I will say, it’s a day I do not really look forward to. I do like dealing with people on a smaller scale but after it’s over, I feel like I accomplished a great feat LOL.

  3. The way I see it; it’s a nice reason to throw a party, and any store that does not calculate costs and profits carefully is heading for trouble, that’s a general business-rul not just applicable to FCBD. Because the event isn’t new anymore, fatigue might set in, and Brandon and Danica provide some nice pointers to think about if you are wondering if you’re still on the right track.
    I’m less enthousiastic about HCF myself, and I think this applies to customers as well.

  4. It’s always entertaining to read accounts of LCS owners discovering the concept of marketing. It’s almost like they chose to go into a commercial environment without a business plan or something.

  5. I always look at FCBD as ‘pilot season’ for the comic book industry. Since this is my fourth year as contributing a considerable contribution to the Hero Initiative in exchange for all the FCBD editions. Going through sample copies of what special projects all the companies have to rally behind, it gives me a better informed choice of what I want to actually buy and it expands it to a more variety of choices for me other than the standard big 4 of publishers. If it wasn’t for this year’s FCBD editions, I wouldn’t be excited about the new Ignited book that Humanoids is publishing (of which I’m on my way to pick up right now) this week , or Red 5’s The Dark Age, or Christopher Priest’s version of Vampirella that he’s doing through Dynamite Entertainment. With past FCBD editions, I became a big fan of Lady Mechanika. Now every year at San Diego, I stop by Joe Benitz’s booth to see what new trades he has out.
    Again, these choices would not have been possible if I had not been exposed to them first through Free Comic Book Day.
    For those interested, I’ve been blogging reviews of each and every FCBD edition this year. I’m working on the last five right now.
    The program works for some retailers and it doesn’t for others. It all depends on what you put into it or how motivated you are to see it succeed. At Earth 2 in Sherman Oaks, there are lines that almost go around the entire block to get in and it’s grown to be one of their favorite annual sales day.
    http://www.purplepinupgurupanacheplaza.wordpress.com
    ~
    Coat

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