By Brian Hibbs

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Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

It’s not very often that I get mail from other retailers, but this piece came a few weeks ago and it asks some questions that maybe several people are asking in the face of the Direct Market’s current problems.

“I know that you are busy and so I will get to the point. I am trying to change the buying culture at my shop in West Texas. We are the first shop in my hometown in 20 years. Due to that, we are very much behind the rest of the country in regards to indie books and selling anything that is not from the Big 2.

I have constantly tried promoting small press books and graphic novels because I know that they’re best for the overall health of the industry and it is a more sustainable model for the customer and retailer. But it is just hard to get people to buy a book simply for entertainment and story’s sake as opposed to the speculative collector mindset.

Obviously, we are in a very different market than your shops, but if you had any ideas on how to grow into that culture, I would highly appreciate it.

Thank you!

Matt Bertrand
The HIVE Comics
www.thehivecomics.com

So, let me talk broadly about some of this first. First and foremost, it’s pretty difficult to “change” a customer – but it’s reasonably easy to “influence” them. By this I mean you probably aren’t going to turn your Marvel Zombie into a Fantagraphics Fanatic, but you can certainly broaden one’s tastes.

Second, there are no “quick fixes” here: changing your store’s culture is a slow, long process that has to happen naturally. If you are looking at this thinking “I’ve got a year to change everything, or I am out of business”, then you might be in some trouble. I generally think it takes 5 years or more to transition from one state to another.

tiltpq-1-219.pngYour customers are the sum of their experiences, of the accretions of knowledge and joy acquired over the decades – even if they were open and interested, they’re probably not capable of changing on a dime. Especially if, as you posit, they’ve not ever been exposed to a “wider” comic store. Their knowledge, their experiences are coming from conventions, and the internet, neither of which tend to be bastions of the joys of reading for pleasure. It will take you a while to “rewire” their perceptions of what comics are, or could be, and that can take as long as their original programming!

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Patience be your watchword: Slow and steady, that’s how you win this race.

So, what can you do? Let’s start outside, and work our way in.

Literally, go outside your store, and look at it from the outside. Try to look at your store with the eyes of an outsider. Invite a friend, or significant other, or even a relative who can shoot straight with you. How does your store look to them? Are you covered in superhero posters and imagery? There can be some, of course: even the “artsiest” store is going to sell a significant amount of superhero material, but what is the “vibe” you’re giving off to the general public? Is your store open feeling, and inviting, and bright and well-lit and clean from the outside looking in? Does it say “Women & Children are welcome here”?

Comic stores are, largely, destination stores – but there’s a lot one can do to spruce them up and make them more appealing to a casual buyer.

Apply that same critical eye to the inside of your store. How are things racked? What messages are your stocking and displaying choices communicating?

For example: if you want more kids in your store (and you should: kids comics & authors like Dav Pilkey, Raina Telegemier and Lincoln Peirce are utter goldmines out in the “real” world – see next [?] month’s BookScan report – and Direct Market stores trying to leverage this segment are generally doing very well), then do you have a Kids Rack? Is it clean and focused? Is it visible from the door of the store? Is it suited for smaller customers? Have you gotten down on your knees and paid attention to what it looks like to them? (No, honestly!)

Do at least a little reading about customer psychology and merchandising. Back when I was a young retailer, Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” was the gold standard for understanding things like how customers are generally “blind” in the first 10-15 feet of the store, that most will cut to the right, that aisles should be wide enough to not “butt brush” and so on. It’s why, at my store, the first rack you encounter is the Kids Rack, and the first rack on the right is a “muggle friendly” section like “Biographies and Non-Fiction”.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but I’ve always found that you don’t want to put the best-sellers towards the front of your store: put them to the back so people have to travel through all of the other amazing products you have in stock. The people looking for Batman or looking for this week’s New Comics will not have a problem finding them, even if you put it in the “worst” corner of the store.

Similar to the outside look, cast a critical eye on your interior signage and postering. Are your walls and displays sending the message that you want them to send about the broadness of your stock and appeal? Are you inviting to families? Will they want to linger?

If you have space that is dedicated to gaming, how does this look to the uninitiated? Are your gamers quiet, neat and respectful?

Ultimately, the environment you build, especially in the stuff you take for granted (or as “wallpaper”) has a tremendous (but subtle) amount of impact on how both current and new customers act and react.

If you think your physical environment is about as good as it can be, the next place to look is to your staff. Staff are the Ambassadors of the medium, and you want folks who are enthusiastic and passionate and who are eager to share their good fortune about being surrounded by so many amazing comics. You don’t want people who aren’t engaging with customers, or who focus only on their own friends or their own desires.

You have to empower your staff to make decisions that strengthen your business model. Here’s an example: if a staff member believes in a work, give them carte blanche to offer that work as full returnable to the customer. Sure, put some rational caveats on it (exchange only, not cash back, must come back in same condition it went out in), but I don’t think there’s a single stronger “closer” in making a sale than “We’re so sure you’ll like it, we’re willing to take it back if you don’t”. Obviously, this has to be work you actually stand behind, but in thirty years of business I suspect the number of copies that have come back to me can be counted on both hands.

(And the best part? It gives you a second chance to make a sale by having a conversation about what didn’t work for the customer, and trying to find them something closer aligned to their interests)

The operative skill is to be able to communicate your passions. You want to have a “logline,” a single sentence clearly communicating the high concept of a series (Ex: “A preacher, his hitwoman ex-girlfriend, and a drunken Irish Vampire cross America looking for God, to make him answer for the state of the earth”) for all of the books you have as your “go to” examples of great comics. You want to be able to succinctly communicate why you love something, and be able to quickly infect others with this same love and passion.

The best times are when the entire staff agrees on a work. This doesn’t necessarily happen all that often, but man is it nice when everyone is pushing in the same direction, and you’re handselling those five copies of “Saga” in a single day…

Speaking of that, here’s another piece of low-hanging fruit: do you have a “Staff Picks” section? You always want to draw as much of a line between the 4 people who work at the store, and the comics they adore. A well-designed SP section (with handwritten signs explaining the WHY?) can do a lot of heavy lifting when you are not able to make that connection yourself.

And speaking of that: is your staff diverse? Not just in terms of race, but also of gender and experience and knowledge and presentations. While “curation” is de facto gatekeeping, it is also important not to “gatekeep” in the sense of blocking access, or standing in the way of making sure every customer feels safe and respected and valued. And maybe the most important question is if new customers can feel important. Sometimes the knowledge and love and passion that we feel can feel “exclusive” to a genuine newbie. Always look for opportunities to expand your audience in ways that make them feel comfortable.

At the end of the day, I see our jobs as telekinetically setting people’s brains on fire with our passion. And if you do it right, you can sway significant chunks of your audience. But, like any other muscle, it takes time to tone and develop.

But have reasonable expectations as to who you can ignite! Especially for established customers with ingrained habits. Those folks are like meteors: you can’t completely change their path, but you might be able to deflect it a few degrees. And over time, that can add up and be significant.

tiltpq-2-219.pngYou also want to look at what “unintentional” messages you might be sending. For example, do you mark-up recent books? It is harder to foster a reader-forward climate if you are tacitly supporting the short-term speculator market in customer’s eye-line. There are valid reasons to occasionally markup recent releases, but consider doing it in the national marketplace rather than directly in your own backyard. Or, for another example, there can be a fine line between selling collecting supplies and promoting “the collector mentality”. If you’re a store where everything is already bagged and boarded on the shelf (good lord, why give away that labor and cost-of-supplies?!?!) you’re likely to find it harder to foster an environment of readers.

Do you have rules in place to limit the impact of speculation? For example: one-per-customer rules. It’s your store, you certainly don’t have to let people pick through every copy on the shelf to find the “perfect” one. And you absolutely can, if you think they’re making it harder for you to enact the culture you’re trying to build, “fire” customers if you need to. I mean, always try to re-educate folks, but some people are simply toxic for your environment; and it is yours.

You can also use customers to leverage other customers. Consider something similar to a book club. Or think about maybe having something like “post three reviews on social media for a reward”; anything where customers are also encouraged to share and spread their passions. The more your store becomes a community hub the easier it is to grow your community.

Oh, and as you’re trying to change that culture, don’t do it by being negative about the existing culture! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the “collecting” of comics, or really being into superheroes, and in almost any comic shop culture there should be a place, in moderation, for those things!

Your customers will react and shift as you react and shift how and what you promote, but it certainly doesn’t come overnight; you have to train your customers to be able to trust you. And this stems, more than anything, from being trustworthy. If you promote dodgy material, or things outside of their tastes (A Batman reader is less likely to be able to accept, say, Archie), you’ll have a hard time spreading your tastes, but if you are thoughtful in your recommendations, build slowly from one success to another, and carefully curate your recommendations to the specific customer, you can build that bridge. Then another. And another.

And that’s “the secret”, if there is one: be incremental, be steady. Be worthy of the trust of your customers. Use levers to move people, and then the whole world after that, you know? You change your climate book by book, sale by sale, and recommendation by recommendation. It is curation. It is hard work.

You can do it.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Good article! As far as helpful hints toward diversifying your comics and customers; what do I see when I visit your store? Giant Hulk posters and Big 2 Event signage? Something to consider…
    How about introducing a rack of the best selling indie titles near the superhero stuff? How about sponsoring signings by indie creators in your area? Hows about ordering lots and LOTS of the reduced price indie FCBD stock, to help influence new readers to think outside the Big 2?

  2. As a consumer, this whole column leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It comes across, to me, as ways to manipulate your customers to satisfy your desire to push indie comics. I understand the point is to find ways to offer and encourage indie books that may broaden your customers interests. But, the tone here just sets me off. You as a retailer are not going to “move me”, and I’m not “reacting and shifting” because you want me to do so. If I feel like there are “levers” or an agenda in play, rather than you providing what I know I enjoy, I’m probably finding another store.

  3. I’m not really sure how any of the things Brian suggests here are manipulative, at least in the way you seem to be suggesting baronquen131. Perhaps there is no way to “move you” or “Shift” YOUR purchasing habits, but there are plenty of folks who are open to trying new stuff. There’s a difference between suggesting and aggressively selling a book. Also, not every store is for every person. I have been blessed to live in big cities (Boston, SF, Chicago) that have quite a few different comic shops, and they all have their own personality. The reality is, the direct market is a rough space, and it is harder and harder to keep a shop afloat when all you sell is the Big 2. Nothing says you can’t sell monthly Superhero comics as well as kid’s stuff and general interest GNs. The more “balanced” stores are the ones who probably hold out the longest as the direct market shrinks.

  4. Here’s my friendly advice to Mr. Bertrand: Stock up on $1 #1s for a few indie series you and your staff believe in (Diamond’s website has a $1 menu page for easy perusal), at least five series’ worth to start. For a super-hero-heavy store, try to focus on series whose creators have or are working for Marvel/DC. Then strategically give them away to customers buying either those creators’ titles or to interested patrons. Not every reader of Jason Aaron’s Thor is going to get the same mileage out of Southern Bastards, for example, but some might find it’s something they didn’t know they’d enjoy. (Mind the age ratings/content, and don’t forget to have copies of the trades in stock– you want whoever devours that free #1 to be able to come back ASAP to continue that journey!)

    Those $1 books are great loss leaders– for about the cost of an expensive flyer you can gift a reader with a chapter and, if it’s enjoyed, they can buy the series in GN form from you. It’s an “agenda,” maybe, but if the retailer legit enjoys the title and it doesn’t come across like “Do you want fries with that,” everyone wins.

  5. The people entering the comics industry these days HAVE NO BUSINESS ACUMEN. They are coming from an academic background half the time. It is not a surprise that they are tasking educators and retailers with the task of doing the marketing for their offerings.

    ” if you want more kids in your store (and you should: kids comics & authors like Dav Pilkey, Raina Telegemier and Lincoln Peirce are utter goldmines out in the “real” world –”

    If this audience can be reached in the “Real world” of academia why is this kind of material being thrust onto the Direct Market, which is not really interested in reading this material?

    This is like selling Candy crush to hardcore gamers but with the additional steps of shaming the hardcore gamers and calling them stuck-up for not be drawn to to Candy Crush.

    Vertigo comics temporarily shelved its line a few years ago because there were VERY few people who read or bought the trades who were also coming into the comic book stores to buy singles. Vertigo is back, but it operates at a loss, and seems to be a place for well-heeled artistes to showcase their movie pitches. There have been numerous fads in the Direct Market, comics whose sales rose for a little while then disappeared, Manga in the 2000s, Image and Valiant in the 1990s…the b&w boom that the TNMNT spawned in the 1980s…but it always returned to what it was built for: Marvel and DC.

    The Direct Market has failed to cultivate any new audience for comic books of any sort.
    for the last thirty years. . The plea for the small and ever-shrinking Direct Market to take up the task of marketing small press comics is absurd. If Raina Telegemier can sell millions of copies outside of the Direct Market, why can’t they?

    Something doesn’t add up here. I said before that it a lack of business acumen but I’m not sure if that’s it.

  6. There is some great advice in this article to transition a shop into something unique and more broad. The tone you start with, even when addressing the question is kind of crappy though and probably why baroquen is off put. It’s also the risk you run in general by alienating what started out as your bread and butter but is clearly not sustainable forever. Using the term Marvel zombie is probably a joke, but I would have a hard time believing someone’s transition into Fantagraphics wouldn’t have involved Marvel at some point. Tom Spurgeon a huge supporter of Fantagraphics still writes about the lasting impact and importance of early Marvel. Most small press comic fans probably liked or still enjoy some big two. Elitism goes both ways, cape sh!t loving neckbeard to average customer, and dry, faux intellectual to neckbeard. The only way to save this industry beyond new solutions in distribution is sharing your love of the medium and being approachable. Not your distaste for something else, hard for comic fans I know.

  7. As a predominately superhero-focused reader, I’m puzzled by the desire to change the readership’s interests. On the other hand, I see absolutely nothing wrong with trying to take a holistic view at how your store is perceived by potential customers. I think the key is you should probably try harder at expanding your customer base than changing your current base’s habits. Buying comics is a habit, and long time readers don’t respond well to having their habits changed up. One thing my comic seller does which I appreciate – he talks to me every week, and sometimes he tells me about cool upcoming indie series. That said, if my budget gets tight, I’m canceling my indie titles first.

  8. Thanks, Brian! I really appreciate the info. I’m in no way trying to manipulate the customer or pull a fast one, but wanted advice from a vet on how to expand interests and broaden tastes. I still read my superhero books and have no desire to rid my shop of them, but I also know that there is tons of stuff out there and there are companies that support the health of the industry. That’s what I want to see at my shop; more support for those that support the industry.

  9. Reading all these defensive replies to a column about how to expand a business–whose current model is constantly on a death watch as readers of this site might know–is super depressing.

  10. The answer is simple. A comic book store cannot subsist only on superhero comics. They have to diversify and expand their business to other kinds of books and customers in order to survive; sometimes that means trying to convince people to read stuff other than Batman and Spider-Man (keeping their existing tastes in mind, of course. Nobody’s gonna check out something completely outside of their taste, at least right out of the gate).

  11. I think this is all great. The people who are so defensive must be really offended by the grocery store and Target because those places have developed these sorts of customer “manipulation” to perfection.

  12. It appears that is the social engineers who are getting “defensive”. hcd, jtl, etc

    https://twitter.com/TomKingTK/status/1033895408009920512

    The people who are not really artists, businessmen and business women but social justice advocates.

    “Nobody’s gonna check out something completely outside of their taste, at least right out of the gate).” How many times has “the comics community”, made up of insiders has come to the conclusion that their customers are sexist and racist for not supporting social justice themed material? I have lost count.

    “I see a few people commenting who are going to be confused when the stores they go to have to shut down.”
    SALES have been declining for decades as comics struggled to find retail outlets willing to carry comics. The Direct Market did not stop the decline of popularity of comic books. At best, it slowed it down. When the industry secided that it had a “white” problem, a male problem, and a fatpobia problem after Obama got elected, sales went into a freefall as . There was plenty of positive press about things like BITCH PLANET, The Wicked + The Divine, and the diversity(intersectionalism) initiatives but readers weren’t buying the lower quality comics the industry was making on the cheap by people whose work would below professional quality a decade ago.

    In the past, the comics industry, outside the pretentious literary comics circles, tried to attract new readers by making a unique product or an outstanding product (Neil Gaiman). Now,it’s come down to name-calling and sneering at the aging fanboys

    INSTEAD of actually courting the poc and female audience that they claim they are going after.

    And yes, if Target tried to pull a Gillette and say their existing male customers are all complicit in the raping of women in developed countries by the virtue of not being a non-binary feminist, their customers would be offended.

    hey, but what do I know, I’m just a fattphobic bigot.

    You guys re the experts, re-inventing the industry.

    I’m a sinner, ya’ll are saints.

  13. “Broadening your tastes” doesn’t mean giving up superhero comics. You can keep reading them, but ALSO read other kinds of comics. There’s a whole world of comics out there that have nothing to do with capes and masks. You’re depriving yourself of a lot of great art and entertainment by refusing to read anything not published by Marvel or DC.

    Unfortunately, a lot of superhero fans regard any praise for indie comics as a veiled attack on superhero comics and the people who read them — as shown by some of the comments here.

  14. Both indie comics these days and superhero stuff are horrible.

    1 because the corporate superhero comics are done by people who cut their teeth doing Drawn and Quarterly type of comics.

    The quality of the Drawn and Quarterly type of creators has been getting worse and worse with each generation. Michel Fiffe is a worse artist than Daniel Clowes. Writing is an afterthought in most indie comics today as compared to stuff from the eighties.

    The fact that the sales of many superheroes comics and indies are about the same tells me that most comics are terrible. They are awful.
    They are awful especially at the high cost creators are asking for singles.
    The trades aren’t such a great deal either, since many many comics don’t tell any stories anymore, have shitty art, coloring, etc.

  15. Having been to Brian’s store, I can tell you it’s amazing and has so much – including a huge selection of superhero comics!

    This is an excellent article not just on changing the culture at a comic store, but changing the culture anywhere. It’s given me a lot to think about for my company.

  16. The comment that “Pretending Is Lying” linked to illustrates the defensive, self-defeating nature of fandom. This notion that comics are for nerds and outcasts — for “marginalized” people — was embraced by fans in the ’70s and is now considered gospel.

    In its 80-plus-year history, comics have been read by millions of normal, well-balanced people who didn’t let an obsession with superheroes take over their lives. But the loudest voices, especially online, want comics to be a cult where “outsiders” (such as women and children) aren’t welcome.

    The idea of comics as a refuge for the marginalized got a lot of play after Stan Lee’s death. In reality, most of the readers and creators are still white males, who are not an oppressed minority (except in their minds). And with comic-book characters dominating the box office, and now taking over TV, there’s nothing “marginal” about this material. This is the new mainstream.

    Many longtime fans, used to being scorned members of a geeky subculture, are having trouble grasping or accepting this. They still expect another Dr. Wertham to take their comics away.

  17. This article was really uplifting and it weirdly made me feel really happy that you’re not only thinking about ways to constantly engage with as broad an audience as possible but to help them discover the full spectrum of comics therein. Thank you :)

  18. @cellistic: I actually think that Matt Betrand at Hive Comics in Texas deserves the most credit; for wanting to broaden his store in his local market. It’s easier for me in San Francisco, y’know?

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