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Saturday, February 16, 2008


Retailer Interviews: Comickaze's Robert Scott -- Robert Scott is the owner of San Diego’s Comickaze comic shop, as well as the head of the Comic Book Industry Alliance, a national group comprised mainly of comic book retailers within the direct market. Robert and I have both had strong opinions about retailing and buying comics, he from the perspective of a longtime retailer, and myself from just about thirty years of experience as a consumer of comics within and without the direct market. We have often disagreed on what the future of comics retailing should look like, but I think we both agree that we'd like that future to be bright and to include an even larger audience for comics than currently exists. I'm grateful he took the time to share his thoughts and experiences in comics retailing.

What is your background? Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?

I'm a native San Diegan, having lived almost exclusively in San Diego for 45 years. Both of my parents loved to read for enjoyment and with their help I started reading very early. Most of my reading was whatever the folks had around the house and although my father was an avid sci-fi reader, the only comics he ever brought home were titles like Star Trek, Dark Shadows and Ripley's Believe it or Not, but even those were probably limited to sick bed reading. My wife and kids don't really understand my love of comics but my daughter did intern at IDW last year.

When did you start reading comics?

I didn't really read any superhero comics until I was around 12. I had a friend whose father brought home stripped cover issues from the supermarket he worked at. Mostly DC fare and the only one I really enjoyed was Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes. I didn't really become a fan of the medium until Junior High although the first attraction this time was monetary. I saw a friend offering another student $10.00 for two comics that said 25 cents on the cover. Having collected sports cards, it made me curious about what made comics worth more than cover price and I thought if I read some, I might notice some commonality. Soon, I was so enamored with the stories I was reading that future value was no longer the motivation for reading comics. Most of what I was reading was Marvel but occasionally I'd check out the Legion or Warlord and every once in awhile I'd get ahold of some Crumb or Freak Brothers books too.

In early 1980 while at college, I was growing pretty bored with comics and almost quit reading them for good. Fortunately I came across Heavy Metal and Marvel's Epic Illustrated. It was the first time I actually thought of comics as art and realized that comics for adults didn't have to be synonymous with drugs and sex, although those still seemed to creep in. Those magazines saved comics for me.

I wrote and published my first comic work, The End for AFC Studio, in 1999 and co-published Wasting the Dawn with IDW Publishing in 2005.

How did you come to be a comic shop owner?

The friend who tried to buy those 25 cent comics in Junior High School and I had always felt that we were destined to be comic moguls. Meeting back up again in college we began buying quantities of hot projects like Wolverine, Titans/X-Men, and Alpha Flight #1, from local retailers at a discount and after a short wait would begin trading them back to retailers for store credit, essentially making our hobby pay for itself. Soon we were looking for better deals and found that a local distributer, Pacific Comics, would sell to us wholesale and once that happened, a local retailer offered access to back issue overstock that he had stored in garages all over San Diego. It was on consignment, meaning we didn't pay unless/until it sold, so we started hitting a local swap meet with our first retail venture. Over the next few months, as we built a following for the back issues we would get requests for new comics too, and having the wholesale account, we decided to give it a go. When it worked, it worked well; but weather conditions weren't always conducive for outdoor sales of comics and we decided to open a shop, The Comic Alternative, with too little money and a few thousand back issues --not a terribly original origin.

Unfortunately, neither of us had any actual business training and we were both going to college, I was actually also working two part time jobs too, which was really making it difficult to meet our business responsibilities and after a couple of years, we packed it in and I pretty much left comics behind. It is not a method I would endorse for anyone else.


Please tell me about Comickaze and what the store is like.

Comickaze has evolved quite a bit as I have come to understand the intricacies of the industry better. What started as a 900 square foot Comic and Card store in the early ‘90s with a focus on mainstream comics and back issues and single sports and Pokemon cards and pogs, has grown into a 2400 square foot comics superstore where speculating on future value has given way to the promotion of the comic medium in all of its many genres and formats, as an incredible form of entertainment.
We have a 100 square foot kids’ corner in the front window that gives families access to hundreds of kids’ and all ages comics and graphic novels and giving parents a buffer from themes they might not want their children dealing with yet. We also stock toys, urban vinyl statues and related, items that give "civilians" an excuse to enter a comic shop they might feel they'd outgrown many years ago. Once inside, they also find a selection of Manga so large that during Comic Con, the Borders nearest the convention sent a delegation of folks from Viz Japan to visit us after they were disappointed by the Borders manga selection.

We have also replaced a majority of our back issue bins and displays with bookshelves to house the largest selection of mainstream and indie graphic novels and related prose work in San Diego County. We have been honored as the Best of San Diego by multiple publications over the last three years and I was the first, and only, San Diego retailer to be an Eisner judge.

Do you have a philosophy that guides you in your decisions about the store?

Somewhat. I want everyone who visits Comickaze to be able to find a book or item they will enjoy, even -- especially -- if they are not already comic readers. We're constantly asked what are the hot books, which ones will be worth more in the future and our response is that the value of a comic is in reading and enjoying them, just like prose books, movies and music.

I also have a philosophy in my role as a retailer and while that role does involve the promotion of the comic medium, publishers need to remember that retailers are not the ones responsible for promoting titles. That is the publisher’s role, just as it is for music labels, movies and video games. My role as a retailer is to use my resources to sell my store as the logical venue for purchasing comics, in the same way that retailers that sell Coca Cola. Levis and Chevys try to establish themselves as the go-to stores for those items. And just like Coca Cola, Levi and Chevy, publishers need to step up to their responsibility to provide co-op and other support to retailers if they want retailers to include their product in their promotional efforts.

It confounds me that so many people applaud small press publishers who create work without being able to adequately support it and yet rail against (all) retailers for being unprofessional. I wonder how well most folks could do their job well if most of it was reliant on product provided by folks who were producing that product as a side job. I don't care how bad a job anyone thinks a retailer is doing, the fact that they have committed to a lease and inventory puts them head and shoulders above many creators in terms of commitment and responsibility. To somewhat paraphrase you, Professional comic publishers are well-organized. Professional comic publishers provide accurate solicitation info. Professional comic publishers do not release product without also creating demand for it. Professional comic publishers ship on time, all the time.

Professional comic publishers have prices clearly marked and up to date barcodes on all merchandise. Professional comic publishers operate their business in accordance with local, state and federal laws, including labor and employment laws. Professional comic publishers do not favor one genre or sub-genre over another.

How many other stores/outlets for comics are there in your immediate area?

We have five stores five to ten minutes away and another dozen or so within 20-30 minutes. About half have been around as long or longer than our 15 years.

Do you visit other comic book stores to find out what your competitors are doing? How do you keep up with the competition?

Nah, I don't visit other shops as often as I used to do. It always seemed to make them unnecessarily nervous. Now I actually look to other retail for ideas. I don't just want to be recognized as the best Comic Shop in San Diego, as we have been for the last three years, I want to be recognized as one of the best retail experiences. So I take notes everywhere I shop and/or see interesting ways to excite customers. I also have a large number of customers who use us as a second or third shop because our location isn't convenient but they know we'll have things available that they aren't finding anywhere else. I love to talk to these people about what they do and don't like about their regular shops. I attend San Diego Comic Con, where I'm also an Eisner sponsor, and Book Expo America, a book industry trade show; and this year maybe SPX in Baltimore too, to find product that I know other shops won't be carrying. I also work with many incredible retailers every day in the Comic Book Industry Alliance, including just about every winner of the Eisner Spirit of Retailing Award.

In other words, I try to maintain such a fantastic selection of exciting product that every person in San Diego will want to visit us if we can make them aware that we exist.

Convention sales have recently been an issue in the ongoing online discussion about comics retailing. You’re located near the biggest North American convention, held every summer in San Diego. Have you had customers buy something at a comic book convention that they had previously pre-ordered through your comic book store? How did you handle the situation?

Yes, we run into this problem every year.

You ask about losing pre-orders, something that often comes up in these discussions. Personally, I don't believe customers should have to pre-order their comics sight unseen months in advance nor do I want to see comic shops forced to hoard customers in that manner. Please also understand that while I don't feel an ownership of my customers, I do believe that publishers owe it to me, and other retailers who support them, not to usurp our efforts, especially by taking unfair advantage of their ability to sell direct, uncontested and without notice, to the consumer. I feel publishers have even more of a duty not to compete with retailers when they are not offering things that are standard in the book industry in support of their work, things like galleys, creator signings and co-op just to name a few.
Ironically if you asked most retailers in the area if it affects them, they'd likely say no but that is misleading because it's mainly small press publishers who are engaged in the pre-selling and we are the only store in the area to embrace those publishers’ works.

How do we deal with it? Not well so far as I've failed to impress on the publishers that pre-selling their product doesn't affect the 90 percent of my competitors who don't stock it, but it seriously hurts my chances to sell this product to customers that we've cultivated over the years, especially when they have the added opportunity to get them signed at the show. I've also failed to help them understand that there is no evidence that their claim of "pre-sales as outreach" doesn't stand up in light of their claims that pre-sales are needed because sales onto the DM aren't growing for them.

It really shouldn't be that hard to understand that if they are already struggling so much selling this work in the DM, that pre-selling into that market is going to capture sales that would've been made in DM shops but unfortunately most publishers seem to feel that their need trumps everything and everyone else. I believe this is shortsighted and destructive both to the publisher and retailers, regardless of how much money it brings in the short term because it closes off avenues for growth.

When I have five or more copies of a new release I can make a display on our suggested reading table or endcaps, or at the very least I can give it a face-out display on the wall, giving it a stronger opportunity to be seen by our customers. Reduce my immediate need to 2 copies or less and after the first week it moves to its spine out home on the wall until it can justify something better. That's a fact of life when stocking thousands of titles with a finite budget and display space.
That said, I also believe any problems between publishers and retailers should be transparent to the consumer, so to keep them from having to choose sides and feeling uncomfortable about something they should be enjoying, I try to find non-confrontational ways to "influence" my customers. One is by making Comickaze feel like a comic convention everyday without the $30.00 per day entry fee. We help our customers find the books most likely to excite and engage them. even when they don't know what that book is themselves. We offer such a wide range of product, it's rare that an entire family cannot find something they want. We've also taken to asking customers about their convention plans and when it happens that they mention looking forward to getting a new release from a favorite creator, we usually ask them to mention that they usually get that creator's work at Comickaze, so that the creator knows we support them.

How much of a problem are convention sales for retailers?

This isn't a black and white question.

First let me make it clear that my concern is not convention sales, it is convention pre-sales or the direct sale of any product that has not already been distributed into the book or direct market. If I haven't motivated customers who shop with me to buy a title from Comickaze, there's no way I can be upset if they buy anywhere else. In fact that is the one action that I can justify as outreach, even though the numbers don't bear out the outreach claim too well. If a customer has never been exposed to a creator or a series before, and they discover it at a convention, that can be a huge thing for consumer, publisher, creator and even retailers. But only if the experience is leveraged to its full ability, which it just isn't. First of all if a customer is seeing a work or creator for the first time, there is no reason for them to need the newest work because every work is new to them. If a customer is already familiar with the work or creator, chances are it is because of the efforts of a retailer and most likely a comic retailer. What kind of reward is it to make it harder for that retailer to make that sale in the future especially, if publishers are to be taken at their word, when even with pre-sales they are doing no better than breaking even? That is the opposite of outreach, bringing to mind the image of a snake eating its tail.

And if it is such a strong business move, why do so many major vendors of all kinds, eschew direct sales in favor of sending the consumer into a retail venue? A venue that is available to support the product and the consumer 365 days a year?

Seriously, if the outreach was working, we'd be seeing an increase of the number of DM stores carrying small press titles and an increase in the number of copies initially ordered.

Finally, the biggest problem for me is that there just aren't a lot of small press blockbusters, so that losing even three to five sales on a $15-plus, or two to three times that on a Bone or Blankets graphic novel, is not only a big loss immediately, but since I'm already committed to buying those books, that money is tied up in those now unnecessary copies. It can't be used to re-stock copies of other titles I carry, some of which may be from that same publisher, or for store maintenance, promotion or myriad other things that we need to do daily. I am now forced to carry product whose demand has been diminished rather than re-ordering it as needed and if you multiply that by the half dozen or more projects and publishers it happens with each convention season, it is a much tougher hit than most seem to understand.

What actions do you think publishers should take to mitigate the problem? Is there any incentive retailers can offer in order to mediate a compromise?

Honestly I believe that they should eliminate pre-sales. One publisher has already said that they see more buzz on books released the week before a convention than the ones that are pre-sold cold. It makes sense to me too. When a book is available through hundreds (or thousands) of venues as well as media prior to a convention, it allows the buzz to begin as well, surging forward and driving folks to the publisher/creator at the show. It makes them a higher priority because folks have had time to check them out, publishers don't need to rely on chance to get notice. It is an active behavior, not a passive one.

But here are a few things that might assuage some of the enmity. Every publisher knows well ahead of time which shows they are attending. They should also know which shops in the area are supporting them and readily provide a list of these stores to everyone coming to their booth letting the customer know where they can get other books in their catalogue the rest of the year. They should also let all retailers know ahead of time what creators will be attending the show, allowing retailers to make displays of work by those creators promoting the opportunity to meet the creator. They should provide an opportunity for retailers to obtain signed book plates or something similar to be placed in store stock as a bonus with purchase. These are things that require publishers and retailers to work together for mutual benefit.

What kinds of comics would you say your customers are looking for most often? How wide a variety are they looking for?

I think everyone is looking for entertaining work which makes for a very wide variety. They just don’t necessarily know it when they come in. See, we're set up in a center that gives us access to folks walking off a meal, waiting for an appointment or class to start or running errands. Because of our merchandising we get a lot of folks coming in who don't even know comics are still being created, let alone that Spidey, Supes, and Bugs are no longer the extent of what the medium offers. Because of that, and our efforts to push the envelope in the products we offer, we can be pretty confident that we can find something of interest for anyone motivated enough to enter our shop.

What do you do to stay knowledgeable about the comics your customers are interested in? What publications do you read? Websites?

This one is tougher as we do carry so many titles. Basically as I mentioned, there are certain shows I make great effort to attend, I talk to and listen to my customers, asking them questions about books they've heard of but are below my radar. I look at creator web sites and of course invite creators to share info in the CBIA. Other retailers in the CBIA are also very helpful in recommending new work. I am also working on a new site for creators and retailers to work together in a different method then the CBIA.

How many employees do you have?

Ideally three, but at the moment just one and a half, but I hope to rectify that shortly.

Do you require your staff to stay knowledgeable about upcoming product? What tools are available to help them to answer customer questions?

No requirements yet. Generally they are hired based on product knowledge, usually
different strengths than already exist. We engage each other sharing books that we appreciate and pass customers to the most appropriate person to answer a question or let them know we don't know but will get them the answer. Between our own reading, distributor, Google, Wikipedia and publisher websites we have a very good knowledge base to pull from.

What would you estimate is the ratio of male to female customers in your store?

Probably about 60-40. With all of the anecdotal evidence I see online, it always cracks me up when I notice that I'm the only male in the shop.

What is the ratio of male to female on your staff?

Haven't had a female employee yet.

Do you use distributors other than Diamond? What strengths and weaknesses do you see in purchasing stock through other sources?

Yes, we have a handful of distributors. Strengths are being able to obtain inventory that is not carried by or is out of stock at another source, different terms like discount, pay terms or returnability, and speed of procurement. Weaknesses are the possibility of reduction of discount when splitting orders, creating more work by having to track multiple distributors. There's probably more examples on each side but these spring immediately to mind.

How many of your customers are kids or parents buying for kids? What are the best-selling kids’ titles at Comickaze?

We have a large number of kid-oriented purchases and they are spread over many publishers. Naruto, Bleach, Runaways, Franklin Richards, Marvel Adventures, Teen Titans Go, Legion of Super Heroes in the 31st Century, Owly, Abadazad, Sonic, Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures, Archie and Gemstone's Disney books are all titles that are on heavy order here.

Do you offer subscriptions or a pull list to customers who pre-order through the Diamond Previews catalog? Do you offer them any sort of discount, or benefits for pre-ordering? Some shops give Previews away free to subscribers, for example, or hold "secret sales" announced in newsletters and such.

Yes, we offer a pull service for those who meet a minimum order but we don't rely on it over much and do not offer a discount in conjunction with it. The service itself is the benefit but as I mentioned earlier, I don't want my customers to feel that they need to preorder to get the books they want and ultimately that is why subscriptions and pulls exist. We generally maintain at least three months worth of ongoing titles and reorder at least once a week for items we've sold through on, this allows our customers to actually see and make an informed buying decision that allows them to be excited about the books they take home, instead of forcing them to take books that looked good in solicitation but not so good on arrival.

What is the best experience you've ever had with a customer?

Hard to pick one but the ones where a tag-along non-comic reader comes back to tell us that they really enjoyed a book we suggested and are back for the next are awesome. There's also the parents who are happy that their child is now reading without being told to or the people who started shopping with us when they were children and are now shopping with their own children. I don't really focus too much on things like this because its all a byproduct of doing our job well.

What is the worst?

Having to explain why the books they invested so heavily in years ago have no real resale value today.

Journalist Tom Spurgeon recent commented that retailers “should be selling the most comics in any format,” and yet when it comes to manga, for example, they are not. Have the majority of comic book stores, in your opinion, adjusted well to the development of the graphic novel market?

I'd have to disagree with the absolute of Tom's statement if not the intent. It would be both fantastic and just, if DM retailers sold the most comics in any format, unfortunately over the last 20 years, the DM retailer has been treated less as an opportunity and more as a necessary evil, which puts a huge obstacle in the way. It also doesn't help that the entire market from distributor to publisher/creator to retailer exist in a protracted infancy, seemingly reinventing itself every 5-10 years since its inception but mostly reactively rather than proactively. Also remember that there are only around 2,000 DM shops and the list of book stores reporting to Bookscan alone is over 7,400. That market is easily five times the size of the DM, it should outsell the DM but according to the recent Bookscan report on graphic novel sales in the book market, it appears that despite tremendous sales of a few Manga series, the 2007 book market had less than a 2 percent growth over 2006, whereas the DM grew over 18 percent! If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the DM actually outsold the book market in dollars by about 1.7 times, $370 million to $220 million. Possibly close to double, when you consider that the DM sales number is what sold through Diamond and doesn't count books the DM buys through book distributors.

For the purpose of your question though, neither publishers nor the last remaining full service retailer have instituted any of the policies that help the book market to finally and profitably offer comics. This is probably the biggest reason for the obvious disparity between the sales of periodical comics and graphic novels in book stores.

Book stores have many different types of books and the ability to use them in different ways. Some can be used as loss leaders, others can be ridden while hot, discontinued when not. DM shops are specialists; we don't often have the luxury of discontinuing lines or using them as loss leaders, we're just "supposed to" carry it all and then find buyers. We also lack the ability to return stale merchandise.

You'd think that publishers would want to support the market providing guaranteed sales but we're not sexy enough, so instead Point of Purchase displays, Co-Op advertising and product placement dollars are lavished on the book market who despite receiving all of this extra support also maintain the ability to return any unsold product. These inequities will continue to inhibit the DM efforts thus increasing the likelihood that most new DM shops will continue to be opened by fans first and business people second, as well as ensuring that most of those shops will make the decision to support the big four publishers who provide the most recognizable work., because only a fan(atic) would work so hard and invest so much for so little return. This is why there is still no national comic chain.

The graphic novel market by virtue of its price point and its lack of "collectability" is currently a better match for the book market but that does seem to be changing, if slowly. In the future, DM retailers will need to embrace graphic novels in whatever genre appeal to their customer base because it will be increasingly more difficult to cover their overhead $2.99 at a time and TPBs allow for more casual buyers. It would also be nice to see more DM shops offer special orders to provide customers with book they have access to but have decided not to stock. We do this with videos and gaming handbooks.

How can direct market shops better attract readers of non-superhero comics? Do they have a responsibility to?

As I said above, I don't think it is the DM retailers' job to attract readers of any specific genre, any more so than it is the responsibility for a movie theater to attract viewers for any genre of movie. If anything they should probably be considered more akin to a radio station where the program director or owner has decided to emphasize a specific genre. A top 40 station doesn't necessarily signal the death of the music industry nor does the dearth of classical stations. In that vein, a comic shop’s acceptance of or aversion to spandex, really shouldn't be used as a statement on the DM retailer. Retailers will always order what they believe they can sell and probably what they can sell easily, in quantity and profitably.

The responsibility for promoting the work to a level that it attracts enough consumer support that retailers believe they can sell it easily, in quantity and profitably must fall on the publisher. In the meantime, while publishers are using their resources to promote their work, retailers do have the responsibility of utilizing their resources to attract consumers to their shop(s). I believe that a superhero-only shop has more of a responsibility to attract Golden, Silver, Bronze and Modern Age hero readers than it does non-superhero readers. Does McDonald’s have a responsibility to offer and attract fans of hot dogs or PB&J? No, and I really don't think it casts a bad light on them that they choose not to.

Ultimately if both groups do their job well you will see that the efforts of publishers and the efforts of the DM Retailer will have an intersection and the common efforts in that intersection are where we will ultimately see the success or failure of the market and perhaps the industry. This is precisely where things like pre-selling fall.

Does it make sense to you that some comics retailers would decide to eschew an entire portion of the market for comics?

Yes, it makes sense to me that someone would open a shop that was JUST SPANDEX or JUST MANGA or maybe even JUST ALAN, NEIL, WILL & FRANK, if that is what excites them enough to make that commitment to open a business. Certainly you’re not going to fault a publisher for only publishing what they are passionate about or say that they can't call themselves a comic publisher unless they publish every genre. As much as comics are about art, if you put a price on them, they are also commerce. As such, vendors and their customers owe it to each other not to harm each other and to listen when the other believes harm is being done.

Some shops near where I live have made major changes in terms of how they display graphic novels and the amount of space they devote to GNs vs. floppy monthly comics and other items. Have you made any changes to adjust to the increasing market for graphic novels over the past decade?

Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, we have been transitioning out of back issues and using the space for comics with spines, trade paperbacks and graphic novels. As recently as 10 years ago 25 percent or more of our floor space was dedicated to back issues; today it's less than 5 percent. We have around 20 book shelves full of trade paperback and graphic novels, three four-foot racks, two spinners and a counter of Manga, and our sales run almost 50/50 between comics and trade paperbacks and graphic novels.

Is the direct market for comic books functioning well? Is it positioned to thrive in the long term?

No, I don't think the DM is functioning well. To much of it is being run as a hobby rather than as a business. Even Diamond, the one entity that seems guaranteed to turn a profit, seems to approach everything as, "how can we minimize cost?" If the DM somehow managed to gain serious traction, I'm not sure Diamond would survive it. There is very little of the DM that I see positioned to thrive at this point but I do see glimmers here and there.

What is the direct market doing right?

I'm not sure if you're referring just to retailers and Diamond or if you mean everyone involved in some aspect. For the most part I will say that the retail side is working very hard to up their game. In the last decade the CBIA and its over 800 members have effected great change in the way business is done and information is shared through hundreds of sole proprietor shops and small press creators and publishers. During that time we've seen other retailers step up to form Free Comic Book Day and the new trade group ComicsPro, where members recently leveraged a single store signing in L.A. by Kevin O'Neill into an eight store national tour, giving fans an opportunity to meet a fantastic artist who is normally not so accessible to fans and are offering mentor opportunities to folks considering comic retail.

In what ways could it be improved?

There needs to be a lot more education. The barrier to entry needs to be raised for publishers and retailers helping to ensure that they understand their responsibilities before they pull the trigger and allowing them to hit the ground running when they do.

Do you believe the majority of comic book stores demonstrate professional business standards?

I can't say because I haven't seen the majority of comic book stores. The majority of the hundred or so that I've seen do, but like every type of business I've seen there are some clunkers for sure. It's always been my opinion that there is no benefit in talking to or about most of them because some folks have different goals and will never accept yours. I created the CBIA for those who, like me, felt that they wanted to change things up but had not figured out exactly how to do it. If the folks who spend so much time chastising retailers spent that time talking up their favorite shops and encouraging folks to support them, they'd actually accomplish some thing.

Can they be competitive with mainstream bookstores such as Borders and Barnes and Noble?

Sure, if that's their goal. I don't see why not.

B&N and Borders cannot devote the space to compete with even the smallest DM Shop in terms of product nor provide the customer support that we can. Big Boxes also can't move as quickly as we can nor can they suffer the smaller sales, insane product sizes, lack of bar codes and all of the other "artistic" measures that make up small press comics. The DM can. What will ultimately determine if we can compete is whether or not publishers are willing to work with the DM rather than dictate to them and then we also have to hope that the product remains viable and profitable in the face of the digital age and the horrible mismanagement of content that's been shown so far.

Do you feel a majority of direct market shops actively seek out customers of all ages, genders and interests? If so, how? If not, should they?

No, I think the majority of the ones I know of actively seek out the demographic that works for them. I don't know that shops near college campuses will see a lot of benefit in maintaining a large selection of all-ages and kids’ books, nor would I expect a neighborhood shop to devote a large space to Avatar or window display Lost Girls. One of the greatest things about the medium is its ability to deliver an incredibly diverse range of entertainment and multiple great shops can and support each other on the same street by choosing different specialties. Trying to make every shop a cookie cutter of every other shop shop is a disservice to the medium. As a consumer, sometimes I need a generalist and sometimes I need a specialist. I think that is how the comic market works best.

You and I have had sometimes heated discussions online about comics retailing, so I really appreciate you taking the time today to share your thoughts with me. One thing you have repeatedly said, though, is that I have no worthwhile opinions when it comes to comics retailing.

I don't remember that phraseology. I think the closest I came was telling you "As for your opinion on the future of comics? Not interested, I’ve been helping to direct the future for the last decade from inside the industry, not waiting for somebody with no industry experience to tell me how it should be." "Not interested" is quite a bit different than "no worthwhile opinions" and to be fair, this was after multiple instances of you referring to me as posting drunkenly, calling me a nimrod and other things that were making it appear to me that you were not interested in discussing fact, only advancing an agenda which I indeed found uninteresting. In fact this exercise came not as a result of you contacting me to set things straight but me contacting you.

Fair enough, although in that initial contact to me you did mention that you “wonder if [I’ll] ever write about something [I]you know about,” which is funny to me, since that’s all I ever write about. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on whether I know anything about the topics I choose to cover in my writing. That said, should the voice of the long-time customer be included in discussions about the direction of comics retailing? Is that experience useful to retailers seeking information on why and where comics are bought?

Probably not as much as you think. At least not any more than my grocer, pharmacy, mechanic or comic publisher includes me in discussions of how they do business. DC is the only one who really does this, but it's once every 18-24 months. I think good retailers do what we do, which is constantly talk to their customers and as we just did, occasionally poll them on their general feelings about selection, service, location, hours and giving them an opportunity to offer as much feedback as possible. Ultimately though, even a 30-year consumer doesn't really have any special knowledge just by virtue of being a 30-year consumer. Heck there are a lot of retailers that don't understand that if they stopped their 20 percent discounts, they could lose half of their customers and still earn the same dollar profit, yet the first thing every customer will say if you ask them what their shop could do to improve is, "give me a (bigger) discount." That and, "Store X sucks because they don't carry book Y." This does not mean that you shouldn't talk to your LCS if they aren't meeting your needs but it does mean that a diatribe that all shops should open on time, be well lit and vacuumed more than once a season is probably not going to reach the necessary ears, effecting the changes you’re looking for. What it does do though is to encourage more of the same type of talk to proliferate and it is grating, annoying and probably not the best use of your time.

If you believe this is a valid course of action, because you are really trying to improve things, why not try this. You, and your readers, pick stores that have these glaring flaws and talk to them, like we're talking here. Let 'em know that they've fallen short on some customer services issues and you wanted them to know about it. If they fix the problems, great, you have a better store to shop at. And if not, actively promote Store Z to all of your friends instead. If enough people stop shopping there the shop will either get better or close. If there are no local alternatives then you are probably starting to see why this shop can survive as is.

Who besides retailers and publishers do you believe should have a voice in the discussion?

Maybe distributors, since it often takes them to complete a business transaction. Really this particular discourse was a result of retailers asking publishers to stop harming them by pre-selling. If you believe publishers don't have to answer to retailers, the people who are often their top customers, what makes you believe that retailers owe that duty to the consumer?

These are the kinds of things that along with my own 30-plus years buying and selling comics, 10 years of publishing or helping to publish my own and others’ work, cause me to discredit much of what I see in blogs. It's easy to see when someone is missing key component(s) of an argument as it is for a major league hitter to see a AAA fastball. It's my hope that in the future when you and others are reporting on matters such as this and find yourselves reacting to someone with such incredulity, that the first thought is to belittle them, that instead you will stop and do what you've done here. Present some well thought-out questions and opinions and ask for the same back. Education and respect is how the comic industry will move forward, lack of it is how it will die.

My thanks to Robert Scott for taking the time to talk about his experiences and opinions on comic book retailing.



Blogger Frank Santoro said...

This part bummed me out:

ADD: Is that experience (the customer's experience) useful to retailers seeking information on why and where comics are bought?

RS: Probably not as much as you think. At least not any more than my grocer, pharmacy, mechanic or comic publisher includes me in discussions of how they do business.
While this is understood, the reason I always felt connected to my comics shop was the personal exchange between comic shop owner and comic buyer. As stores grow bigger, I find less personal connection to the experience of buying and do more and more of it online and at specialty cons.

16 February, 2008 18:40  
Blogger Comickaze said...

Don't get too bummed Frank, I would be bummed too, if that was the whole of the message but the very next sentence read:

"I think good retailers do what we do, which is constantly talk to their customers and as we just did, occasionally poll them on their general feelings about selection, service, location, hours and giving them an opportunity to offer as much feedback as possible."

I totally believe that retailers should encourage feedback from customer shopping experience(s). Seems that is exactly what you want.

I just don't believe that most customers have the working knowledge to dictate "store policy" and in this specific instance that ADD's 30 years of buying comics did not qualify him to make the assumptions he was making about the business of selling comics.

Remember that a great many retailers are in the business because they were fans first and they also have many many years of experience as comic consumers. This hasn't made them all all-star retailers, right?

In the end though I think the more you talk to (not at) your retailer(s), the more pleased you'll be shopping with them.

16 February, 2008 22:13  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

"I just don't believe that most customers have the working knowledge to dictate "store policy" and in this specific instance that ADD's 30 years of buying comics did not qualify him to make the assumptions he was making about the business of selling comics."

The only "store policy" I am interested in dictating is my own personal policy of spending my money in shops that meet minimum standards for professionalism and growth of comics as an artform. I encourage all consumers of comics and graphic novels to do the same, the better to have a voice in the discussion about the future of comics retailing: Spend your money in stores that meet your needs and desires, for yourself, your family, and for comics as a whole. Don't spend money in places that make you unhappy, degrade you or your family or friends, or insult your intelligence. There are many stores in the direct market where this is an everyday occurrence, and that needs to change. It's my hope that the good, progressive retailers, whether in the CBIA, ComicsPRO or on their own, will encourage their less-than-stellar colleagues within their field to improve their performance, the better to improve the reputation of the industry as a whole.

That I am vocal about the minimum standards I, as a consumer, find acceptable seems to be what rankles some, and I'm sorry if a discussion about continuing problems with many direct market stores makes some uncomfortable. But I have heard from enough readers, especially in the past few weeks, to know that the subject of professional standards at the retail level is on the mind of many consumers, and I hope that good retailers, which from all the available evidence Robert Scott is one, can understand why it's important to us as consumers to share our thoughts and try to share information about what is out there, what we expect, and what we hope for when we enter the retail environment.

17 February, 2008 04:24  
Blogger Comickaze said...

This is our ultimate disconnect Alan.

I don't really have a problem with you asking for higher standards from DM shops, it's that you seem to give small press publishers a pass on those same standards.

I've seen multiple small press publishers who have had to pass the hat to cover bills and selling product direct to consumers, bypassing and financially injuring the very retailers who have been supporting them. I've also seen books shipping many months later than promised and creators who can't even maintain an annual frequency. None of them offer any kind of co-op funds like other professional publishers and most charge for P.O.P. material when they actually have any to offer and again unlike professional book publishers they also rely on retailers to build consumer demand for their work.

Personally I find it not only daunting but downright scary to have to rely on many these publishers for a living even though I actually appreciate a lot of their work.

It seems to me that if Small Press wants to increase their DM saturation, changes need to be made at least as much in the way publishers conduct their business as you seem to feel they need to be changed in DM Retail.

On the other hand, if they're OK with things as is, problem solved, they can continue with business as usual and retailers can do the same.

19 February, 2008 00:44  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

"I don't really have a problem with you asking for higher standards from DM shops, it's that you seem to give small press publishers a pass on those same standards."

Small press publishers and their standards of professionalism don't much interest me, Robert, so maybe that is the disconnect.

Firstly, you'd need to define "small press." Because I see a big difference between, say, Fantagraphics, which I know will turn out dozens of major books every year that I am interested in, and PictureBox or Alternative Comics, which at the current time may turn out anywhere from two to a half-dozen.

As a retailer, I recognize and respect your right to demand that they fulfill whatever obligations they enter into with you, through their agreements with Diamond or however else.

But as a consumer and as a reader of comics, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the issue. It's not on my radar.

As far as publishers who have to pass the hat to stay alive, as both Top Shelf and Fantagraphics have done (and both with the support of this site), I have no problem with that at all. If things have gotten so dire that self-starters like Gary Groth and Chris Staros have to go directly to consumers hat in hand, then that just goes to show that the direct market hasn't supported their work to the extent it deserves. And you can argue whether the direct market has a responsibility to support great comics vs. comics retailers know they can sell, but again as a consumer, all I care about at the end of the day is whether I have access to the kind of comics I want to read. And that is what Top Shelf and Fantagraphics publish. And increasingly, those are the kinds of graphic novels I am finding earlier and easier outside the direct market.

It would be great if Eightball came out annually like clockwork. It would be fantastic if Drawn and Quarterly offered co-op to retailers. But artcomix are more about art than commerce, and again, as a reader and consumer I'd rather read one issue of Eightball every three years at ten bucks an issue than every issue of New Avengers every month for those same three years, at any price. I place a high value on the quality of the comics, and little to no value at all on whether artcomix meet their ship date. I agree it is important to you and I hope you try to work with the publishers to better meet your own needs. SInce Fantagraphics and some other publishers have been dealing more and more with mainstream bookstore distributors, I wonder if this has forced them to be more stringent about scheduling? Certainly their book trade catalog would indicate that this is so, but I have no idea how they are meeting their schedules in terms of getting the books out on the promised dates. I do know they arrive in mainstream bookstores days or weeks before Diamond distributes them, which is why I no longer rely on a Diamond-dependent comic book store to acquire the books that mean to the most to me as a reader.

So yes, I see we have a disconnect, as you would expect a businessman with his unique needs and problems and a consumer with his unique needs and problems to have. Since I interviewed you and have learned more about your store, I am sure I would like to shop there and obviously you have a wide variety of comics from a wider-than-most-DM-stores number of publishers. I understand and appreciate your frustration, but at the end of the day, as someone who has observed a changing comics industry since the very early 1970s, I do believe things remain in flux and I no longer believe that comic book stores that rely on Diamond are necessarily where the majority of the comics that I want to read will be sold or found in the future.

I believe stores that seek out alternate means of distribution other than Diamond will thrive. I believe stores that find ways to work with non-superhero publishers will thrive. I believe many new ways of doing things are developing and will continue to develop, and I hope that smart retailers find a way to work with all the publishers they deal with in order to make their own businesses more profitable and stable.

19 February, 2008 02:52  
Blogger Comickaze said...

just a few quick comments. Let me know if you want to go over this more at a later date.

I think for the sake of argument, small press is pretty easily defined as anything in the back of Previews.

For my purpose, it is only those publishers who seem to be (pre)selling at shows anyway. You don't see Harper Collins, Random House, Del Rey... the publisher equivalent of the book stores you think DM retailers should emulate, doing it. To me it speaks volumes that professional book publishers don't see the need for it.

I'm not sure why the need to differentiate between Fanta, Alternative Comics, PixBox or any other publisher. While some may affect you more than others, to retailers the effect is cumulative so I kinda have to paint them all the same.

Last, I want to leave you with a thought. I've taken some heat for using terminology like hobbyist vs professional in past commentaries but with your stance that comic shops that are superhero-centric aren't legitimate comic shops I think you'll understand the context so I'm gonna use it here.

You call for DM retailers to raise their game, to emulate the big box stores within their walls and to embrace art comix as a means to that end.

One of the biggest impediments to this is the obstacles to profitability. The problem probably exists for all retail but I doubt any industry has to rely on the multitude of vendors all with their own curious approaches to the business that comic retailers do.

Comic retailers have to deal with a periodical product that changes in content (and sometimes creator and format) from issue to issue sometimes so much so that it is impossible to see a connection other than the title, all while juggling back issues and back list (trade paperbacks collections).

If this wasn't already made difficult by virtue of having to order this product monthe in advance and mostly blind, we have to do so from publishers who are doing so as a side job/hobby and others who take our guaranteed orders and then keep us waiting for months beyond their street date for delivery. As an extremely indy friendly retailer, even I have to think twice about recommending that stores increase their offering of amll press work.

When a group collectively routinely misses ship dates, offers uncompetitive discounts, high cover prices, competes unfairly for consumer dollars by preselling new work before it is available in any retail channel AND fails to offer any of the benefits that professional publishing houses like Harper Collins, Random House, Del Rey... offer like, co-op, advance reader copies, strict street dates what you propose actually becomes a DM retailer subsidizing of the small press.

And I will be the first to stand up and say, that dog won't hunt.

Much of the DM is in a starvation mode. Retailers and publishers alike. Publishers can't afford to pay advances to creators forcing creators to take "real jobs" while creating on the side. Top Shelf claimed a need to sell a 500 copy limited run of Lost Girls to help cover the cost of the regular run. Multiple publishers have had to bypass retailers and go to the consumer to pay their bills... and this is even with the added revenue coming from the book market! So it seems safe to say that business as usual is NOT WORKING.

It also seems both irresponsible and unwise to recommend that retailers who may not be much more solvent, tie themselves to such publishers. They are just too erratic, too labor intensive to sell as well as take up way more shelf space than their ROI dictates they would likely damage many stores.

I don't care who gets to be the foundation and who gets to be the walls, if you're putting up a building, you need both for the structure to be sound. There is absolutely no way that the majority of DM retailers will have the fiscal strength to take the risk that much of small press represents until small press also becomes a better and more responsible partner.

20 years of status quo is not working for the small press. 15 years ago the cry on rec.arts.comic.misc was still, if only retailers would order less X-Men and more indys...

Whew... this was supposed to be a quickee so in closing I'll just say, Quid pro quo. For anything to change you cannot address retail without addressing publishing too.

24 February, 2008 05:31  

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