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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Saving Your Comic Shop: It's in the Hands of the Retailers -- Comics retailer Ilan Strasser, of Fat Moose Comics and Games in Whippany, New Jersey, has exploded the myth of cyclical comic sales. At least in his experience.

He tells retailer site ICv2 (link via Robot 6) that it's the "Big Two" (he means Marvel and DC, not Viz and IDW, for those of you who actually know what sells these days) that are to blame for decreasing sales.

He starts off, "I have wanted to comment on several stories during the past six months, but had serious, recurring email issues with my computer." Now, one might question the business skills of a retailer who allows "serious, recurring email issues" to plague his business for half a year, but let's let that one pass and get on the meat of it: "Marvel and DC, our big 2, have had to notice the decline in sales over the last six months. Overall, the trend has been steadily downward even when accounting for occasional small percentage increases. If they hadn't noticed themselves, I'm sure that Diamond would have pointed it out to them -- after all Diamond tracks all the monthly, quarterly and yearly numbers."

Tracking monthly, quarterly and yearly numbers, by the way, is called in some circles "cycle sheets," and is considered invaluable in monitoring past and current sales and predicting future growth (or lack thereof). Strasser says "You would think that Marvel and DC, having this serious and depressing information at hand, would revise the manner in which they do business. If they care at all about the future long-term health of the pamphlet comic book, you would think these two companies would take immediate steps to stop the irresponsible behavior they have shown over the last 15 years (at least)."

As much of a critic as I am of the policies of corporate comics publishers Marvel and DC, I have to call bullshit on Strasser here. He is asking the "Big Two" to change their policies so he can continue to operate his business as he always has, when in fact, it is the responsibility of the retailer and the retailer alone to adjust to changing market forces in his or her own retail establishment. In other words, if Marvel and DC believe what they are doing is working (and in the case of Marvel, clearly Disney, at least, believes it's four billion dollars worth of working), then they have no obligation to change their policies.

I would argue, rather, that a sharp businessman -- and Strasser claims to have been in business for nearly three decades -- must monitor the market and change his own policies in order to stay alive and even thrive. This is part of what I was talking about in my essay, A Future for Comics.

Diamond, DC and Marvel are all huge corporations that respond to the needs of their retail clients with all the speed and dexterity of a dying woolly mammoth. Changes, if any, will generally be slow and difficult to understand. I'm all for a healthy, thriving Direct Market for comics, as long as it is vital and alive and responsive to the needs of everyone in its community that is interested in any kind of comics at all. And sad to say, the vast majority of comic book stores that I have experienced are not meeting that standard. Because they have always thrived on selling monthly, floppy superhero comic books to an audience of mostly white guys of a certain age, they believe they don't need to change their business model. Meanwhile, the world's definition of what constitutes comics has moved pretty far beyond simply superhero comics. They'll likely always be a part of the pie chart, but if you run a comic shop here at the end of the first decade of the third millennium, you need to be aware of and expert in the retailing of graphic novels, manga, newspaper strip reprints, and any and all things comics. This is your stock-in-trade, after all, comics, so why stake your entire survival -- your ability to pay your mortgage and feed your family -- on the historically unresponsive and disinterested corporations that are DC and Marvel?

Strasser believes his world will turn bright once more if the following changes are made by Marvel and DC:

* Stop the big event with the multi-part crossover storylines.

* Price comics back down to an affordable level based on real costs and not short-term greed -- comics pricing has far exceeded the increase in inflation over the last decade.

* Solicit and publish their books on a timely basis. There is a world of talented writers and artists out there -- use the ones who can deliver product (let's call it what it is) on time and forget the big name, prima donna basis for utilizing talent, and create a system that punishes said talent when it fails to live up to its commitments.

* Stop publishing more than one monthly title of your major characters and don't produce miniseries that aren't exceptionally high in quality. Stop clogging the shelves with shit.

* Work TOGETHER to raise the health of the industry. Stop endlessly fighting to be first. You will always be one or two and within reasonable percentages in terms of volume and dollar sales. Wouldn't a scenario where a publisher isn't always first, but makes exponentially more money overall be better for either publisher?

* Start treating your retail partners like they really matter instead of conduits for your cash flow.

I would address each of these individually, but the fact of the matter is that each one is written with blinders on and an attitude straight out of The Direct Market of 1988. Strasser sounds like he is either unaware of or overwhelmed by the graphic novel revolution, and not responding to it in a sensible fashion that will help him sustain his business. Marvel and DC aren't publishing multiple titles of the same characters because they want to destroy his store, they are doing it because A) They know they can sell more comics that way, and perhaps more importantly, B) Because it gives them more fodder for the lucrative market for collected editions (what Eddie Campbell hates that the rest of the world calls "graphic novels").

I did find it amusing that Strasser says he is basing his demands and expectations on publisher awareness of the cycles in comics retailing, and then says "this notion that comic sales are cyclical is bullshit and always has been. If you know what you're doing as a retailer, sales, cash flow, and profits can be regulated."

Then prove it, Mr. Strasser. Disregard the cycles, disregard the actions of the companies that have you at their mercy, do nothing to respond to the changes occurring right this moment and for the past ten years in the greater comic book marketplace, and regulate those sales, cash flow and profits. Good luck to you.

How Strasser can say on the one hand that "This kind of corporate behavior has persisted in the 22 years since and shows that Marvel (and DC) care little about their retail 'partners' or about the overall health of the comics industry," and then expect on the other that he can do nothing to save his business except complain about the actions of companies he knows don't give a shit about him, is a question for the ages. It's all part of the cognitive dissonance that is rampant within the worst areas of the Direct Market, unfortunately by all available evidence, the vast majority of places that call themselves "comic book stores" in North America.


Download my free new eBook of nearly four dozen interviews with comics creators, Conversations with ADD, by clicking here. A full list of interview subjects can be found here.

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Blogger Comic Shop Dreamer said...

I absolutely agree with your basic assertion in this article. Marvel and DC will do what Marvel and DC feels is in the best interest of Marvel and DC. It is up to retailers to make that reality work for retailers. Through organization (like ComicsPRO) and sound biz practices, retails can use their clout to turn the big 2 into also rans. Comic retails need to believe in the product they are selling and not succumb to pressure to try to sell what they "think" everyone wants. Thanks for this article.

03 September, 2009 00:58  
Blogger Alan David Doane said...

Thanks for reading my post and sharing your thoughts. The vitality of the DM and its ability to change and evolve into the changing market for comics is something I really am fascinated by. Your point about believing in the product is key. I can't imagine having to go to work every day to sell a product I don't care about, or worse, hold in contempt.

03 September, 2009 02:49  

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