Tilting at Windmills

Fri, July 18th, 2008 at 12:05am PDT | Updated: August 14th, 2008 at 5:57pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

CHURN OR BURN

Those of you Constant Readers with longer memories will recall that I first installed a Point-Of-Sales system (POS) in Comix Experience a year ago.

(I’m using MOBY, from Bitter End Systems, a system which I recommend very much)

I’ve been getting a lot of excellent ordering and sales information for the last year, with MOBY automating my reordering process for TPs and GNs (replacing walking around the store with a clipboard once a week), and streamlining my periodical ordering processes (I no longer have to do “cycle sheets” -- the computer tracks orders and sales and obviates the need to manually count every comic every week). POS also keeps track of subscription preorders and generates automatic reports and such like.

Just from the savings in time and effort in automating all of the “scut work” in operating a comic book shop, the POS has already paid for itself in this first year. I’m still working as much as I ever have -- but I’m working smarter and better and more efficiently, and get a much better use of my time.

Now that I’ve got a year of data behind me, I’m starting to learn all sorts of interesting things about sales patterns on perennial items, and I’m gearing up for the first Big Purge.

What you need to first understand is that I think of Comix Experience as a Book Store. One that specializes in Sequential Art, assuredly, but my focus and goals are on the book-format material. We still sell an awful lot of periodical comics, but books are over half of our sales and have been for a long time now.

There’s a line of thinking among comic stores of my generation that we want to carry “everything” -- ultimately what’s the point of being a specialist if you don’t “have it all”? -- and this kind of thinking colors our perceptions and stocking habits. At the least, we want to carry a really wide selection of comics, in a multitude of genres and styles.

The problem with this thinking is that the number of SKUs (“Stock Keeping Units,” or, basically, an individual title or piece of inventory) is not only constantly increasing, but it appears to be accelerating every year. When I first opened, in 1989, there were less than 100 “graphic novels” in print and available; ten years ago, that was probably closer to 2000; today it is something along the lines of 20,000 different books that are in print and available to sell.

There’s probably not a store that has the rack space to fit all of that material; and even if they did, it is unrealistic to think all of that material could possible turn fast enough to make it worth it.

In perennial retail, “turns” are all important -- what you’re looking for is material that you can buy and sell and buy and sell many times during the course of the year. If it takes you six months or more to sell that copy, odds are reasonable that you could have used that money to buy something that would have turned faster, and given you a greater profit.

(Periodicals are different in that you’re selling the overwhelming majority of what you’re going to sell in the first x weeks; you may make some more marginal sales over the next x months, but, in general, the majority of people aren’t looking for 6 month old periodicals. There are some exceptions -- having all seven issues of, say, “Secret Invasion” or “Final Crisis” for the entire run of those series, and a month or two past, is probably good business; and I’ve been able to establish that having “civilian-friendly” comics, like “Buffy” or “Dark Tower” on hand for readers who are just discovering them for the first time this week is a great idea. But for a title like, dunno, “Birds of Prey” or something similarly B-list, if you don’t sell it while it is “new,” you’re probably not selling it ever again.)

I’ve been seeing the “trade paperback bloat” on my shelves for some time now -- as a greater and greater percentage of my racks wind up as spine out. This makes what is on those shelves harder and harder to sell, as any given title gets lost in a sea of spines (even with good genre-driven shelving, and aggressive straightening and alphabetization!), and means that (generally) only books with “pedigree” or “buzz” turn with an appreciable regularity.

Like I say, I’ve been able to visually see this for quite some time, but now with the POS, I’m able to quantify some of this in ways that I would never ever have been able to do with a pen-and-paper driven system.

For instance, I can quickly see that there are approximately 3800 book format SKUs that we stock that we’ve sold one or more copies of in the last twelve months. Then there are the roughly 1400 books that we’ve sold no (none, zero, zilch) copies of since our initial inventory and installation of the POS system.

Yeah, that’s what I said, too.

Just over a quarter of the stock that I’ve got on my racks is just sitting there, gathering dust, being forlorn and getting shelf-worn. Yikes.

Conservatively, that’s probably something like $20,000 at full retail that’s not turning at all.

So clearly, over the next month or so I’ll be removing most (if not all) of these books from inventory, trying to discount them away and generate back some of our costs. There’s no chance to make a profit on any of these books, but at least we can cut our losses somewhat.

The question, however, is what happens after that, because some of the results I’ve experienced are downright weird. For instance, let’s look at “Ultimate Spider-Man.” There are 19 trade paperbacks of the series out as of this writing. We turned v1 five times in the last year. That’s pretty decent for an eight year old series. V2 turned three times, and v3 turned twice. However, in the last twelve months, we’ve yet to turn a copy of v4, 5, or 7 through 10, and 12 through 16.

On the other hand, we’ve turned v6 twice, and v11 once. (those are “Venom” and “Carnage,” in case you were wondering)

V17 sold five copies, but those were all in the first thirty days of release. V18 sold 5 in the first thirty days, but has turned twice since then, and v19 is very similar to that (6&2).

The data says I should be stocking volumes 1-3, 6, 11 and 18 & 19 (or at least until v20 is released, in which case that will probably become 19 & 20), but my “bookseller sense” says “ew, that’s ugly and incomplete and unaesthetic, don’t do that!”

(and you wonder why so many booksellers go out of business…?)

But thinking as a consumer, if I see 1-3,6, 11 and 19 of something on the shelf, I’m not going to be very inclined to start that series, thinking I won’t be able to buy it if I like it, so I really think it could have the opposite result, and cause the volumes that do sell to stop (or at least slow down further)

(And lest you think that it is just “Ultimate,” sales on the JMS “Amazing” volumes have dropped to nil as well; further we can sell volumes 1 to 3 of “Essential Spider-Man,” but v4 and older are also without movement)

Certainly we can special order anything that we need to (and with POS it is literally trivial to special order an item, so there aren’t any excuses), but it just kills me to split up series.

Then there’s the stuff that I sort of think I “should” be carrying to be a “full line” comic store. I think it is good I have a “how to” section, and that I stock the Burne Hogarth “dynamic” drawing books, but who is it helping if it takes me more than a year to move one?

Then there are headshakers like “Batman: A Death in the Family,” which has been in print as a trade for decades. I haven’t sold a copy in a year, really? I’ve always considered that one of the “must stock” part of the superhero section; shows you how much I know! (There are 28 different “Batman” TPs that the raw facts say I have to delete.)

When you’re doing your inventory by the traditional pen-and-paper method, it’s the things like that which you will always miss. I just assumed “Death in the Family” was turning. No, I can’t specifically recall the last time I needed to reorder one, but then I can’t specifically recall when I needed to restock “Ultimate Spider-Man” v6 either, and that’s turned twice in the last year. Memory is a thing of quicksilver and smoke when you’re talking about inventory.

Looking at the list of Dead Stock, I don’t know if there is a direct lesson that can be divined -- there are books in all categories and shapes and sizes. There is manga, there is superheroes, there is “literary” work, no one category or style seems to stand out.

The best I can really do is to say that what doesn’t sell is what doesn’t have “buzz” or rack presence. There’s an awful lot of single volume stand-alone works on the list, which doesn’t surprise me -- when things go into a thicket of spines, without some other compelling draw, they tend to get lost.

But even being a stand of trees in that thicket doesn’t help if no one is looking for you -- I haven’t sold a single copy of any of the eight volumes of “Jon Sable, Freelance” for example, and that has good ”rack presence,” just no “buzz” whatsoever.

Another truth that has to be observed is that “that which once sold, won’t always sell” -- we used to turn even the slowest “The Authority” TP a couple of times a year, but now that “The Authority” (and, really, the entire Wildstorm line) is dead as a new periodical, fewer are seeking the backlist. While the first three volume still turn at a reasonable clip, none of the rest turn worth a damn and have to come off my shelves.

The essential calculus that has to be made is this: there are only x feet of linear rack space; which means only y books can fit within that racking. These numbers can be fudged a little by moving and rearranging things, and using space better, but eventually you hit the limit of your ability to fit more perennials in your space. Further, the more you try to cram in, the less you can individually display any individual SKU. What was once face-out has to move to spine-out, and this, too, slows down sales of material that then doesn’t stand out.

I’m talking a lot here about what doesn’t sell because I think it is a bigger issue than most of you are aware -- if my experience is typical (and it probably isn’t because we’re a lot more “gung ho” about the book format comic than most stores), up to a quarter of what is sitting on your LCS’ shelves is dead weight. I really want to reiterate that I wouldn’t have actually realized how large the amount of Dead product was sitting on my shelves without POS. There is no way that I’d be even considering dropping most of what I had perceived as a successful line like “Ultimate Spider-Man” without having the data from the POS in front of me. Ha ha, you crazy mister!

Because of my results, I get even more concerned when I consider some of the directions I perceive the US comics market is moving. More and more it seems to me that publishers large and small are taking actions that will inevitably soften periodical sales, or are just abandoning the periodical side altogether going straight to “book” as their only model. As a rule I think this is foolish because there is clearly a finite limit to the amount of material that can be stocked, and how frequently it can turn. Now that we’re reaching those limits (both in the Direct Market, as well as in the bookstores -- that’s pretty entirely a summation of the “manga crisis” that has had much of the blogosphere up in arms this last week), it becomes exponentially more difficult for a book to “stand out,” or reach that particular kind of buzz that turns it into a true perennial.

The hard truth is that in today’s market virtually all new book SKUs have to be treated as though they are in fact periodicals, that they will burn fast and hot, then never sell another copy after that, regardless of having a spine. Of my Top 20 best-selling books over the last twelve months, only six of them were released in the last twelve months. Of those six, only one of them was from a series that has started in the last twelve months (In this case, “Buffy” Season 8, and as a continuation of the TV show, probably doesn’t count either!) While my number one book for the last year was “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Black Dossier,” where most of that is from it being new, my number two book for the year was Watchmen. We turned 66 copies of that book, with virtually no effort expended on our part, and it is as old as the hills.

Getting to that “buzz” level, where a work “sells itself” is difficult and rare, but in 2008’s highly competitive perennial market where 99% of your book’s lifespan is likely to be spent spine-out, it is essential.

It was really eye-opening to me to see how much material just sat there, not selling, so beyond merely lowering my drudgery level, I really have to credit POS with opening my eyes to just how competitive and precious my rack space is. To be able to nearly-trivially withdraw data like “this is everything I should remove from my shelf” is heavenly (if generating a lot of work in the actually-removing phase) Now that I’ve used POS for a year, I honestly don’t understand how (or why!) I’d done without for so many years.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing.

TAGS:  comics retailing, point-of-sale

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