Tilting at Windmills

Fri, April 17th, 2009 at 1:28pm PDT | Updated: April 17th, 2009 at 3:39pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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LONG, STRANGE TRIP

This has been an interesting month for me, because Comix Experience turned twenty years old on April first.

This kind of makes me feel old, as I was just twenty-one when I opened CE back in 1989. Something like 14 months from now I will have been doing this longer than not doing it (though, really, if we include time spent at working at other people’s stores, I would have passed that milestone a year or two back) – and that’s kind of a big thing.

I still wake up pretty much every morning thinking “Woo! I get to sell comic books!” and the few mornings I don’t is usually because I’m backed up on the work part of the job, facing a day of staring at numbers to do a new order form! But selling comics is a pretty good gig, and it is still fun twenty years on, so what more could a man ask?

I opened CE in 1989 with a $10,000 loan, and my comic book collection. Ha ha! Sure couldn’t do that today! I don’t think you could open a store in 2009 for less than $60k just in starting book inventory! (and even that may be low) But it was sure a different market twenty years ago.

I (and a whole bunch of my young shiftless friends) built the racks by hand. My dad designed the rack itself, and we cut and assembled and painted them ourselves. All of the original racks are still in the store, and while I probably need to do a top-to-bottom remodel one of these days (maybe even this year), they’re held up remarkably well after twenty years of heavy use. Heck, they’re even made out of particle board (basically sawdust and glue), which isn’t even the most sturdy of building materials. But there isn’t one of them that I didn’t personally do some assembly of.

Back when we opened, like I said, my primary starting stock was my personal back issue collection. Maybe twenty long boxes of stuff? A couple of my friends kicked in a bunch of comics they didn’t want, and we were good to go. That was viable twenty years ago. Twenty years ago back issues might be half of your daily sales. There were hardly any trade paperbacks back then – heck, “Elfquest” alone might have accounted for 10% of everything that was in print then! – so back issues were the only way to read something that wasn’t from the last month or two.

The other bit of it was that there were a whole lot less new comics coming out each week – heh, I can still remember what a big deal it was to move from one rack holding this week’s books to two! – the entirety of the Diamond order form back then was like a 24 page booklet, comic sized, in a point-size maybe 120% of what they use today.

Back in those days it was pretty common for a customer to come in with a ten dollar bill, buy every single comic they wanted for the week, and to still have change to look through the back issues and pull out a thing or two. Can’t do that anymore, either.

We were early adopters of the trade paperback because I could see how well some of them (especially early adopters like “Elfquest” or “Cerebus”) could perform over time. The idea that you’d be able to take a creator’s output, and sell it forever was a transformative one, but one it would take the largest publisher’s a few years longer to catch on to. Comix Experience and “Sandman” are roughly the same age, and it was largely DC’s success with the early paperbacks of that book that convinced them that there was a real, long-term potential in the format. “Sandman” was really the first series that had the automatic TP, shipping fairly quickly after the issues it collected appeared as serials.

We also hosted one of the first signings with Neil Gaiman, really before he became “Neil Gaiman!”, and while he needs nice hotels when he travels today, back in the day he just stayed in our living room on the couch! Man, I owe him for that, I think!

We used to do a ton of signings, too – in our first five years we hosted over sixty different events, which is just crazy. But I also think we did so many that they stopped being special, and our attendances started to suffer because of that. We came to realize that one or two a year were much more effective and interesting.

When Comix Experience opened, we had at least three different new comics distributors to choose from – this was pre-monopoly, of course – and they each had local warehouses that you could enter and shop the racks from. I may miss that more than anything. Going in the night before New Comics Day, scanning the rack, seeing what covers looked like together, what the “shape” of the week was, it made a huge difference in having enough of all of the new comics each week. While things like FOC are awesome tools, it isn’t the same thing as scanning a rack and thinking “Man, we’re going to need more of that, because it just pops…” Nowadays, our first chance to do that isn’t until after we’ve opened the box, and best-case, restocks are probably a full week away.

Today we only have one viable distribution choice for new comics, and they only have three warehouses for the entire nation. Even if I could make that 1500-ish mile trip each week to our closest warehouse, they’re not exactly set up for shopping any longer, anyway. Trade paperbacks are the majority of our (dollar) sales, and have been for many years now, and individual back issues are essentially an afterthought, stuck in a corner of the store, and I’ve even been contemplating getting rid of them altogether.

Things have changed.

The nice part is that CE is more profitable than ever these days, and we’ve been really successful at reading the market and where it might be going so that we weren’t taken by surprise by many of the many changes in the industry. That, probably more than anything, is the key to a successful business (in any field) – you can’t assume things are going to stay static, and you have to be constantly looking for the opportunities to transform the essential character of your business with the times and situations that are in front of you.

It is funny, but at something around the five year mark, right about the time I’d paid off our initial loans (we got done six months before the business plan said we would), my friends and family starting coming to me, admitting that they never, not one of them, thought I was actually going to make a go of it. Who can blame them, really? How many things that you did at age 21 actually stuck? Heck, when I think back to that rash kid then, with his shaky grasp of finances (I really had less than eight weeks of operating capital when I started), his handbuilt racks, and borrowed furniture, I am pretty shocked that I made it as well! Perseverance and determination count for a lot, I guess.

I feel lucky every day that I’ve had as much success as I have had. Here’s hoping for another twenty years in front of me, too!

It wasn’t directly linked to the anniversary, but on April 2nd my family took a rare vacation trip, this time to New York City. I managed to do just enough work to be able to justify the business aspect of it (I made it to five different comic shops in seven days, and went to meals [and drink-ups!] with a few creators/industry people), though I didn’t make it to the DC or Marvel offices this pass through. Which is fine – I had just seen everyone a few weeks before at the ComicsPRO meeting.

I had a lot of fun doing touristy-type stuff with my five year old – we went to the Statue of Liberty, for instance, and wow it is crazy just how much security that old lady has, we got searched stronger than we did at JFK airport for certain! – and we had a great time looking at the Egyptian stuff (and the Knights!) at the Met, and the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History. We tried to go to the Empire State Building as well, but the day was so overcast there wasn’t any point in going up.

Thankfully for me, Ben is just as content going to comic book shops as his dad is, so we spent much of an afternoon at Jim Hanley’s Universe, across from the ESB (where Hanley’s staff was exceptionally sweet and nice and took Ben off my hands, showing him their lightsaber collections while Jim and I talked about running stores), and when we went to Brooklyn, Ben was happy as heck spending time in both Rocketship and the newly opened Bergen Street Comics (very nice store for being a month old – I wish I looked a tenth of that nice in my first month!). We also spent at least an hour in Brooklyn’s Superhero Supply Store (sister store to the Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia here in San Francisco), where, again, the staff was simply terrific in paying attention to a five year old’s view of superheroes. (Ben’s newest super-hero identity is “Scythe!!!!!” – yes, with five exclamation points!) They’re worth a trip to if you’re in Brooklyn, and the youth writing programs 826 supports are really awesome things as well.

I also, without Ben, popped into both branches of Midtown Comics, and while visiting Times Square, I got blizzarded on (I was trying, and failed, to get matinee tix to The Little Mermaid – they only had separate seats available, and that doesn’t work with a 5 year old, no sir)

What struck me is that not one of the five comic stores I visited in New York had Point-Of-Sale in place. That’s somewhat understandable for the Brooklyn stores, but the Manhattan stores are big big volume ventures. At a guess, Hanley’s does 6-8 times the business I do, and Midtown is above them, and on that scale it is epically mental that POS software isn’t in place. Once you cross, say, $250k annually I don’t see how you can have effective inventory management without a POS in place. I spoke to Jim about it, and in their case it wasn’t necessarily from lack of trying (they’ve had several false starts over the years), but I spoke passionately about MOBY, and the massive positive benefit it has had for my business, and I suspect that by this time next year they’ll be up and running (if not before)

I didn’t speak to the Midtown guys (I didn’t call ahead, and just showed up unannounced), but it is clear they’re a big volume operation, and I can’t imagine that POS could do anything less than increase their efficiency by 5% or better. But anyway, the point is is that here you have two of the largest volume comic shops, in the largest city in America, and they’re not more than a few steps over “stone knives and bear skins”.

Crazy, crazy stuff.

(Of course, three years ago, I was still in the “Yeah, you’ll have to convince me first” camp, so it’s not like I’m sort of amazing seer or something…)

Coming back to work after a week “off” is always a fun occasion – we start off from the position that, since I was spending a lot of time sightseeing with a five year old (not what I would call a naturally stress-free process, really!), I really needed a “vacation from my vacation” once I got home. Ha, good luck old man! And, then, of course, there’s the inevitable fun of trying to catch up on two weeks of work in a really short time frame. My staff is great at running the store, day-to-day, but when it comes to things like ordering, that’s never been a process where I’ve been comfortable handing over the reins. Now, while it is true that the actual base aspects of ordering are fairly automated with POS (it’s really just a few clicks of the mouse to generate a reorder report), there’s still a measure of sorting through what’s in stock from where and making sure to order the low discount items from other suppliers, which gets much closer to “art” than “science,” and while I could train someone to do this, I haven’t done so yet.

There’s also the stickier problem of looking at the New-This-Week comics and figuring out which need more and which should be left to sell-out. There’s no formula to this, and, generally, on the things you have to make real decisions on, there’s not exactly a hard data position to fall back on (You know: brand new titles, new directions, that kind of thing). It was fairly interesting doing this process for the week I was gone, because I hadn’t (obviously) read any of the material myself, and so was hard pressed to assign aesthetic weight to any specific title. That aesthetic weight really is a key part of ordering newer books. It’s one thing to have a stable book like, say, “Watchmen,” and being able to figure out the “right” reorder based upon historical data – that’s much harder with, say, the newest “She-Hulk” mini-series.

One of the compounding problems is that we’re in “going back to the well too many times” on some books. This week, I had to make decisions about, as I said, the latest “She-Hulk” mini, as well as the new “Exiles” ongoing (third try on that last one). Part of the fundamental problem for books like this is that the “last version” of these titles performed poorly (which is why they’re being relaunched, yes?) – yet neither of them was “off the market” long enough for any sympathy or interest to be generated by the newest version. It isn’t like there are massive campaigns to attract new readers to books in those weight classes, so there is little that the retailer can assume than it is the same audience who might be interested who had rejected the previous one just a month or so (sometimes less!) before.

You’ll always usually get a little bit of a bounce from a new #1, but there’s only so many times that trick can be tried before the existing audience begins to get weary of it. Actually, in both of these cases, these books performed well under my personal expectations for them, largely (I think) because of consumer confusion, and the current market’s conditions which has people actively looking for reasons to drop books. This is not the climate in which to be (re)launching B-list properties, unfortunately.

Doing it with, let’s call it “semi-A-List” books can work – certainly the latest iteration of “Flash (Rebirth)” seems to have worked just fine, but I think that’s as much of it’s function as being an “event” as much as anything else.

But that trick doesn’t work on books that don’t have that kind of built-in audience and expectation.

Honestly, you have to let certain fields lay fallow for a little amount of time, otherwise nothing is capable of growing in that soil. I’d strongly suggest that publishers look at periods of time measured at least in quarters, or perhaps even years, before relaunching marginal and struggling characters. Otherwise it just won’t have the impact you were hoping for from the current audience.

One last thought before I go. This week there has been a lost of discussion about “amazonfail,” where hyper-large internet bookseller Amazon accidentally (put scare quotes around that word, if you’re so inclined) delisted a significant number of adult-oriented titles, largely ones with GLBT, or other sexuality-driven, themes.

At the end of the day, this is the downside of consolidating business into one primary retailer or channel. This is the prime argument for exactly why one wants a healthy and thriving independently owned and operated network of venues with which to sell your wares.

Trust me, I get why Amazon is so attractive to publishers, and maybe even more so to consumers, but when you have a single dominant player, it is terrifically easy for that player to make a decision, or even an honest mistake, that has catastrophic impacts on your bottom line, or your ability to find the work that you want. This is also (one of) the reason (s) that I think that having a thriving Direct Market is a better place to lay your bets than into the generally-controlled-by-a-small-number-of-entities bookstore market. Just look at the damage that the effective loss of Borders is having upon any number of publishers.

The way capitalism is supposed to work is by having a dynamic number of competitors innovating and working hard to broaden and penetrate a market. This entire country is on the verge of breaking down because we have too many “too large to fail” companies in a broad range of American businesses. The more choice and the more competition there is, the better that capitalism works. That’s pretty much just common sense.

So speak with your dollars, support your local stores, decentralize your purchases and economic weight as a participant in capitalism – you’ll be doing yourself, and your community, a favor.

It is significantly easier to buy all of your media (and everything else) from Amazon, sure, but that’s only true until the day they decide that your business isn’t as important to them as someone else’s. And if you no longer have any other choices to take your custom because Amazon ate them all, then it isn’t just amazonfail, it is youfail.

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. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

TAGS:  comics retailing, new york city, amazon

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