Tilting at Windmills: Pruning the Stock

Fri, September 20th, 2013 at 12:01am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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I think, sometimes, that running a retail store is something like tending a garden -- one must carefully cultivate sometimes fragile buds until they grow into something healthy and thriving; and you've got to regularly weed it out.

I'll admit, I fail sometimes at the "regularly" portion -- it has been a few years since I last did a pruning of the stock, but looking around I realized the racks were entirely too packed, and we were starting to not have room to shelve newly released books. Time to start cutting stock!

Ended up being nearly 1000 different graphic novels that hadn't sold a single copy in the last eighteen months. Ow. That's a pretty vast sum of money to be just sitting out on the racks doing nothing for anyone, but, with luck, we'll eventually earn back at least what we paid for them as we put them on sale (though, history says at least 20% of it will end up having to be tossed).

So, this is our lesson for the month: there's a tremendous amount of book format stock that simply doesn't have any commercial legs. As I'm sure you've heard me say before, I consider the book format stock to be our primary product line -- mostly because I've seen just how much money "Watchmen" or "Sandman" makes for us week-in, week-out, every year for the last couple of decades. Yeah, I'm a book store first and foremost.

But we're not even stocking at least half of what is released each month (it could even be as little as a third), because the on-the-ground reality is that as more product is released, the harder each individual title is to sell. This is something that mainstream bookstores know -- they are still selling books that are centuries old! -- but it's a relatively new lesson for comic book stores, where the graphic novel as a commercial force is, what, maybe 27 years old?

The life cycle of a book for a retailer is really about the "turn" -- can it sell enough times during an arbitrary time period to justify holding the inventory? And, generally speaking, you want to be holding the smallest amount of inventory that is practical, because the retailer has the highest unit cost in the chain. So most of the time most stores engage in "just in time" buying -- if you sell ten copies of a title in a year, and if your restock is no more than a week away, then you really don't need to have two copies of that title in stock -- you just reorder the next copy as the first one sells. Statistically, you're unlikely to "miss" a sale while you're waiting for restock, and good customer service can ameliorate even that ("I'm sorry, it will be back in stock on Tuesday, would you like me to hold it for you when it comes in?").

Books that are profitable don't really have to turn that often, especially once they cross a certain sales threshold. The way it works is that you should visualize it like an investment, like planting a seed, where each time you sell a book, the return on your initial investment increases -- by the fourth or fifth turn of a book, depending on your costs, every sale after that becomes "pure profit" from your investment in stock. That doesn't mean a book that has turned five times should stay on your shelf forever, but at least if you never sell the sixth copy you're not out your original investment any more.

The problem is when books don't turn those four or so times, or, worse, don't even sell the first time -- of the (about) 1000 books we're removing from stock, slightly over 200 of them hadn't ever sold even one copy. Now, this is over about a four year period, so that averages out to about one book a week that flops entirely, and we're stocking something on the average of 30 brand new book-format titles each week, so that's a pretty good ratio. I mean, naturally, I'd prefer to pick no flops, but 1:30 seems OK to me.

So, what was in those 1000 books I pulled off my shelf? Well, I can generalize a few points that broadly will paint a picture:

1) "OGNs" and otherwise stand-alone books were the largest batch of failures. Books that don't have a clear, well-known "point of entry" (creator, character, etc.) have a tendency to sit there unsold. While there are always exceptions ("Fun Home," to name but one example), the OGN generally depends on the retailer to hand-sell it, as the consumer simply isn't aware of it. This is a much harder state of affairs to achieve when there are 30-60 new book-format works each and every week of the year.

I fundamentally believe that stand-alone work has the hardest row to hoe in the marketplace -- because its footprint is so small.

2) Inactive or discontinued works. While I know a lot of people want to believe that the markets for serialization and collection are vast and far apart, the real-world reality is serialization supports and amplifies collection, and that, when it stops, the impetus for consumers to buy the collection recedes dramatically. I used to sell at least one volume of "Cerebus" each and every week. But the serialization has been finished for almost ten years now, and sales of the collections have now bottomed out entirely. Entirely new work from the same creator(s) can absolutely keep older backlist moving, but once you've disconnected yourself from ongoing, serialized, production of new material, the market "forgets" about you.

Same thing happens to creator-driven backlist on "fringe" material -- we're removing from stock minor works from Warren Ellis (like "Crecy" or "Atmospherics") because Warren essentially doesn't write comics in any substantial way for some time. "Transmetropolitan" or "Planetary" have the weight of history behind them, and continue selling, but the minor works? Now done and gone.

The last aspect of this is series where parts of it have been allowed to go Out of Print -- it is very difficult to sell any of a six-volume series when volume 3 is OOP.

3) Oversaturated characters/genres/concepts. There are a lot of "Batman" graphic novels. A lot. This is just as true for A-List characters like "Spider-Man," or even the B-list guys like "Captain America" -- and there is a finite capacity, both in shelf-space and velocity of customer's desire to take money from their wallet past a certain amount of stock. There are 171 books with "Batman" as the first word in the title -- which doesn't even count the "Batgirl" and "Nightwing" and "Robin" books or things like "Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told" or whatever. That's a lot of books. Some of them are among our top-sellers of all time... but certainly not all 171 of them. Cream rises.

This is also true for genre -- once we passed the 100th book about (say) Zombies, then it is only the really good ones that sell.

4) Price, and, perhaps more importantly, value. The market has a hard time spending over about $20 on a single book. The market also wants said Jackson to be traded for more than 100 pages of content. That 96-pages-for-$25 softcover? Those tend not to sell very well over the long-term.

Now, having said that, the market is pretty deliriously happy to pay virtually "any price" for material it really really covets -- you can get $8 for 48 pages of Alan Moore, sure -- but most creators simply aren't Alan Moore, and can't support premium pricing.

This ties in a bit to point #1 -- OGNs are generally more expensive simply because they didn't have serialization to amortize the production of the work.

There's one other factor, and that's the Amazon one -- over about $50 retail, the Amazon price gets over the $25 threshold for free shipping, and so brick and mortar velocity drops accordingly. There are absolutely still some people who would rather hold that $50 hardcover in their hand before buying rather than just paying a smaller price from the get-go, but there are not a whole lot of them

5) Shape & Size. Books, of course, can be any shape or size. But books that fall outside of one of three "Standard" trim sizes -- Magazine-sized, Comic-Book-sized, and "Larger Digest" size (think the Scholastic "Bone" collections) -- tend to be much harder sales. Particularly books that are longer than they are tall. Outside of comic strip reprints (where form is following function), I am hard pressed to think of a single landscape-formatted work that has succeeded.

Also, crazy big books that don't fit onto a standard bookshelf? Those are also a very hard sale.

6) Books that debuted in hardcover, then moved to a cheaper softcover version. The hardcover is virtually always a dead format after that. What is interesting is that books that started as SCs, and only later get a hardcover, those can often support two formats (because the second is being introduced in response to "market demand"), but the other way around? Then the market usually picks what it likes, and sticks to that, leaving the other an orphan.

Now, frankly, I think that most of this seems pretty obvious and sensible -- format your work like the rest of the work on the market, don't try to ask too much of a premium, don't oversaturate, keep the work in print, and actively marketed, and so on -- but there are nearly 1000 books I've just removed from my shelves that say otherwise.

There's one final point here, one that perhaps needs to be inferred, but there is a limit of some kind on just how many books of a certain "type" the market can support.

This was actually what triggered my brain on writing on this topic for this column -- I was doing the order form last month, and I got to the section of manga porn collections and I thought "Why do I need more than the 25 or so volumes that I already have in stock"? That's not an idle question, really. There's a market, maybe even a thriving one, for manga porn, but once you have a certain number of them in stock, one isn't going to sell better than the others past whatever exact peccadillo might be on display.

Then I realized just how true that was for any number of categories on my rack. I have two huge display areas filled with "Children's" comics (I include Young Adult stuff in that), that has grown dramatically over the last three years -- but adding more and more and more titles just causes each individual book to sell less. I really support something like the youngest-readers "Toon" line... but after about a dozen books you're just no longer adding to sales.

Or, I carry about a third of the in-print "Batman" titles (50+ of them), but, really, less than half of them turn in any significant fashion; why do we need more? Do I need more than a dozen "Star Wars" titles, really? Do I need more than a single representative sample of a b-list license like "The Lone Ranger?"

More and more publishers are trying to shift to the book economy, with P&L analyses including multiple formats of a work, but the more that they do that, ironically, the less likely any individual, non-exceptional, book will succeed. The long-game favors the book format work (and, like I said, it's where I've placed my bets for two decades now), but not everything (or even close to it) can or will work in that format.

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

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