The Future of Comic Stores? Two Stock Changes

Fewer Graphic Novels

Brian Hibbs put in a computerized point of sale system and discovered that he had access to a lot more accurate data than he expected. One of his discoveries was that he was stocking too many graphic novels (link no longer available):

… something approaching half of the trade paperbacks we carry have not sold a single copy since we’ve installed the system [four months ago]. I have absolutely no problem with stocking something that turns very slowly, but is something that is either important to the medium, or important to our identity as a store, but it is quickly becoming clear to me that there’s a huge swath of material that is not important to either case, in any fashion, which doesn’t turn fast enough to keep in stock. And that stuff has to go.

It’s all about the turns. Retailers don’t just want books to sell, they want them to keep selling, with someone buying (let’s say) the first Sandman book at least once every few months.

He identifies two categories of dead weight: The first is independent books with no public awareness, no audience, no standout concept, no well-known creator. In short, books with no marketing and thus no sales, thrown out there on the “build it and they will come” theory. It was a different world when a retailer could take a flyer on a book that cost them a buck and a quarter and would sell for $2.50 to a curious customer with a lot less competition. Plus, if the buyer liked it, there would be future issues to sell with less customer resistance. Now, a sample graphic novel is $5-15 per stock copy, there are tons of competing similar products, and each sale has to be won individually.

The second dead category, and this is both surprising and not, is superhero backlist.

Superhero B-list-or-less material. That doesn’t just mean B-list as a character, it applies to the basic quality of the work. I mean, look, DC’s backlist page for Batman lists nearly 200 volumes available. How many of those actually turn on a steady basis? 10%? If that? As a reader, I really approve of those scores of Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents cheap reprints, but man most of those babies barely turn, and they take up a massive amount of rack space.

Makes me miss the DVD collections of Marvel comics, which saved all kinds of shelf space. In the response to this column, one customer points out that they can get Essentials-style super collections cheaper online in most cases. But back to Hibbs. His conclusion? The blunt

There are too many books on the market, and separating the wheat from the chaff is probably going to be one of 2008’s biggest challenges.

That’s another reason to launch on the web and build up an audience willing to pay for your work, to guarantee sales and awareness for your print launch.

No Back Issues

Another retailer, John Riley of Grasshopper’s Comics, decided to get rid of all back issues. He makes a number of key points about how the market has changed since the 1970s:

  • Back then, there were fewer titles produced per month by about a factor of ten.
  • All titles were younger, so few to none had even 100 back issue numbers.
  • Because of those factors, it was easier to stock almost everything in a reasonable amount of space for a comprehensive collection.
  • Prices have gone up, making it more expensive to stock key books, which are of interest to a smaller audience as a result.

Plus, there’s the factor of type of story:

[M]ost titles being published were ongoing series, whereas today the majority seem to be mini-series, one-shots, and tie-ins, all of which are all harder to organize as back issues, and all of which usually have less long term demand than ongoing series.

His last conclusion has impact beyond just the question of back issues.

Up until the mid-nineties the concept of “collecting comics” really meant that you were picking certain titles, characters, or creators that you really enjoyed and then going backward and attempting to collect all their issues, appearances, or work. After all, if you were an X-Men fan, collecting their one book that came out each month wasn’t much of a challenge in and of itself. But that has certainly changed. Today our hobby is so focused on what’s coming next that we often lose interest in the story we’re currently reading.

That’s why I’ve given up on Previews this year. I don’t preorder any more because I want to buy and enjoy works in their own time, not be constantly chasing something two months away and ignoring what’s in front of me. But in the context of back issues, the publishers have to be liking the idea of the fan spending money on their new releases instead of something they get no cut of, regardless of how it damages the traditional stock-in-trade of the comic store.

14 Responses to “The Future of Comic Stores? Two Stock Changes”

  1. Randy Lander Says:

    These are both things my shop has been doing for several years, so I think you’re right in pin-pointing them as elements of change. Actually, I’m still shocked that Hibbs, as one of the larger retailers, is just now getting a POS system, but I guess that there are plenty of big retailers in comics who don’t use them.

    But the “graphic novels need to turn” and the notion of culling slow movers (and not even ordering some DC/Marvel GNs that won’t sell) is a couple years old for us, and probably for many.

    As for the back issue section, we killed ours about five years ago and I don’t regret it for a second. Every so often someone comes in looking for them, and there’s still a market for those shops, but I think a lot of the back issue market has moved to the big chains like Mile High and Lone Star and then onto online peer-to-peer selling and buying on Ebay.

  2. Scott Says:

    My LCS is trimming its display space for back issues in favor of expanded tpb/gn displays.

    While I don’t buy a lot of back issues from them, I buy even fewer tpb/gn’s.

    Regarding your comment on pre-orders, I’d be curious to know if you are not alone in cutting down on that practice.

    Since I have a limited budget (and have seen too many previewed items that didn’t live up to my expectations), I never got on the preorder bandwagon.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Randy, I would guess that the bigger the retailer, the more challenging a major process change becomes. Just because of how much inertia there is behind leaving things the same.

    I have heard others say that the more imprints/material a publisher puts out (especially if it’s notably diverse), the easier it becomes to break the habit of carrying their entire line. So outreach to new audiences may cause unforseen consequences.

    And I agree with the internet back issue comment. Someone from Lone Star Comics responded to the ICv2 column with a letter that boiled down to “shop online with us for back issues for you and your customers!”

    Scott, it’s true that there are a lot more options for smart shoppers looking for good deals on book-format comics.

  4. Golden_Dave Says:

    This is the same game played by retailers of all kinds ; grocery stores, auto parts stores, you name it. The struggle that never seems to end in the retail business world : You need to make sure you have available what the consumer wants to buy, but you don’t want all your money tied up in “dead” stock. I always figured it was a huge headache for comic shops.

  5. Convergence » links for 2008-01-03 Says:

    […] The Future of Comic Stores? Two Stock Changes (tags: ComicBooks retail) […]

  6. Alan Coil Says:

    I never look at the solicits for Marvel and DC because the solicits often tell what has happened in the previous issue, thereby revealing what is happening this week or next.

    I just today spoke with the comics guy at my LCS. He said he sold a bunch of older trades in the last two weeks that had been on the shelves for longer than he could remember. Different markets, different needs, I guess.

    My LCS shop has a POS system, but doesn’t use it for comics, just the gaming stuff. They think it is too much trouble to enter the codes.

  7. The Comics Creator Says:

    QUOTE: “The first is independent books with no public awareness, no audience, no standout concept, no well-known creator. In short, books with no marketing and thus no sales, thrown out there on the “build it and they will come” theory.”

    – – – – – – – – –

    Hopefully, those who create these “dead weight” books would do something more than just “fulfill a dream.”

  8. Jane Irwin Says:

    Very interesting! This post may also help explain why it’s not gotten any easier to get my second book into new stores. I can’t blame retailers; in effect, we’re both small businesses, and neither of us can afford to take large or long-term financial investments in items that may not pan out quickly, or at all.

    So the question arises (and one that I’m very interested in investigating, as I’m starting a new, non-Vogelein OGN soon) — If you aren’t a well-known creator, what else can you do to get your book out there, to have retailers take a chance on you? Web previews are a given — the new book’s going to be serialized online first — but what else works?

  9. The Comics Creator Says:

    Hello Jane. May I attempt at an answer?

    If you can identify who your audience is exactly, you can start doing research on where they get news and information (for your press releases), or if you can send review copies to those who talk about your particular genre. Another option is to send press releases to the local state or community paper, or send an inquiry to your local radio station. I would like to think they’d be interested in featuring someone like you. Then you work your way up.

    But since you’ve already earned favorable reviews from Booklist and The Library Journal, it should be an easier ride for you with your next OGN. Best of luck!

  10. Jamie Coville Says:

    Jane Irwin:

    Web Previews are only so effective. A lot of retailers won’t bother looking at them. They can help with readers though. Paper Previews that the retailers can see and let their customer see are much more effective. I realize this is more expensive and takes some work, but it’s that on it’s own is recognized by the retailer and lets them know your serious about promoting your book.

    I would also be honest about which previously published books are similar to yours. If they have any tracking system they’ll know what those other books sold and will give them something they can use in ordering.

  11. Jane Irwin Says:

    Reporter: I’ve actually done everything you’ve suggested — I was even on our local NPR affiliate last week. Fun! Still, you’re right, it’s just the constant beating of the PR drum.

    Jamie: Good suggestion on the previously published books — I sent out paper previews to the top 300 indie-friendly comics stores when the book was in PREVIEWS, but I didn’t think to link it to other books. Interesting idea, thanks!

  12. Alan Coil Says:

    A thought on self-promotion that some may already be doing, but here it is.

    Always make sure to put a site address, an email address, and maybe even a P.O.Box address in every book you print. That way, you’re audience can contact you if they want and you can build a data base for future advertising.

  13. Johanna Says:

    Jane, retailers seem to want proof that customers will buy the book from them, some kind of demonstrated driving of new customers into their shops. But I’m not sure how you do that without first being sure that it’s being carried in their stores. Seems like a vicious cycle to me.

    And web previewing is dangerous, with “too much” material available (which varies by particular opinion) turning off retailers who think you’ve given too much away.

    In short, I don’t envy your predicament. But I wish you the best, and I’m eager to see it!

  14. Scribble boxing | Bad News for Indie Fans Says:

    […] what he’s learned since installing a computerized point of sale inventory system. Johanna of Comics Worth Reading has done a nice job of picking a few highlights out of the […]




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