- Posted by Johanna on September 16, 2010 at 1:35 pm
- Category: Meta
I had an email exchange from a reader of this blog who’s thinking of opening a comic store, and conversing with him reminded me of several things:
1. Don’t rely too much on listening to those who agree with or support you. Find some hard data instead of just going on hope. People who already have an idea set in their head — such as wanting to open a comic store — may just want someone to agree with them when they ask for advice. Sometimes people are truly seeking honest reactions, but it may just be about wanting validation. When I was asked, “Why didn’t you open a comic store?” (as I’d mentioned on this site I’d thought about previously), I think he expected an answer like “It’s a great idea but not right for me”, not “It’s a horrible business and I don’t think anyone should do it.” I said the latter, and that meant that everything else I said to this person wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
(Why I think that: The market is in too much flux, with traditional direct market comic shops being squeezed from all sides. You can’t easily compete with digital on one side and Barnes & Noble/Amazon on the other. The retailer has too little control over his own future, between dependence on an aging fanbase, a monopoly distributor for core product, and publishers who have yet to adopt some modern business practices. Hard work doesn’t allow for success unless you’re very lucky, and I didn’t want to invest money based on that gamble. I wanted a business where I had a better chance of controlling my own destiny through my own efforts.)
2. Speaking of data, the kind of information you need to write the kind of business plan that will convince other people (like banks) to give you money is not easily available for a reason. That’s really what this guy was hoping I could give him, since he hadn’t been able to find it on his own. You may want to talk to a consultant, which will cost you money. If you’re serious, spend it, because:
3. Free consulting is worth what you pay for it. I pointed this guy to ComicsPRO’s mentoring program, but he wasn’t willing to pay $80 to talk to people who were already running shops. He thought he was getting what he needed for free (although he was also complaining that everyone was telling him not to do it). Similarly, he wasn’t willing or able to work in a store for minimum wage in order to see first-hand what the business was really like. That’s the best thing you can do with any business, trying it out in an apprenticeship or by doing grunt work. That’s how you’ll see the day-to-day struggles and be sure you can cope with them.
4. Don’t depend on appearances. This guy saw 19 shops in his metropolitan area that seemed to be successful, with particular emphasis on a nearby guy who was doing fine with a shop opened three years ago. But he didn’t know any of their owners/managers well enough to find out if that was truly the case or ask them difficult questions. Maybe they were pulling payroll out of capital. Maybe they were using the traditional comic shop dodge of paying workers in trade instead of treating them as real, legal employees on a formal payroll (with the associated tax and other responsibilities). Maybe they are doing fine, but startup costs were more than expected. It’s hard to know.
5. Speaking of which, that many shops in one area suggest to me that the area is over-served, unless he had some genius idea to bring in new customers. His idea to supplement new comic sales (because every store nowadays needs to be comics plus something, often collections or games) was to sell back issues, because no stores in his immediate area did that. My response: “Maybe there’s a reason for that.” Back issues take up a lot of space and rarely sell well these days, what with ebay making it cheaper and easier to acquire them without having to dig through boxes. Having lots of successful competitors isn’t a good thing.
6. Which leads to: people rely too much on their own experience. This guy had been selling on ebay and at local flea markets, so that’s the part of the industry he was familiar with. If his
business there was going well, then sure, work on expanding and growing that, perhaps into a permanent location. I know someone who successfully did that over the past year. Maybe his area is an excellent choice for that kind of effort, I don’t know. And his optimism and determination and belief that he was going to do this would be what he needs to pull through the tough times.
It was a useful conversation, and I wish him the best. I’m not optimistic, but I don’t have to be. He does, and he is. Good luck, guy.
Update: I heard back from my correspondent, who would like you to know that he thinks this post was unbalanced, which yes, reflects our different perspectives. And I admit, I was exaggerating a bit to make the point strongly that the comic industry is a very tough business. However, I need to correct the following facts:
1. The ComicsPRO mentor program is, according to the information they gave him, simply access to their retailer message boards. If that’s so, I was misled into thinking it involved more hands-on interaction.
2. Not everyone he’s talked to told him not to do it — he’s gotten plenty of positive support elsewhere.
3. The 19 shops in his area are spread out over a 100-mile area. I was mistaken in thinking that was more consolidated. And some of them do carry back issues.
4. He doesn’t sell at flea markets, but at small local shows. I apologize for this — I was going on memory of one of our emails and misstated.
I’m not sure this changes our fundamental disagreement on whether or not comic retailing is a field to enter at this point, but I did want to set the record straight.