Pop! Retailer Panel Discussion – 1/2011 edition and some personal thoughts…

Our friend Jeffery Klaehn over at the Pop! blog has done another edition of his retailer panel discussion, and the participants are 50% Canadian:

Panel Discussion Participants
Gerry Gladston is co-owner of Midtown Comics in New York.
Peter DeCourcy is manager of Blue Beetle Comics in Barrie, Ontario, Canada.
Jay Bardyla is the owner of Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Jared Myland is the owner and manager of OK Comics in Leeds, England.
Alex Phillips works at and designs and manages the website for Lookin’ for Heroes in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.
Gail Burt is the former owner of Metropolis Comics, Bellflower, CA, and currently hosts ‘Metro After Hours,’ a web-based comic and pop culture related talk show.

I reiterate here my personal opinion that I believe that 2011, particularly the next three months, is going to be a very hard year for Canadian comic book retailers. For years I’ve been using the phrase “period of transition” in my Overstreet reports (although I haven’t submitted a report to the 2010 or 2011 guides) and it became VERY evident in 2010 that we are moving even further away from a market that relies on weekly pamphlets towards a book retailing model.

The only problem with the book retailing model, it seems, is that no one wants to pay FULL PRICE for books, especially when we are all stretching our dollars a little further during this economic downturn. Thankfully Canada hasn’t been hit as hard as the US, but ask any retailer if they’ve seen a change in spending habits over the last year and most will have a lot to say about it. The buyers want discounts, and as a result, graphic novel sales are doing very well at (a) online retailers like Amazon and Indigo where prices are slashed, or on eBay where people garage sale price their books, (b) at a discounted rate at stores like Indigo where members get a discount on their purchases, (c) at used bookstores – for example here in Toronto we have the BMV chain of stores, and (d) destination stores like our 2010 retailer of the year The Beguiling, where publishers are in some cases bypassing Diamond and making the books available to them directly, giving them an exclusivity edge over the retailers that sit back and wait for Diamond to ship them their books from Marvel and DC. I’ve also had a lot of people tell me they wait to buy their books at a discount at comic shows, either deeply discounted back issues or 50% off trades and hardcovers. I hear less and less from the premium back issue buyers, those bin divers are becoming a small and quiet minority in the audience. They don’t care about new material at all, being locked as they are in attempts to connect with younger versions of themselves. Stores are shying away from that kind of material, and so we see comics further marginalized as many retailers must compensate with product diversification – toys, statues, cards, t-shirts, etc. Space for back issues is taking space away from other products that are selling, so stores are bringing in more bookshelves and cutting on back issue bins. This is very much the case in urban centres where space is a premium. The back issues are being relegated to the basement or back corner, if they keep them at all.

Speaking of Marvel and DC, while those publishers still dominate in the direct market, it seems that they really need a stronger kick in the pants to get non-fanboys interested in their product. This is particularly true of Marvel, who churns out so many monthly products that people who used to be character-centric in their buying habits have had to do what the rest of us already do – become creator-centric in our buying habits. Creator names, more than the characters themselves, sell books. When there’s eight Thor books out there, people (who still buy comics and don’t wait for the trade) are going to buy the one written by an established comics writer or artist and avoid the rest, even if they are good (like Thor: The Mighty Avenger). Bendis, Morrison and Johns account for the majority of mainstream superhero comics sales in the direct market. One of the big problems that these companies face, particularly Marvel, is that they don’t HELP the buyer by directing them to the products that they have the most confidence in, or that they feel are special. I’ll use Marvels as an example. In the mid-1990’s everyone knew that Marvels was a special book and it was a best-seller. Marvel promoted it as a special event book. Marvels II: Eye of the Camera, by the same author, is a little-seen footnote. I don’t recall any house ads or promotion for it. So we end up with further reliance on events. The Fear Itself crossover, the Flashpoint crossover, the Thor movie, the Captain America movie, another X-Men movie, the Green Lantern movie, Smallville’s final season, the Brave and the Bold cartoon, and so forth.

Look at our Canadian scene and what made news in 2010. I’d be hard pressed to point out a lot of exciting news re: periodicals. Lemire on Sweet Tooth and writing for DC, Manapul on Flash, Finch at DC, Immonen on New Avengers, Eaglesham on FF and Super Soldier, Stewart on Batman and Robin, Skullkickers debuts, Orc Stain debuts, Paquette on Batman Inc., Fiona Staples on Mystery Society… and of course Kill Shakespeare. How many people are waiting for those aforementioned comics to be collected? Sweet Tooth V.1, Orc Stain, Mystery Society, Kill Shakespeare and Immonen’s New Avengers just came out as collections, Eaglesham’s Super Soldier is out tomorrow, Manapul’s Flash and Skullkickers v1 are just on the horizon…

Another major problem facing the retailer community is the issue of customer’s being able to buy their comics online, removing their need to go to a specialty retailer like a comic book store completely. This will continue to be an issue as the tablets improve. With iPad 2.0 looming, threatening better and faster graphics, the more tech-savvy will start accumulating their comics and consume them in the same way they consume music, movies and television on places like iTunes and other digital downloads. Piracy will continue to plague the industry and publishers will get more aggressive about it, just as the music companies had to a decade ago. My advice to any Canadian publisher reading this is to seriously investigate a means by which to get the graphic novels you are producing onto a platform where they can be purchased digitally by the consumer. Getting your product onto an app like Comixology or creating your own publisher app for digital downloads will help you in the long run. Don’t get caught having to scramble to catch up. Yes, I agree that there is nothing more enjoyable (at least for me) than to crack open a well produced book featuring the work of a cartoonist or creative team that interests me, but I am a collector/accumulator like many of us who came from the traditional comics model. If you really want to expand your audience beyond that model, then I’m afraid that digital is an option you need to explore. I’m just concerned about the effect that this will have on the specialty bookstores. We need to find ways to tie digital comics into the retailing experience. Perhaps vouchers to purchase the book at a local shop once downloaded or vice-versa, where books are sold with a digital download code so that you have both a physical book and a digital download (something similar to what they do with major release DVD and Blu-Ray movies).

Anyway, I hope I’m wrong and things bounce back. If they do, it will be because of something we haven’t considered yet.

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2 thoughts on “Pop! Retailer Panel Discussion – 1/2011 edition and some personal thoughts…

  1. Interesting point of view, Kev.

    I don’t think things are quite as grim for comic book stores as you’re making it out to seem. Sure we’re going to see some big changes within the next few years, but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be negative.

    That said it looks like a Canadian invasion of comics is coming in a way not seen since the big European invasion of the 80s!

  2. True, I think my assessment is more long term – 2011 and beyond. We need to find a driving reason to bring people into the specialty stores — great product is absolutely key, and I fear that the front line, mainstream publishers are falling further and further behind in that department. That means the better product offerings from smaller and less enabled publishers need to be better promoted. We need to find ways to get the word out and make people choose to visit the specialty shops over eBay, online discounts and waiting for the publishers to dump the remaindered books at cost. All issues that plague the regular booksellers. Customer service and knowledge at the specialty shops of their products and customers is key, as well as creating an inviting and at the same time “clubby” atmosphere.

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