Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Whose Job is it, Anyway? - Responding

My Whose Job is it, Anyway post received a couple of comments that I want to take the time to respond to. Rather than just responding in the comments area of that post, I'm committing a new, follow up post to doing so. If you need to see the comments in full (I have kept portions here that I respond specifically to) you can refer to the original post.

Does the existence of the Direct Market, in the way that it currently functions, serve to slowly but surely pare down the total comic reading base and prevent a new readership from forming?

The commenter responds in the affirmative, but with no explanation. I'd love to know the logic of this. How do stores whose very existence is predicated on growing comic book readership end up paring down that market? As a store owner myself I can tell you that one of my main tasks at the store is to try to increase readership. We host Free Comic Book Day and promote it heavily to the surrounding community. Not only that, but we order a large number of the "free" (not actually free to retailers) comics and distribute them to the libraries, banks, doctor's offices, and other businesses in the area, we hand them out at the city Christmas Parade as well. In addition we do presentations at the libraries to share information about comics, we have worked with the area literacy council, we have donated comic books to schools for teachers to use to get reluctant readers interested in reading again. If this commenter has other ideas about how we can grow the market I know I'd love to hear them! Please, if you know ways to increase how many people buy comics let me know because if I can cost justify it I'll try it.

I think many comic fans and creators actually understand the current problem for what it really is: the industry is contracting. And, if things do not change, the industry -- in the form and format in which it currently exists -- will die.

Why does contraction = death? Sometimes things become bloated and need to contract in order to survive. Again - if you have seen the Previews catalog you know that it's gotten larger and larger over the years. To state that there is so much contraction that the industry is dying would lead me to believe that Previews would be much smaller, like it was a decade or two ago, not large like it is now. Not every single thing created in the sequential format deserves to be sold, let's face it. Some things just aren't that good. And let's not discount the growth of web comics. Today there are MORE comics available than ever before. Maybe not a whole lot more readers, but plenty of choices. Just like the 700 pound man needs to go on a diet before he dies, sometimes bloated industries need to contract to survive.

Second commenter:

...Which you probably AREN'T taking responsibility. Not because you didn't hear about it, but because frankly like 99% of all the retail community in the comics industry, you're lazy and only care to promote what you said yourself: "what you KNOW will sell".

If a publisher and creator makes an effort to make sure I know about their stuff I will at least consider, if I find the item to look well done and seem like something my customers would enjoy, selling it. Even if I have to do some hand selling of the item once it arrives. And there are plenty of other store owners who do the same. If I don't know about it and from the brief Previews solicitation I'm not convinced that I'd be able to sell it to someone, I'm not going to order it. There aren't enough hours in the day for me to learn everything about every book solicited in Previews. That's not being lazy, that's being realistic.

YOUR job is to be the ambassador to the medium of comics on the whole- INCLUDING the publisher who DOESN'T HAVE tens of thousands to blow on advertising...

I don't have tens of thousands of dollars either, so I can relate to publishers who have to market on a shoestring. We've hosted creative teams who have comics you probably have never heard of, helping them promote their comics. We go to local conventions and talk with area creators, allowing them to bring their items into our store to sell. We have let creators and publishers send us samples and/or web links of samples of works so we can check them out. We've had calls from creators and/or their representatives and we listen to what they have to say and judge based on the information if we think we'd like to give that piece a try. I AM an ambassador. And I never asked these creators to wow me with full color banners, TV ads or even a full copy of their work. There are PLENTY of ways they can promote their works in a less costly manner.

...and not just to your fanboy clubhouse members, but to the general public at large, who honestly couldn't give a shit less about Marvel or DC product by and large, so why the hell are you not promoting products that might actually draw in, y'know, NORMAL people?

Keep in mind, not all markets support a flurry of independent works. My store is a suburban, Midwestern store in a politically conservative town. Sometimes no matter how hard we try to get people to read something different they just won't -- they like their Spider-Man and Justice League and they just won't step out of that. I know plenty of other retailers who carry large amounts of small-press indies because they have a customer base that they KNOW will support those works with dollars. In those stores selling Marvel and DC is the chore. Again - each store is buying what they are relatively sure they can sell to their own demographic. Let me also point out that claiming that characters have endured for decades, been serialized into TV series, movies, and product licenses are characters people don't care about seems like a pretty weak claim. If people REALLY didn't care about these characters then how have they continued to maintain popularity? How are they able to generate the revenue they do, not just within the "fanboy clubhouse" but with the general public at large? If you surveyed people on the street, showing them an image of Superman and an image from Warlord of Io, asking them which character they're more interested in, I'd bet that most, not all but most, would choose Superman. And these are "normal" people. I witness this annually at Free Comic Book Day - the comics with characters people recognize, those characters owned by DC and Marvel, ALWAYS move more copies than the other comics, and we get plenty of non-clubhouse members in that day.

Tell me, what do you do when you have a customer who's complaining about what 'sucks' about X-Books, or Batman... whatever "hot ticket" item it is this week, but is still buying it out of rote habit? You're sure as hell not doing what a responsible retailer would do- tell the customer, "No, you're obviously not happy with this product. Let's put this back and find you something else that you will be happy you purchased."

That's quite an assumption! And it's wrong. If someone loves comics but becomes discouraged with their current titles we do try to make other recommendations. But to recommend something we have to be familiar with it. If I don't know about Wizard of Io I can't recommend it. Sometimes the recommendation is another title by the same publisher, sometimes it's a title written by someone that customer likes, sometimes it's a book in a genre they've shown an interest in before. And sometimes customers want to buy the comic anyway - they complain because they have an emotional tie to the work and something in the book has upset them - or they complain sometimes because that's just what some people do. To assume that everyone who complains about a title actually wants out of it is, again, a very false assumption.

I'll lay odds I can walk into your shop with a list of thirty to forty titles that I read, and you won't carry a single one of them, because you're too damned busy wasting your budget on corporate crap because it's easier for you to just throw that on the shelves, sit back and rake in money, than it is to actually function as a proper retailer and be a salesperson for the medium of comics as a whole.

I don't know you well enough to know what you like. But if you did shop in my store I'd work to meet your needs. But you don't. I don't have to meet your needs. I have to meet the needs of MY customers and those potential customers who live in my demographic. I've had many people comment about the fact that my store carries a more diverse collection of graphic novels than any other store in the area they've seen. That's a testimony to the fact that we DO work to provide customers with a broad selection of items. Sure, Marvel and DC take up more shelf space than the independent titles do, but that is because that's what my particular customer base has expressed an interest in.

You are not the model by which every comic book reader was made. Not every comic book buyer is as interested in trying out new things as you are. Not every person on the street could be convinced to purchase a comic book oh, if only, it didn't say Marvel or DC on the cover. And these books you love so much, what are they? As a clearly passionate fan tell me why I should carry them. If you support the works then show your support by encouraging retailers to check out those works, by promoting those creative teams, by passing those comics on to friends and growing the market, by getting a job in a comic book store or opening your own so you can share your interest and passion, rather than pointing blame at people you know nothing about. It seems that you are not thinking about anyone but yourself here. You're to hip for mainstream comics, I get it, but don't think for a second that everyone else is like you. Not every store will carry what you buy - that's why it's called small press, why they're called independent. Just because a comic book store doesn't have what you like doesn't mean they are not meeting the needs of their customers, especially if you are not their customer or reflective of their customer base at large.
Being a comic book retailer is far from easy, even if one only carries Marvel and DC. Meeting demands, creating interest, growing the base - all of these things require work. Many comic book retailers do that work. Not all, sadly, but many do. This is not the early 1990's when people are flocking to comic book stores to buy multiple copies of the Death of Some Guy and Image #1 with the holographic cover because they have heard people are getting rich buying them. That market no longer exists. There are still some collectors, but most of them actually READ what they buy now - not all, but most. Succeeding in business, be it owning a comic book store or creating a comic book, requires dedication and hard work.

Laziness rarely results in success, especially in this economy. That's another problem with these small press creators. I can't tell you how many titles I've brought in because they looked good - like something I could advocate in the store - only to have the creative team fall apart, the publisher go belly up, or the title start coming out every three or four or six or twelve months instead of the monthly or bi-monthly production schedule customers seem to need to maintain interest. I've found that I'm better off supporting these works in graphic novel format - once I know the entire story arc is complete - rather than in single issues. I don't like disappointing my customers by telling them: sorry, that title you've been enjoying is STILL not out - I don't know WHERE it is - yes I know it's been six months now since the last issue, yes I'm SURE I ordered it... For many creators in the indy world making comics is not their full time job. I get that. But don't expect to grow a fanbase if you can't deliver on time. And don't expect retailers to go out of their way to sell your works if you have a history of late delivery. Kevin Smith is a big name in comics, and also known for is inability to deliver on time - DC has learned to require him to get the full story done before they solicit it for sale. Indy creators could do the same - write one-shot stories or create your story first, take your time, make it good, and then ask me to buy it. If I know I can supply interested people with regular issues I will work harder to promote your stuff. If you are just going to do what you can, when you can, then just let me know when it's done because I don't have time for that lack of commitment.

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