On Comics Retailing

A version of this post was posted on my FB wall in December.

Comic shop closures are a thing the community is discussing, as is usually the case when we end the year and start the next. The holidays can be a make or break time for many comic shops. We closed our retail operation in the spring of 2015, but the decision to close was made in January 2015.

Personally, I think we’re in for a few more shuttering in the GTA in the new year but it’s also a year of changes as we see some downtown stores relocating as their old locations are being renovated or demolished for new developments or current leases end.

Sorry, this is going to be long…

Usually the month of December is the best of the year as people come in looking for gifts for family and friends. What I’m hearing from my retailer friends is mixed, some good days but overall down from previous years.

When I ran the Lounge you could literally watch it happening like a clock winding down. Christmas 2012 was great, Christmas 2013 was down due to early bad winter weather, Christmas 2014 was down even further and Christmas 2015 made me wonder if the calendar was wrong and we somehow missed December. Bad weather = zero sales. Long weekends = low sales.

I hear a lot about trades, and you know what, as a customer who spends most of his money on trades and books I order what appeals to me but I’m still spending a lot of money on books EVERY WEEK as were my regulars who also buy books. Book customers are NOT the problem – I’d rather have book customers every day of the week because they spend more, and I make more, on their purchases. You build a weekly book-buying customer base and they’ll help you pay your bills and your rent a lot farther and faster than those 10-20 a week comic buyers. Customer choice is what killed other entertainment delivery formats. Look at digital video – blu-ray supplanted dvd, digital has supplanted blu-ray, 4k blu-ray is a non-starter. Why buy another thing for the shelf when I can stream it as part of a service.

Something I think that is important to address is the discount bookseller – something that is a problem here in Toronto, but must be an issue in other cities. WHY would a customer pay full retail on a book collection when these discount booksellers exist and they HAVE DIAMOND ACCOUNTS?!?!

Digital – hell, you have to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Digital is so much more convenient if you just want to read comics. A collector won’t make that switch, but I still get only Marvel comics every week because, to be frank, I don’t care about print copies unless I want that ultimate book on the shelf, I want the digital codes. I get a new Marvel comic for my retailer cost and then punch in the digital code and give away the print copy or put it on a table for discounted price at a show. I read them on the bus to work, or on the flight to a show. I’ve even started just buying some DC titles directly on digital even though they cost me twice as much —- seriously, I have an apartment full of paper, I don’t need more paper unless it’s a nice book I want to sit and read. For my disposable entertainment, I’d rather have a digital file I can access from a cloud if I ever want to revisit. I’ve even started getting old favorites on these Comixology sales so I can revisit them on the go without digging through the stacks. Those customers who’ve made the full switch to digital are the people we just never see again, they don’t need to visit the shop. Their shop is wherever they are.

Surely all of these little conventions everywhere must be having some impact. Cons used to be something special, and I still – obviously – believe the big regional shows are important. Not just because I work for a company that puts them on but also because locally I sell at them. Big shows are still a viable place for me to sell books, while these little flea market shows are a lot of work for minimal sales. The customers are looking for deals and won’t pay retail or collector pricing, they want to negotiate, and they would rather spend their cash on back issues by the pound than on a new book or comic. Jury is still out on statues and toys, but there’s definitely a glut of that kind of material out there.

During the worst months of the Lounge I had trouble paying those Diamond bills and fell behind and it got to the point where maybe 1 in 4 was unpayable, and then they kept whittling back my permissions until finally I had to pay cash up front, but I worked hard and paid back my back debt and gradually eliminated everything but there was no reward for it – they say “we are making you COD for now until the back debt is gone”, but now means forever unless you want to resubmit a bunch of forms again and see if they’ll reassess you. I’m like “I owe you nothing in back debt after paying you tens of thousands of dollars back and my bills are small, can’t you please restore what you took away, supposedly as a temporary measure?” Nope. Send us all of your financials again and maybe we’ll see what can be done.

What was fascinating was to learn how many other retailers in the area are in the same boat. And some of these stores are buying tens of thousands of dollars of product A WEEK. One bad week and you can’t get your merchandise and then they are on you about other things, and without the new product you are out of business.

Honestly, I think the comics retailer is important to our community but they are, quite literally, slaves to the system working for a fickle audience with few real options.

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