“Woah! You manage a comic book store? You have the coolest job in the whole world!”
I receive this and a small mix of other overly eager statements about how “cool” my job is on a semi-regular basis. And it is true! My job is awesome. At the end of the day, I am fulfilling a role that many, including myself, have only dreamt of. I manage a comic book store during a period where being a comic book nerd is considered “cool.” I get to read new books first. Sometimes even before release. I get to pick all my favorite variants and claim them as my own. And I do not get to simply talk with enthusiastic readers, I get to create them!
But even the greatest jobs have their moments. Comics, gaming and toy retailers are everywhere now. It is more than just acceptable to be a nerd. It is an “IT” thing. But the industry can be difficult. There are ups and downs like any other retail community. And, like many tightly knit industries, there is much conversation on the hardships of running, managing and/or owning your own store.
After a few years in the industry, five very distinct aspects have set themselves apart as the most prominent difficulties in managing a local comics location.
In an industry that thrives on the “Collective Value”, having damaged product can be the massive speed bump. Dented corners, ink stains, water damage, ripped or broken boxes. Toys, comics, and statues often seem to be the most delicate and fragile product mix in the retail market.
If you follow anyone in comics retail on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, you have probably seen at least one image of poorly packaged product, smashed Funko POP boxes or the not so rare bent-right-down-the-middle comic book. Between the at-times naive packing techniques (due to admitted high turn-over rates and fast track training processes) from Diamond Distribution and the careless shipment handling of UPS, damaged product is not in question, it is an absolute.
Though much of the product can be replaced, not all is in print quantity to do so. And, trust me when I say, the most miserable thing to hear is an upset customer who “completely understands” that this is the fifth time this year that certain book did not make it on the shelf because of damages. And even worse? The all too frequently heard “Don’t worry! I can find somewhere else.”
The obligatory “customer complaint”. There are a LOT of amazing customers out there. People who genuinely love the industry. But there are those who also love to play the comics game. From the incredibly rude speculators, to unbelievably creepy whom we have had to call security on, to the dismissive parents who disapprove of any help or support you offer. Like in every other retailer industry: there are no customers like comic customers.
In absolute seriousness, I had one customer tell me that neither he nor his family would ever return to our store due to content of some of our books. His example? Story of My Tits. More specifically, the word “Tits”. For those who do not know, Story of My Tits is the graphic novelization of writer and artist Jennifer Hayden’s breast cancer survivor’s tale. And the reason the gentleman will never return to my store? A single word on the cover of a book that he does not want his three-year-old daughter to read.
Before you ask, yes. I did inquire if he knew what the book was about. His response, “Yes, I can read the back. I know it is about cancer.”
Content (which I will get to later) is an entirely acceptable reason not to want to come into a comic shop. Comics can be incredibly explicit. But his ignorant attitude towards a book simply due to a single word of a title on a book about surviving breast cancer? When he told me he would never be back, I thanked him for his opinion and walked away.
But that is only the beginning… Don’t worry, though! There are more fun customer experiences further on.
The Age Gap
Some of you may have seen my statement on understanding the Age Gap, especially with characters like Deadpool, in the current comics industry. But the frustration from the retailer perspective can be just as challenging to swallow as that of parents who must listen to their children cry about how they want to read Batman but can’t.
Our world, not just the comics industry, is changing. We can accept darker, more openly explicit and brutally realistic stories and events far easier than we ever have in any time past. And comics are following that fad. The darker and more real the books get, the further and further the age gap in books grow.
The industry has somewhat compensated with incredible book series like DC Comic’s Board Books, DisneyXD’s Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and incredible stories like Action Lab’s Princeless by Jeremy Whitley. Or the numerous graphic novel series from Scholastic such as the New York Times Bestselling and Eisner winning series Smile by Raina Telgemeier.
But these books do not appease every child. The Young Adult reading sections are growing, but many “older” kids want Batman. They want Deadpool. They want Walking Dead. These are stories and characters they see on television and in movies and video games. So why can they not read them? Books do not have the restrictions of cable television or the simple rating system of movies. Due to the unlimited opportunities, it is entirely acceptable to put anything and, very literally, everything into a book.
Now, try explaining that to every single parent, politely, who walks in the door.
On January 14, 2015 Marvel’s Star Wars #1 hit the market. With over 60… SIXTY different covers! Not books, just different covers by artists from every corner of the comic industry. Two of my customers have quoted me over $3,000 in the hunt for collecting every single variant. With money spreading throughout the industry like that, it would seem that variants are great for the industry, correct? Nope!
The most common variants on the market are called “Incentive” variants. These books require stores to purchase certain quantities of one cover to receive a limited numbers of another. Many variant hunters know what a 1:50 (1 in 50) book means. These are books that require a location order 50 copies of one specific cover, just to get ONE of the 1:50 variant. But what many hunters and variant fans do not know are the new and quickly spreading trend of percentage variants.
In July of 2015, it was announced that Marvel would be releasing a series of special Hip Hop variants based on some of the most iconic Hip Hop albums. This was received with great applause by audiences. But what was not announced? The fact that comics retailers who had already been having financial difficulties due to the Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC Comic’s Convergence crossover events, would have to purchase certain (seemingly random) percentages of books just to be able to order the Hip Hop Covers in mass. Sometimes 200% of the most random and non-connective issues that would frequently require retailers to order two to three times the amount of books they would regularly purchase for their shelves.
Well, retailers do not have to purchase these variants, right? Nope. Due to the outreach of the announcement, non-comic readers began pouring into stores in anticipation for the variants. But, when the percentages were given and comics retailers learned they would not qualify, those customers began looking elsewhere.
But wait! There are more! There are also store variants. These are books that require locations to order mass quantities to order a specialty cover specific for their store or chain. Hot Topic, the clothing and accessories chain, even had their Star Wars #1 variant. There are also cover price variants such as DC’s celebratory month variants. This month is dedicated to legendary comics artist, Neal Adams. These are books that can be ordered in any number amount but cannot be included with books that have percentage incentives on them.
Confused? Yeah. Us too!
The idea is there. People love variants. Collecting art by their favorite artists or seeing many of our favorite Hip Hop albums Marvel-ized is exciting or grabbing that Blank Cover to have an artist eventually draw something special on it. Variant hunting can be thrilling. But it is creating a significant division between the smaller and larger comics retailers.
Direct vs. Mass Market
All over the internet and throughout the industry the terms “direct market” and “mass market” are thrown around but only given a light explanation. The direct market is that of your local retailers who sell you your favorite toys, comics, and statuary. People who build their business within your community. While the mass market is a far more common term. In relation to the comics and toys industries, these are companies such as Barnes and Noble and F.Y.E.
In name and size, there is very little comparison. The mass market vastly out-weighs the direct market in availability and connectivity. But in product, we are the similar. You can find PX Exclusive (Diamond Distributor’s direct exclusives) Funko POP’s in F.Y.E. locations. As well as trade paperbacks and limited statuary at stores such as Barnes and Noble. The mass market, though rarely mentioned, also includes online companies like Amazon and their recently purchased digital comics distributor, Comixology.
A larger market is not disliked. Competition breeds opportunity. But what the mass market brings to the table is lower prices. Prices the direct market cannot remotely compete with.
DC Comic’s The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is not only a Batman staple but an industry staple. At 2015’s San Diego Comic-Con it was announced that the fan-favorite would be adapted into an animated film. So not only is it a must for classic comics fans the world over, it is now required reading for newer fans. Due to discounts provided by Diamond to local retailers, most of the direct market charges cover price. For the “deluxe” hardcover (the only version, other than digital available on the market) you would be spending $17.99 (pre-tax). But at Amazon it is currently available for $10.19 and a touch less at $10.16 from Walmart.
They order their books in quantities local retailers could only dream of. Thus, their wholesale is much, much, MUCH less which permits discounting. The average wholesale rate for direct market retailers can frequently be near the same as what some mass market companies will sell their product for online.
And I will not even get started on digital prices (sometimes as low as $.99) versus the direct market rack book prices (that range from $2.99-$5.99).
From the direct market’s perspective, we would love to save you as much money as possible. But things like price-matching and availability are near impossible to what the mass market can offer. Though the industry and fandom are growing, the direct market is having difficulty keeping up. And, once again, turning this back to the problem of explaining the market to already frustrated customers, the amount of disdain can be terrifying.
As of late Yelp has gained a negative reputation for itself by accepting profit for better reviews but it is still one of the most regularly visited review sites. My store has 10 reviews. One of the newest is a 2 out of 5 star review. Not because of bad service or the tidiness, he did mention those were fine, but two other specific factors. The first is a complaint about the amount of children’s product we carry (which for me accounts for nearly 40% of business, though the customer does not know that). While the second is how Amazon sells the exact same thing we carry for far less. That is it! And I am not the only person in the area whom the gentleman has reviewed and said the same thing.
Not to stand on a soap box, but supporting the direct market is greatly appreciated among the local retailers. But understanding where saving money is a benefit is both a major issue within the industry and something we, as retailers, completely understand.
Though many of these issues may seem benign and, individually, can appear more as whining than as concern. The reality of managing, running and/or owning your own store can be very difficult. Comics, toys and gaming locations are popping up like Starbucks. In many areas you can find several within only a few miles. But it does not mean that it is a piece of cake to open one up. Between the already mentioned concerns, your potential location (location, location) and your particular area demographic, managing a comics retailer can be trying.
Yet it is far more than the negatives. First and foremost, managing a shop within the industry has created some of the best memories and many of the most incredible opportunities. Though getting over the hiccups can sometimes cause headaches, they are simply that. Hiccups!