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Round and Round and Round (and Round)

So, two months ago we talked about how much the market has expanded in terms of the number of titles being published -- in the last 25 years we've trebled or quadrupled the number of titles that are being published. Honestly, well past the point of rationality.

This was really brought home to me last month as I was slogging through the two monthly order forms I had to do. Now, some of this is my own fault, because I haven't quite learned yet how to "let go" in the way that I need to -- even though we have Final Order Cutoff each and every week, where we place our final orders for Dark Horse, DC, IDW, Image, Marvel, Boom!, Dynamite, Oni, Valiant, and Zenescope, I still place those initial monthly orders, and I still insist on being involved myself. Partly because my two managers are still learning the right balance of stock and I need to do a reasonable amount of adjusting to their ordering pass, partly because I'm doing some "big picture" thinking, trying to look at the two store's inventories as parts of a whole, but mostly because I am a control freak.

It was also the worst possible time to do a pair of order forms, as I had just come from a week of vacation, and I had just five days to get them both completed on time. Not fun.

Ultimately, that's why I didn't write a column last month -- the demands of the order forms just broke my brain.

I know to the layperson you probably don't comprehend how ordering comics is a pain, but every retailer out there knows what a drag the form is to fill out every month -- there are just so many comics, and they all need careful consideration, and after doing more than one of the big publishers in a row, you invariably feel like there are bugs crawling all over your brain.

(OK, not bugs, but here is Brandon Schatz describing the pain, too.)

The thing is, the train never ever stops rolling. Ever. And it makes it hard to really see what we're doing to our business by this constant, incessant, over-production at every level of the business.

I've got, perhaps, an interesting perspective on this, moving from an owner-operated single-store for the majority of a quarter century which evolved in that time from (primarily) a periodical store to (primarily) a book store, to now owning multiple stores, where the second one is absolutely a superhero-driven periodical store. The evolution of the first store came slowly over decades as I had an agenda for what kind of store I wanted, and I set out to build it.

In the second store, I am largely agenda-less -- I know what I think works, but the way Outpost has been running for the last two decades is (nearly) diametrically opposed to my own agenda that I'm perfectly willing to have a laboratory with which to play out theories but letting that store be what that store will be. The second store has a fixed number of rack spaces, and there's nothing we can do to increase the number of periodical titles we stock.

Further, at Outpost we keep the last 8-12 issues of each individual title out on that slot for people to be able to easily "catch up" from the rack, rather than digging through bins.

In contrast, at the main store, we don't stock more than the last two or three issues of any given periodical usually, and the space they occupy is always moving and flowing.

(This is because at Experience, the periodicals overlap, while at Outpost they're in full-face pockets.)

We're in our third quarter of running Outpost now, and the limitations of the periodical as a driver of new business are becoming apparent to me -- because we can not (physically) expand the number of titles on sale, each "slot" on that wall really has to pull its own weight. And, so, new ideas and new voices tend to get crowded out by the fifth and sixth and seventh iteration of slowly falling "brands."

The problem with being a superhero-centered store, ideologically speaking, is that your business becomes far more about brand management than it does about entertaining people, per se. I feel, well, obligated, I suppose is the right word, to carry all six different titles in the "Green Lantern" "Brand," even though, if I looked at those titles objectively, at least five of them sell a generally meaningless number of copies. We'd be, I think, better off, cutting off those spaces in favor of trying to find titles that could sell better, but all you're going to do in that case is make it so the overall "brand" becomes unreadable without all of its component parts.

At Experience, I can just say "Well, these are selling badly, cram them into a smaller space" because of the overlap. Can't do that in full-cover world!

The problem is that the publishers are going to try to expand each brand however they can, regardless of whether that makes any sense for the long-term prospects of that brand, because the majority of stores treat the comics that they sell like Outpost does -- that is to say, the presentation of the brand is more important than the objective sales thereof.

How to explain this properly? At Outpost, there are, I think, what we would still call "Marvel Zombies" -- Marvel's best-selling books are Outpost's best-selling books, and much of what I consider the midlist sells 2-3 times better than it does at Experience. This is because Outpost has decades of practice of selling the "Superhero Brand" rather than "the medium of comics" (if you see what I mean?). So, at Outpost, the #1 best-selling comic is "Batman" at roughly 70 copies per month, and the #2 best-selling comic is "Amazing Spider-Man" at roughly 60 copies per month (Largely mapping to how "the rest of the Industry works"). Outpost also sells 20 or so copies of something like "Nova" or "Flash," while comics that are what I consider to be more broadly appealing to casual readers, like a "Saga" moves maybe 40 copies.

Meanwhile, Experience, the more "medium-focused" store, "Batman" is in our Top 20, but nowhere near #1 at roughly 50 copies, while "Amazing Spider-Man" limps in at around 25 copies sold. "Nova?" All of 5 copies sold, and "Flash" is around a dozen. On the other hand, "Saga?" At least 140 every issue.

The toppest-top is higher at Experience, but the average middle is higher at Outpost, if you see what I mean?

But the thing is, ultimately, Experience is selling to more people -- I think it is better to have the single best-selling comic going to 140 people than to 70, and even in the aggregate of the five titles excerpted above, Experience is selling 232 comics to Outpost's 210.

Outpost has more sub customers, but they tend to have very similar buying habits. Experience has a more casual base, but those customers tend to sample more titles overall. Thanks to book format perennials (and a more walk-by-friendly neighborhood!), Experience grosses significantly more income than Outpost.

Neither method is "better," really, not actually -- both stores have existed for over two decades (and Outpost did that through a few regimes that clearly had no idea what they were doing), and both serve their agendas, and what their customers want, the best that they can, and so they're both successful businesses from the only metrics that matter. However, virtually every single comic that Outpost carries does emphatically suffer from "standard attrition" every month, while Experience has a dozen or more books which are on issue-by-issue upswings.

And the reason I think this is the case is a simple matter of brand over-expansion. Six "Green Lantern" or "Avengers" comics, where there probably shouldn't be more than two.

(And, yes, you can say the same things for "Aliens" or "Transformers," or even, honestly, "licensed comics for kids" -- the smaller publishers are simply just as guilty of over-expansion as Marvel and DC are.)

In exploiting these brands, in this manner, our publishers chase readership away from buying periodical comics as a category. I have watched, over the decades, as I used to be able to order case-lots (2-300 copies) of books to now I'm crowing that I have a single triple-digit seller. Wow, aren't I impressive!

I remember the days where you simply would never, ever, ever order any Marvel comic book under 20-30 copies. And those were the really awful Marvel books -- like "Marvel Age," the hype magazine. Or maybe the "Star" comics.

Today, I spend most of my order processing time deciding between ordering "3" copies of a comic, or "4" copies. This is a phenomenal waste of time and effort that, even when you end up getting it correct, you're not making anything like a meaningful profit for that labor.

I know that for me as a store -- rather, as a pair of stores -- handling a one-time good at a threshold of under 10 copies or so is pretty much a waste of my resources.

And about a third of the periodical comics we carry are under that threshold!

(At both stores, for that matter.)

The question becomes, then, are you stocking this low-selling material because you think that it adds to the character or range of your store, or are you doing so because it is "expected" of you? One move can be healthy, while the other is far less so.

I watch what Marvel and DC are doing, and there's a pretty significant part of me that says we're edging toward another crash again. One that, perhaps, won't be as bad as some previous ones, because there are fewer speculators out there, and stores aren't overbuying in that exact manner -- but "Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts" has always been how most stores have crippled themselves. Each and every month I pull nearly a long-box of unsold, and unsalable, comics from my racks at both stores -- it's a pretty scary amount of stuff when you think, "Oh, that box could be a car payment!" -- and I've figured out more ways to monetize that crusty biffage than many of my contemporaries.

But DC is determined to run no less than three weekly comics, and Marvel has an event comic that sounds commercial ("AXIS") but they're publishing nine issues in three months, and that absolutely tests the fringes of "how much can the market support?" in ways that absolutely don't strike me as safe or healthy, and in the meantime absolutely both of them are publishing scads of titles that aren't genuinely profitable (at least in terms of Return on Investment), and every smaller publisher is doing the same, too.

All markets, everywhere, have tipping points and breaking points, and those points come sooner when players behave irrationally, or deliberately try to stress the system to their own personal advantage.

The problem is that our stewards are no longer DC or Marvel -- they are Warners and Disney, and neither company natively cares about our medium except insofar as how they can exploit it. Which, fair enough. I just wish they could be taught that selling more quantity of fewer SKUs can usually be more profitable than the reverse. Less is More, and it is as true today as it was in 1976.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go start working on another pair of order forms.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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