Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

May 26, 2010

Amanda Emmert Of Muse Comics On Female-Unfriendly Direct Market Stores

The well-regarded retailer and industry advocate Amanda Emmert of Muse Comics and ComicsPRO sent me the following letter in response to this editorial from last Sunday. I think I may disagree with every word she's written, but out of respect for Amanda and what was likely a considerable effort in making her objections known I wanted to give her words the widest possible audience without the usual, immediate, combative response, especially for the sake of those that might have read the piece to which it responds and in hope it will make for a better conversation over time. My thanks to Amanda for allowing me to publish the following.


Hey Tom,

I wanted to take a moment to respond to just a few things in your post about the female un-friendly DM, and if you want to talk more about it I'd be happy to email more. But just a couple of quick things:

1. Saying direct market stores as a whole, or even as a majority, are un-friendly to females and then basing that on anecdotal experience is a tough way to start a conversation or debate. It's like me saying that most men are chauvinists because I have 200 anecdotal experiences with chauvinistic men; it's hard to talk someone out of a stereotype or a prejudice. I could come up with 200 anecdotal examples of female friendly stores but you'll probably have more anecdotes to counter that, and in my experience some women can be put off by a shop for many reasons including the product, not by the actions of the employees or the set-up of the store itself.

I have a small, female-owned shop. I've been complemented by female readers, moms, librarians and teachers for over a decade for how inviting my store can be for women. That said, I have had many women put off by my store. It can be anything or a combination of things--we carry card games and miniatures and those are male-dominated hobbies and sometimes a wife or girlfriend can happen to come in when there are more men in the store than women. We don't carry any porn comics but there are still plenty of highly regarded indy comics we carry that can put women off. (Do you know how popular in indy comics is the lonely-guy-masturbation scene, seriously?)

It's hard to even write about this without over-generalizing. We can talk about female-friendly products only as a generalization. Many of the women who come into my store would be put off by Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose but that book has female readers. So do the Zenescope titles. Books that you might think, inside of our industry, are female-friendly can be off-putting. Gail Simone writes wonderful, tough, smart female characters but have you seen what they wear? Gail doesn't have control over that when it comes to writing established characters, but very few female characters in comics are actually female-friendly in the general sense and that's not limited to superhero comics. How put off you are by that just depends on how much, as a reader, you're used to it, how much you care about it, or how much you like it.

When I talk to other retailers about setting up a female-friendly store, I have talked about not putting up posters or even fully-facing books that may put off the casual female reader. But even that is difficult; almost all of the characters we have (mainstream AND indy) can be off-putting if you aren't already into comics. And then as a retailer you're in the position of not advertising a book that could sell very well for you if it's promoted to customers you already have in order to appeal to casual readers who you don't have as customers yet. That's a tough place for a retailer to be.

That's not to say that balance isn't frequently achieved, because we do have many, many wonderful stores that are friendly to everybody. I just wanted to point out that stores can seem unfriendly to women just for carrying comics, not because the owner or the employees are behaving badly or haven't set up a nice store.

2. Okay, so in defense of the direct market: we have many, many wonderful stores. Most of the stores I visit are comfortable and trying to appeal to a wide customer base. Do we have stores that even I, having worked in comics retail since I was 16, wouldn't shop in? Yes, we do. The answer to that is not going to be to continue to talk about how unfriendly the direct market is to women.

Just like it doesn't make chauvinistic men less chauvinistic if I were to say "we need to keep debating about how chauvinistic all men are," it doesn't make poorly run comic book stores less poorly run by suggesting that we need to keep talking about how unfriendly direct market stores are. And, just like if I kept saying "all men are chauvinistic" it would offend the guys who are interested in the discussion, you just continue to offend the retailers who really do care about improving the direct market. They're the ones who take the time to read your blog, by the way, and it's tiring to keep hearing how unfriendly we all are when most of the retailers I know are working 60 hour weeks, at a minimum, to promote comics to everyone. They are the friend of the comic reader, not the enemy, and too often they are castigated by bloggers for any offense anywhere within our industry.

3. What's the answer to the unfriendly direct market stores, then? In my opinion, it's not to give up on the direct market as a whole and send customers to Amazon, it's not to continue to demoralize good retailers, and the answer is not to foster an anti-retailer sentiment in the blogosphere and inside of our industry.

In my opinion, the answer has several parts. We need to continue to promote great stores and spend time talking about what we like in good stores we visit--as a retailer, if I hear that something you found enjoyable in another store meant that you spent more money there, I am far more likely to try emulate what makes money than I am to change what I'm doing because you're down on the direct market. That education takes a while to reach progressive stores and may not reach the poorly run stores at all (since those owners aren't online looking for ways to improve their stores) but I can tell you that most retailers are interested in what actually makes more money and if you have examples that one can easily emulate then we have something to work with.

Another part of the answer is that we need more stores. In my experience, many of the poorly run stores that still exist have been in business a long time (because the newer poorly run stores usually don't last that long) and the owner has found what works and is going to stick with it. So you aren't going to talk him (or her) into changing much, even with all of the arguments and good examples in the world. I think starting on the ground floor with newer retailers is the way to encourage best practices. ComicsPRO has a crazy-cheap way for new or would-be store owners to connect with existing progressive retailers to learn about creating a widely appealing store. All of the retailers involved are volunteers who donate their time and expertise to others because they're interested in improving our market.

If you find a store that's doing a good job, give them your support (even if it's via mail order) and talk about them. The market is going to go where the money is, and right now the easiest money for a retailer to make has nothing to do with being female-friendly. The best discounted and easiest-to-sell comics aren't trying to be female friendly. This example is not universal but for the most part, many retailers know that their female-friendly products and displays cost them more in discount, time, and customer percentage in the short run than the biggest mainstream books that they can make more money on with less effort. Yes, I fully believe that in the long run you make more money by appealing to a wider customer base. But it's not as easy as it sounds from the outside and almost every comic book store is a small business with tight cash flow.

When your money goes to Amazon it does nothing to improve the direct market. If you're interested in improving the direct market, the answer is not to keep talking about how unfriendly many comic book stores are, the answer is to fund the ones who are doing a great job creating and maintaining stores which appeal to everyone.
posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink

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