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

Home > Commentary and Features

A Few Words on the Latest Round of Bookstore/Comic Shop Chatter
posted February 28, 2005

There was a fair amount of debate last week about the notion of comic book stores versus traditional bookstores. It started with a Brian Hibbs editorial at Newsarama.

And continued through a number of letters on this site.

I wanted to write a big essay on my own observations regarding the matter, but after a few hours of false starts, and my inability to get my mind around so much loose and emotionally charged argumentation, I think I can get my basic thoughts out in a few paragraphs.

Basically, retailers like Brian Hibbs are right on a lot of these general issues. There aren't enough resources spent on maximizing the possibilities of the direct market. Comic shops have long been treated as a resource to be exploited by companies in service of everything except the long-term development of a business model. Additionally, pundits do generally overstate the potential of bookstores, or distort the numbers outright. Part of this is because of the various culture clashes that surround comics, and part of this is because there are motivations that lead people to take certain positions in order to be heard. This may be now infecting the thinking at some of the larger companies, as with DC's recent restructuring of its sales department and its "if we say it, it must be true" claim that nothing in terms of direct market support will change. I don't believe them, and I imagine the smarter retailers are at least suspicious.

However, where I have little sympathy for Hibbs' position is when it’s applied to publishers who are pursuing a new market after years of neglect, a market they need to survive. Those publishers have won the right to decide what works and what will not work for them in the direct market; they either have yet to see what will work and what won't in the bookstore market or, in some cases, they're learning that some things really do seem to work in the bookstores. Beyond that, I'm not even sure what the pro-DM argument is about here, and my attempts to get at specifics almost always lead nowhere. I'd say this discussion can't proceed any further until someone can point out specific support mechanisms that have gone missing in the DM the last few years, and how that has had a unique impact on sales in the direct market. My impression is that DM sales have stayed roughly the same for companies moving to bookstores as for those focused on the direct market. Both markets have also seen companies oriented in their direction collapse. And the notion that resources should be spent equally if there are equal results sounds like something offered up at a family's dinner table where a new baby has left some siblings feeling neglected, more than it does someone noticing the bottom line has gone bad and trying to find out specific reasons why.

No one should be surprised that there's this kind of emotional element to the direct market, and where I think pundits are unfair is in only charging retailers with thinking this way and not recognizing how much publishers have exploited goodwill or other supposedly noble notions for business advantage. I think this has enabled a lot of systematic sloppiness far deadlier to the market's health than whether or not D&Q has an artist tour this summer. Big companies refuse to schedule their books in a way that helps retailers avoid the shelves getting clogged. They stack them; they flood the market; they're late; they have holes in the backlist. Hideously undercapitalized smaller companies have for years published as soon as they get material, meaning no advance support, and without respect to the solicitation calendar, which makes it hard for the retailers to move the product when it finally gets there. It's these factors that need to be changed, and these factors have little or nothing to do with romancing the bookstore -- except, perhaps, that discipline learned in one market can have a positive effect on the second.

Like many retailers, I hold out dim hope that the majority of newly announced book lines will succeed. I believe, like many publishers, that the mid-list will do better at a comic shop targeting more active and knowledgeable readers than they will at a bookstore. I'm not sure DC isn't making a big mistake by pursuing a market I'm not totally convinced wants what it has to offer. And I've always felt DC and the other big companies like Marvel have failed their industry by abandoning the search for a long-term growth strategy in favor of whatever weird system helps their bottom line when it comes to market share and corporate positioning.

But last week's battles sound more like a temporary outcry of frustration fueled by the heat of commentary and favorable press that will eventually settle back to a new and better normal. Most, if not all, companies will continue to sell everything they can through comic book stores, and the bigger companies like Scholastic and Norton will pick up on how to sell through comic book stores, too. Give them time.

One thing I can't help but think about these publishers working with major bookstore distribution is that the book distributors aren't leaving their buyers to pine on message boards for more support, or to write impassioned articles advocating a different orientation. They serve those buyers by making certain standards of business and levels of support a function of doing business. If comic book shops want changes to be made in how their businesses are to be served, I would suggest they start by gathering their considerable muscle and leaning on their distributors to secure for them similar treatment.