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A Short Interview With Tony Shenton
posted December 31, 2003
 

He Buys Minis From Tony Who?

It's okay if that part of the interview lost you; I'd never heard of Tony Shenton until Jim Hanley mentioned his name in this interview. So what does a sales representative who works with mini-comics do? I asked; he answered.

TOM SPURGEON: Can you describe exactly what it is you do for Jim and other retailers vis-a-vis minis?

TONY SHENTON: I'm a sales rep. After a client who has a good mini-comic agrees to work with me, I will promote that comic into shops that sell minis. I will take their initial orders and transmit those orders back to the creator for fulfillment. Once a store has that comic in stock, it becomes part of their regular inventory and we will restock as necessary. I do this via the internet, telephone, and personal visit.

SPURGEON: What retailers do you service?

SHENTON: Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can service any retailer who is interested in mini-comics. Some of the best shops, besides Jim Hanley's include Zanadu, Comic Relief, and Chicago Comics. While I have over 100 retailers in my address book, there are about 20 that have an active interest in mini-comics.

SPURGEON: What mini-comics artists do you represent? How do you establish a relationship with the artists?

SHENTON: I think a complete list would be too long for this article, but I've had a great measure of success working with creators as diverse as Raina Telgemeir, Highwater Books, Dan Moynihan, Anders Nilsen, Nye Wright, Dave Roman & John Green, Robot Publishing, Young American Comics, and others. I hope the creators I've left off this list will understand it's not meant to be comprehensive.

My initial contact with creators is usually at small press conventions, but when I visit shops around the country, I keep my eyes open for new talent, and frequently buy what looks good to me. A growing number of my contacts now are from helpful retailers who will suggest to local creators who have potential to talk to me. Establishing a business relationship can be difficult, however. Once I gauge the interest of the creator, and the signs and portents are favorable, I have a simple business agreement that we both sign. The basics are that they extend to me the authority to represent their items and take orders; they agree to keep me informed about stock, pay me a commission on orders I've taken, and to keep scrupulous financial records. They still ship, bill, and invoice; I hype their books and take orders.

SPURGEON: Can other artists contact you about repping their work? How?

SHENTON: Anyone who's interested can get in touch with me at 718-923-1136, my home office, or through the internet at Shenton4Sales@aol.com. This also goes for curious retailers who might want to try some mini-comics.

SPURGEON: What in your mind makes for a good mini-comics section of a retail store?

SHENTON: There's no one answer that will work for every store. I like what Big Planet-DC does, using a spinning rack (maybe once used for greeting cards.) Some shops use them as point-of-sales impulse items at the register, and that's effective too. Since we are talking smaller size items (for the most part) care must be taken so that they are not hidden or crowded out of display space. Not every store is willing to do this. Some shops, like Comicopia, have one shelf unit where minis are located, and keep them watched. I've talked with shop owners who feel that the theft risk for minis is pretty high.

Mini-comics creators these days frequently "graduate" into anthologies. When that happens, it's good to have the flexibility to move the related minis close to the new comic or trade. Jim Hanley's can do that, and it usually leads to more sales.

The philosophy of carrying minis is equally important. Not all minis are xeroxed chicken scratch. Some are incredibly cool art with silkscreened, or handpainted covers, or fabric bound; some use other media rather than the traditional pen-and-ink. The best retailers keep an open mind. They read these projects (I know it's impossible to read them all...) but they find favorites and are able to hand-sell them, or develop customers who actually look for these books.

SPURGEON: Is there anything that you think mini-comics artists and retailers could do to better move their work through retail establishments?

SHENTON: Retailers not only need to have a desire to find and nurture tomorrow's talents, but they need to have patience. I think more retailers each year give independantly produced books like mini-comics a shot, though they are far from industry-wide acceptance. It's not enough just to stock one or two titles and let them sit. It helps to read them and find some to promote to your customers. If the first bunch doesn't work after two or three months, try some others. Ask your customers what they enjoy, or read some reviews. Or ask me!

Many retailers lump all mini-comics together intellectually in terms of quality; that's as short-sighted as lumping Archie Comics in with Vertigo. Mini-comics show just as wide a variety of quality and achievement as the regular size comic. Come to SPACE or APE or even Beantown Zinetown and be prepared to spend some time looking at, if not reading, these bits o' lit.

Creators can always make improvements. Just getting a mini-comic into a store doesn't guarantee sales. Creators need to support their retailers as much as possible. Here are a few practical suggestions for creators: unless you are already Chris Ware, it will hurt the sales of your book if the cover isn't attractive, and doesn't have a clear price on the front or the back. Concealing the price in the art, or leaving one off, can be frustratingfor the customer and the retailer. Don't want to sully your cover? Then create a book with flaps, so the suggested retail price is on the inside front cover. The cover is your selling point. Covers need to grab the eye in the few seconds the customer spends looking for a mini-comic. If you are too clever, too plain, or if the cover inaccurately represents the contents of your book, you've lost the customer and the retailer. If he can't sell you title, he can't reorder, and may not order your next project. Covers need to grab the eye in the few seconds the customer spends looking for a mini-comic.

Highwater minis like All the Goodbyes or China Guy by Greg Cook are good examples of covers that do the job. Dan Moynihan's covers convey the child-like essence of his stories with a bit of invention.

Business practices need to be above scrutiny. Accurate record keeping is essential.

Invoices must look professional. They must be legible, dated, and in print large enough to read.

Use invoicing software, or at least type. Stores that have problems paying may have received had an unintelligible invoice. Or worse, one without the creator's address.

Knowing how to ship the cheapest but most efficient way is a must, with the right packaging to insure the safety of the contents. Padded envelopes, good. Plain manilla envelopes, bad. Ship on time. If you show a book at MoCCA, for example, and you allow orders for that book to be taken, ship those orders as soon as possible. Have a legitimate reason for shipping late? Keep your retailers and sales rep informed. Don't expect much sympathy when you start to get complaints from angry retailers at the next small press show as you sell a book you haven't let them sell! In fact, there's a lot of worthy books out there competing for shelf space. You may get dropped by a retailer who has supported you in the past if you don't support him.

Keep a mailing list whether RT or virtual or both. Maintain a website. That way, when a new retailer chooses to try your comics, you can direct potential customers to that shop.

Once a creator decides to market his or her talents in this format, he must realize that there's a four-way partnership among the creator, the salesperson, the retailer and the public. Each has different requirements for making this a successful relationship. It's hard work, but every year more people seem to get the hang of it.