Friday, May 06, 2011

Supporting the comic book industry

In case you didn't know it, or simply forgot with all the insane events of recent weeks, tomorrow (Saturday, May 7th) is Free Comic Book Day.  FCBD is a day in which everyone around the world can walk into a local comic book shop, check out the latest and greatest in the world of the graphic novel, and oh yeah ... pick up some free comics along the way.  It's kind of a big deal, folks.  If you're already a comic book fan, it's a way to show your support for the industry you love, and also a way to introduce some friends to the world of the four color media (that's a printing term, for those of you playing at home).  And if you AREN'T a comic book fan, well FCBD is the perfect chance for you to pop into a shop and check out what you're missing out on.  Think about it as a "risk-free trial offer".  It's definitely worth checking out, and hey, it's not like you've got anything to lose except a few minutes of time.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to the comic book industry than Free Comic Book Day ...

Last night, while taking a break from my writing duties, I was looking over ye ol' Facebook page, when I noticed a post from a friend of mine, Mel Caylo, marketing manager over at Archaia Comics. In it, he said:
"Just got off the phone with a comics retailer who was very worried about his business. I really feel for him. He loves what he does, he said, but the store is killing him. Obviously, it is not just comics fans who are going to see these comic book-based movies. Instead of trailers in front of these movies, we should be running commercials for comic book stores!"
This got me thinking about the time I spent in the retail side of the comic business.  A few of you may remember that a long time ago in a galaxy (not so) far away, I used to work in a handful of comic book shops.  Final Frontier Comics. Heroes Aren't Hard to Find. Borderlands Comics and Games. Hell, it's safe to say that, all told, nearly a third of my life was spent working in a comic shop.   And let me tell you, nothing gets the chicks quite like being able to say, "Hey ... I work in a comic shop."  All kidding aside, I was flying on could nine that first day I got hired at Final Frontier ... but I wasn't just a register jockey at these shops all the time. At a couple of the shops, starting with Final Frontier, I busted my ass and worked my way up to managerial status.

So, based on the sum total my experiences, from my time as a doe-eyed comic fan to managing a shop to working with comic publishers and professionals to covering comics as a pop culture journalist, it's safe to say that in my time I've learned a thing or two about the comic book industry.  I'm not so full of myself as to think I have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas for what we can all do to help strengthen the business all the way around.

For Retailers:

  1. Don't run your shop like it's your own private collection.  Hey, I understand that if you've gone into the business of running (or even just working at) a comic shop, you've probably got the blood of a fanboy coursing through your veins.  The problem is, too many shop owners blur the line between running a business for their customers and simply using their shop as an extension of their own fandom.  You've got to remember that everyone has different tastes.  Regardless of what you might think about a particular title, character, publisher, etc., you've got to remember that your job is to cater to your customers' tastes and not your own.  Your role is to help them get the most out of what THEY enjoy and to help them enhance THEIR collections.  Sure, you can have fun talking with regulars about the past, present, and future of comics and which characters you think are better than which.  You can suggest new titles or some interesting back issues, but it's all about the helping the customers fulfill their wants ... not yours.
  2. Comics don't just sell themselves, ya know.  Look guys, this isn't Field of Dreams. Just because you built it doesn't mean they're actually going to come.  Just like any other business, you've got to market your business.  Don't just market it, though ... target the right market.  For example, Marvel Studios is releasing the Thor flick today.  Why aren't you doing something with the local theater to promote the film, the theater, AND your shop? And hey, later this year you can do it again with Captain America: The First Avenger.  Here's another thought. Why not work with the local public library to help promote reading for kids?  You could even just put together your own little event to draw in fans.  Running with the film theme, here's an idea. Get some food, some drinks, etc., and host an afterparty for one of those big comic film midnight releases.  The biggest thing is to get people talking about your shop and to give them a reason to check you out ... PARTICULARLY if they've got the potential to be long term customers.
  3. Don't swallow your own tail. This is something a LOT of store tend to forget.  To paraphrase Doc Brown from the end of Back to the Future, "It's your kids, Marty! Something's gotta be done about your kids!"  We're all used to seeing the same faces and in many cases, seeing how we grow with those around us.  In business, and particularly a genre business, it's easy to forget that you need to bring in new customers and not just rely on the ol' tried and true group of regulars.  I mean, you might be stocking the occasional "kids" comic out of some sense of obligation, but do you actually promote them?  Also, how much are you doing to bring in new faces?  Don't get complacent with just the group of usual suspects coming into the store.  Because sooner or later, circumstances will likely cause some of those people to leave, eventually whittling your strong foundation of regulars into the few occasional visitors. 
For Publishers:

  1. Support your retailers.  You could have the Citizen Kane of the comic book world, and it won't mean a damned thing if it's not getting into the hands of the readers.  You've got to do your part to help those struggling stores to market to their audience.  If a store IS going to put on one of those after parties I mentioned earlier, you need to help out by providing some incentives for the stores AND for the potential customers the event brings in.  Keep in mind that a lot of stores might be working on a very tight budget, so work with them to make these events something really special without breaking the bank.
  2. Be accessible. Okay, this one is a little tricky, but it needs to be said.  Now, I love my lore as much as the next fan, but sometimes it's a bit overwhelming.  Lost was a HUGE TV hit, right?  And no one will deny the show's success.  But you know what?  I didn't care for the show initially.  Don't get me wrong, it was well put together, it had a lot of interesting things happening, and it was entertaining ... but good luck trying to catch up if you missed an episode or two.  The same thing happens a lot in comics. Sometimes you forget that someone might be picking up a book for the first time.  Lost aside, most television series actually have one major arc per season, and yet still find the room to fit in some good, solid, standalone episodes.  This helps to give the new viewers a taste of what the show has to offer, while also giving regular viewers a reason to keep tuning in.  And at the end of one season, things are generally wrapped up neatly with a few extra threads to help prime things for the next season.  Don't force your audience to dig through volumes of work just to understand what's going on.
  3. Don't abandon your fans. This is why #2 gets tricky.  While you need to make sure that your titles are easily accessible to new readers, you need to make sure that you reward your regulars for paying attention and following your book.  Having a new "jumping on point" ever couple of issues can make regular readers get that "been there, done that" feeling.  I know, I know ... these two things seem diametrically opposed, keeping things accessible and yet respecting your established continuity.  I'll grant you it's a difficult balancing act, but it CAN be done.  The best way to do this is to break new ground, but still leave a trail that's easy to follow.
For Media:

  1. These aren't "funny books".  I had a conversation with my dad earlier this week and he asked me, "Is a 'graphic novel' the same thing as a 'comic book'?"  I told him that there are some minor differences, but generally yeah, they're the same.  He was asking because he'd seen some news stories referencing comics, but not calling them that.  That's when I realized what had happened.  Some of these mainstream media outlets were writing serious stories, and someone somewhere thought the term "graphic novel" sounded more grown up than "comic books".  There's no stigma attached to the term "comic book" and just because these are comic books, it doesn't mean that it's a kiddie industry.  Just like any other form of entertainment, there's something for everyone.  There are books for kids and for adults, and there's an audience for all of it.
  2. It's all "entertainment". Believe it or not, fellow members of the press, the comic industry deserves a LOT of respect.  You're starting to catch on to the fact that maybe there's something to it, thanks to Hollywood's current love affair with the genre.  The thing is, this isn't some sort of new medium.  Comics have been around for some time, and they've been telling some amazing and wonderful stories. Quit acting like they're the bastard child of more "respectable" facets of the entertainment industry.  A comic book writer or artist deserves the same sort of respect you'd give any other author, actor, or filmmaker.  They all have the same goal: to tell an entertaining story.
Look, I can keep going on and on and on about things, and I might chime in at a later date with some other thoughts and ideas on how we can work together to improve the industry.  There's also a particular group I haven't mentioned yet (comic fans ... I'm looking at you), but that's a story for another day.  For now, make the most of Free Comic Book Day, and if you're a part of the industry in any way, shape, or form, take a look at yourself and what you're doing to see if maybe there's something you could be doing to take an active role in the success of the genre.

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