(or, how to become an “indy-friendly” store)
When I self-published the Xeric Grant issue (vol. 1 #5) of my comic, Artbabe, I sent out a free print to all the stores that ordered it, and thus knew how many stores did so. Simple arithmetic told me that the average order for my comic was around two to three copies (if, of course, they opted to try it at all). Not too surprising, you say? Well, how about this: over the course of the past year, Artbabe #5 has sold over 150 copies in each of three stores. That’s about a fifth of the total sales so far.
Granted, these are stores known for selling alternative comics, but they didn’t all start out that way. (The stores in question are Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, and Chicago Comics and Quimby’s in Chicago.)
“When I bought the store, it had the reputation of being very mainstream-oriented,” said Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago Comics (and Quimby’s), “Mainly, we just listened to customers, and when they requested a title, we carried it. And not just one copy, but a few extras to allow other people to discover it. Interest in a title would start out slowly, almost without exception, but if a title’s any good, it’ll find an audience. But it has to be on the shelves.”
“That’s why we’re still around and so many other stores in the area have disappeared.”
Conversely, “The Picnic has always been an alternative store (back in the ’70s, Elfquest was the best selling title), and I know that’s why we’re still around and so many other stores in the area have disappeared,” says Tom Devlin of the Million Year Picnic.
Attract new customers into your store, and sell more comics to the customers you already have.
Everyone has concerns about how to keep a store viable in these rocky times. Ancient capitalist wisdom says: diversify. You may run a perfect mainstream comics emporium, but your audience is limited to fans of those comics, and if mainstream-comics sales are declining across the board, you have no safety cushion. If you add an alternative comics section and get the word out that it’s there, you could attract a large group of potential buyers. So that’s what you have here: a set of ideas that will help you to set up an alternative comics section in such a way as to attract new customers into your store, and to begin to sell some more comics to the customers you already have.
The rewards are a more stable and vital store.
“People are often looking to add a new title, and if they resist a monthly because of the cost, you can frequently get them interested in an alternative, because they don’t come out as often and so don’t add too much to a comics budget,” says Michael Drivas, owner of Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis. Getting the word out and developing a clientele for a new section takes time, but the rewards are a more stable and vital store, plus more comics to read!
Education is the Key
It’s ridiculous that employees of other stores shop at my store. There’s no excuse for that!
To get started with alternative comics, it’s important to understand that there’s a learning curve, both for your customers and for your staff. Every retailer I talked to reemphasized the necessity of “growing” individual titles, and your alternative-comics stock overall, slowly, by talking to customers about the subject, taking their ordering suggestions, and giving recommendations. All three stores that I named in my introduction found out about Artbabe when it was a minicomic (from customers) and called me to ask me to send them some. They’ve continued to reorder and keep both the minicomics and the “real” comics in stock, and they continue to sell them like gangbusters, but it all started out with a very modest order of five or so copies. Eric of Chicago Comics/Quimby’s has this to say: “There are people who are interested in alternative comics who come into every store. I guarantee it. You just have to listen to them. It’s ridiculous that employees of other stores shop at my store. There’s no excuse for that!”
At first, you’ll probably want to order just the sure-fire winners, and start letting the world know you’ve got ’em. “Just because a comic isn’t from a mainstream company doesn’t mean it’s good,” says Michael of Big Brain. “Read Palmer’s picks in Wizard, the columns in the Comics Retailer, the Comics Journal, and Indy to get a sense of what’s out there.” Encourage your staff to learn about alternative comics. They will doubtless sell best what they know best, so consider instituting a policy that allows staff to take home whichever comics they wish to read, as long as the comics come back in a salable condition. Consider asking staff to post small reviews of favorite titles on colored note cards on the shelves under where the books are racked. It’s possible your staff isn’t interested in reading alternatives, in which case you might clip reviews from Palmer’s Picks, the Comics Journal or Indy and post them under the racked comics. Customers will take some time to discover new genres, and the more guidance you can give them, the better, and the faster they will learn what they like among the new titles.
“Manga, Tintin, Hothead Paisan, and Asterix all sell really well to non-traditional comics folk.”
Tom of the Picnic again: “We try to recommend books that will challenge people’s assumptions, that will surprise them with how much there is in comics that they can identify with. We want these people to come back. For the non-fan, this means non-mainstream comics. Odds are parents will read some of the comics their kids bring home. I think most will actually be entertained by Tintin or Carl Barks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware, or Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer to someone looking for a gift for a friend and they’ve picked one up for themselves.” According to Tom, manga, Tintin, Hothead Paisan, and Asterix all sell really well to non-traditional comics folk. “And something else too,” Tom says, “that big Acme is seven bucks! That’s a good sale!”
Location, Location, Location
Of course you want to treat your loyal customers well, but they need less convincing than new customers.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: To a non-comics-fan, comics stores look like you need a secret handshake to get inside. Well, it’s true. This is why it’s important to put recognizable alternative comics and posters (Crumb, Moebius, Clowes, Bagge) in your window display, and to put your alternative comics section in the very front of your store. Of course you’ve got to advertise the latest mainstream comics “event”, and you may want to have lots of superhero posters up anyway, but remember that non-fans who buy comics are delicate flowers compared to real comics fans, who will know you have the mainstream comics they want, even if you don’t have them in the front. Think of it this way: of course you want to treat your loyal customers well, but they need less convincing that they can find what they want in your store than do the new customers you want to bring in. Tom from the Picnic says, “We have Tintin, Asterix, Calvin, Simpsons, Dilbert, and Archie displayed right as people enter the store. This helps acclimate people who may be unsure of where they are.”
Michael of Big Brain has a different theory: “If you have enough stock to make a substantial-looking section, then make one, up in the front. If not, mix the alternatives in with everything else. Someone looking for Hellboy might pick up Hate because it’s racked right there.”
To bring more attention to your alternative comics, you could pick a favorite one and put it in a small rack by the register as a special feature. Recommend it to curious shoppers; you could make an extra sale.
Picture to yourself what a Barnes and Noble looks like. This is the model the non-fan is used to.
When you’re designing the new section, picture to yourself what a Barnes and Noble looks like, how they organize their magazines and books (and window displays, for that matter). This is the model the non-fan is used to and, if you emulate it somewhat, you will make them feel more at home.
Alternatives have an enormously long shelf-life.
Retailers who specialize in alternative comics all report a slower, steadier sell-through. Eightball may sell 200 copies for Million Year Picnic, but it takes two months. The lesson here is also that they keep selling for two months, and not only that, but for two years, and longer. Tom of the Picnic estimates that they sell 300 copies of each issue of Eightball (which is their best seller: compare to 115 copies of X-Men) in the first year it’s out, and at least one complete run a week. Alternatives have an enormously long shelf-life compared to mainstream comics. Eric of Chicago Comics/Quimby’s says, “We’ve sold three, four, five hundred of the earlier issues of Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware. And they’re still on the shelf, and they still sell, three or four of each issue a week. With alternative titles, you won’t sell 100 in a week, but you will sell them. And they don’t lose value, like mainstream titles. With those, if you don’t sell-through in a week, you’re toast! You eat it!”
Other, more mainstream alternative titles, such as Milk and Cheese, may have an even slower start, but remain steady sellers for months on end.
You will obviously start small if you’re starting a section like this, but if you order two or three copies of Eightball, and it doesn’t immediately sell out, it very likely will within a month or two. Which brings us to…
I’ve heard untold numbers of tales of reorder hell, both from retailers and from fans. What can I say? We all live with a very imperfect system, and, with the long-drawn-out sell-through of alternative comics, reorders are essential. You have to be able to monitor your sales closely and not take on too much risk, but you also have to be able to get ahold of back issues for a customer who is getting interested in a new title. My recommendation, if you can stand having more than one distributor, is to order direct from many of the publishers, or from Cold Cut Comics Distribution. Of course, for orders on new books, it’s easiest and best to use Diamond Comics. “It’s easier to put a ‘two’ on your order form than it is to set up a new account with a distributor, so that’s the best route when you can do it,” says Eric.
Trade paperbacks may be where you see your largest area of growth with non-fans. It’s a good idea to keep collections of a number of popular comics in stock, since it can be an excellent way to introduce someone to something new. “We do really well with the big manga trades from Viz. We sell maybe 10, 15 copies of Ranma 1/2 a day,” says Tom, “and that’s a $16 book. We sell untold numbers of Sandman trades, they just fly out the door.” Eric confirms this, “We’ve literally sold hundreds of each of the Sandman trades.”
People will come looking.
Minicomics are hugely popular with some crowds, and, believe it or not, can actually sell, even with their low production values. In any case, if kids in your town bring in a photocopied minicomic and want to sell it in your store, consider taking a few on consignment. The goodwill you create in your local zine and minicomic community by being supportive could translate into new customers. Eric and Tom also both mentioned the local connection, and how important that has been for their stores. “Carry local artists’ work, and they will be loyal to you and send their friends, too. Also, if you have a local alternative weekly paper with comics in it, search out books of those strips. People will come looking for them.” If you decide you want to carry some of the better-known minicomics, contact Spit and a Half or Wow Cool for a catalog and recommendations.
What to Start With
In case you’re looking for suggestions on titles, here are some popular ones. There are some that are more appealing to mainstream fans (let’s call them ground-level), some that appeal strongly to non-comics readers (introductory) and some that are a little more difficult, for those who already have some introduction to alternative comics (alternatives), so I’ve divided the list into those three categories. A good plan would be to choose some from each category. Michael from Big Brain recommends that you start with eight to ten titles in trade paperback form, and concentrate on those. “It’s better to get several copies of each of a smaller number of titles, and concentrate on building them, than one of each on the list. Once you know which you like from seeing the trades, you’ll know which new issues to order when they come out.”
(Based on sales info from Chicago Comics, Quimby’s and Million Year Picnic)
- Action Girl (Slave Labor)
- Ballads and Sagas (Green Man)
- Battle Angel Alita (Viz)
- Bone (Cartoon Books)
- Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (Slave Labor)
- Milk and Cheese (Slave Labor)
- Anything by Paul Pope (Horse Press, Dark Horse)
- Ragmop (Planet Lucy Press/Image)
- Ranma 1/2 (Viz)
- Scud (Fireman Press)
- Skeleton Key (Amaze Ink)
- Strangers in Paradise (Abstract)
- Stray Bullets (El Capitan)
- Asterix (Dargaud)
- Anything by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink)
- Anything by Ben Katchor (Penguin/Little Brown)
- Lover and Rockets trades (Fantagraphics)
- Maus (Random House)
- Our Cancer Year (Four Walls, Eight Windows)
- From Hell (Kitchen Sink)
- Sandman trades (DC)
- Tintin (Casterman)
- Acme Novelty Library (Fantagraphics)
- Berlin (Black Eye)
- Eightball (Fantagraphics)
- Hate (Fantagraphics)
- Anything by Kaz (Fantagraphics)
- Nowhere (Drawn and Quarterly)
- Optic Nerve (Drawn and Quarterly)
- Palookaville (Drawn and Quarterly)
- Schizo (Fantagraphics)
- Zero Zero (anthology) (Fantagraphics)
(of course, you know I have to throw in a plug for myself here… don’t forget Artbabe! [Fantagraphics])
Written and designed by Jessica Abel, July, 1997. Funding for printing generously provided by Fantagraphics Books. Profuse thanks to Tom Devlin, Eric Kirsammer, and Michael Drivas. Feel free to reproduce and distribute this document as long as the entire thing, including this notice, is included. (HTML conversion by Jerry Stratton)
Copyright 1997 by the Artbabe Army International, Cmdr.-in-Chief, Jessica Abel. The Artbabe Army Int’l. can be reached c/o Fantagraphics, 7563 Lake City Way, NE, Seattle, WA, 98115, USA.