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Me vs The Angry Mob: Proper Comic Shop Maintenance (Using Fractions)

 Do you think that I'm funny?

And there are days that make you feel the worst. Personally and professionally, you are spent and the people, the folks who walk in and out of your life all day, are not helping your brain turn a corner. They’re locking you into a dark place, making you believe the worst and expect the least. Days like this don’t happen to me often, but they still happen. They tend to be those slower days at work, when it’s, say, minus forty outside, and I woke up to a flat tire and was late to work and now, now, no one is even showing up except for this one guy, this fucking guy who is talking to me about how comics are bullshit, and why do you even sell them, when Magic the Gathering is clearly what’s important. This, as he finally puts in a request for another common card, bringing his grand total up to ninety cents for the hour he’s been in the store.

There are absolutely days that beat you down, days when your daily total doesn’t quite cover the cost of running the store for the day. But always, always, those days are erased by Wednesdays. When the people arrive in droves, where they talk excitedly about comics, where you can go home after running your feet off, content with the knowledge that you’ve done something good (and that you’ll still get to eat real food for quite a bit longer).  That said, the good days only come around if you’re doing your job right. If you’re worried every day, if you’re living from Diamond payment to Diamond payment, you are absolutely doing things wrong, far and away. And it’s not the economy, and it’s not digital comics or pirated scans. It’s not. If you do good work, if you keep an eye on your customers and actively seek new ones, you will not have trouble surviving in this business. As always, I’m here to be a dick and tell you about the things you are doing wrong, and the things you should be doing to stay afloat. And this time, I’ve brought back-up, in the form of a time travelling Matt Fraction.

ME VS. THE ANGRY MOB

PROPER COMIC SHOP MAINTENANCE (USING FRACTIONS)

01. TIME-TRAVELLIN’ BLUES

Did you know that comic book superstar Matt Fraction used to sling comics from the opposite side of the glass counter? He totally did. And from the sound of things, he was pretty fantastic at it. He was passionate, opinionated, and always, always tried to make sure people were reading good books. The guy loved comics so much he started a weekly web-based pdf zine called Savant wherein he (alongside a bunch of other talented folk) attempted to make comics better. The zine was split into several sections, each designed to strengthen different parts of the beast. There were rants, reviews, a section devoted to books you should not be without, essays, calls to action, and most importantly (well, to me anyway), a section focused on comics retail. Every week, the writers would rotate through different sections, in order to offer different perspectives (and so that no one got burnt out using a single set of writing tools and topics). For the first week, Fraction took on the retail section and wrote a fantastic article called 10 Things (which I will hereby assume was a reference to the Heath Ledger’s finest work, 10 Things I Hate About You). Within, he listed (you guessed it, champ!) ten things retailers should be doing. And even though the article was over ten years old when I found it (thanks, Wayback Machine!) all of these points stand true today.

And so, in the spirit of great comics retail, using the ghost of Fractions past (and Savant’s explicit instructions to spread the information in contained to all corners), we present his points, complete with bullshit bonus commentary from this guy.

You’re welcome, internet.

02. TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT FRACTION

1. Sell new titles to your regular subscribers when they come in on Wednesday. I don’t mean new issues — I mean new titles. There is no discernable reason why people who read Preacher should not be reading 100 Bullets. This will require you to get off of your ass and know everything that comes into your store. Once something comes out that you think subs will like, drop one in their bag, or catch them when they come in.

Every week, I make an attempt to read every new series and every book with a new creative team or status quo before the store opens for business on Wednesdays. This doesn’t always work out (there are a lot of comics, you guys) but for the most part, I have a solid knowledge of what books I should sell to who. This means knowing and realizing that books I don’t care for will be perfect for a certain section of the comic book market. For example, I don’t agree with or want to read books like Red Hood and the Outlaws – but we definitely sold out of that first issue. Sold it to people who are going to love that book for what it is.

That said, at the same time, I’m not going to go off and sell a book to you just because I can. If I know you don’t enjoy a certain kind of book, and you ask me for my thoughts, I will warn you against grabbing it. In doing this, I hope to earn your trust when all the books I put in your hands are books you will absolutely enjoy. Every retailer should at least make an attempt to do things like this if they want to stay in the game.

2. Sell like a drug dealer. See that little kid in your store? Make sure he or she walks out with a free book. Fuck you, tightwad, it’s worth it. Explain to them that if they want more, they have to buy it. And no, I’m not talking about Danger Girl. Use your head. Any of the Animated books. Bone. Archie. If they’re older, use your best judgment. Trust me-if the first one’s free, they’ll be back. If you can do this in front of their parents, it’s even better.

Take that part about the “Animated” books (I’m assuming the old Batman and Superman series DC used to produce alongside the old cartoons) and replace it with things like Tiny Titans and the Marvel Adventures line, and baby, you’ve got a stew goin’.

Fact: all ages comics sell terribly in the single format – but holy crap do those collections move. They move even faster when you start giving away the single issues to kids for free. Inevitably, if you pick the right poison, a parent will return for more of that thing their kid loved so much. They’ll buy whatever you have, so long as they have it. Sometimes this means more of the single issues, but more often than not, it means they’ll buy those nice collections you have from you  instead. Those can’t be wrecked as easily. So always, always make sure you order a few singles of every all ages book, even if you won’t be able to sell them – because you’ll end up making money on the back end.

Also: this “sell like a drug dealer” works for everyone. If you see anyone in your store who might be a new reader, or is in the shop reluctantly, don’t let them leave without something you think they’ll enjoy. I have a “New Reader Giveaway” box of comics that I’ve loved that I give away to people. It’s a simple and easy way to get them to try something, and hopefully return. This is always the goal. Get them to return.

3. Promote the shit out of things you like. Your regulars will listen to you. They will do what you say. Friend of mine at the store sold 10 copies of the Cages hardcover the day it came out to people who had never heard of it, re-ordered 20, and sold those over a weekend. All cold-sells. Hell, I used to offer a moneyback guarantee if I felt strongly enough about it. Put your money where your mouth is. If Big-Ass Leather Bitches is your thing, however, you may be well and truly fucked.

The only part of this I disagree with is the Big-Ass Leather Bitches part. If that’s your thing, hey, whatever man. There’s an audience out there, and you should sell those books to those people. That said, you won’t find too many of those books in my shop. I’m not that guy, and I have a tough time wrapping my head around why someone would want to spend their time on thinly veiled cartoon pornography. The only thing this aversion means is, that clientèle often goes elsewhere for that fix. Which I’m a little okay with. It’s not a huge market. I don’t think.

Regardless, if you don’t read comics, if you’re not passionate about them, you should not be selling them. Or more accurately, you’re probably not selling them. Either hire someone who does, or get yourself acquainted (or reacquainted) with the medium. It’s pretty awesome. Also, if you know the product and your customers, that whole “money back guarantee” thing? Is not a gamble. Not at all. It’s a card that will improve your chances of selling a book several times over, and if you’re good, very few people will actually come back demanding compensation. In my five years of retail, I have maybe had to deal with four returns, and I’ve hooked people up with hundreds upon hundreds of books. Do this.

4. Do not assume that your customers read Previews line by fucking line every month: keep them informed. For example: creative team changes. I sold through Mark Waid’s first issue of Captain America by asking random people if they ever read Cap. When they said yes, I would say “Oh, well, it’s good again,” and they would then buy it. In two hours, the book was gone. This was the first time that anyone could ever remember Captain America selling out.

We give copies of Previews away to all of our regular customers. For free. For a small section of our customer base, that’s all they need. They know what they want. For the vast majority, however, getting a copy of Previews is a fairly passive activity. Some probably don’t read it. A lot actually do, but they keep their notes to themselves, waiting until the books are on the shelf before they tell you that they’re interested. It is essential that you read through Previews every month with a fine toothed comb. You need to take note of certain writers, certain artists, mix and match with what you’re selling and what you know about your customer base.

And don’t be afraid to just add books to a person’s file. Maybe not the whole series, but place a special order, or make a special note to toss the first issue of certain books into people’s files. If you run a decent shop, you don’t penalize people for not wanting everything in their file – after all, sometimes books will just fall out of favour, and the last thing you want, is to have a customer that’s scared of dropping their books – either because you’re going to apply some bullshit charge to their account, or because you’ll make them buy all the issues they “pre-ordered” until you’re satisfied. That is a sure fire way of losing customers. But getting back to the point: talk to your customers about things. Make them aware of things they will enjoy, and make the occasional executive decision. Again, if you know your customers, these decisions are not gambles, but almost-guaranteed sales.

(Also… should I pick up the collections of all that Mark Waid Cap stuff? I haven’t read those.)

5. See all those reprints you have sitting on the shelf ? Hal Foster books no one remembers ordering; the Essential books Marvel puts out; Eisner, any Eisner; Alex Raymond things; Carl Barks; all those Greatest Ever Told trades from DC? The next time someone’s dad comes in lamenting “Oh, I used to read these when I was a kid,” YOU MUST SELL TO THEM. If your store is worth a shit, you will have something close to what they used to read.

This is an easy one. You are a sales person. Sell things to people who want them.

6. Sin City. Bendis’ stuff. Blueberry. The Vertigo Jonah Hex. Button Man. 300. There are others. You should have them. Dads will buy them. Grown men often have problems with men in tights mindlessly kicking the shit out of each other. This is why there are other genres out there. If you hook them, they’ll come back with their kids.

Over eleven years have passed between this list’s original publication, but the spirit of this remains true. You should have a good stock of every genre out there. Every single one you can. Westerns, crime books, horror books, humour books, romance, whatever. Limiting your customer base only harms you. Can’t seem to sell those books? Well maybe it’s because your product knowledge is shitty. Why aren’t you trying everything? Often times, you’ll be surprised at the quality of a book you didn’t think you’d enjoy. Maybe you wouldn’t buy it personally, but you should absolutely sample. You have the access.

And also, the Bendis stuff Fraction is referring to above is not-so-much his superhero stuff, but things like Powers and Jinx and Torso. All those. They are great, and you should always have them in stock.

7. Girlfriends often dart hither and yon between the isles like abandoned and frightened animals while their depraved boyfriends grab hungrily from the shelves. They are bored and unnerved and a little scared (often of the smell-see next item). Sell to them. If your store does not carry Love and Rockets, Bone, Optic Nerve, Clover Honey, Kill Your Boyfriend, Clockwork Angels, Strangers in Paradise, Heavy Liquid, Black Hole and so forth, then your store is shitty and you are shitty. Die, shiteater.

Nowadays, you’ll be forgiven if you don’t have Clockwork Angels because it’s not in print. (And I should note, I’ve never heard of Clover Honey but I just might need to check it out.) The rest remains true – but don’t make the mistake of selling books based on gender. I can’t stress this point enough. Not every girl or woman responds to the alt books. There’s a huge chunk that straight up adore the fights-n-tights comics, and you should always start a sale by asking what kind of things they like. Not just comics, but books and movies and TV shows. If your shop is worth anything, you will have something for anyone. Really, the publish all kinds of comics.

8. Have a staff of people that shower and get laid regularly working for you. I don’t care how long you’ve known Steve, the pot-bellied antisocial introspective Dr. Who mutant, and I don’t care how long he’s worked for you, nor do I give two shits for Sister Sarah with regards to his encyclopedic knowledge of Manga. Fire him. He’s a cliche, for fuck’s sake, a recurring joke on The Simpsons. Shitcan him. Replace with regular customers that you know, people with good senses of humor, hygene, taste, and people skills. While you’re at it, acquire some lights and a fucking vacuum cleaner. Make your store look good and smell good, you dumb bastards.

Honestly, this can’t be stressed enough. I have this goal, one that I’ve been working on for quite some time. I want to show up to work looking dapper as shit every day. Every shift. No t-shirts. No jeans. Things that are comfortable, but vaguely stylish. I say vaguely, because I know shit about style – but I can fake a bit of “nerd chic” if I have to. Your store will only be as good as the front you present, and if it’s fat and spiteful, chances are you won’t get a lot of return business. Just the hardcores who were going to buy comics one way or another – and you can not survive with that audience.

Also, it’s okay to like Doctor Who. Really, it is. Just don’t be scary about it.

9. Arrange a portion of your shelf real estate by Creator. Generate the appearance or reflection of cult-like status. Nothing is sexier than a secret club. Crossover sales will be simple. If we begin to treat creators like Pop Stars, their works will be considered Pop Artifacts, and treated as such. Gaiman, Moore, Morrison, Ellis, Ennis, Pope, Burns, Busiek, Bagge, Ware, Clowes: Essays and screeds have been written on this one. I have done it and seen it work.

This does work. It does. On Free Comic Book Day, I’ve arranged sections like this. Books displayed as genres, and not by publisher. They blew off the shelves. Never, ever underestimate the appeal of crossover sales. The only reason why I don’t do this all the time? Well, my biggest problem has to do with space. With so many comic shops in the city, we can’t afford a location larger than what we have. Or no wait, check that. We can afford a larger location, but let’s say we have a couple of bad months. Let’s say we just have a bad year. Not through any consequence of our own, but through, say, external forces. We don’t want to go out of business. We want to be able to share comics with the masses for as long as we can. So we’re stuck at this size until a few more of the shops in town drop dead, because they’re shitty. (They are. Seriously.) Once we gain a bit more of the market, we can expand, comfortable with the knowledge that – even with a few shitty months, we’ll be able to make the space work. Until then, I just touch everything that I can, and keep the genres, and authors locked in my head. I can pull out a comprehensive list on command, point you in the right direction. I’m here to help. I will help you. And then, soon, I will have my utopia store.

10. See those giant, never-changing bins of cardboard in your store? The ones filled with little things wrapped in plastic bags? See how they don’t sell? That’s because price guides are for shit. The success of TPBs and OGNs should by now have shown to you that people don’t mind paying more for getting more, from a story point of view. Do not wait for publishers to do this. Assemble runs of back issues that constitute complete story lines. Tape them together in a bundle. Sell them for TPB or OGN prices, not what fucking Wizard tells you to. Would you rather have a ten-dollar back issue until the day you die, or ten dollars in your pocket and four fewer issues in your bin?

We call them sets, and they sell like crazy. We still have back issues (that market still does a tidy business for us, but we’re one of the few shops in town that really have a comprehensive stock of old things) but anymore, we’d rather get some of the newer stuff out the doors – especially when they’re fresh. We’ll get back issues returned to us in time, when the heat has cooled, and we’ll sell to the completest when they come around then – but they are not the future of this business. Their retroactive interests don’t push the industry forward – they are forever looking backwards. So keep up with the new. Sell it, and sell it hard. Shave off a few dollars and give people a complete experience. This will work.

And there you have it. A three thousand word plus guide to not being a shitty comics retailer. Follow these, and you should be fine. The good days will come rolling in, and suddenly, you won’t be so worried about shit. Sound like a plan?

03. UM, ACTUALLY…

I know the title said “Fractions“, but naming shit is hard, asshole. Don’t you have better things to worry about?

3 Comments

  1. This is beating a dead horse for Brandon’s ears, but it ties really well into this article.

    When I first contacted Brandon about comics, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to go down the comic book collecting rabbit hole. DC was rebooting and I wanted to get some information about it and was less than impressed with the answers I got elsewhere. So, my email basically said: “Hey, what’s up with this DC thing, I think Batman is neat”. I got a fantastic response and most importantly, an INVITATION to the store.

    By saying come down to the store and we can talk more, I instantly felt like he genuinely wanted me to enjoy the hobby. So, I hit the store, we talked about things that I liked, the comics that I had read in the past and what not.

    I walked out of the store with a free copy of Detective Comics# 854 and a lot to think about. Batwoman wasn’t on my radar and when Brandon initially pulled the book out for me to take home, I was highly skeptical. I mean, who the hell reads comics about Batman copiers? He started to talk about the story and the character. He gave enough that I wanted to know more about the character and was genuinely excited to read the book as soon as I could. I read it, and Batwoman instantly was the only title I was SURE of in the New 52.

    The next week, I got the store newsletter, and it featured Severed. I hit the store and picked up a copy. I think Brandon was happy to see me in and encouraged me to give him feedback on the book. As a new customer, that was pretty awesome – I’m not an expert or anything, but my opinion still mattered, and that meant a lot to me.

    The simple little things won me over. Inviting me to the store. Treating my stupid questions with respect. Making me feel welcome. These things don’t cost money to do. I would have started a file with 2-3 books with just these things. Handing me a free book of something I wasn’t considering gave me the courage to try a total of 10 books in the New 52. I’m keeping most of them ongoing, plus a few non DC books. Call it a gain of 5 books over my original plan. I think that’s well worth the cover price of one free comic.

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