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Trouble with Comics, Retailer Profile: Earthworld Comics, Albany, NY

Retailer Profile: Earthworld Comics, Albany, NY

(Note: This post originally appeared on Newsarama in November of 2004. It came to my attention that it’s not online anywhere, although it is in my ebook Conversations with ADD, but I thought it should be somewhere easily accessible online as well.)

J.C. Glindmyer is the owner of Earthworld Comics in Albany, New York – the comic shop I got my books at every week at the time of this interview, in November of 2004. Six years later, Earthworld remains the Albany area’s essential comic shop, the one you know will almost always have what you’re looking for and a lot of weird stuff you never knew you wanted. JC has a broad knowledge of the business and its history and a keen business sense that marks him as one of the few genuine, professional business people I’ve known in the industry.

Alan David Doane: You’ve been involved in comics retailing for quite a few years now. Tell me how you’ve seen the business of comics change during your time as a retailer.

JC Glindmyer:
I’ve been involved in comic retailing in one aspect or another since 1983. I started setting up at conventions to sell off some of my doubles I had acquired over the years. After being downsized from my full time job, I ended up becoming a stay at home father for my then five-year-old son and two week old daughter. Around this time a good friend bought Earthworld from the original owners and hired me part-time. After about two years, he decided that owning a business wasn’t for him and I ended up purchasing it.

In any business, times change, buying patterns change, and if one wants to survive, you have to evolve. From Phil Seuling introducing the direct sales market, to higher production values for comics, to the rise of the trade paperback as an indispensable product line. Change is a constant, especially in this business. Although we still carry and sell back issues, once a large part of our business, has now been overtaken by sales of trade paperbacks. Manga has already started to make some movement, and like it or not, it’s not going away. Shonen Jump is now racked with traditional magazines like Newsweek and Maxim in newsstands, even grocery stores. Wizard and Toyfare are sold in Electronic Boutique. Take into consideration it’s been twenty years since Dark Knight Returns first came out and many of readers were people who were in their teens and early twenties. Most of them have grown up and some of them work for movie studios, toy manufacturers and video game designers. Thanks to these other mediums, not only are comics are starting to get more recognition and acceptance, now they’re gaining some legitimacy as a true entertainment medium.

In the late ’80s, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns raised the bar for comics creatively, as well as presentation-wise. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, comics had to evolve to keep up with the changing tastes of readers. And as comics have changed, so was they way they had to be sold. Although the standard 32-page comic is still the main product for us that sells, it’s the graphic novel/trade paperback that is starting to gain prominence. Many mass-market bookstores now have sections devoted to graphic novels. In order for a comics store to compete, we have to stay on top of the product line. Barnes and Noble can put out all the exclusives they want, like the Marvel Masterworks paperbacks, but when a customer wants more, they’re going to have to go to a comic store. When a customer wants to know the difference between Amazing Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man, it’s unlikely a clerk at Borders will be able to tell them. We can tell customers what other titles Neil Gaiman has written and what series followed Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch. I also doubt that these places would carry some of the independent and alternative titles like Cerebus, Strangers in Paradise or Optic Nerve. In this aspect, these places can’t compete with us.

You say Manga is growing, “like it or not.” Do you like it, or not? I’ve seen some retailers who have totally embraced it, and others who are so hostile to it that it seems to imperil the future of their enterprise. Where do you stand on it, and how do you implement your philosophy in your store?

It really depends on how you classify Manga. If you mean imported Japan translated comics, It would depend on the title itself. It reminds me of when someone asks for the biggest influences on American comics. The traditional answers start with Dark Knight Returns, then Watchmen and possibly Maus. After that answers vary wildly. It’s no different from Manga. You start off with Akira and Ghost in the Shell, Lone Wolf and Cub broke through to traditional comic readers. Again after that, opinions vary. Although I’m not a huge fan, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what the creators are trying to do. There is a certain energy and flow to manga. It’s a style that only works in the context of the subject matter being presented. However, if you’re referring to Americanized manga, I find it sort of lifeless and almost insulting. Trying to apply a manga style to an American comic is akin to putting an Anglo Saxon in blackface for a minstrel show. Having a manga style Spider-Man or Superman book would not work in this country. Marvel’s Tsunami line, which included manga-esque versions of Namor and the Human Torch, was a disaster. When an artist tries to put a manga style to an established title, sales suffer. When Kia Asamiya, a respected artist in Japan, took over Uncanny X-Men for a few issues, customers rejected it. And the final sell though numbers were the lowest for that title I’ve seen. Mixing genres is always a tough act, especially when it comes to comic fans, they like their heroes to look a certain way.

“And I say ‘like it or not,’ because as I mentioned before, times change, and there’s always a new generation of comic readers. If I started carrying things just that I like, I wouldn’t have much of a selection. Manga is no different from carrying independent comics or adult comics. It’s a call every retailer has to make in establishing his store’s identity. In order to serve your customers better, I feel that you have to have a variety. To refuse to carry a specific product line that you personally don’t like is not in the best interests of your customers or your business.

The past few years your store has hosted what I consider to be highly successful Free Comic Book Days, real family events with special guests contests and a genuinely fun atmosphere. Tell me how FCBD is working from your perspective and what your hope is for future FCBDs.

Free Comic Book Day was a brilliant idea that came at the right time, but you get out of it what you put into it. FCBD originator Joe Field gave us the idea, and it’s up to every store to decide how to make it work for them. Almost every company has an “event” or special thing they do once a year to promote their business. We decided to make FCBD our event, the one people, even our employees look forward to every year. And we’ve been pretty lucky, every year it rocks the house.

I’ve heard other retailers say that they haven’t seen any tangible results from FCBD. If you walk into a store and some sleepy clerk mumbles to you about taking a free comic, you’re not going to walk away thinking much of the store or comics in general. On FCBD, You walk into Earthworld, we welcome you to FCBD, and offer you three comics to start off with. If customers want more, we point them to the back of the store, past displays of new comics, toys, graphic novels and other enticing goodies, to another employee who will ask relatively easy trivia questions in order to get more comics. Most people ended up leaving with a minimum of a half dozen comics, a lot of them kids brought in by their parents. And it’s a great thing to see more and more kids on FCBD. For many of these kids, this might not only be their first trip into a comic store, but possibly their first exposure to comic books. And while they’re there, in addition to seeing a ton of comics and other neat stuff, they see people smiling and laughing. And we have gotten a few people to return as customers.

This year we even invited customers to become a part of Free Comic Book Day by soliciting submissions for a mini-comic we also sponsored and gave out. I was pretty impressed with the quality of the submissions and the obvious love of the medium these creators had.

If there’s one thing that really steams me, are retailers that complain about one thing or another about this business. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my share of it, but that’s when you have to decide whether you’re going to be part of the problem or part of the solution. I’ve heard retailers complain about how a popular book isn’t selling for them, or how FCBD does nothing to immediately increase their business. They offer no options, no solutions, just damning criticism. Anyone can sit and whine. As my mom always said, “If you can’t change the way things are, you have to change the way you think about things.”

I’m glad to see FCBD 2005 will return to the first Saturday in May. Without a major comic related movie tied to this date, I think this is going to be the ultimate test for future FCBD events. I honestly don’t think the average customer will remember that the first three FCBD days occurred on the opening day weekend for these movies.

My position is that I don’t expect to make money off FCBD. I doubt we’ll sell enough stuff on this day to fully cover expenses. I don’t really see that as the main goal. For us, FCBD works because we like to think of FCBD as a celebration of the medium and the people who enjoy it. I’m also very fortunate to work with great people who get behind it — Alicia, Jesse, Alex and John — this is our livelihood and we have a lot of fun doing it. As long as there is a FCBD we’re going to have a great time because we’re doing something we truly love and customers can pick up on that.

How do you utilize your staff to best serve the store, and what do you look for when hiring new recruits?

It might be tough to find someone with product knowledge, but even it’s tougher to find a good employee. I used to just hire people who had read or knew comics, but not every fanboy has what it takes to work in a comic store. At one time I had my sister in law work for me part time and she no had no product knowledge, but she worked hard and worked fast. Now I look for someone who wants the job and will do the job. I look for people who are polite and sociable since they’ll represent me when I’m not in the store. And although they don’t have to dress up, they have to be presentable and clean. I would try to hire someone who I would want to either wait on or help me in a store.

Although I usually have one person do a specific job-one does back issues, one does cycle sheets, etc, , all of them know how to step in and do other tasks when needed.

What is the biggest joy you get from selling comics?

Two things, good comics and people who truly enjoy them. Out of all the books that are released, I’ve found very few that I would personally look forward to every month. Every week I try to sift through most of the stuff to get an idea what we have and what we can recommend. I enjoy turning on a customer to a title and having them return next week excited about it and asking for more. As I mentioned before, this personal touch isn’t something big chain stores can’t do with their customers.

The other thing is some of the customers themselves — people who truly enjoy reading comics. Not someone just purchasing a handful of doubles for speculation, or automatically buying them to keep a run going. Despite personal tastes, be it Eightball or Youngblood, everyone has a favorite comic. People who read comics will always enjoy reading them.

I remember one guy in his early twenties on a bike looking for a hot (at the time) issue of Amazing Spider-Man. He said he missed that issue, couldn’t find it anywhere and wanted to read how the story ended. I told him that we had it, but was a few dollars over the cover price. He didn’t care; we pulled it from the back issue bins where it was bagged and boarded. I handed it to him and he had a big smile on his face and said “at last!” After he bought it, I asked if he wanted a bag, he shook his head. He then proceeded to take the book out of the bag and board, and handed it back to me saying I could have it back. And then he did the unthinkable. He folded in half, put it in his back pocket, hopped on his bike and rode away. While some people in the store looked at this in disbelief, I just smiled, this dude was my hero. He didn’t care about condition or value; he just wanted to read the story.

How do you handle the opposite of the guy on the bike, the customer who wants to buy 5 or 10 or more copies of something because they know it’ll be worth a fortune? It seems like someone comes in almost every day looking to make money on comics, and usually it’s not anything that’s worth a damn. What do you make of the speculator phenomenon?

We don’t get that many speculators since the ‘90s crash. Many of them scampered away or moved on to something else when they realized that their 20 copies of X-Force #1 weren’t ever going to be worth a fortune. There’s still a few people who will come in and buy two or three copies, but for the most part these are very few and far between. In the rare instance when someone does buy a half dozen or so, it’s usually a book that I ordered heavy on anyway, like Astonishing X-Men #1 or the first issue of the Jim Lee Superman. If there was a case where someone was coming in and wanted to buy all my copies of Gotham Central, for example, I would stress that we reserve the right to limit any multiple purchases. It’s not something I’ve had to invoke in many, many years. In fact, I’d probably offer to special order additional copies for that customer on future purchases.

And honestly, how many truly successful speculators are there? In the 17 years or so I’ve done this, I’ve yet to meet one.

What is the biggest hazard of being a comics retailer?

Comics that don’t sell. Every week we do a weekly inventory to see what books sell and how many. We use cycle sheets that helps us track the sales history for any given title for a four-week period. That’s usually the shelf life for an average monthly comic book. If you don’t react to poor selling titles as soon as you can, you may as well be burning your money.

Ordering mistakes can be devastating. Sometimes it’s hard to guess what will fly and what will die. We have to order about two to three months in advance (at this time I’m just finishing up my order for December). There are extremely rare times where a comic will be offered that is the equivalent of printing money (see Wolverine: Origin or even Green Lantern: Rebirth). Other times there will be a comic that on all appearances has the looks of a winner, but when it comes out it stinks like a week old herring. The Truth was a good example; it had an interesting premise with a great artist. When it came out it turned out to be heavy and preachy with the artist using a different style, channeling Sergio Aragones — and worst of all, no appearance by Captain America. The majority of comic readers soundly rejected it, and we ended up eating the first three issues.

And just because something worked the first time is no guarantee lightning will strike twice. The Marvel 9-11 benefit book, Heroes came out and we sold a lot of copies — more than the more highly publicized DK2. When it was followed by three (!) Call of Duty series, most customers who purchased Heroes were nowhere to be found. The supernatural aspect of the books put off a lot of people who were expecting a comic about Police, Firefighters or EMS workers — sales quickly plummeted.

I remember when The Death of Superman came out and there was all the hoopla about how an American Icon is now gone. People were buying this book by the handful in the hope that it would be worth money some day. A few months later, when it was announced that Superman would return, many retailers went heavy on it banking that it would be just as big. Unfortunately when it came out, there was little interest and many places were stuck with boxes full of unsold copies. A few places even went out of business because they couldn’t pay for the books. You have to keep your eyes on the numbers, because no matter how many or how few comics you sell, you still have to pay for the books.

What’s the biggest surprise you ever had in terms of unexpectedly large sales?

I was actually surprised to find out the answer myself. My first answer was going to be The Death of Superman until I checked past sales figures. The winner? The Marvel book Heroes. It was barely a month after 9/11 and the memories were still fresh. We started out ordering something like 50 or 60 copies. Often comic stores will get 40 to 50 percent off the cover price of the book. We didn’t get much of a discount on this book — about 15 percent — the cover price was $3.50 — and we ended up paying $3.00 for each book. Then the publicity came — the television interviews, the newspaper articles, the phone started ringing off the hook asking if we had this book in stock. We were totally unprepared for the sudden demand for this book. Everybody wanted this book, people who never been into a comic store came in looking for Heroes. Police officers, Firemen all bought multiple copies for family and friends. Bookstores tried to call us and order it from us. Luckily, we were able to reorder copies to meet the demand. For the next few months, especially for the holidays, this was a book that would not stop selling. After numerous reorders we ended up moving about 400 copies. There was an on line seller who was selling these things for over cover price. I e-mailed him expressing my reservations on making a profit on this type of book. To his credit he reconsidered and offered them to his accounts at cost. We ended up forwarding the profits we made on the book to the Red Cross. This was the only time I can remember that not only did a comic make the news in a positive way, but people from outside the comic collective embraced it.

Do you feel publishers ever manipulate retailers into over-ordering titles that for one reason or another are unlikely to perform well? Other than cycle sheets, is there any way to protect against that? Clearly cycle sheets can’t help with first issues…?

Well, that’s their job, to try to get us to buy into their hype. It’s the only way they can get you sucked in. And you can only get conned if you want to be conned. It helps knowing who the players are. DC is the loyal cute housewife who will do what she can to make you happy. Marvel is the slutty girlfriend who will drop you like a hot potato when something better comes along. You have to order with your eyes wide open with attention paid to what your sell through numbers are and not from a sales rep.

Actually if you know what to look for cycle sheets can help with a first issue. Although first issues are a gamble, the trick is to try and find something that has come out before that would have similar appeal. For example, if there was a new Colossus series, we’d match it to something like Nightcrawler. For Doom Patrol we matched it to the previous series then added a few copies for fans of John Byrne (yes, there still are a few…). Pulse we matched to Alias numbers. For Strange, we matched it to Dr. Strange numbers and added about 50 percent to include readers of Supreme Power, another title written by J.M. Stracyznski. Not every customer picked it up, but in the end the numbers come pretty close. Sometimes this formula doesn’t work. With John Romita Jr’s Gray Area we compared numbers for an average issue of Amazing Spider-Man. We cut it in half since there was no established character, but John Romita Jr does have a following. Unfortunately they didn’t follow him there and the book was a dud.

A trick that some publishers use is to offer variant covers for ordering certain numbers of their books. The more you order, the more variant cover’s you’ll get. Marvel has been using this tactic more with titles like Astonishing X-Men and more recently, the New Avengers. Often these books are the same price as the regular, sometimes a bit more. And the ratio tends to vary wildly. Sometimes it’s like one special cover for every 10 to 15 of the regular book ordered. Depending on the ratio, by charging slightly more for the variants, they can offset the price of the regular books. Sometimes not — the recent Wolverine #20 offered one special cover for every 65 copies ordered! After some calculating, it wasn’t worth spending another $65.00 for a special cover that we’d have to sell for the same amount just to break even.

There’s different ways publishers try to hawk their wares aside from Previews. I usually get scads of e-mails from independent publishers with either links to a website or attachments. Every week both Marvel and DC send us a newsletter by e-mail listing upcoming titles with final cut off dates. When DC truly believes in a project, they tend to go out of their way to push or promote it. Sometimes it’s in the form of a free giveaway comic, like in the case of the recent free Fallen Angel issue. On the rare occasion, someone from DC’s direct sales department will call me personally to push a project they truly believe in, the last time being New Frontier. DC continues to be a publisher that tends to believe in their books and will take that extra step to promote a project they feel is worthwhile. And because they don’t do it often, it’s a tactic that usually works.

Tell me what publishers and creators can do to get your attention and help you sell their comics for them, and any ways in which they fail to do that?

A few comic companies don’t really know how to promote some of the comics as well as they should. Sure, you’ll see something in a local newspaper or even Entertainment Weekly, but we have to be more aggressive and competitive, especially with video games, movies and other things. One of my big peeves is the lack of promo posters for upcoming releases. When you go to a movie theatre, one of the first things you see are large movie posters promoting upcoming films. Even after you leave the theater, you’ll remember the posters or even a preview you saw and you’ll want to come back to see that particular movie. You want to get the customer excited and you want them to come back.

There are companies that go out of their way for retailers — DC Comics, first and foremost. If we need a second print of a popular title DC will listen and oblige. Identity Crisis is a perfect example of this. We sold out of the first issue, but the following three issues were still available. Instead of losing potential readers, DC made it a priority to supply us with a second printing to keep up the momentum and more importantly, meet customer demand. The DC Horizon promo items are pretty helpful too, giving customers a chance to bring home mini previews of upcoming releases. Dark Horse made it a point to send us a bunch of Hellboy movie posters for the sneak preview for us to give away. Crossgen used to send us large autographed posters. Beau Smith at IDW Comics goes above and beyond making sure we have promotional postcards and posters to give out to customers as well as previews of upcoming releases to share with customers. These guys have the right idea and are willing to work with us to sell their books.

There are even individual creators who decide to make it personal and will reach out to store owners to help promote their project. Years ago Kurt Busiek offered up a then rare copy of Astro City ½ with a punched hole with a ring to attach a chain or string to it and place it next to the register. While checking out, customers had a chance to read the short story and liked what they saw. In response to that promotion, we easily got around a dozen new readers for that book. Brian K. Vaughan has offered signed comics to (successfully) help promote Y the Last Man and Ex Machina. Joe Casey sent out Xeroxed copies of the upcoming Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes series. These guys realize that comic stores are the first line of defense and will make it a point to go the extra mile to hand sell a series they believe in.

These are the people I enjoy doing business with, I feel that they actually my “retail partners.”

To borrow a comparison from Highlights for Children, for every Gallant there has to be a Goofus. Marvel fails as far as being a legitimate “retail partner.” They seem more interested immediate profit, instead of long team goals.

Marvel’s current plan for their comics is to sell them as trade paperbacks in mass-market bookstores. They rush out these collections of comics, as little as two weeks after the final issue of the series is released. This ends up cannibalizing sales of the regular books and gives the traditional comics reader no incentive to buy the monthly books. It’s starting to affect the content of the books themselves. It’s even gotten to the point where the monthly comics are little more than split chapters from a book. Reading them separately is like tearing up a novel into five parts and reading them one month at a time. And many times Marvel won’t keep some of their current trades in print. These trades are supposed to help support the monthly titles, not replace them.

In comparison to DC’s Identity Crisis, the closest thing Marvel has right now is the Avengers Disassembled. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought one of the reasons we do what we do is to sell comics. I have customers looking to pick up this storyline and since Marvel strictly prints to order, there is little chance on getting any additional copies. For the most part, I agree that not overprinting every comic is a sound business move. But when you have a major storyline or event, especially one that’s making you money, you’re going to want to make the most of it. And you want to do it while the demand is there. Marvel sends us weekly e-mails saying things like “Avengers is selling out! But you can still have time to up your orders on the subsequent issues!” This makes no sense, why would I order more of a comic that I have no previous issues to build new sales upon? Based on what was sold before, Avengers Disassembled will only sell a specific amount of comics, and not much more. They have effectively stunted their own sales growth. Meanwhile, five months later, every single issue of Identity Crisis continues to sell at a brisk pace. And numbers don’t lie — at this point I’ve sold about two copies of Identity Crisis for every one of Avengers Disassembled.

And it would help if Marvel did have a more reactive sales department. There are a few books they publish that get lost in the shuffle with no promotion. The current mini-series Powerless is a good example of this. This is a book that is different and is well done, but not many people know about it.

Our main job here is to sell comics, preferably to people who’ll read them. When a book is good, I’ll push it to customers. When it’s great I’ll back it up a 110 percent. But I can only do so much, I’ll try to sell the hell out of a comic, but if I get no support from the publisher, it’s a losing battle. But as a kid, heroes like Batman and Spider-Man taught me that you never give up. And I didn’t get into this business to lose.

— Alan David Doane

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