Friday, September 11, 2009

Diverse ecosystem.

While I didn't see the changes in the comic market coming, I was prepared for something to change.

Diversity is the best response to change. Flexibility, not depending on one habitat to keep you alive. These thoughts have been at the basis of my planning ever since sports cards gained an 85% share of my store sales and then almost took me out when they plunged.

I'm already headed in the direction I need to go, so the changes in the comic market are manageable as long as they come at slow enough pace that I can morph. It isn't in anyone's interests to pull the rug out from under the entire industry. Not that it couldn't happen. I have no faith in MBA short-term corporate thinking. I've watched TSR nearly destroy RPG's; Topps and Upper Deck nearly destroy sports cards, and quite definitely destroy entertainment cards. I've watch the book publishers give it away to Amazon and Barnes and Nobles; I've seen Marvel and DC decimate the comic market. Over my career, the toy companies have made Walmart the biggest toy seller in the world.

But all this is good for us little independents, right? That's why there are less than 1000 card shops left, why there are only about 3000 record stores, less than 3000 toy stores and less than 3000 game stores, and about 3000 comic shops. I always ask people to think about that. Out of a population of 350,000,000, there are probably only about 15,000 of us who still own businesses that make a living from books, games, toys, cards, records and comics.

O.K. maybe I'm off, but I could be off by double and triple and it's still an amazing thought. The mass market owns the market, folks.

These 15k or so people seem to be the irreducible minimum; those of us too stubborn or too stupid to give up. In bookstores, there is always some starry eyed newcomer to take the place of all the shops that fold. Nevertheless, there were over 7800 indy bookstores just 5 years ago, there are only about 3000 today. But all that exposure at Costco and Walmart and Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and Borders has been good for us, right?

Now -- to hear the comic people talk like that. It's very dispiriting. But I will do what I know is best for the store.

I've made my accommodations with the mass market on books, toys, games and cards. I go around them, or over them, or under them, or whatever it takes.

But much as I appreciate the income from these sidelines, they ARE sidelines, and unlikely to become more than that. I'm well aware that my store has survived because I can sell comics and graphic novels like no one else around here, and I've not been shoved aside by the mass market.

Do I think comics in the mass market will work? Maybe, but probably not. By the time they figure that out, it may be too late for the direct market. It could be like sports cards, where sales skyrocketed in the mass market for several years after my sales started to decline, and then began their long slow inexorable crash. As they crashed out of the mass market, there was very little independent infrastructure remaining to pick up the slack.

You destroy your base of support at your peril.

Predictably, most of the commentators I've read think that exposure of comics to the mass market is just dandy. Most of them are non-retailers, but there are many retailers that think this too.

I think they're foolish. But I'm not going to argue the point. This argument has been going on for 20 years, and all I know is that I have survived and even thrived with the thought that the mass market isn't my friend.

I know what I think I know, and that is the way I'm going to plan it.


blackdog said...

"But all that exposure at Costco and Walmart and Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and Borders has been good for us, right?"

Costco's book selection is very limited so I don't buy there. I never shop at Wal-Mart so I don't buy books there. The Barnes & Noble store in Bend has a better selection so I sometimes buy there. But I do most of my book-buying from Amazon because they have almost any book you can think of. That, I believe, is their big advantage, and one that no books-and-mortar store can hope to match.

If I lived in Portland I might do most of my book-buying from Powell's, but even they can't match Amazon's inventory.

Stores like Pegasus survive because they cater to a small and (if I may say so) rather peculiar niche market. As long as that market continues to exist you should be okay. The Amazons of the world don't consider your niche big enough to be worth competing for, except on a very limited basis (the most popular titles).

Duncan McGeary said...

What worries me is that the new regimes at Marvel and DC may see our small niche as exploitable, and try to broaden into the mass market -- at the expense of the base.

I think this would result in a weakening of the direct market.

By the way, I may not be as peculiar as you think. I have plenty of mainstream books and games I sell.

Because of the foot-traffic downtown, it works.