Monday, June 29, 2020

Makes life if.

In my second week of ordering from PRH. (Penguin/Random House).

It's a pain in the ass, seems to take inordinate time, the search engine sucks, I don't know if what I'm ordering is in stock, I don't know when and how it will ship or how long it takes. I don't know if the split shipments are going to cost.

Meanwhile, I haven't seen or heard anything from Scholastic Press. I tried setting up an account online, but got no response. I'll try again in a few days, but I'm starting to suspect that this will be more of a 2 or 3 time a year order, and that I'll do it with the rep.

As you all know, I've always maintained that time and effort = money. So I have to figure out if all this extra time and effort is worth the extra discount. Right now, I'd say no. But I'm hoping this will settle down, that I'll figure it out, and it will become routine.

One thing's for sure--books are selling. We are a full-on bookstore at this point, even carrying non-fiction. The non-fiction section is in the beginning stages, but I can see it expanding. Once that happens, well--that makes me a full bookstore.

After all, every bookstore has to make selections. The fact that my selections are quirky, well that just makes the store interesting to people. (I get a ton of compliments...)

I was in one of the local ABA model stores, and I was told that the ABA newsletter is going to stop coming out in physical form. Opening the pamphlet, and it's clear to me why all ABA model bookstores look the same. They're all ordering the same recommended material.

In a sense, my bookstore is a backstock store. That is, I concentrate on books that have already come out and have a history. Seems much safer to me.

Then again, a local bookseller told me how many of the new John Bolton books he ordered and it sort of floored me. (Not that he actually got the books...that seems to be a big problem with new bestsellers. They aren't always readily available, which is weird. Obviously, the big boys are getting them first.)

Though I've been carrying new books for a decade now, in some ways I'm only beginning. I mean, I was pretty lackadaisical for a long time, just getting the low-hanging easy stuff. Now I'm challenging myself to fill out the store with material that people see as bookstore-ish. ("fill-out" is a bit of a joke--I'm already packed.)

Still, it makes life interesting. Because, you know, not enough stuff is going on....

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"In the Midst of Chaos, there is Opportunity." Sun Tzu

Our book sales are nearly double last year this month.

When I first started doing new books about fifteen years ago, I was ordering the low-hanging fruit. Favorites, cult books, classics, tangential to comics, requests. My new book ordering was at first meant to be a supplement to my used books. I had gotten tired of never having the titles come in used that people were asking for.

Within a few years, new books were outselling used books 5 to 1.

I removed the used books completely a couple years ago, making more room for new books and graphic novels.

I've always treated books in my store as more or less a continuum. Hardcovers or softcovers, comics or graphic novels, trade paperback or mass market paperbacks, art books, children's books, fiction, non-fiction if interesting. I tried to blend them all together. Stories--some with lots of words, some with lots of art, but all stories.

For about 5 years, I was bringing books in kind of from a distance. That is, I was home writing most of the time and would lift my head to order books here and there, whenever convenient. I kept expanding the bookshelves wherever possible. I wasn't really bearing down, but nevertheless, book sales continued to increase.

What I've found is this: Good books sell and keep selling. So every time I find an evergreen book, one that will sell every time I order it, it adds to the overall effect. One by one, I've been adding books that seem to have constant demand. All of this works because of the foot-traffic in downtown Bend, especially the tourists.

Because of the popularity of young adult graphic novels, I've been paying particular attention to young adult and kids books of all kinds. 

In the last year I finally decided to pay more attention to brand new books and bestsellers. I'm still a little careful there--I will order two or three of a bestseller that fits my brand (i.e. the new Hunger Games prequel), and maybe just one of other hardcover books. I'm still not trying to carry every new bestseller that comes out, but I try to have a good sampling.

Since I started working two days a week last fall, I accelerated the process, paid much more attention to what I was doing. This meant also coming in at least one more day a week to put books away. Book sales started to increase under the attention.

When we closed in April to put down new flooring, I shifted things slightly to make a little more room for new books. What's more or less happened is that the increase in new book sales have more than compensated for the decrease, due to disruptions and/or competition, in sales on other product.

In the chaos, I've had time to rethink how I'm doing things.

In the last month, DC comics has decided to distribute their comics under new distributors. This has more or less thrown the entire market into chaos. It forced me to take a closer look at what I was doing.

For one thing, I've been ordering all my new books from a distributor, both for convenience and speed. However, I can get a 10% better margin by ordering directly from the publishers. Over the last week, I've been transitioning--ordering books as usual from the regular distributor, but whenever possible going direct with the publishers. So far, I've set up accounts with two publishers--who probably account for a good 40% of my overall book sales.

If this works, I'll set up accounts with a couple more of the Big Five publishers--who between them own the lion's share of new books.

It's been a time-consuming process, and frankly, I probably wouldn't have done it if DC comics hadn't pulled the rug out from under us. I'll actually save money buying DC graphic novels from my new accounts, and while that is happening, I'll save money on a goodly percentage of my other books too.

So thanks, DC, for throwing things into chaos. I doubt you'll like the results, but it's going to be good for my store.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

A business owner will expand to his level of incompetence.

There's an article in today's Bulletin about a gardening business in an out of the way location that has had great success. So the guy is going from one employee to four and moving to the Old Mill District.

Part of me wants to shout: "Don't do it!"

But NOT growing is heresy in America. (Of course, he may succeed, and it may be exactly what he wants--but that wasn't my experience.)

I've been enjoying my store lately. My one store. I've had four stores, five if you count the Bookmark, and it wasn't always an enjoyable experience. It often wasn't even a profitable experience.

I have my own variation of the Peter Principle: A business owner will expand to his level of incompetence.

I was sort of reminded of this with this new street closure proposal. "You'll be able to move stuff to sell onto the street," they told me.

I'm sorry--I have a store that is functioning very well right now, Thank You Very Much. A store that is designed for one person to maximize the space and time. It's been finessed down to the smallest details. It's still manageable, but even more importantly, it's still enjoyable.

Whatever makes you think I want to expand into the street? How would I keep track of that? What would I do, move stuff in and out each night? Would I have to leave my post at the store and go out to help people? To clean and straighten, and...?

...well, like I said, the store is designed for exactly what it does. Designed by decades of experience.

So you open a store and you talk to your customers and they appreciate your knowledge and experience and reward you with business. What do you do? You expand and become a manager of multiple employees, who no matter how good almost never match your dedication and experience.

It took me 30 years to find Sabrina, who took responsibility for the store and who managed it with dedication and honesty and knowledge. Before that, it was a constant turnover (which was my own fault in many ways--management is not what I wanted to do.)

Two stores isn't just twice the work, it's three times the work. Three and four stores are even worse--unless you are very skilled at management and technology and that's what you WANT to do.

If what you want is your own business, somewhere fun and yours--then expanding isn't always the best idea.

Unfortunately, most people only learn this by doing it.

If I had one piece of advice for beginning small business owners it's this--beware burnout. Be careful how much you take on. Keep doing the things you enjoy, even if you can make more money doing what you don't enjoy. Keep it fresh and manageable.

Then you'll be there for the long haul. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

It's a cra-cra world.

Again, plenty of things to talk about, almost all of it better kept to myself.

It's a cra-cra world right now. People are lining up like lemmings for the Tulsa rally. Some kind of deathwish cult.

I personally think anyone who denies scientific reality should be forced to live without any of the benefits of science. No machines and no medicines. After all, they don't believe in science.

Instant karma?

The difference between this and the mass gathering for protests is one small but major thing: Wear a Fucking Mask!

And just so you know this ain't all tilted politically, I'm pissed at the health experts who at first said masks didn't work. I think they suspected masks worked and said it anyway. By the time they reversed course, it had become politicized.

And if they were worried about people taking all the masks away from health workers, they could have fucking said so--wear a bandana, or a cloth mask, and we would have understood it.

All in all, the 38% who still think Trump is great proves what I've always thought but could never quite quantify. A third of all people are either crazy or stupid.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Do writers have big egos?

Maybe...just a little.

It kills me that Hollywood has thrown tens of millions of dollars around for supernatural Donner Party movies that either suck or were never made or disguised as something else, when there was a book out there that I think would have been perfect as a movie. Ready made, if you will.

"Led to the Slaughter: The Donner Party Werewolves," by Duncan McGeary.

I also think "Tuskers" could be a fun "Tremors" kind of movie.

"Snaked" would make a great creature/disaster movie.

You know, in my humble opinion.

I'm not sure about the cinematic possibilities of my other stories, but these three are pretty straightforward plots that wouldn't have to be trimmed down all the much.

I guess I need to be playing the lottery a lot more, because that's the only way these movies would ever be made.

So yeah, writers have egos. (But are also fragile and you could easily puncture my pretension with a harsh please refrain.)

Friday, June 12, 2020

This blog has gotten harder and harder to write because so many of my opinions are probably things that shouldn't be aired publicly. Mostly because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

The store is doing very well--but, as I joke, I still want everyone to feel sorry for us...

I'm stuck on trying to decide what next to write--and I've taken so much time trying to decide that I literally could have written a book--any book--by now...

It's hard to stay vigilant about the virus. I remind myself to wear my mask and clean my hands regularly, and I'm still mostly staying home when I'm not working.

I've gained 10 fucking pounds, and I'm eating poorly and not exercising and I'm going to keel over at any moment. But an asteroid is probably going to wipe us out anyway.

Speaking of earth-destroying asteroids--the media. I've decided that there is so much access to everyone's opinions online that everything is just blurring. And yet...I'm addicted.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Interesting times in the comic biz.

Had a really bad dream last night.  Usually I'm alone in some nameless city, lost, no job, no friends, no family, trying to find a place to hide.

It's weird how things can be going so well in my life and yet I have these horrid dreams. I think these dreams are warnings not to get cocky and to be nice.

I'm having to take a step back in my opinions, basically. This really is a time to listen and absorb, to meantime, take care of the basics. The store is doing surprisingly well. In fact, I think we'll come out of this essentially unharmed. I'm out the money I spent on the flooring, but that was an investment.

I've become one of those old guys who talks about how I've lived in Bend my whole life, and how my store has been around for 40 years, and the "good (bad) old days." But I really am proud of it. Not just that we've survived, but that we continually improve. That's the hard part--not just limping to the finish line but thriving.

I do hope the store can get passed along.

I keep thinking I'm going to get back to writing, but then another disruption comes along. As I posted a few days ago, DC comics (30% of the market) has changed distributors. As I posted on one of the retailer forums, "Name one tangible benefit from this development." Three days later, I'm still waiting.

It's going to add costs and complications, but that's sometimes the way business goes. More alarmingly, it puts the rest of the industry in jeopardy, and I'm not certain the industry as a whole is strong enough to withstand it.

I'm always fascinated by people's reactions to these events. What comes out from the outside observers, the customers and creative people, is a certain hate for Diamond Distribution. I think this is mostly because some retailers have so continually complained about our distributor that everyone thinks they are horrid, when in fact, they are pretty good. (A little secret--I believe some retailers use the distributor as their whipping boy, "Oh, I don't have that comic because Diamond shorted me" or the like. Which is sad, because when I legitimately need the explanation, I think the customers wonder if I'm lying. I try to never lie.)

But the same people who hate Diamond, generally hate comic shops in general. We're all the "comic book guy" stereotype. These people would like for nothing more than that comic shops and Diamond distributors to be swept away.

Here's the thing: There is nothing that will replace them. No one has the money or interest to come in and save the day. I suspect instead that the monthly comics model would essentially disappear as an industry (maybe survive as some sort of boutique type business) and be replaced by graphic novels only, distributed by book publishers and wholesalers. This would represent a significant but not fatal percentage of our sales.

But for most "comic" shops, as well as for most creators, it would be the end. This isn't hyperbole--we may really be reaching the buggy whip\ stage of our devolution. Oh, well. The comic industry has been dying since it began, (From millions of sales for single issues, to hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands, to thousands....) so it will probably keep limping along.

We'll just keep continually adjusting, as we always have. We were on course for a record year in March, and I'm hoping that we'll still have a decent one.

Friday, June 5, 2020

DC Comics has Jumped the Shark.

I usually don't talk about industry complications on my blog because it's not my customers' problem how many hurdles I have to jump to get their product so why burden them?

I had a big pile of poo land in my lap this morning. My response was to laugh--that slightly hysterical laugh when things become too much. DC has decided to leave Diamond Distribution and force comic shops to order from our biggest online discounter competitor.

So what? Just a different distributor. In the case of comics, it's huge. It's a very fragile business at the best of times. This is a potentially disastrous turn in the road.

At the same time, all my business decisions in the last few years have been in preparation for just this sort of event, so --while it's very, very inconvenient--we'll probably be able to negotiate the situation without too much damage. I'm not so sure about most comic shops.

A little background.

Comics are a very marginal business. Not a whole lot of money is generated, despite the popularity of the movies and TV shows. Spider-man is huge--Spider-man comics, not so much. In some ways this has protected us comic shops. The big chain stores haven't been able to take our business away because it's too much work and too risky for such a small reward.

But outsiders rarely understand this. They wonder why we aren't selling more comics (even if you ask them, "Have YOU bought a comic lately?") So every time a Disney buys up a Marvel or a Warner Entertainment buys up DC and then are themselves gobbled up by an A.T.&T, the new overlords almost always try to ween the market away from comic shops. It simply makes no sense to them that Batman can make billions of dollars in the movies, but they can barely generate a small uptick in the source material.

Usually they try to put their product in the mass market. There's a pretty common misapprehension, even among comic readers, that comics abandoned the grocery stores or newstands or whatever. (Ancillary postulate, that they abandoned the "kids.") The truth is the opposite. The mass market abandoned comics, and the direct market stepped into the breach.

So the new overlords make a deal with Barnes & Noble or Walmart, sometimes even giving them "exclusives" (oh, how I hate exclusives.) But here's what happens:

Barnes & Noble or Fred Meyer or whoever will order a block of comics. So maybe 20 Green Lanterns and 20 Batmans and 20 Supermans. What they don't understand is that currently (and these numbers are always changing based on writers, artists, storylines, etc.) they'll sell 3 Green Lanterns and 15 Batmans and 3 Supermans.  There is no way for them to know this except--well, by being a comic shop whose job it is to know.

Huge wastage follows, and either the comic companies or the retailers give up.

It's happened over and over and over again. Because, frankly, it can't happen any other way. Comics are hugely dependent on very specialized knowledge.

In the last 3 years I've tripled my new books sales simply by giving them a little more room and attention. Simply be increasing my inventory. For years I heard how bookstores were a tough business, and so I stayed away.

But I could give my comics double the attention and space and inventory and it would barely move the needle. Books, in contrast, reward me for my efforts.

Still, I love comics, and they are still the most significant part of my business, and I certainly have no motivation to move away from them. However, over the last few years comics haven't been doing all that well. We've adjusted to this downturn and our overall sales have been increasing despite it.

Still, neither Marvel or DC have been happy. And they are looking for someone to blame--and that is usually the "direct market" of comic shops.

As I said, the response of the overlords is to try the mass market first. There second, and much more disastrous response, it to try to control the market by having their own distributor. Unfortunately, this splits up an already small market. 

DC has just left their longtime distributor to go with our largest online discount competitor. This is pretty shocking, obviously, especially when the whole market has been weakened by the pandemic.

So what do I do? Do I sign up with the new distributor (who is my biggest online competitor?)

I'm going to go ahead and try to set up an account, but I'm going to be very careful.

Meanwhile, I worry about what Marvel is going to do, and whether my longterm distributor, who is the distributor of every other comic published, is going to fare without the second biggest publisher to sell.

As I said, I've been emphasizing books and games for the last decade or so--without de-emphasizing comics, I should point out, so we are diversified enough to handle it. Unless, of course, everything falls apart.

And that never happens, does it?
Sometimes the best thing to do is just listen.