Saturday, October 30, 2021

Been reading and listening to podcasts about Rome. I realized drawing parallels with the U.S. is nothing new, but damn--the last few years have really underlined the similarities with an exclamation mark. 

To be succinct: every chance Rome had to rein in their wealthy and powerful was subverted. In the end, the population fell for authoritarian rule. Frankly, a demagogue from either the Left or the Right was inevitable. 

The Right is the more likely candidate right now; more desperate, more cynical, more cowardly. 

And in the end, the followers won't get what they want.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Thanks, Marvel. Thanks, DC.

I told Sabrina to make Marvel comic reorders from Penguin Random House between Tuesday and Thursday. I usually assemble a book order, including graphic novels, from Friday thru Monday, but we don't want to mix up the ordering carts--which should give you some indication about how complicated their ordering system is.

She just messaged me that she tried to make her first order this week, but it was so complicated and there was few titles available, she gave up. 

We've gone back to Diamond Comic Distributors for our Marvel comics, even though we pay about 7% more, because of the ease of ordering and tracking. We can make multiple orders and they are consolidated each week in our invoice. If we have damages or shortages, Diamond will replace the product.

I got an "Eternals" graphic novel in this week from PRH that was ripped down the middle. To get a replacement I have to take a picture of the damage and then email them. Screw that.

Most comic retailers have blamed Diamond for shipping damages for years, whereas I've always thought they were relatively good at it. But even then, they are very forthcoming in replacing damaged product. Just by reporting it. 

 By the way, none of this was necessary. Thanks, Marvel. Thanks, DC.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Bulletin article on tourism,

Bulletin had an article about the love/hate relationship Bend has with tourism. Basically, the thrust of the article was, "Tourists: can't live with them, can't live without them." As you will see from the following, I've always been somewhat ambivalent about the subject.

Actually, the article was even more contradictory. The people quoted kept saying, "Well, we don't really need tourists. And then, in the next paragraph, "Boy, do we really need tourists!"

Which really sums it up, doesn't it?

I've always been torn by this issue. I come down on the side of, "Welcome to Bend, behave yourself."  Which, of course, isn't going to happen. I think the first waves of growth, the people did try to absorb the Bend ethos, but the later ones just overwhelmed it. I mean, it was very annoying to me when Trader Joes came to town and a bunch of people said, "Finally. We've hit the bigtime!' Really? So what you really want to do is have the town you just left?

I always remember seeing people dressing up for a visit downtown for the first time and being impressed. Because downtown was a blue jeans and t-shirt kind of place. Then again, I didn't make a whole lot of money when it was that way. 

I always said, that for the first half of our existence, I could shoot a cannon down Minnesota Ave and not hit anyone. 

Anyway, Bend has always been "poverty with a view," and that has gotten only worse. I always used to say that there is a thin veneer of sophistication in Bend, surrounded by the redneck majority.

I have also always commented on how isolated we are and how dependent on minimum wage jobs, retirement and tourism. The town was designed that way. That's the gamble we made, and for what it is, it was very successful. 

Do we really want to be Klamath Falls?

So growth was necessary just to keep the town alive, Well, now that we've succeeded, I do think we need to take our feet off the accelerator. As those who have read this blog know, I've been saying this about downtown events for years. They are no longer necessary to promote downtown and have become a hindrance instead. For example, the weekend after the recent Fall Fest, we did twice the business without any event at all. 

I recently moved to Redmond, while keeping my business in Bend. For years, I would defend Bend's growth by saying, "Well, the basic outlines are still here. I can ignore Northwest Crossing if I want to."  Linda and I recently moved to Redmond, and I have to take it all back. It is definitely a slower pace of life. It's nice.

It used to be busy or slow downtown, and there is still probably more a swing in seasons than most places, but I'm wondering if we've finally gotten big enough that the slow seasons are ameliorated. 

If you're a restaurant or business downtown, tourism is what keeps you alive. Everyone where else? I don't know, but I doubt it's quite as significant. Of course, we pay high rents downtown for the privilege.

Bottomline, if I could get the old Bend of the slow pace, the uncrowded forests, the fishing on Mirror Pond, the deserted Smith Rocks, and also have the kind of business I'm currently having--well, that would be great. But I'm afraid one crowds out the other.

So I have to come down on the side of growth. People need to make a living, and the lumber mills aren't going to do it.

Finally, it's all moot. You can't stop progress.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The artistic life is a tough life.

If you choose to become a full-time artist, you have my greatest respect--and empathy. It's a very big gamble, most often it doesn't pay off in either money or prestige. 

Even if, by most standards, you succeed. 

I saw this early on with my mentor, the guy who taught writing classes up at the local community college. By any reasonable standard, he was a success. He written dozens of westerns, had written in Hollywood for big western series, he'd been elected president of the Western Writers group. 

But he lived modestly. His wife brought in the income during the tough times. He wasn't destitute, but he wasn't wealthy either. He was teaching adult classes for a few hundred bucks. 

He wasn't Louis L'Amour, but then who is? Louis L'Amour is, that's who.

And he was the successful example. I knew of some local artists who'd spent their 30s and part of their 40s trying to make a living at art and pretty much nearly homeless. 

I had written three published and three unpublished novels by the time I was 30 years old. I had an agent and was actively submitting. The three years had brought in less than sustainable income, to say the least. I was mowing lawns to pay the bills.

I realized when I married Linda and the boys that I had a decision to make.  I realized that chances of success at a writing career were pretty damn iffy. I'd probably spend most of my life working minimum wages jobs and trying to find the time to write and depending on Linda. 

I could have made that leap. I was pretty close to breaking through, based on the responses to my books. (I wasn't getting acceptances, but I was getting very complimentary rejections, which believe me, isn't normal.) 

I mean, I think I would have gotten better through experience. 

But I also had the chance to buy a book/comic bookstore. That intrigued me, frankly. I was ready for a change. But to be honest, I thought it would be a perfect job for a writer.

I then spent the next 25 years hanging on for dear life. Turns out, being a small business owner is no part-time job. Quite the opposite. Writing? Forget about it.  

In the end, I was lucky enough to break away for 8 years in my late 50s and early 60s to write full time. The store was finally functioning correctly and I had a manager, Sabrina, who could do the job of running the store day to day as well as I could. 

I gave up most of my income during those 8 years; got barely enough to pay my share of household costs, but that was fine. I was writing. I was living the dream without worrying about bills. It worked out for me and it turned out that I had a tidal wave of creative energy built up which burst into dozens of stories and books. Good, bad, or indifferent, I was doing my best--better than I thought I could do--and I enjoyed the whole thing. 

I became familiar with a bunch of writer's who had taken the path I hadn't. Who'd gone all in as writers. Many of them were successful by any reasonable standard. They had multiple books by major publishers, good reviews, and fan following.

And at least of few of them were struggling financially as they got older. Because, unless you are Louis L'Amour, writing isn't all the lucrative. It certainly isn't secure. It only takes a few unexpected emergencies to send a creative person into a financial crisis. 

The competition has grown ever greater and payoffs ever less. Unless, you are in the top 1%. Hell, the top 100th of the 1%, considering the number of writer s and books. You know, unless you're L'Amour. 

Meanwhile, there has never been a better time for a writer like me who just wants his books out there, who is satisfied with very modest "success." (I can just hear the professional writers out there saying, "Fuck You!" because I know how that feels when a competitor to my store opens and proclaims they don't "Need" to make the money.)

There are avenues in all the arts that weren't there 40 years ago when I started. But the basic haves and have/nots of the situation haven't changed. I also think this same dynamic is true of ALL the arts. Every artitst reaches that moment when they have to make a choice,

The fortunate ones find a career that is at least tangential to their creative efforts. But even that keeps them from fully engaging.

How's this different from owning a small business? Well, I always felt I more or less had my own fate in my hands with the store. I was in charge, I could make the decisions. Execution was everything and either I made money or I didn't, bottomline.

With creative efforts, it's nowhere near as much in your own power. I read too many great writers who have been ignored and too many horrible writers who have been greatly rewarded to have any faith in that. 

So if I ignore that blue of stress in the first half of my career as a storekeeper, it turned out to be a good decision

But I'll always wonder, "What if."


Saturday, October 16, 2021

 I've been watching "First Reaction" videos on Youtube, mostly about the Beatles.

These can be fun, but they are also really frustrating. There's a contradiction at the heart of these videos. 

1.) The listener has never heard the Beatles songs.

2.) How smart or discriminating can a person be who has never heard the Beatles songs?

So these listeners tend to be either minorities or young, usually both. Either that or they are hiding their knowledge of the Beatles.

So the more ignorant they seem, the more genuine they seem, but also the most frustrating.

The less ignorant they seem, the less genuine they seem, like, really--you've never heard "Yesterday?"

Because of that, they tend not to bring much context to these songs. They tend to blend them with later music, not understanding that the Beatles were more or less the precursors, even the progenitors of much of what they listen to. I mean, I like seeing their surprise and enjoyment, but it is painful when they don't seem to know a damn thing about the Beatles.

Also--almost 100% of these reactions are positive. Not just positive, but actually celebratory about the Beatles, which makes me slightly suspicious. Because all these "First Reactors" are trying to make money. I suspect that they have learned that people who have money--or perhaps baby boomers--are likely to like Golden Oldies, you know?  

So I usually can only watch these videos until the person either says something incredibly stupid or comes across a little too ingenuous. 

Darn. Because it can be fun to watch people discover music. But I think they probably need to be under the age of 12.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Explosion of new businesses?

Jeff R. below was asking what I thought about the following article:

I don't have any insight except to say, I'm not surprised.

For a generation or more, big business has turned their backs on their employees: shipping their jobs overseas, playing them against each other so they never have to raise wages, pawning off pension and retirement funds in a cynical attempt to dump the whole thing on their employee's shoulders, working their employees harder for less pay, bait and switching job benefits, making them take gig work or part-time so they don't have to pay benefits, asking for loyalty and showing none, and on and on. 

All in service to ever higher CEO pay and stock dividends.

So when these employees didn't come rushing back to take their shitty jobs, big business (and to be fair, small businesses that were also paying minimum wages, overworking their employees, promising high wages for full-time jobs while only offering part-time jobs, and offering zero benefits) acted surprised.

To me, they've compounded their problems by playing a little game of advertising high wages, only to find out when applying that the wages they promised are for "later."

So yeah, what do people have to lose?

Well, a lot, but I'll get into that later. 

Early on in my business career, I read something about how the stress for self-employed people was high, but it was a different kind of stress than the stress that came from working for someone else.  Basically, because the stress was self-imposed and could be managed by their own decisions, the self-employed stress was healthier than the stress of having the same expectations by bosses but no power to change anything. 

We've all been there. 

So I think the time away from their shitty jobs gave a lot of people some perspective. Apparently, many decided to jump into small business.

That's great, right?

Yes, except I don't believe the majority of people are suited for small business. Not because they aren't smart or hardworking or whatever, but because it takes a certain independence that can't be taught. 

The stats quoted in the article, that 20% of businesses fail in the first year, and 50% in the first five years are, if anything, understated. I think it probably leaves out the business that sell out and linger for a few more years. I bet if you stretched that timeline to seven years or so, it would be a whole lot higher.

I have the opposite reaction as the writer of the article about failed businesses. He's willing to entertain the notion that many of the so-called failures weren't failures because they person retired or went on to better things or...whatever.

Whereas I believe that more business fail than are acknowledged. I've yet to hear a small business owner say they closed because they failed. There is always some other reason. But...well, that business is gone...

So I'm of two minds. It's great that they are taking their own fates into their own hands. It's scary because many of them will lose their shirts.

Oh, America. Land of creative destruction.  


I didn't realize it at the time, but I think taking a step back from writing everyday was my way of reorienting. I'd think I may have gotten into a rut, writing had become routine. I don't think it hurt the books, it just changed how I enjoyed the process. 

What this time and space away from writing has given me is a fresh perspective and a chance at a fresh start.

But not yet. 

During my earlier, 25 year break from writing, I was constantly thinking about how to come back. In hindsight, most of what I planned over the years would have been wrong. Most of it would have been overthinking. If I'd come back during that interregnum, I do believe I would have started meandering off in the wrong direction.

Most of these plans were predicated on the old model of publishing: getting an agent, sending books one at a time to publishers, waiting years for actual publication. It was a much slower process, one that really didn't allow for more than one book a year. 

Once my eyes were opened to the new world of publishing, all those previous plans went out the window. I realized I could write as much as I wanted, whatever I wanted. That freed me to let my creative energy flow.

I was amazed how fast those stories emerged. Once I allowed myself to write every idea I came up with, without self-censorship, the ideas came, or so it felt at the time, in an orderly manner. "THIS" is what I should work on next. THIS" is what I'll do after that."

I only had two rules, after all those years of thinking.

A.) Don't rewrite until the first draft is done.

B.) Always finish the book.

There were some missteps and mistakes along the way, but that was also OK. I allowed myself NOT to publish anything that I didn't feel was up to standards. There was always more where that came from.

In a way, that became the problem. There was always more where that came from--and it would all be of similar quality. It would also probably have about the same impact. That is, I was proud of what I wrote while at the same time acknowledging that none of it was really catching on the way I hoped.

What to do?

Well, I identified a few things even before I took a break.

1.) I need a strong premise, one that is both fun to write but also commercially viable (at least to the extent that can be ascertained.) I was writing everything I wanted, but I knew even before I started some of these books that the premise wasn't something that was probably going to be popular. I told myself not to second-guess myself--that, as the screenwriter William Goldman said, "Nobody knows anything." But it is also true that some ideas are better than others.

2.) I need to research more in advance. I need to have a strong outline of a plot.

3.) I need to give myself more time to write the actual book, though this was the part of the process that needs the least change. I believe once you start a story, it's important to stay there until you finish.

4.) I need to sit on the book awhile after I finish, come back to it with fresh eyes, and then give it a vigorous rewrite. This is something I was trying to do already, but there is always the problem of finding the right balance improving the writing and overdoing it. Once I step over the line, the book becomes a stranger to me: a word-jumble. So rewriting needs to be one very disciplined attempt. 

Work, in other words. 

Aye, there's the rub. I write for fun, not work. I don't write for fame or money, I write because I enjoy it. I'm telling myself a story, and I'm intrigued where it's going. I'm meeting new people, getting into their heads. I'm surprising myself with a felicitous phrase, a snappy line of dialogue, a plot twist that comes out of nowhere.

Work is seeing the mechanics of it all. 

Don't get me wrong. I forced myself to do the rewrites necessary to make the books better. I tried to find that balance between improving and messing it up. 

But I will also admit that I never let it become too much work. And, when I come back to writing, I'm going to have to decide just how much more rewriting I'm willing--or should--do. 

So I'm still sorting this out, but I'm beginning to see how it really will be refreshing to start from scratch again, with a new set of perimeters, and see how it all turns out. 

Friday, October 8, 2021

I predicted a train wreck. If only I wasn't in the train.

Last week wasn't probably the best time to take a vacation, but then again, when you own a business, there probably isn't a good time. It's always going to be inconvenient to some extent.

Anyway, last week was the first week of Penguin Random House shipping Marvel comics. Based on my book orders I was predicting that it would probably not be good. I also had a sense that they were telling us comic retailers what we wanted to hear and then doing things the PRH way anyways. 

Looks like I couldn't have been more spot on.

One more sidenote before I get into it. 

I've always thought that Diamond did a relatively good job of packing comics, all things considered. Maybe because I carry multiple product lines I've always been aware that damages and shortages happen with all distributors. Diamond had (has) a particularly difficult job with comics, which are not only thin, flimsy things, easily damaged, but also have customers who are especially picky about condition. 

The fact that Diamond could have a person who would pick out a single comic and invoice and pack it, to me, was always impressive. They were (are) very good about replacing damages and shortages. They basically take our word for it. 

I keep using the present and past participles for Diamond because, while they still send us most publishers comics, the two largest publishers, Marvel and DC, have gone to new distributors. Marvel and DC represent something like 80% of all comic sales. So you can see how this puts a dent in Diamond. So much so that I worry about them and all the other product I get from them. 

Nevertheless, I can only get DC from one distributor, and while I could continue to get Marvel from Diamond, I would lose a little over 10% in shipping and wholesale savings as well as going from one week payment schedule to 60 days. (While 60 days is harder to keep track of, it does give us a nice safety margin. Though also debt rope to hang myself if not careful.)

Anyway, I predicted a number of problems from PRH. (Especially since the demonization of Diamond made expectations from PRH unrealistically utopian.)

1.) Shipping. Sure enough, the comics came in single flimsy cardboard boxes. Some accounts lost huge percentages of their comics to damage. We got lucky--this week. But the shipping boxes are definitely not going to work and I'm wondering how PRH is going to fix it. I'm holding my breath for next week.

2.) Shortages and Damages. Instead of just taking the retailers' word for it, PRH wants a picture of each damage. Also PRH pretty much said, "Suck it up, sucker" by saying that dings on the corners of comics should be acceptable. Methinks they don't understand the comic collectors! Also, the damages were so extensive that there is no way most replacements are going to be available. 

3.) Accounting. Instead of having one simple invoice with the information we retailers need, they have confusing set of invoices and shipping pages and all manner of other ordering information split into multiple locations and with information that isn't helpful to us retailers. In other words, a dense thicket of info that we have to try to consolidate ourselves.

Anyway, it's a mess. Just one more mess.

So comic retailers are making all kinds of threatening noises--as if they have the power to do anything about it. 

I'm actually wondering if this is worth it to PRH. We are a relatively small industry with relatively high barriers to entry. We have an unruly group of retailers who complain about everything. I wonder if PRH will someday soon say, "To hell with it."

If they don't drop comics completely, I wonder if they'll just make it easier on themselves--for instance, requiring minimum orders of each item.

Finally, I predict that there are retailers out there that were getting less then 50% discounts before PRH gave it to them, who were buying COD or with limited terms from Diamond, who will go hog wild crazy on their ordering. You can build up a lot of debt in 9 weeks of ordering comics without having to pay. This seems to me like a forgone conclusion because--with most comic retailers--you are dealing with wheeler-dealer types who don't always think about the consequences of their ordering gambles. 

I'm actually looking at going back to Diamond. Turns out, my discount from them is 3 percentage points better than they originally offered, plus I have a feeling that my discounts from the other publishers are going to be re-estimated and will probably be based on overall orders. 

It's something to look at. 

Meanwhile, I feel pretty smug in my predictions of a train wreck. If only I wasn't in the train. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Can't pick the seats until I know where the stage is.

Had a dream last night where I went to a concert. I wasn't sure where the stage was, and I wasn't sure how good the seats were. Linda had a slightly better seat in another part of the auditorium, but I asked the woman next to me if she would move to Linda's seat and let Linda have hers. She agreed. 

(Mmmmm....didn't ask Linda. Wither I go, goest she?)

Then the performer came out. Could see the top of his head. Jackson Browne? He urged everyone to fill the empty seat near the stage, so there was a mass movement.

Then the whole room changed and the stage was in a completely different direction. So again, Linda and I need to move, but she refuses. Somehow, without going anywhere, I'm in my seat alone again. 

The woman next to me says, "I understand you've never been to "so-and-sos" concert before." 

"I have his most famous album," I say, trying to remember the title. 

Then the stage shifts again, and I find I have the worst seat in the house.  Sideways with a pillar in front of me. 

I'm totally confused.

So, waking up, this is a pretty easy dream to diffuse, I think. 

I have agency in what seats I take, but not in what they face. That is, without knowing where the stage is, it is impossible to know where to sit. 

That's kinda my life right now. I'm not sure where to focus right now because I'm not sure where I sit. 

At least, that's what it feels like. I can't really make any major decisions because by the time the decisions take effect, the whole environment could change. So I need to be flexible and let it all sort itself out.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

One of the hardest things to resist saying is: "I told you so."

Guy came in the store yesterday while I was in back and said, "Where's the old guy?"

"Old guy!" I shout. "Who you calling an old guy!"

He was thoroughly embarrassed. Thing is, other than a few aches and pains and some forgetting of names and looking in the mirror, I don't feel like an old guy. But hey, I do have 40 years experience in the comic retailer trade.

Anyway, this is a long route to the main point of this post.

Penguin Random House's first week of distributing comics is next week, and it's looking like a disaster in the making. Apparently, they are shipping in thin cardboard boxes the size of the comics without any buffering. So, of course, most of the comics inside are being damaged. 

If true, this is even worse than I thought,  but I've always had my doubts that PRH was going to understand what needed to be done with comics. I experienced the Heroes World disaster, the small distributor that Marvel bought in the mid 90s to distribute their comics. It was a complete and utter fiasco. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

Turns out, distributing isn't as easy as it looks. 

A little history since then. We've been getting our comics from a single distributor, Diamond Comics, for the last 25 years or so. Diamond literally stepped into the wreckage left behind by Heroes World to prop up shaky retailers (including myself) and in my estimation has done an overall good job. I worried at first that they were a monopoly, but I think they handled it well.

But for most of the last 20 years, a lot of comic retailers have complained bitterly about Diamond for every little mistake. Shipping problems, publisher problems, and even retailer problems have all been blamed on Diamond. Worse, I do believe that many retailers have used Diamond as their whipping boy for their own mistakes. I winced every time a retailer would blame a shortage on Diamond when it was their own fault and I've made sure we never did that.

Believe me, Diamond hasn't been perfect, but in most ways they've tried to be responsive to some very malcontent retailers. In that same time, most publishers have shut out the retailers for their constant complaints.

There is one really legit complaint about Diamond and that is that they charge for shipping. PRH doesn't charge for shipping, but on the other hand, we've lost enough off our discount to completely wipe out any possible savings. 

OK. So many comic retailers are just older fanboys. But Diamond has always been willing to immediately replace damaged comics, or shortages, and usually they simply take our word for it. Sometimes the comics aren't available, but such is life. 

Frankly, I have been amazed that there was a system in place that allowed retailers to order a single unit of a single title that was worth probably no more than a dollar to the distributor. That instead of the 200 books a week I get from PRH, Diamond is shipping a couple thousand items that are flimsy and easily damaged. 

But over the years, comic retailers seemed to have become more and more aggrieved, constantly complaining. Publishers are always looking for someone to blame for falling sales and--since they can't really do anything about the comic retailer base (believe me, they've tried, putting comics in every conceivable big box store only to fail)--they blame the distributor. 

In my opinion, when there have been falling sales, it is strictly the publishers own fault. Constant #1s, constant mini-series, one-shots, and crossovers. Constant starting over. Constant raising of prices. Ever growing numbers of variant covers, many not available or affordable to the average customer--or average retailer, for that matter.   

Worse, this constant complaining by the retailers has trickled down to the average customer who blame Diamond for everything. 

So the inevitable happened. First DC decided to go to a different distributor, Lunar Dist. Never mind that the owners of this company are also our biggest mail-order competitors, this change has added to the amount of work and shipping costs as well as making it harder to order DC graphic novels and toys. They did seem to do a better job of shipping, at least at first. But of course, the actual labor of putting comics in boxes is part of the process, and no matter how protected, UPS and Fed Express can still manage to do significant damage. 

Worse, Lunar actually wants photographic proof of damages. Gone are the days when you simply reported to Diamond and they accepted your word.

Then Marvel decided to go with Penguin Random House, the biggest book publisher in America.

I've been ordering books from PRH for over a year now. I rarely get a shipment where there isn't at least one damage--and this is books, which can withstand much more jostling around. It's very hard to get a hold of an actual human when you have a problem. Biggest problem of all--what is supposed to take two days to ship actually often takes two weeks. (I'm hoping that is a Covid problem and will clear up eventually.)

But what a time to take on such a big task! As I said above, my average shipment from PRH for books is 200 units. My average shipment from Diamond is in the thousands. Each of those items have to be picked and packed and itemized. This at a time when PRH is already apparently shortstaffed. 


The ordering system for PRH has been very wonky. Not consolidated, slow, and confusing. OK. I was willing to see that as growing pains. PRH seemed to be listening to the retailers, but I have a feeling they were just nodding their heads and meanwhile planning to do what they were going to do. 

Ironically, I believe it at least as likely that PRH will give up on comics before comic retailers give up on PRH. I can't believe it is worth their time and money and, boy, how they are going to love dealing with malcontent comic retailers. 

We are a different breed of cat than book retailers. 

I have diversified to such an extent that such problems aren't dangerous to my business, just annoying. I really should take a wait and see attitude before I say, "I told you so."

But it's not looking good so far.