Earlier this month, comic book shop veteran, Brian Hibbs, who also frequently blogs about the industry in his Tilting at Windmills columns, explained why he had decided to close Comix Experience located in San Francisco, his “less profitable” comics shop. Some retailers and readers may remember that when California went into pandemic lockdown, Mr. Hibbs spoke up, hoping to influence Diamond Comic Distributors to shut down operations so no other stores in the country could get comics either. When Diamond decided to pause distribution and furlough employees, DC Comics said “C-ya” and made nice with other comic book distributors. Marvel Comics went a step further.
Like many retailers, Mr. Hibbs didn’t like that too much either. Still, the industry insisted it was doing great.
I’m quite certain I was promised an indistry-wide collapse, sir! https://t.co/OQY6QpBqPQ
— Ron Marz (@ronmarz) June 29, 2021
Even though the shop he was shutting down was less “profitable,” since penning his latest column, Hibbs did manage to find a buyer. So my first question was, “if the comics industry is doing as great as guys like Tim Seeley, Ron Marz, Joe Quesada, and other industry creatives keep claiming, why is one of the most well-known and respected comic retailers in America being forced to sell his comics shop?” Was it the location? Other San Francisco shops had closed last year, and both of his shops are located there. I’d read reports that much of the city is crowded with homeless people, and littered with feces and used needles, and the local government frequently enacts severely oppressive anti-business laws, but none of that was mentioned in Hibbs’ article.
In light of Ron Marz and others crowing how the comics industry is booming, instead of blaming any localized outside forces, or taking responsibility himself, Hibbs pointed at how the comics industry is operating as the cause of his troubles:
“I probably still would have dug in and fought hard for it except for one thing: I’ve lost a great deal of faith in the business of periodical comics and, more specifically, of many of the people in charge of shepherding it. Costs of operation are greatly increasing, profit margins are getting tighter, and the industry as a whole seems hell-bent on catering to speculators and Fear-Of-Missing-Out (FOMO) marketing.”
“at the new 50% margin on Marvel periodicals, and a soon-to-be 48.5% one on DC for us (after shipping), there’s just not value in risking anything more than the bare minimum for the two largest publishers of periodicals. “
Are Ron Marz and Brian Hibbs talking about the same industry? Perplexed, I decided to reach out to a couple of notable comics shop owners, who also happen to occasionally contribute articles here, and get their takes on this situation.
Gary Buechler, better known these days as Nerdrotic, is a commentator on pop culture, often related to comic books and “geek media”. Gary happens to be the previous owner of the comic book in question, and owned and operated it from 2003 to 2013 when it was called “The Comics Outpost”. Gary sold the shop while it was still doing very well , but he wasn’t doing so well, and sold it in haste. Brian Hibbs took full advantage of the opportunity.
Gary explained in the following exclusive video:
“When Brian took over,” Buechler said, “he never worked there… He really didn’t do anything with the store after I left. If you walk into that store right now, it looks like it did when I left. The picture that they use in the article, in The Beat, that’s a picture I took of MY store. That was when it was at its peak.”
Gary, was actually the third owner of the shop, and owned it the longest. He says when Hibbs tried to sell it back to him a few years ago, Buechler turned his inflated asking price down flat. Recalling differences the two had in their approaches to running a comic shop. “I wanted to make it a fun place to be.” Gary explained. “Brian’s a very clinical guy. He’s very much into the numbers. He sells ‘periodicals,’ I call them ‘floppies’, and he doesn’t really sell back issues. …It works (for him) and he’s managed to play it safe… It’s very boring and clinical, but he’s been around for two decades, and this is why he is considered a prominent comic shop owner.”
Eric Helwig, the co-owner of Deep Discount Comics and Kowabunga Comics, also conceded that the comics industry is certainly changing, with Marvel and DC having both departed Diamond, due in no small part to Hibbs pressuring Diamond to shut down last year, but Eric also felt Brian’s assessment of the situation with Comix Experience didn’t really reveal the full picture.
“Margins are shrinking. Yes, but is it as drastic as Brian says?” Helwig disagreed “Nothing in life is free. You have to give up something to get something,” referring to the free shipping offers that the new distribution platforms for Marvel and DC were now offering, in lieu of the lower volume discounts they received under Diamond. For Eric, the volume discounts may not have outweighed the dollar to dollar cost of shipping, but the additional work required to use multiple distributors makes whatever was saved in shipping unprofitable for him.
“In this instance you get free shipping, at the expense of lost discount (for most LCS), but now we have a THIRD distributor, along with a second whose back end system is not user friendly for ordering periodicals. What was once a single distributor, is now three, tripling the work, and adding an extra hour or two every week. Is that worth the 1%-2% savings in your free shipping? ” Helwig continued “every distributor has their own shipping timeline. What once was a single, consolidated delivery day has become three days. Not to mention that after ordering receiving, and stocking our product, there comes the time to calculate the damage and shortages. It was easier to deal with this with just a single distributor, now has to be done with sometimes up to three. By the end of the week, most shops have likely lost well over that 1% margin we all get with free shipping.”
“Volume discounts are now gone.” Buechler said, echoing Helwig’s comments. “On DC Comics, you’re losing 2%. On Marvel you’re losing 2%. In the grand scheme of things it’s not that much,” he concedes “but you’re having to put more work into it as well, which is fucked up, but that’s the way it is now.”
“They (comic shop owners) had their opportunity when the coufe (COVID-19) hit, to get together, using their power as store owners, to get publishers and distributors to ‘bend the knee’ to them. They had this one opportunity, not sure if it would’ve worked, but they didn’t do it.” Gary elaborated, “they all went to their separate corners… publishers, distributors, shop owners, creatives, and we’re in this situation we’re in now.”
In Hibbs’ latest column, he goes on to mention how the floppies market has been inundated with variant covers, and it forces his shops to order “defensively”.
The periodical portion of the business has clearly been shifting strongly over the last few years to lean more heavily on the “collector” side of the market. There are virtually no periodical comics being released today that don’t have at least two covers, and far more than that are becoming increasingly typical. There is at least one publisher who publishes at least ten covers on nearly every single periodical they release, and new publishers just starting are often opening with five-per-issue as their standard. I don’t think these kinds of tactics are even remotely sustainable (especially as distribution is going to continue to fracture for the next year or two), and even if it was, this is in absolutely no way how I am interested in conducting business”.
Helwig also commented on the ever increasing speculator market.
“Publishers are catering to speculators and FOMO (fear of missing out).” Eric says, “Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past decade or so, the industry has made this shift to cater to speculators. Exclusive covers, ratio variants, one per store copies, not to mention a flurry of new apps, websites and social media groups dedicated to speculating. FOMO is real – but what are going to do? The same thing happens in many industries, when used correctly it builds excitement and momentum. All a retailer can do is order based on their store. Know your clientele, and order for that.”
On the bright side of the economics of the comics industry, Helwig has been seeing green shoots for the last 18 months in the constant trickle of ‘free money’ being pumped into the economy through COVID relief. Many customers apparently treat these funds as ‘found’ money, and not something they need to save. And his business has seen a significant rush of people speculating on new and back issues through these means. “When my business saw signs of this, we adjusted our ordering practices to optimize as much as possible. Many retailers bemoan speculators for not allowing their regulars to get the books they want. Conversely, it should be used as a teaching tool. You want Batman every issue it comes out? Let’s get you set up for a pull list, that way I make sure to pull it for you and have it set aside.”
In order to thrive, Kowabunga tries to stay on top of the trends. While he understands that floppies area means for publishers to offset the cost of production, the industry has gradually shifted to arcs. There are very few titles that see an increase in sales numbers beyond the first issue. “The Walking Dead, Immortal Hulk, and Tynion’s Batman run are some of the more recent titles that have grown in readers since they started,” Helwig adds ” but this is just where the industry is. If you can’t accept or respect that portion of it, then maybe owning and running an LCS isn’t for you.”
Helwig runs his own stores far differently from Hibbs, since they don’t share the same mindset. “As savvy as Brian is when it comes to operating a business (stock rotation, marketing, growth), it seems like he wants to run a bookstore, not a local comic shop. And that’s great for him.” Helwig further explained, “Brian says he hates back issues, as the time it takes to maintain them is not worth the money generated. But stores like ours deal with large amounts of back issues, and we’ve managed to show a significant profit across the different product lines. So it works for us.”
When I asked Eric is the comics industry is on a death kneel, he was quick to qualify it.
“For owners like us, who have adapted their business to suit the industry and customers, we’re doing better than ever before. The comic industry hasn’t seen key issue prices increase like this maybe ever. Brian has long been one of the most respected retailers in the comic industry,” Helwig continued, “that fact is not debatable. His decades of writing Tilting at Windmills, his seat on the ComicsPro board, and of course his successful lawsuit against Marvel (just ask him about it, he’ll tell you!) elevate him in many people’s eyes as one of the retailers that have earned a spot on the LCS Mt Rushmore, right squarely next to icons like Jim Hanley and Chuck Rozanksi.”
“That said,” Eric continued, “as the industry continues to evolve, I think comics retailers need to evolve too. I could put up a pretty reasoned argument that many of the “old guard” retailers don’t really want to make this shift and change how they operate.”
“I find it very hard to believe that they (still) aim things at speculators.” Gary added “I know it’s still going on, but it’s not like it was in 2013. Now everybody does variants and the market is saturated. And it’s lying and manipulation.” He continued “when the industry has to resort to lying and manipulation, to convince the general public, and more importantly their corporate overlords, that they’re doing well… then you’re NOT DOING WELL.”
Gary added that comic shop owners, publishers, and distributors “never spoke up when creators were attacking fans. They never spoke up when (publishers) started hiring for ‘identity,’ ‘what kind of ‘packaging’ ya got, who ya sleep with, what your politics are, alienating half their clientele, etc” Gary admits that while Brian still doesn’t comment on those negative aspects of modern comics that are currently plaguing the industry, he did agree when Hibbs says periodicals are no longer profitable. Adding that he too thinks the variant scheme is no longer a sustainable model.
Manga promises to be gentle. https://t.co/nzFwNyduNd
— Bleeding Fool (@BleedingFool) July 25, 2021
Gary, who still regularly frequents his favorite local comic shop to comb through the back issues, added that “obviously the American comic book industry is in the toilet right now, and it’s in the toilet for the obvious reasons… the biggest problem I see that’s still out there is customer service, and then, the quality of the product.” So long as creatives and publishers continue to lean harder into identity politics, and insult customers, most store owners feel like the industry will continue to struggle.