With Free Comic Book Day coming up, I think it’s high time I deal with a subject most comic fans don’t think about too often: how the local retailer fits into the picture. More often than not we ignore the retailer’s role in our comic book experience. We focus on the visions of the creators and the editorial policies of the publishers but fail to consider what it took to get the book into our hands. We take the local comic shop for granted; we forget the vital role they play in our larger crusade of advocating comics.
You see, for most comic book stores, the simple act of staying afloat is a full-time venture. They must constantly use the money they earn from a month’s sales to buy product for the next month. Factor in rent, utilities and the like, and it’s little wonder that your local shop is barely treading water.
Then there’s the simple fact that the big comic companies don’t really pay much attention to the plight of the retailer either, despite the fact that the comic book stores are where they make the majority of their money. The large publishers focus on what they think the readers want, forgetting that it’s the retailers who pay their salaries. The retailer orders the books from Diamond and it’s the money that they pay to Diamond that the companies receive. The money from your comic book purchases do not help support the industry; they only support the store itself. The store is actually bearing all the weight, like Atlas with the world on his shoulders.
But the comic book companies forget this and create policies that benefit themselves but do harm to the little guy. They decide to only print books to order, forcing retailers to bear the brunt of the costs. If retailers think that a consumer might want a book, they have to order extra copies before the book even comes out. If it turns out to be a hit and the store sells out, then customers are turned away, losing business for the retailer and not for the companies, who have already received their money for the product. If the book turns out to be a flop, the store is stuck with a lot of merchandise that has already been paid for, will never be purchased to reimburse the initial expenditure, and cannot be returned either.
We all have heard about these aspects of the industry, thanks to the vocal protests of retailers such as Brian Hibbs who speak out against such policies. Most sane people who have heard of these policies recognize that no other industry works this way, that movie theaters do not get stuck with a film that no one wants to see, that record stores can return unsold CDs that fail to fly off the shelves. It is lunacy for comic companies to expect their gate to the customer, the retail shops, to take all the risks for them.
The very shrewd comic advocates out there know that this is not the only plight of the local comic shops, that they are hurt by the distributor (in most cases, Diamond) as well. Retailers are given changing discounts on their merchandise that can affect how much of what they earn on each book is actual profit. Without steadfast numbers, it becomes difficult for them to budget their purchases properly. Plus the arbitrary cutoff dates for ordering often only increase the problem when it comes to over- or under-ordering books. Retailers also have to cover all shipping charges, which can be quite hefty at times, especially when books are weighed down by added inserts from advertisers (as Warren Ellis pointed out in Come In Alone).
So do you think that, after all these problems they have to deal with, most retailers have money to spare on advertising? No of course not. But some retailers manage to do it anyway, because they know the only way to keep their heads above water is to draw in new customers. They advocate comics on a daily basis, because they have to. If they didn’t, they’d starve. So you see retailers going out and taking advantage of events like Free Comic Book Day and trying to drum up as much business as possible on as little budget as possible. (To read a great example of how some retailers accomplish this goal, read this edition of Store Front by Rick Shea on Broken Frontier from the last week of April. This is comics advocacy at its finest, if you ask me.)
But we should not make them do this alone. As comic advocates—heck as good people—we should be helping our retailers out as much as possible. Why? Because we take the retailers for granted as much as, if not more than, the comic companies and distributors do.
Don’t try to deny it; everyone of us has hurt our retailer in some little way or another. Maybe they weren’t able to get a reorder for you as quickly as you would have liked, so you got impatient and bought the book elsewhere. Maybe you’ve decided to drop a book out of the blue without telling the folks at your local shop first so that they can cut their orders of that book.
Or maybe you’ve done the worst thing of all and bought a graphic novel at a chain bookstore. In doing so, you’ve chosen to give a corporation your money as opposed to the guy down the street, and if you don’t see how that’s a problem, then you’re wearing blinders. Each little sale that goes in the corporation’s pocket rather than the little guy’s is a nail in the local shop’s coffin. The death of the local shop means less books are available, since the chain bookstore only has a limited amount of space available for comics. Less books available means those books that survive will be more homogenous in content, and eventually all we have left are mainstream books. I hate to use the argument of the slippery slope, but it is one that is particularly apt and actually possible in this scenario.
So how do you make up for all these problems the retailer suffers? Well you can’t hire them high-priced lawyers to take on the unfair business practices of the publishers, nor can you convince the federal government to look into the monopoly of the distributors. What you can do is something like the rest of our campaign of comics advocacy, something on the grassroots level: you can help them advertise. Just get your local store’s name out there, dropping it to folks you know who are even marginally interested in comics. Take friends with you to check out the shop, especially with Free Comic Book Day coming up in a week.
You can even take it a step further with this big promotional event coming up; you can offer to help pay for some of those free books. You might not realize it but every “free” comic book costs your retailer SOME money. If you really want to help advocate comics, you should not expect them to cover that cost all by themselves. I personally am buying over two hundred “free” comic books from my retailer to give out to people at school. It will end up costing me just over fifty dollars to do this, but I think it’s worth it.
For most of us, going to a comic shop every week to pick up our books has become routine. We depend on them a great deal, so much so that we take it for granted that they’ll be there. I think it’s high time we start to pay them back for all the things they do for us each week, and for the ways they advocate comics on a daily basis at great cost to themselves. So support Free Comic Book Day not by taking but by buying and GIVING out free comics, if for no other reason than to relieve the guilt you feel from having bought from someone else recently.