Although faced with big questions—the economy, print vs. digital, and Diamond's evolving policies—the mood at last week's ComicsPRO retailer meeting was very upbeat…and why not? Led by unprecedented sales for the Watchmen graphic novel and Marvel's issue of Spider-Man co-starring Barack Obama, comics sales have remained stable throughout a period of worldwide recession. Rather than hunkering down, retailers and publishers alike are moving forward with new initiatives.
The four day annual convention brought together about 100 retailers, all members of ComicsPRO, a 5-year-old organization dedicated to uniting the comics retail segment to address issues and solve problems. According to ComicsPRO Board member and event organizer Chris Powell, who runs Lone Star Comics in Dallas, attendance was up 20% from last year, and overall membership in the organization is up by 40%.
ComicsPRO board member Rick Lowell, of Casablanca Comics in Portland, ME, was impressed so many retailers took the time to attend a four-day show in the current economic climate. "We haven't had the big hit that other sectors of the economy have seen, and the various conventions are going strong. Obviously, there is still a strong interest in what we have to offer and people are positioning themselves to take advantage of that interest."
Another board member, Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience in San Francisco echoed this upbeat assessment. While sales at individual stores have shown varying degrees of growth or shrinkage, "I think the fact that even amongst the stores that were down came to a meeting like this to get involved in the industry speaks pretty well to long term prospects."
Participating publishers included DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image and Top Cow. The slate of presentations was rounded out by various organizations—the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Hero Initiative—remainder dealer Tales of Wonder, the website ComiXology and the POS software system Moby.
Attendees were also treated to a tour of Diamond's new Memphis warehouse, a vast 600,000 sq. ft facility which amazed all who saw it—the standard comparison is to the ending of Raider of the Lost Ark. "I couldn't even comprehend how much comic product there is at one place at one time," said Lowell. "It extends 50 feet as far as the eye can see in every direction." The warehouse includes a mile of conveyor belts and a four-story tall tower where orders are assembled by computer.
DC sponsored an entire day at the show and bought down some creative heavy hitters—v-p of editorial Dan Didio and star writer Geoff Johns showed off the upcoming event, "In Blackest Night", starring Green Lantern, and a sneak peek at "Flash: Rebirth" to good response. Vertigo executive editor Karen Berger previewed several of the imprint's upcoming projects, the most enthusiastically received being the Vertigo Crime Line, which retailers lauded for its innovative format. Another DC imprint, Wildstorm, introduced a number of new creator-driven series, showing a commitment to the periodical format.
Another projects that attracted much comment was Wednesday Comics, a newspaper-sized weekly comics that features oversized stories by top creators. "The number of questions about Wednesday Comics was pretty amazing," said DC's vp-sales Bob Wayne. He said the plan to introduce three new Vertigo series at $1 was also well received.
Marvel publisher Dan Buckley delivered a keynote speech that covered Marvel's recent initiatives, and along with sr. v-p of sales and marketing David Gabriel, addressed retailer concerns over the publishers recent forays into online comics. (A new Spider-Girl series will debut online, and Marvel has had a subscription based online comics program in 2007.) However at the ComicsPRO meeting, Marvel reaffirmed its commitment to what they called their primary outlet —the comics shop. "They made it clear that print is their core business and they don't see that changing any time soon," said Hibbs.
Image and Dark Horse both announced a move to Final Order Cutoff within a few months—FOC allows retailers to raise or lower their orders much closer to publication to reflect changing demand. Dark Horse marketing director Dirk Wood pledged a commitment to more communication on keeping key titles like Sin City available.
At Image, public releations and marketing coordinator Joe Keatinge— who declared the show an unambiguous "Awesome!"—announced two benefit books, Liberty Comics #2, an anthology to benefit the CBLDF and an ongoing series of variant cover editions to benefit the organization. He was also excited by the reaction to Viking #1, a new periodical comic by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein. Like other projects that gathered buzz, Viking sports an unusual format: a larger, Golden Age trim size and heavy stock covers. "People were upping their order on the spot," said Keatinge.
Other products and services showcased included the MOBY Point-Of-Sale system, which is gaining adherents, along with Diamond's own Comics Suite. While comics shops have lagged behind in installing POS systems, it's increasingly seen as a business necessity which will have a huge impact on stores moving forward. Benjamin Trujillo, president of Bitter End maker of MOBY, reports usage has more than doubled over the past year, with users reporting cost savings and far greater efficiency, especially where identifying dead stock is concerned.
David Steinberger from ComiXology, a website that offers services for retailers including a cover image library and a pull service that ties in to POS systems, also attended and signed up several retailers at the show. Steinberger echoed the general positive vibe. "The economy is definitely on people's mind, but ComicsPRO retailers are the cream of the crop, so they have grown a lot in the last few years, so while they are seeing spending come down, they are still ahead compared to five years ago. For comiXology, retailers are looking for better ways for their customers to see what products are shipping and make those impulse purchases based on images and previews, so we're a good strategy for them."
While publisher relations were an important part of the show, according to the board members, a key area of the show was organizing future plans. "We spent half of one day in members only meetings," said Powell. "We're an organization full of ideas but we need some kind of formal processes to get better execution of ideas." Issues touched on include more retailer education, more ComicsPRO branded creator tours, and running 24 Hour Comic Day. In addition, a retailer advisory board is in the works, according to Hibbs. Designed to supplement Diamond's new, stricter ordering policies, the plan is for a retailer review board to look at comics submitted by publishers or creators and "if it meets certain standards we'll work with Diamond on the creator's behalf." Hibbs cited a concern for good books getting lost in the new system and the need "to have something outside of Diamonds internal systems."
While the mood was positive, there were still concerns. Comics labeling and pricing were hot topics in both public and private meetings. Marvel and DC are increasing cover price to $3.99 on selected titles, and reaction has been mixed. "In my personal experience I have not seen a lot of price resistance—they grumble but they still buy them," said Powell. "But some stores report that they have people who have dropped titles." DC is trying to lessen the sting by adding back-up features featuring characters that have noted fan support. "The idea of added value for consumers is a welcome one," Wayne observed.
Diamond's move to their immense new warehouse has led to a rash of temporary problems in shipping and ordering as the new facility gets up to speed. While extremely frustrated by the setbacks, some retailers were also realistic. Given the huge size of the warehouse move, "I'm not sure that there was a way for it to go any smoother," said Powell.
Despite the problems alluded to, the weekend left all who attended energized for the tasks ahead. "To have a voice this unified in the retail community has been a real eye opener for us, and a great asset to Dark Horse," said Wood. "We have great admiration for their organization, and our interaction with them is quickly becoming indispensable."
"I've never seen the membership as engaged and wanting to participate," said Hibbs. "The fact that we had 80 different people breaking into committees was amazing."