Diversity and a still growing market for comics have been the hot topics in comics retailing for the last year, and the annual ComicsPRO meeting provided more of the same, with overall sales of comics and graphic novels up 7.5% thus far this year, as reported by Diamond Comics Distributors.

The meeting also saw the organization move past a recent scandal involving the resignation of treasurer Gary Dills following his admitting to “financial improprieties.” Pete Dolan of Main Street Comics in Middletown, N.Y. was elected president and said the incident last December—details of which have not been released—has left “some issues that need to be resolved, but it’s a testament to the strength of the organization that those events had only a minor impact.” He said this year’s meeting was the best ever and “we’ve put new policies into place to make sure that this kind of incident doesn’t happen ever again. It was a bump in the road.” Ralph Matthieu of Alternate Realties in Las Vegas, was elected new treasurer.

Held this year Feb. 18-21 in Portland OR, the annual meeting for the trade association for comics specialty stores owners gives members a chance to hear the latest plans from publishers, and offers seminars and roundtables for brainstorming improvements in business practices. More than 100 retailers and 30 publishers and vendors gathered to network and share marketing ideas.

Other statistics revealed by Diamond back up the general optimism over comics growth both inside and outside the direct market (see “The Hottest (And Coldest) Book Categories of 2014”) Both orders and participating stores are up for this year’s Free Comic Book Day on May 2nd—orders are up 21%, and stores are up 8% to 2,340. Diamond accounts are also up 1.5% to 2,613 in 2014 versus 2,580 in 2013—a small but significant growth in a time when brick and mortar book stores have seen many challenges.

While Marvel and DC promoted big changes for 2015—Marvel is reshaping its line during a “Secret Wars” event and DC is relocating its offices to Burbank from New York, while retooling their “New 52” branding—Image Comics made a move to solidify their market share, announcing they would raise their minimum discount to retailers to 45% from 35%, enabling more stores to order their titles.

Marvel and DC’s moves leave the end of the year a big question mark, but retailers remain optimistic. “I think anything that can get the fans excited is welcome in my store,” said Dolan of the changes. “The key thing is: are the comics going to be fun and readable and will they maintain that level of excitement for fans. It’s up to the publishers to maintain interest.”

Portlyn Polston of Brave New World in Newhall, CA pointed out that the comics industry is unique in that retailers have such a direct conduit to even the largest publishers. “Comics retailers never seem to run out of ideas about how Marvel and DC can be doing things ‘better’. As I see it, these are the widgets that are being produced this year, and it is my job, literally, to figure out how to order, market, and sell them. Good art and great storytelling are what sells books, not my idea of what they should be about.”

The biggest buzz among attendees was about the diversifying audience for comics (see 'Valkyrie Bump' Shifts Comics Sales) and the continued influx of female and younger readers to stores. Polston and her partner Autumn Rain Glading presented their workshop “Men Are From Mars: Women Buy Comics” twice, and it provided some food for thought to fellow retailers. “Getting all retailers to understand that good marketing is marketing to women is a slightly slippery slope,” she told PW Comics World, “but in the end, I hope we helped some folks understand funny book retail from a female perspective.”

Writer Gail Simone attended for the first time to promote Swords of Sorrow, a crossover series featuring pulp heroes Red Sonja, Dejah Thoris and Vampirella, and was impressed by the feedback she received. “I had several retailers come up and tell me how much it meant to their customers to have LGBTQ characters and characters of different genders and ethnicities. It all seems so ridiculously obvious on the face of it, that that's where the audience is headed, but it takes a while to steer a battleship.”

“It’s a case of the maturing of the comics profession at all levels,” observed Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors in Concord, CA and a former ComicsPRO president. “The comics business is on [its] longest period of sustained health in the last several decades.”

New president Dolan’s own store is an example of growth: since opening in 2001 he’s moved to bigger locations twice and now has a 2000 sq. ft store in a shopping plaza. Dolan has seen the growth of female customers first hand. On a recent night he realized that there were about a dozen shoppers in the store, all women. “It blew my mind—we’ve come a long way.” Dolan says the change has been gradual, as publishers have begun to offer much more diverse comics that appeal to all ages.

While just settling into his job as president, Dolan said he was inspired to run for office on ComicsPRO’s board by seeing the excitement over the possibilities of the market expansion over the last few years. The main project he hopes to focus on is increasing ComicsPRO membership. “The more we are the more we can get done and the more communication there is the better this industry is going to get.”

Dolan is also promoting ComicsPRO’s mentoring program. For a $79 fee, new and prospective retailers gain access to a forum where veterans can answer questions and point out danger zones. He says it’s “all the things we wish we’d known when we were starting out.”