Retailers and publishers came together to discuss industry issues and opportunities last week as ComicsPRO, an organization for comics shop owners, held their second annual meeting ins Las Vegas, March 19-21. About half of ComicsPRO's 115 member roster attended, and sponsors included DC, Graphitti Designs, Cartoon Books, Dynamite Entertainment, Diamond, Slave Labor, Top Cow and the POS software system MOBY. Representatives of Marvel and Dark Horse attended informally.

By all accounts it was a very positive meeting for everyone. "This was one of the most valuable events I've attended in a long time," said Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik. "Hopefully the retailers who attended felt the same way."

With the recent changes in the comics industry and current economic concerns on everyone's minds, it was an opportune time for the different levels of the industry to come together. The meeting's theme was "Full Steam Ahead" and according to attendees contacted by PWCW, the mood lived up to the motto. Andrew Neal, owner of Chapel Hill Comics, an 800 square foot, 5-year old store in Chapel Hill, N.C., said this was his second ComicsPro meeting and he was most impressed by, “the way publishers are taking ComicsPro very seriously as an organization. It’s become an organization we can funnel our concerns through.”

ComicsPRO director Amanda Fischer of Muse Comics in Missoula, Mont said the meeting "really had an air of work going on. Everyone looked like they were rolling up their sleeves." Topics discussed include using POS systems for comics shops, ways publishers and stores can work together on advertising, and other ideas for tours and sponsorships.

Publisher presentations offered news of their own, With Jeff Smith announcing reissues of Rose and Stupid, Stupid Rat Creatures, two spin-offs of his famed Bone series. DC announced hardcover editions for Camelot 3000, a groundbreaking series from the 80s, and Y The Last Man, as well as the deluxe Absolute treatment for Frank Miller's Ronin. The Hero Initiative, a charity for older creators in need, announced a collection of Stan Lee's Soapbox columns from early Marvel Comics.

POS (point of sales) software remains a hot topic. Most comic stores currently rely on a paper and pencil method of inventory tracking; the advent of computerized sales information could have a huge impact on ordering patterns, especially as consumer demand for products from a variety of publishers increases. Two POS software systems were presented at the meeting, Diamond's ComicsSuite, which is still a few months from roll-out, and the MOBY system, which was created by the Starclipper store in St. Louis. Side by side demos were held in the hospitality suite, and many retailers took advantage of the chance to see the software in action.

Joe Field of Flying Colors in Concord, CA is another ComicsPRO director and the head of the PR committee. He felt the show was immensely positive, after other attempts by such retailer organizations as PACER and the DLG fizzled over the years. This gathering allowed retailers and publishers to confront issues face to face, and the result was very constructive.

"We had discussions with the publishers about trying to share the risk a little bit more," said Field. With about 50% of all comics periodicals offered to retailers numbered #5 or lower, retailers have to take risks on many untried series. "We wanted to talk to publishers as the start of a dialogue that gets us to a point where we can more evenly share that risk."

The current economic flux was also a topic. In years past, comics, as a cheap form of entertainment, did well in times of economic hardship while other higher ticket items languished—the comic book format's rise took place at the tail end of the Great Depression after all. However there is now a much higher average price, and at $15-20 for a graphic novel, a comic is no longer a disposable income item. Whether they will remains a counter-economy item was much discussed during the meeting.

Bob Chapman, owner of Graphitti Designs, which produces high quality t-shirts and limited edition toys and books, also opened to the door to some changes in distribution. In his presentation, he offered to sell his product direct to retailers. The problem is not with the current model, via Diamond per se, Chapman told PWCW, but with the range of products the biggest distributor is able to carry in the apparel section. "Currently my t-shirts sell to about 7% of Diamond accounts," said Chapman. "That's a very accessible number to deal with and grow." Chapman can also offer a wider variety of sizes and styles by working directly with stores. While seemingly more time consuming, Chapman said the reaction was quite positive and he hoped to be able to offer a discount and level of customer service that would make it work for everyone.

ComicsPRO Board members

While formats and product have been exploding in recent years, and book chains have become more and more important in getting the emerging graphic novel category wider distribution, the direct sales market remains key to industry growth, according to a speech delivered by CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein. The mood at ComicsPRO was very much in line with the thinking that there is paradigm shift going on and direct market stores are a part of that.

"The stores coming in are tending to be in the game better," said Field. "It's a slow process. We have 12-15 members in our mentoring program—what we call pre-retailers who are planning to open a store. They are learning from ComicsPRO members and asking questions. That's positive."

"Everybody wants the industry to do better," said Fisher. "ComicsPRO has to work to get retailers the tools to become even better."