But of course in real life that Swamp Thing comic would be a bestseller.

§ April 27th, 2016 § Filed under market crash, question time, retailing § 5 Comments

Brandon submits

“You probably covered this, but can you think of a time in early Mike’s comics retail career where something came up that completely junked how you thought comics should be ordered?”

I think I follow what you’re saying here, but let me give a couple of different answers to you.

One of the first lessons I learned from my old boss Ralph is “order with your head, not your heart.” And before anyone pipes up, that’s not a 100%, completely binary thing, by any means…yes, sometimes you order with your heart, because there are comics and characters and creators you like and want to support and of course you think investing your time and money in them is a good idea. I mean, we’re not machines, we all have our preferences and that informs our decisions. The trick is not to be stupid about it.

If you’re supporting a comic you like, which, oh, let’s say it’s Our Swamp Thing at War, and you’re ordering piles and piles of it, thinking “well, if I love it, surely all of my customers will love it, too!” Then, after a few months of not selling any, you’re still thinking “it’s gonna catch on, I just know it” — well, sooner or later your head is going to have to pull rank on your heart and cut those orders down to what you’re really selling versus what you think they should sell.

This is probably a “no-duh” kind of realization…I’m pretty sure I didn’t go into this thinking that it was all “la de dah, just get whatever” and throwing down whatever numbers you wanted on the order form. But I think I was surprised by the amount of number-crunching involved in actually ordering comics, with looking back at the sales histories of individual titles, at seasonal changes, at what creator or character’s presence in a particular issue might do its sales, etc. And sometimes this decision-making is crazily exact…I have, well, not agonized exactly, that’s too strong a word, but I’ve definitely waffled over the difference of a single unit on a comic for a longer period of time than I really should have. Like, maybe 20 copies feels like it’s too many, but dropping it down to 19 just doesn’t seem like that would be enough. No, I’m not exaggerating.

So maybe that’s the actual response in this first part of this answer: that I wasn’t aware at first of just how much work actually went into placing orders. I’m not sure what I pictured, but it was probably a lot more casual than the advanced calculus I’ve since ended up doing to figure out how many Marvel variant covers I can order.

The second part of my answer is more involved with the overall health of the marketplace. I am sure I’ve mentioned once or thrice over the years about the sudden seachange I experienced during the boom ‘n’ crash period of the early 1990s, when the latest Diamond Previews arrived, cover-featuring Dark Horse’s new superhero imprint “Comics’ Greatest World.” My memory is a little fuzzy on the details, but my recollection is that there were either multiple superhero universes launching in that same Previews, or that I realized just how many superhero universes were being thrust upon the stands. I do remember thinking “where are the customers to support all these new ‘universes’ going to come from?” and, perhaps on a more selfish level, “how are we going to have room on our shelves for all these different comics?” Now, as it turned out, the marketplace eventually took care of this problem for us, but that was still a bit of an alarming realization.

Now keep in mind the big comics boom was still in progress of becoming a crash around this period, so we had been more-or-less accustomed to (or perhaps spoiled by) the idea that there were plenty of folks in the marketplace ready to support nearly anything that was published. There was of course no shortage of clues that the market was sick…the prevalence of investors, the proliferation of gimmicks and enhanced covers…but for some reason, seeing that particular issue of Previews, with the promise of More of the Same Kind of Stuff Coming on Top of the Stuff That’s Already Here, was the literal final straw. The sorta vague feeling that things weren’t healthy, the one you could ignore because hey, look at all this money we’re making, now came into tighter focus. To try to bring it back to your original question, Brandon, is that this was the transition from “order lots because comics will always sell great forever” to “order what’s going to sell now, and be more picky about what you want left over for backstock.” Not the catchiest way of putting it, I suppose, but true just the same.

• • •

Oh, hey, over at Trouble with Comics, to make up for all of us hatin’ on Jack Kirby in our younger years, we pick out our favorite obscure Kirby works.

5 Responses to “But of course in real life that Swamp Thing comic would be a bestseller.”

  • Mike,

    Thank you for continuing to provide a real-world, realistic account of the methodologies behind, NOT just comic shoppe ownership, but really the proper running of ANY kind of independent retail store.

    I’m sure many people think that it’s just a matter of “order what you want and hope for the best”, or a magical “order it and they will come”, but I’ve seen far too many improperly run stores (comics, records, POG Emporiums…) to know better.

    The balance of turning off the fanboy part of your brain and NOT ordering with your heart (“Hello! And welcome to EVERYTHING IS THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES MART!”) is precisely what separates the real (successful) shop owners from those who fantasize just how COOL it would be to own a shoppe and be able to wallow in all the merch they want…before going bankrupt.

    Sure, you want to sell the new comics you order, and yes, you probably should be sure to have a few copies for the back-issue bin, but the trick is for the copy of “OUR SWAMP THING AT WAR” # 115 isn’t the SAME copy that’s been in the longbox since it was placed there, but instead a DIFFERENT copy, purchased along with a collection from someone, who is also not the owner of said shoppe.

    The stock needs to live and breathe.

    Whenever I have the idea of opening a storefront (a mixture of antiques, rummage-sale stuff, comics and “cool stuff” – with maybe a coffee bar, beat-poetry showcase and go-go dance bar/laundromat), I always remember YOUR (and some other serious, long-time comic shoppe owner-cum bloggers’) description of sitting down with flow-charts and years worth of sales sheets and maybe a handful of chicken bones, Magic 8-ball and a Oui-Ja board to find the Speed-Force equation (and NOT the Anti-Life Equation) of proper sales numbers.

    It’s hard work, and your deduction is appreciated.

    I only wish I could visit such a well-run shoppe, owned and operated by a friendly and knowledgeable shoppekeep as yourself.

    Long may Sterling Silver Comics live.


  • Thelonious_Nick says:

    “go-go dance bar/laundromat”

    This is actually a good idea, right? Because there’s always a need for laundromats, but what do you do while you’re sitting there?

  • Thank you for this answer. I’ve had a few of these moments myself – both when I was “just” a manager and now as an owner. Even after so many years, there’s lessons.

  • King of the Moon says:

    Welcome to my shop, “Power Pack Everything”

  • Snark Shark says:

    “Our Swamp Thing at War”

    Or “Swamp Thing’s Witching Hour!”

    “Comics’ Greatest World.”

    They sure got that name WRONG.