What do comic book stores and book stores have in common?

Wow, I have put a multi-paragraph book review together for once! It’s for Tilting at Windmills, vol. 2, by Brian Hibbs (IDW, $19.99).  Brian Hibbs is the owner of Comix Experience, in San Francisco.

I bought this at brand-new Brooklyn comic book store Bergen Street Comics, which I highly recommend to any and all NYC comics-lovers.  The store is beautifully laid-out and so, so organized, which I prize very highly in any bookshop but especially comic shops.  NYC people, think Rocketship-level of blissful organization and shelving.  And they’re also on Twitter as @BergenStComics, and here’s the great review on the Greenlight Bookstore Blog that put them on my radar.

The book, I would recommend as well, but as I was told when I bought it, it is HEAVILY about Direct Market comics-selling and very little else.  You would have to be, like me, a huge nerd about retail AND comics in order to love this book despite it being just about the nuts-and-bolts of comic retail.

But I am, so I loved it.  Hibbs’ style is perfect for what he’s writing about—for those familiar with bookseller blogs, this book (which is primarily made up of columns that have run on Newsrama over the last several years) is very similar to Kash’s Book Corner in tone and content.  Both focus on a lot of specifics of their job, and neither are afraid to point out the emperor has no clothes, and it’s clear in each that this comes from a place of great love for their profession and for what they sell.

And in fact, there’s more in common in Direct Market comics retail and independent bookstore retail than I had thought.  Most Direct Market stores fit the profile of being local and indie, and it seems we can all agree that Diamond has…well…issues, sometimes.  I also found a lot to identify with in Hibbs’ excellent descriptions of the buying game, especially as comics stores have it a lot rougher than us, because they are usually ordering non-returnable.  Of course, bookstores try to minimize returns, because freight ain’t getting any cheaper, but it did help me to appreciate what we have.  On the other hand, as trade book publishers start to get more serious about giving a seriously better discount to accounts that order non-returnable (and by serious I mean more than a 3 or 4 point bump, if any publishers are listening), it’s good to get a look at how that might change our buying patterns.

One of the more interesting things Hibbs has been doing for the last five years is comparing how comics/GNs sell in bookstores (using BookScan numbers) to how they sell in the Direct Market (using Diamond’s numbers). Interestingly, this appears to have initially been a response to a fear on the part of Direct Market retailers that comics publishers were putting too much faith in the salvation of the general bookstore market for their medium.  I must admit I’d never considered bookstores a threat to comic stores.  I’ve been working in bookstores for years, and despite the fact that I have gotten a discount at those stores, I’ve usually bought my comics full-price at comic stores.  Mostly because they had a better selection, and because I could depend on the people behind the counter for great recommendations. If anything, I’ve come to see bookstores selling comics/GNs as good for comic stores, because at a certain level of interest, I’m going to send people to a comic store.  We’ve got five shelves at my store for GNs and it breaks my heart what we can’t carry, but really, comics are a medium, not a genre.  So it just makes sense that they have their own stores owned by people who seriously know what they’re talking about.

At BEA last year the phrase on everyone’s (and I do mean, to the point of nausea, EVERYONE) lips was, “graphic novels are a gateway drug!” As in, for kids, to keep them interested in books in general.  The same might be said of general-interest bookstores.  In that sense, one could see bookstores as the sleazy people who hang around playgrounds to get kids started, and comic stores as the actual drug dealer’s house.  In the nicest possible sense, of course.  (Now you perhaps see what “graphic novels are a gateway drug!” drives me so crazy.  The metaphor goes right off the rails without too much push.)

Anyway, I found myself getting a bit defensive at the BookScan numbers and Hibbs’ conclusions.  Hibbs freely admits that the BookScan numbers blow, which is good, but does not always take that into account when comparing Direct Market figures to bookstore figures.  At least the way I see it, as I would interpret his findings a bit differently.  But that makes sense.  I’m bringing bias to the table when I look at them and so is he, and we both know it.  And overall, the message is the same, and shouldn’t surprise anyone: comics and graphic novels work better at comic stores.  Indie booksellers in particular shouldn’t be shocked by this—we already know that specialists and people who love reading what they stock are best at their jobs.  That is, after all, the main argument we are currently making to justify our existence.

Two things that really surprised me: Hibbs only just got a POS system in 2007!  I quite literally CANNOT imagine running a store without a POS and was, frankly, assuming throughout the book that he had one until he said he was just getting one.  Especially with what seems to me like a buying process that is at least twice as complicated as ours!  The other is that, until recently when Hibbs and a few other lead comic store owners started one, comic stores did not have a trade organization.  This was obvious to me early on—when he would talk about a general grievance that many fellow store owners shared, I kept thinking to myself, why don’t they get their version of the ABA to work on that?  Answer: they didn’t have one.  Again, much admiration, and MUCH realization of how luckily we are to have the ABA.

So, now that they have one, though (ComicsPRO), I started thinking by the end of the book that it and the ABA should work together, or have some sort of informal link.  Perhaps this already exists, or has been tried before, but if not, it seems like we have enough in common that something good could come of it.  It seems like they derive the same sheer joy we do from meeting with likeminded retailers and hearing new perspectives, and I think it could be fun.  At the least, I think comics retailers would be a great addition to IndieBound in a more formal way.  Also, moving from a suburban to an urban store recently, I’ve become very conscious that the various differences between bookstores have as much to do with location (urban, suburban, rural) as with size, which is how it seems we’re more commonly divided right now (small, medium, large).  I wonder if there are certain topics with which I’d have more in common with an urban comic store of our current size than a rural general bookstore of our current size.

I can’t just generally recommend this book because I recognize that most people do not dig detailed discussion of buying.  Especially if you are not into comics, and therefore the content he’s talking about will make no sense to you.  If you don’t have a passing familiarity with concepts like Marvel’s Civil War, or DC’s 52, then the experience might be sort of like watching a Harry Potter movie when you haven’t read the books—you’ll get something out of it, but if you don’t know the backstory, there will be places you’ll be pretty confused (or bored). But to people with weird and oddly specific interests like me, and I suspect there are a few of you reading this, I can’t recommend this highly enough.  It’s good to see what other people are up to, especially when they are this interesting, funny, and good at making complex situations easy to understand.

(And of course, if you are reading this in NYC, I recommend you go get it at Bergen Street Comics.  It might even still be on the front counter!)


2 comments so far

  1. J.M. on

    Thanks for reviewing this. I’d been debating buying it, and you just pushed me into the purchase.
    I read Hibbs’ ‘Tilting At Windmills’ columns over at the CBR website, but only semi-regularly. This sounds like the perfect way to catch up!
    Oh, and in regards to your line, “Anyway, I found myself getting a bit defensive at the BookScan numbers and Hibbs’ conclusions,” if you follow these link, you’ll see you’re in good company:

  2. […] What do comic book stores and book stores have in common?, Mar […]

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