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The Sum of the Whole

How can we not be selling comics in the millions?

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Once outsiders, now comic fans are at the forefront of the biggest pop culture wave in the history of the world, a movement generating billions of dollars, creating millions of new fans, and bringing what we love and sell to every household in America. Over a decade of Marvel movies dominating pop culture. Unemployment under 4%. A culture that longs to be part of the latest and coolest trend. Generations of people who throw down money to belong to Apple or any number of dozens of other hot brands. Youtube superstars, kick Starters making millions of dollars, streaming services blowing up, and on and on and on. Yet here we are, the business people at the heart of it all, the ones who care take the medium it’s all based on, and we can’t get out of our own way to keep the comics themselves culturally relevant. Instead, we debate on a daily bases our constant, impending demise. We have corporations giving up on the profitability of the very source of all of this. We have a distribution network constrained to outdated technology and methodology. We have retailers living in near poverty. We have potential customers who never even know they are a potential customer. In short, we have no value chain and we sit around wondering why it’s all happening. People are lining up to throw down their money to be part of something every single day and we need to go take it instead of continue to languish.

At the retailer level, even our conversations illustrate the difficulties as we cannot get any two members to agree on the nature of the problem. There is a consensus that our industry is not headed in a good direction, there are broad stroke barriers to success that we seem to believe in, but it’s clear that we are a group of fierce individuals with a strong desire for independence. At any given time, it can feel like this is tearing us apart both on our level of the comics delivery model and with our partners above us. The truth is this independence is what makes us who we are and it is a strength to be embraced and harnessed for a brighter future. We’re all here because we love comics, we know no other life. We are here because at one moment or another, we were inspired and called by this medium and because we knew there was nothing else in the world we would ever want to do. We sacrificed time and again to build our shops and share our love and build a community and make some money.

As this industry struggles, there are so many solutions offered and I’m now proposing a way to bring them all into being. We don’t need any two people to agree on anything, we don’t need to stifle anyone’s creativity, and we don’t need to homogenize every shop. All we need is an industry wide program to channel the combined goals and energy of publishers, distributors, and retailers to deliver comics by the millions to those rabid fans. To borrow from one of our biggest voices, I’m tilting at windmills. I’ll outline my idea below, fully understanding the undertaking requires an agreement amongst forces who are currently all absorbed in their own self interest, at odds with each other over big failures or perceived slights, and all contributing to our long slow decay. Consider this a challenge to be more than the sum of our parts and become something whole. Consider it a love letter to comics and an inspiration to ask the most of ourselves.

My proposal is a unifying value chain that would unite us in our common love for comics, allow every level of the chain to get what they want, incentivize rather than curtail brilliant ideas, and bring our entire industry together with the single purpose to sell comics in the millions by the issue rather than the occasional hundreds of thousands. I imagine a unity of core purpose: not individual needs or ideas; a mechanism that feeds value to all participants, and ensures the growth and future of our beloved lifestyle. The forces that benefit today at the expense of others can benefit even more with the power of all voices and businesses behind them rather than serving only self interests and engendering often venomous counter productive responses from the rest.

Publishers, distributors, and retailers work together to create a top to bottom retail store program. That’s it. It’s that simple. This program sets basic minimum standards, creates a partnership for promotion, and raises customer expectations. Publishers gain confidence in where their product is going, distributors are strengthened as financial hardships vanish, retailers are supported by the partners above, and customers get increased value in products and services. This would be a concrete system interconnecting all parts of the industry, from publisher to customer, to deliver value at every level and get the engine humming to take that entertainment money that’s just waiting for an excuse to be spent. Retailers are the front lines of delivering the goods, they are the most logical level to base the program through, so it would be called something like “Comic Book Industry Retail Store Program.” They would be the backbone everything works from.

Retail shops would sign a very simple agreement, a short document with a generic outline raising expectations. This contract is the centerpiece that makes everything work. All I want is a commitment to basic operations most stores already follow. Retailers would be asked to verify their commitment to clean, well organized store fronts, safe places for their customers, and promise to participate in the network. This is the lynchpin to everything because we would be making a guarantee to our publishers that there books were ending up in a good place so the end user could get them. With this in place, we would then give publishers a clean conduit for things like top down promotions, turn their efforts to outward facing promotion with a simpler internal information delivery mechanism, and raise their confidence in their investment in the books. We would reinvent the current comic shop locator and replace it with this network including great outward facing advertising as well as private, behind the scenes communication. Ideally, our distributors could operate this part as the connection point. With this in place, I imagine publishers having a great avenue to give more information before ordering, distributors being able to deliver products sooner to guarantee their presence on the racks before release, retailers having enhanced support and sales tools, and finally customers finding more books at better value and believing in all of us. I’m talking about raising all of our expectations and putting an end to a slow, downward spiral. It’s time to stop worrying and wondering about the cause. It’s time to stop blaming everyone else and forgetting we’re all partners. It’s time to pick something to believe in that can bring us all together into one of the greatest, most powerful forces to advocate for what we love. It’s time to build a future and carry on what we inherited because it’s right and good and needs us to be better than who we are at any given moment.

This can work. As a point of reference, consider the Wizards Play Network run by Wizards of the Coast. When that organization was founded, WotC went through the largest expansion in the 26 year history of the business. New stores were created across the world and given the tools to operate while exposing unprecedented numbers of customers to Magic: the Gathering. It revolutionized retail in the game industry and something similar can do the same here. I don’t know how this would come to be, I’m certain even its suggestion will be rebuffed by many, but it’s time for change and it’s time for action. We’re ready to set aside the differences that divide us and turn that powerful spirit of individualism into one giant voice all dedicated to telling the world who we are and why they should join us.

Richard Standing in the midst of his comic shop: Paradox Comics-N-Cards

NOTES:

For those unfamiliar with the WPN, here’s a link to the program. Please keep in mind that the information here is a specific link to the WPN and simply an example of what a store network is.

To continue this conversation, please email me at:
Richard.john.early@gmail.com

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