As more people look to bookstores and the newsstand for comics' future, noted retailer Stephen Holland of Page 45 argues that with just a little thought and intelligence, any comic store can beat the book chains hands down.
06 June 2003

Here's a joke for you:

A woman walks into a comic shop and says: "Hey! Isn't it clean in here?"

There isn't a punch line.

The joke, sadly, is on us - those of us who love this medium, know what wonders it is capable of, and wish to high heaven that it had a wider audience. For the woman in question was Robyn Moore (wife of STRANGERS IN PARADISE creator Terry Moore), the shop was Page 45, and as I looked up from her warm, glowing eyes, I spied a cigarette wrapper rustling in from the pavement. She'd been into many comic shops in her travels, and this was the cleanest she'd seen.

It says way too much about our industry that a single given in any other retail environment - basic cleanliness - is too much to be expected. Never mind customer service, stock control, product knowledge, merchandising, window design or shop floor layout, we cannot even manage cleanliness. No wonder publishers are looking elsewhere for their link to prospective readers.

'You can't just sit behind the counter waiting for the sales.' As Paul O'Brien discussed recently, one such outlet the publishers have been investigating with a modicum of success is book stores. The problem is that however natural the combination of books and comics are under the same roof - as compatible surely as DVDs are to music - bookstores do not yet have the knowledge to proactively sell this material to their existing customers.

And in this industry, with this medium, the material does need selling. You can't just sit behind the counter waiting for the sales to come to you, because unlike film, music, games or even prose, there is a comparative paucity of information out there.

If you walk into a Virgin Megastore, the chances are you already know what you're after. You've either heard it on the radio, seen it on TV, read a review in NME, newspapers, even gaming magazines, or heard it down the pub or club. With comics.... you've no idea what's on offer, especially if you're completely new to this medium.

And that's what we need: newcomers, the Real Mainstream. We want the hard, cold currency of the 99% of the population we've yet to begin fleecing.

Why haven't we started?

Because the Real Mainstream - the average man and woman on the street who enjoys adult fiction, biography, politics, romance, fantasy and humour in books, films or on television - has yet to come into contact with material they're interested in, packaged in an accessible format, and sold in a professional environment they feel comfortable in.

But they could. Because that material is freely available for any retailer to buy now and keep permanently in stock.

When Page 45 opened eight and a half years ago, our stock check of trade paperbacks - which we count every week, then reorder in time so that none of them sell out - came to something like 200 titles. It now runs to over 2,200 different books.

There really is a comic book for everyone. And by everyone I include eighty-year-old blue-rinsed Tories, because as Bryan Talbot is fond of reminiscing, he saw us promote then sell a copy of his book THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT to just such a woman. And she rather enjoyed it.

Why is the rise of the trade paperback so important?

Well, do you walk into Virgin Megastore (I hate to name check corporations, but I mentioned them once so I might as well be consistent) and buy the middle ten minutes of a film on video? No. (At least, I hope not.)

If you're anything like me you can't even be arsed to make sure you're in every week to watch the whole of 24. I've missed a couple of WEST WING episodes this season, despite never seeing a finer series on TV. But I know I can buy the lot on DVD, so I don't have to be in to see them.

'There is absolutely no reason why comic shops are not the best venue to sell comics.' Equally, with the trade paperback you have a reprint collection designed to be kept in print and kept in stock, so that anyone can walk in off the street at any time and buy material produced any time over the last century. Just like a prose book. It even looks like a prose book: it has a spine and everything.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. I'll come back to it in a second. Let's get to where I've been going: comic shops.

There is absolutely no reason why comic shops are not the best venue to sell comics in. We don't need the newsstand to do it for us, nor the bookstores. We can do it ourselves. After all, we're the ones with the product knowledge. We just need the right shops, run by the right people.

I know this, because we've done it.

Every year except one that Page 45 has been open, our takings have risen between eight to fifteen percent. Have the prices gone up by this much every year? No - in fact the cost of the average trade paperback this year has come down by a quid. Have all our existing customers become this much wealthier every year? No, I regret to say they haven't. Nor has our competition, such as it is, decreased; in fact another sci-fi store masquerading as a comic shop opened just the other year, across the street.

I can honestly tell you - for I work on the shop floor and love every single second of it - that each week we see more and more of the Real Mainstream strolling in and buying (sometimes with little persuasion)...

PALESTINE (journalism)
TONY & ME BY GEORG BUSH (political satire)
PEDRO & ME (biography)
JIMMY CORRIGAN (fiction across the generations)
SANDMAN (mythological fantasy)
FROM HELL (historical crime fiction with a socio-political bite)
GHOST WORLD (contemporary fiction)
SAFE AREA GORAZDE (more journalism)
MUTTS (comedy with pets, even your Grandma's going to love that one)
PERFECT EXAMPLE (alienated youth - is that a genre?)
JOHNNY THE HOMICIDAL MANIAC (cute dead things - and that is a genre!)
ULTIMATES (widescreen action adventure without the gaudy trimmings of most superhero fodder and - bonus here surely - not written by a complete gibbon!)
GEMMA BOVERY (romance/comedy of middle class manners)
30 DAYS OF NIGHT (throwaway b-movie horror - hey, I never said the entire mainstream was discerning, just look at the music charts)

Then there's BLOOD SONG, AKIRA, GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE... You get my drift. I'm not going to list the 'Thousand books most accessible to the Real Mainstream in the widest of genres imaginable', but dammit I could.

How does this happen? Why do the Real Mainstream come into Page 45 and buy comics when they're (apparently) not doing so in any significant quantities elsewhere in the UK?

'We act like a professional book shop, and we look like a professional book shop.' Are Nottingham's citizens more peculiarly inquisitive than anywhere else in the country? Do you think it's something in the water?

Or do you perhaps think I'm lying?

(I swear, we should do a live web feed direct to this site to prove once and for all, if you haven't visited yourselves, that our customer base is actually forty percent women. Women! And no, forty percent isn't good enough, but it's thirty-nine percent higher than most other places on either side of the Atlantic.)

So what is the oh-so-mysterious cause of this freakish phenomenon? Easy.

We act like a professional book shop, we stock like a professional book shop, and we look like a professional book shop. In fact, nine years ago we consciously stole our entire design from Waterstones, right down to horizontal black wooden book plinths in the middle of the floor. The result? We feel familiar.

And that's where the format of the trade paperback comes in. When a new member of the public perfectly used to browsing through book stores wanders curiously into Page 45, they feel comfortable. Because they're surrounded by books - with covers and spines - laid out on black wooden shelves and black wooden plinths, lit from above by a halogen glow, and set on a rich burgundy carpet (Which, parenthetically, we've vacuumed)! It's all reassuringly familiar.

So instead of running scared when they open the books and discover pictures as well as words, they linger just long enough to become fascinated, and for us to casually cast: "If you have any questions, just shout."

And when they do ask, well, that is such a great feeling.

There is, of course, a little more to it than that. You keep fantasy and comics out of your name, so that you don't fall foul of the stigmatic preconceptions the general public holds before they've had chance to see that that comics have moved on (Scott McCloud described the name Page 45 as "Style positive, content neutral"), you don't put comics in the window, you actually design it (same reasons), you keep the monthly pamphlets and all superhero material waaaaay at the back... and you don't sell STAR WARS action figures.

You greet with affection not attitude, and, if given the opportunity, ask where their interests lie in other media so that you can tailor on-site recommendations. You publish illustrated 'Recommended Reading' brochures for potential customers to take away, so that they're not overwhelmed but do have something to read in the comfort of their home. And you play Beethoven.

OK, I'm kidding about the Beethoven.

But you see, there is no mysterious trick. This need not be a freakish phenomenon. It's all just common business sense which retailers in other industries have got licked before they even begin to consider opening. Yes, there's that information drought that I mentioned earlier, but a couple of simple strategies like those touched on above, and a logical racking of material by genre and author, and you've got that gap plugged as well.

It could be replicated in almost any other city in this country (though personally I'd plump for one with at least one university to get you off with a minimum initial target audience), and in spite of what Dez Skinn from Comics International has claimed, the results would be the same. Why should Page 45 succeed in Nottingham and no one else succeed in Glasgow? Edinburgh? Bristol? Brighton? Manchester?

No earthly reason whatsoever.

And do you know what the effect would be if this happened? Sales of quality material like OPTIC NERVE would be so high that Adrian Tomine could afford to make it his full-time job and produce more comic books, from which those existing comic shops (comic shops, mind, not sci-fi kiddie merchants) could make even more moolah.

And that's why, from our very beginning, I've been pushing in public - in the pages of CEREBUS and whoever else will disseminate the information - for some decent competition. I'm not a corporate man, and I don't want a chain. I like the fact that we're individuals in direct contact with our public. That's why we've freely given out any information others might consider trade secrets, even offered and gone on to help other individuals with particular strategies when they wanted to follow suit.

Because not only do we stand to make more money through others' successes, but I would dearly love to see a time when creators, even as prominent as Eddie Campbell, actually made a decent living from their works. Can you believe that Eddie, the artist of FROM HELL, had to cancel his comic magazine EGOMANIA? Why, you ask?

Because it wasn't stocked in enough comic shops. That's the only reason. If the public saw it, they'd buy it. I know. We stocked it, they bought it.

It really doesn't have to be this way.

Historically, the only reason we in the UK and the US have failed to maintain the same level of market penetration as in Europe is that for the last thirty years comic shops here have been run by amateurs whose sole, juvenile obsession has been the superhero genre. If bookstores were run by grubby gits on a ramshackle floor, and stocked nothing more than the latest instalments of long-running sci-fi sagas, the book trade would be in an almighty mess.

But it's us that's in a mess, and it's all so unnecessary. It is entirely reversible.

All we need are the right comic shops, selling the right comics in the right way. Come on, who can't make money from 2,200 trade paperbacks?

With mainstream coverage of creators like Sacco and Ware in the mass media at an all time high, this is the perfect opportunity for comic shops to come into their own.

It may also be the last.

Because if we're not careful, publishers will find someone else to sell their wares, they'll be big chains, and then we'll really have some competition.

It's way past time for us to clean up our act, before the bookstores steal the whole bloody play.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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