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Sunday, July 17, 2005
As exciting as it was to be throwing our very own party at the partyin'est comic book store in the world, a big part of the excitement for me was getting to observe a lot of these folks in what was, for them, a totally new environment, and a totally new medium.
I mean, we all have a basic knowledge of how to read comics from the funnies in the newspaper, but a whole book? Big pages full of artwork, double-page spreads, square binding? A lot of qualities of this format are new to people. And a few things surprised me.
1. It's All About the Art
Having read comics since I was about 6 years old, I've gotten to a point where the writing is vastly more important to me than the artwork, generally speaking. I don't deny that the artwork is an absolutely essential element, and that at its best it adds qualities to a comic that the writing cannot possibly accomplish - but personally, I'll be much more inclined to enjoy a book with great writing and lousy art than a book with lousy writing and great art, y'know?
But as all these people were picking up comics for the first time last night, I heard the same thing from them over and over again: "I like the art, maybe I'll check this out." Not once did I hear, "Is this well written?" or anything along those lines. Not one word about writing - some folks were interested in the premise of various books, but never the actual quality of the writing.
Several years ago, I was arguing about rap with a friend of mine. I said the actual raps were the most important element by far, especially since rap is a kind of music that focuses so heavily on language and vocal rhythm. She said that might be true, but that nobody would listen to a great rap with a shitty beat. The beat was the most important part of the song, she said, because it was the first thing people hear, the first (and often, only) chance for the song to get your attention. If it had a good beat, then maybe you'd stop and listen to the lyrics.
Same deal with comics art. Nobody's got the time to sit down and read the first issue of every comic they look at; the writer's talents need time to be demonstrated, and that's not time you're gonna get from such a casual new audience. I'm convinced now, more than ever, that the two elements work in perfect concert in comics; neither one CAN be more important than the other, because they both need each other and fulfill story elements that are impossible to replicate, and each one needs the other.
So, when selling comics to new people? Don't bother with "the dialogue is really great," at least not at first. Hit 'em with the premise and show 'em what it looks like.
2. Variety Is The Spice Of Life
We made a number of really big sales last night, and one thing I noticed that was consistent in each and every one of them was a wide variety of comics. I'm talking different genres, different art styles, different sizes, different formats, different price points - every element of the comic as a piece of commercial art. New readers don't want to put all their eggs in one basket. Nobody got five Grant Morrison books, or a big stack of X-Men trades. This is a remarkably diverse medium, with a lot to offer in many different capacities, and it strikes me as immensely important that we had the range of stock that we did. We've all heard folks complaining about comics shops that only carry Top 50 books - they're standing in the way of independent creators, stagnating the commercial development of the medium, and on and on. There's always a point where that argument falls apart, because no retailer is under obligation to others in the industry - they've got their own money on the line, with very little room to maneuver within the direct market, right? I mean, all the pressure's on THEM because of non-returnability, so why SHOULD they take a risk just to help out some struggling new artist? Why should they gamble their own livlihoods to support anyone else's?
The answer is that they don't need to. Diverse stock is IMMENSELY PROFITABLE. If you're selling to the hardcore, long-time super-hero readers, that's good, because they're a fairly reliable, loyal consumer base, but they're not a growing population. If anything, they're diminishing. And frankly, they don't require much management - the "capes customers" I've had coming in know exactly what they want, they usually know where to find it... there aren't any questions. There's no real room for input from me, aside from the usual (and very fun) fanboy arguments and reviews. The folks who need your attention: everybody else. And those folks aren't necessarily (or even likely) going to have the same taste as your fanboys. They're going to want a range of products; you don't see many successful record stores that sell just hip-hop, or movie theaters that only show comedies. (There are exceptions, sure, but they're few and far inbetween.) Why would you limit the product available at your store? I'm telling you, the money is there to be made.
All it takes to get started is the stock, some friends who have some friends who have some friends, a keg or two and some good music, and a little chutzpah.
3. This Is Gonna Take A Minute
So, I'm really anxious to do a good job here. I really wanted the Experiment to go well - I want to do James' awesome store justice, and I want to accomplish something for myself. So when I saw people browsing around the shelves, I got really excited. Then they'd pick up a book, and I'd get even more excited. They'd spend some time turning pages... then put the book back on the shelf. My heart sank. Oh no!, I thought. They don't like it! They're not gonna like anything else! I'll never sell them a comic and they'll never come back because they're just not interested! The impulse was strong to walk up and start being a little more aggressive, hand-selling some books and moving the customers along the shelves until we found the right thing.
I resisted. Something told me, leave it alone. Plus, there was a hell of a lot of plate-spinning to do, with so many people in the store having a good time and needing new drinks and new folks walking in who needed a friendly hello... I just let it go. Then something wonderful happened. The browsing folks? They all came up to the register with huge stacks of books.
See, people have to be comfortable. They have to be sure they're spending their money on something they dig. There's nothing wrong with somebody not liking the comic they're looking at - there are plenty more out there, and if you have a sincere, confident love of the medium, you know that there really is something for everyone. I think that's the tick that held me back from interfering; even if they didn't keep holding onto whatever comic is was they had at the moment, they were still reading. They were still interested. Nobody picked up a book, flipped through it and then walked away. They just moved a little farther down the aisle.
If I'd gotten involved, I think I'd have ruined their concentration. Instead, I just got them in the store and let the comics do the talking.
There's a lot to be said for hand-selling and customer service, but sometimes that means letting them do what they want to do.
Can I just say one more time how excited I am about how last night went? I seriously never thought I'd be able to pull this off with such success. I don't know exactly how Graeme and Nora feel, but I can't help but feel a swell of personal pride at a job well done. I'm doing it. I'm running Isotope.
And, y'know, maybe that's part of the point of this experiment. Larry Young published True Facts and told everybody, Hey, check this out. I published my own comic and I was really successful at it. if I can do it, so can you. Perhaps this is me and James doing the same thing.
Because really, while I'm still a very small fish in a very big pond, and I've only scratched the surface so far of what makes successful retailing... I'm feeling really enthusiastic and I'm working hard to make sure this is a great store to be in. And I think it's working. Maybe there's a lesson here - are we all capable of comics success? Is this really do-able, even for a know-nothing Joe like me?
Can each one of us play a real part in improving the industry?
It's looking good.