MARTHA THOMASES: The DC (And NY And LA) Implosion
There used to be ten comic book stores within a mile of my apartment. Now, there are two.
To be fair, this is two more than most people have. And when I expand the radius to two miles, there are more than a dozen. Which, again, is more than most people have. There used to be a lot more bookstores, too, even before the Borders bankruptcy. Some of this is the ebb and flow of commerce, and some of it is specific to publishing.
Most of the comic book stores near me closed in the early 1990s, when the direct market imploded. Speculators stopped buying, and there simply weren’t enough reading fans to support so many stores. With bookstores, the same kind of competition had an effect. Instead of speculators, bookstores suffered from Internet offering lower prices and free delivery. More recently, the success of Kindles and other e-readers means that fewer readers are buying physical books.
Comic fans have been reading comics online for years. You, yourself, can read comics – for free – on this very site. It’s possible to illegally download comics you’d otherwise have to pay for, through a process I’ve always thought was too complicated to bother with. Also, I don’t mind artists and writers getting paid.
Starting next month, DC Comics will offer readers the chance to buy comics digitally at the same time (and at the same price) they are available in stores. Naturally, comic book stores are less than thrilled about this.
This is a long and winding way to get to my rant.
Look, I love comic book stores. I remember before there was a direct market, when one had to go to a drugstore or a newsstand to get a fix, and there was no guarantee that the comics you wanted would be in the shipment. Having dedicated comic book shops (at least in New York City) meant that I could always find the books I was looking for, and also maybe stumble upon something I didn’t know I’d like.
At the same time, comic book stores (and the people who work for them) can be incredibly frustrating. When I worked at DC Comics in the 1990s, it seemed to me that some comics retailers wanted all kinds of special privileges not afforded to other classes of trade. They wanted to get their books earlier than other outlets. They wanted to get graphic novels earlier than bookstores. They wanted to know what was going to happen in storylines earlier and earlier, so they could spoil the endings for their customers and feel like big shots (they said it was so they would know how much to order, but somehow, even the most top-secret plot developments leaked). They wanted to be the only class of trade eligible for co-op advertising.
Perhaps it would have been worthwhile to accede to their requests if they had been willing to negotiate in other areas. For example, perhaps they could have agreed to promote our comics more aggressively, or stock the line more fully. That didn’t happen.
Perhaps that’s one reason there are so many fewer comic book stores in my neighborhood, and around the country.
A few of the retailers mentioned in the article I cited above are angry that DC is not continuing to treat them as an exclusive market, the only place fans can read comics. While there are some good ideas for way they can participate in sales (gift cards!), I don’t understand why they think their concerns trump DC’s desire to reach as many readers (and paying customers) as possible.
While I love my [[[Kindle]]], I haven’t warmed to digital comics in the same way. Even with my iPad, I prefer reading paper copies. I like the sensation of turning the page when there is a cliffhanger. If that makes me a dinosaur, I’m cool with that.
And I like comic book stores, where i can find comics I might not know I like. And those are the comic book stores that will profit from the evolving marketplace.
Dominoed Dare-Doll Martha Thomases is going to see Twik tonight at the Del Close Marathon and you should, too.
SATURDAY: MARC ALLAN FISHMAN
- MARTHA THOMASES: Penis People (comicmix.com)
- JOHN OSTRANDER: The Digital Rubicon (comicmix.com)
I, too, prefer paper copies. I sometimes will buy a digital copy of something I’m not sure I’ll like and then buy the paper copy if I do. Graphic.ly is great for that, and DriveThruComics is my jam for back issues from Rebellion and Top Cow.
About 20 years ago, there were five comic stores in my area. Now there’s one. It’s the one I’ve been buying comics in since I was 8 (I’m in my thirties now), so it’s okay with me but the others all pretty much disappeared around the same time in 93-94.
There was one right by my house that I loved to visit, cuz the guys who worked there were really cool, but it was tiny and they would only order small quantities of each book so they could keep as many different titles on the shelves as possible, so it wasn’t a great place to actually go and buy comics, ironically. They held on for a little while longer but they, too, were gone by the mid-90s.
It makes me kinda sad just thinking about it.
Judging from my neighborhood (admittedly not a representative sample), the good bookstores survive. There are several specialty stores, including ones dedicated to mysteries and biographies, that are doing well. Others, like Shakespeare & Co, concentrate on excellent customer service. I anticipate the same will hold true for comic book stores.
Probably true in many areas, but the comic shop that survives in my area is owned by a member of very wealthy family who also happens to own most of the downtown area of the city (including the building the shop is in). They had truly awful customer service for a very long time and for years I’d just go in, get my books and leave, then go to the shop near my house to talk comics (I know that sounds bad but I was young).
Fortunately, 6 or 7 years ago, my comic shop hired a manager who fired all the surly, rude employees who just wanted to read comics and the staff has mostly been very pleasant and helpful since then. The current manager who took over a couple years ago was one of those hires and he’s kept the place running smoothly. I hope my kid, in 30 years, is bragging about how long he’s been shopping there like I can.
Also: I’d KILL for a bookstore that specialized in mysteries but the area couldn’t possibly support it.
Oops. I think I deleted an important sentence when I meant to just delete a single word.
Missing is: “Without the ownership to building connection, I don’t think they’d have survived on customer service alone during the crisis in the 90s”.
My nearest comic store is twenty-plus miles away.
Even before gas prices went through the roof, it was too far away to hit regularly.
I totally agree with you, Martha. I can’t get behind digital comics…or digital books for that matter…except when I’m traveling. But even when I’m reading digital, I miss my actual BOOK.