Somebody said to me recently in one of our stores that “You (Wow Comix) must be coining it in
what with charging £3 or more for a comic book” and it occurred to me then, this is one of the
fundamental problems with the retail comic business. The perception and the reality.
The perception is that the retailer makes all the money on the sale, but the reality is that they make
very little out of it. Vintage comics are, contrary to popular belief, not worth a lot. Just because they
are old it does not mean they are particularly valuable; it just means they are old. As I have said
many times, what makes a comic valuable is its rarity, its condition and its desirability. Of course,
some comics can be worth a lot of money, but most vintage American comics sell for £3 or less.
British comics generally sell for about £1.
A new comic book sells now on average for about £3.50 to £4.50 an issue but it costs nearly £3.00 to
buy it in. Then when you factor in the overhead costs very little is actual profit on each sale. The only
way to make any money is to sell loads of them so that even though the profit per issue is small,
cumulatively, some money can be made. That is how the big retailers do it. Small margins
Sadly, the sale of new comics is declining, particularly now, in the current economic crisis. Other
than the major enthusiast, most people will not or cannot splash out on loads of comics and like
many other small retailers we can be left with loads of comics that have cost a lot to acquire and
which we cannot sell, ultimately having to discount them to shift them. That is not a sustainable
business model and one which the global comic retail business is having to grapple with. It is why
you will no doubt have seen it is getting to be much harder to find what you are looking for in a
store. Again, sadly it is becoming the case that you will only find a wide range of newer comics online
from a smaller number of retailers.
Each month loads of new comics come out but in reality, very few of them sell in significant
numbers. When times are hard and cash is scarce people will nearly always default back to a limited
number of comics (Batman and Spiderman, I am looking at you). Less well-known titles and
independent comics hardly get a look in. Many of the best comics now, with the best writers and
artists, are from the independent sector but unless the cover has Marvel or DC on it they struggle to
get a look in. We stopped selling new comics in store earlier this year and we are now going to stop
selling them online as well given that the margins are so low. It is simply uneconomic for us to
continue with new comics.
New comics are problematic for us, and we do much better selling back issues and vintage comics.
We tend to get these when we buy up large collections from people or at auction. It works out much
more economic for us. Generally, each new collection we buy in will have many “box fillers” which
are good but basic comics. Customers want these to fill in the gaps in their collections. They are also
great for introducing new collectors to a characters back story or just as a way to try something you
have not read before. In the collection we have purchased we would hope and expect to find some
better titles, which we can sell for a higher price and if we are lucky some key issues which have a
premium on them and which can return a decent profit to us.
The major publishers are slowly moving away from the basic comic book (what is known in the trade
as the “floppy”) and are pushing towards the graphic novel. Its higher page count and higher price
makes it a more viable and attractive proposition. It also means that it is easier to get them into
mainstream bookstores rather than relying on the specialist comic stores. You can find the graphic
novel now in all sorts of places from W H Smith to HMV.
I don’t think the specialist store is doomed but it certainly must become more adaptable in the
future. Equally I don’t think the floppy comic is doomed but it is certainly in decline and in all
probability the future is likely to be higher price graphic novel style publications. I would not be
surprised to see a lot more anthology style titles from the major publishers. These are likely to be
titles such as Action and Detective Comics containing a lead story with Superman and Batman then
several back up stories with characters who no long sell in sufficient numbers to merit their own
comics. It would allow them to keep up the legacy numbering but cut down on the books issued
each month, many of which do not sell. These would probably look a lot more like a graphic novel
than a comic with a harder glossier cover and larger page count. That way a higher cover price can
be justified. It will also probably start turning up in your local supermarket one day. DC have already
experimented with something similar with their Walmart 80-page giant comics.
Both DC and Marvel have moved away from their long-standing distribution arrangements with
Diamond Comics who had a monopoly for many years and companies like Penguin Random House
are becoming the go to distributor. They are much more likely to require a higher price item which
they can sell on through book shops and bigger outlets. All of which will inevitably put pressure on
the smaller, specialist retail outlets.
There is something about comic shops that make people want to stop and talk. We get lots of people
who want to chat about the latest comic or movie, or they want to chew the fat on world events as
clearly comic book guys are experts on world politics, but one thing we seem to get asked about a lot
is “how are you doing selling comics”. People seem to think we either make a fortune or nothing at
all. Again, perceptions against reality. The reality is we do okay, but we could always do better, and it
is getting increasingly difficult to turn a profit in these trying times.
When we get into these kinds of conversations it can sometimes be difficult to get people to
understand that overhead costs are high and so we need to generate a minimum amount of money
so that we make a profit. We need to cover the overhead, but we also need to make a profit because
without a profit at the end of the day what Is the point? Like all businesses we are having to keep a
close eye on what we do and how we do it. The Wow Group is alive and well but following the
Darwin principle of survival of the fittest and most adaptable, we might be going through a few
changes ourselves. Watch this space.