Talking with retailer Joe Field, ComicsPRO president and FCBD founder
I’ve been writing about comics for over five years now, and one of the things I’ve learned is always know who the experts are on any given subject. Whenever I have an article that would benefit from the insight of a retailer, one of the first people I turn to is Joe Field.
Field is the owner/operator of Concord, California’s Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff. He’s the president of the comics retail organization ComicsPRO, founded Free Comic Book Day, worked as a marketing person for Stan Lee and also ran one of the biggest regional conventions, WonderCon, for several years. Over the years I’ve called and emailed him numerous times with a stray question or two, but never got a chance to sit down and pick his brain — until now.
Chris Arrant: First thing I want to ask you about is ComicsPRO. Not many people outside the retail side know about this — I bet even some publishers and journalists don’t. Inform me, Joe — what’s the next big event for ComicsPRO coming up?
Joe Field: We’re planning our next annual members’ meeting now and will be announcing details about that very soon. I can say that we’ll be meeting in February in the Dallas area and that even though it is our members’ meeting, we want all retailers, even non-member retailers, at the event, too (because we know that once they come to a meeting, it will spur them to join!). Everyone who attended our annual meeting in Memphis this year came away from it feeling it was one of the most business-intensive and productive meetings in the comics industry, so we’re working to build on that.
We’re also searching for ways to increase our membership. We have great member benefits to offset the dues, and members will be more engaged in creating a better future for their business.
We’re planning our attendance and participation at the New York Comic Con and other industry events.
In addition, there are lots of things going on behind the scenes with ComicsPRO. Besides an active online forum in which retailers exchange ideas in a high-signal/low-noise environment, the ComicsPRO board of directors is engaged in discussions with other facets of the comics business to improve things for all storefront retailers.
Arrant: What you think about last month’s Diamond announcement about the Tuesday ship date for Wednesday on-sale?
Field: ComicsPRO has taken an active role in asking for “early release” for all retailers for the last several years because we know it will improve the professionalism of our business. All along, we had been asking for Tuesday release for Wednesday on-sale not knowing that Monday release for Tuesday on-sale would even be an option. I hope the move to “early release” in early 2011 will challenge retailers to take advantage of the opportunity to make our stores better each and every week. Less-frantic Wednesdays should be a very good thing for all the whole market.
Arrant: How do you see comic retailers adapting to the Internet age?
Field: As in any business, those who learn, and those who learn to adapt, are resilient enough to not only survive but to prosper. The last couple of years have been a challenge for anyone in any business, with a difficult overall economy causing most of the concerns. Given that this “Internet Age” is going on 15 years old now, it seems most comic retailers are adapting fairly well.
Arrant: Are mail-order/online retailers and digital-comics retailers eligible for ComicsPRO membership?
Field: At this point ComicsPRO membership is open to storefront retailers only, although many of our members do have robust online presences. Our primary goal continues to be to grow the market for our members and then for storefront retailers in general.
Arrant: Later today I’m doing an interview with the CTO of comiXology, who in addition to digital comics has a set of retailer tools it’s working on. Can you tell us about the state of things when it comes to software for retailers, and if its enough or you’re still waiting for something?
Field: It looks like comiXology is on the right path in terms of the kinds of tools it is putting together to promote storefront retailers. I want to believe that digital comics will be a completely additive element to the overall comics market because that’ll be good for all retailers and participating publishers, as well.
Personally, I am looking forward to publishers creating short-form digital comics (maybe six to eight pages) that lead directly into exclusively print editions. I am also hoping the multi-player online games from DC and Marvel will have a rich interface that points players to retailers selling print editions to give the players more back-story on characters and environments in the online games.
Arrant: If you could teach a class on becoming a comics retailer in today’s market, what do you think are the key things people need to know?
Field: A few years ago, I seriously considered writing a book on this very topic. I backed off because the more I know, the more there is to know … and in the age of technology, I still have a lot to learn. A book would be obsolete before it was printed with the constant gyrations in the comics market. But here are a few keys to becoming a successful comic specialty retailer:
1. The Plan and the Power! (I know that’s the title of an old Fantastic Four comic, but that’s the passionate fan in me.) Comic retailers can be profitable, but for all except the most well-heeled, the first couple of years can be pretty lean. When you believe in what you’re doing and have a reasonable plan to get to the store that you’re envisioning — and you really wouldn’t want to professionally do anything else — that can overcome the lack of a meaty paycheck at least for a little while.
2. Business Experience! It’s one thing to have passion, but when passion can be coupled with real-world business experience, particularly in small-business retail, you will be ahead of the game. Comics retail is a business, not a hobby.
3. Staying Engaged! It’s my experience that those retailers who are involved in the comics industry, like attending conventions and retailer trade events, and, yes, participate in ComicsPRO, have an advantage over those who wait for business to come to them.
4. Being a Good Listener! If Flying Colors was a store full of “Just What Joe Likes,” there’s no way we’d have made it for 22 years. By listening to others and being diligent about working to get every customer just what they want, we’re a much richer, deeper and more profitable operation.
5. Watching the Numbers! No, not the Lotto numbers!! Ordering comics is risky enough! There are key numbers to watch in this business, things like return on investment (ROI), sales per department and/or sales per square foot, profit and loss statements (and what it takes to make more profits than losses), sales histories and trends per category and per title, etc.
Arrant: What do you see as the biggest issues facing retailers in the next five years?
Field: I’ve never been much of a fortune teller, but there is a suggestion I can make. With two publishers making up about 80 percent of the business right now — and both of them owned by mega-corporations — it’s wise for retailers to diversify. If a retailer can fully sell Marvel and DC comics so that demand is met in his/her store, and keep that percentage of business well below what the combined market share are for Marvel and DC, that will be a big plus to longer-term survival.
Also, with the media-saturated world we live in, retailers face the risk of being further marginalized. So a big issue facing us is how we will continue to be resilient, how we can reshape our businesses in the face of entertainment competition from all directions. Making our stores the hubs of social activity for fans and attractive to non-fans is a must.
Arrant: You’re also the founder of Free Comic Book Day. What do you think of what it’s become, and how can we improve on it?
Field: As Free Comic Book Day is heading into its 10th year, I’m humbled that there’s still such demand and enthusiasm and support for the event. FCBD has become a holiday of sorts as it is entrenched as the start of the summer comics season. The team at Diamond Comic Distributors really deserves kudos for the work they do to pull off FCBD so flawlessly each year. I think of the operations side of things — and that nearly 2.5 MILLION comics are pushed through the Diamond pipeline in just two weeks. That has to be a stress on the system, but Diamond’s VP of Operations Cindy Fournier and her team in the warehouses do it remarkably well.
Some improvements I’d like to see with FCBD are best left off-screen, but here are a few improvements I can mention:
1. Retailers should get more of a “sponsoring” credit since we do pay for the comics we give away for free.
2. More of the fence-sitting retailers that haven’t officially participated should finally spend the $50 it costs for minimal participation.
3. The retailers that only “participate” by giving away unsold comics should just knock it off and buy into the FCBD Special Edition comics. If you run out of those, sure, go ahead and give away unsold comics, but starting the day by giving away unsellable from 1994 doesn’t do you or your customers any good.
An area that does need HUGE improvement is with the publishers’ schedules leading up to and following FCBD. With FCBD being the day in which nearly 500,000 people visit comic shops, it seems that publishers’ release schedules are balkanized toward FCBD. The comics’ market could use a much better-planned schedule of more even releases through the year, with the planned Big-Event releases debuting just before and just after Free Comic Book Day.