With the Fantastic Four movie and Batman Begins among the top five movies at the box office and more than 100,000 fans (and countless Hollywood producers) making their way to the San Diego Comic-Con, the profile of the comics industry is higher than ever. But what other industry of such prominence is as bereft of professional trade organizations as comics? If publishers can't get their act together, at least a serious-minded group of retailers has set about the difficult task of creating an industry-wide organization for retailers of comic books. ICv2 went to Joe Field of Flying Colors in Concord, California and Amanda Fisher of Muse Comics in Missoula, Montana with questions about the fledgling ComicsPRO organization.
ICv2: What is the purpose of your new organization?
Amanda: As stated in our incorporation paperwork, our purpose is 'to promote the progress and development of comic book retailers, to help develop better marketing and daily business practices for comic book retailers, and to improve the condition of their industry by educating the public about comic books in general.' Comic book stores are small businesses, usually run with by a small number of people if not by the owner alone. There are many things we can do to help each other in business, and bringing us together is the purpose of ComicsPRO.
ICv2: What are your long-term goals?
Joe: One of our goals is to give direct market storefront retailers a real voice in all industry matters. Too often decisions are made by just one segment of the business without consultation or concern for the effects they'll have on other industry partners. ComicsPRO's goal is to make sure retailers are a always represented and spoken for in all matters that can affect them.
Amanda: Another of our long-term goals is to create programs within ComicsPRO that will help each retailer member to run a more profitable business in every aspect of operations--from advertising to inventory management and beyond.
ICv2: What services do you plan to offer retailers?
Joe: We already have in place a credit card processing plan with PaymentTech that will more than pay for ComicsPRO membership in the savings most any retailer will realize from the plan. We're also working towards a group health plan and a mentoring service for new retailers. We already have a Delphi forum up and running on-line. And there's the proverbial 'more to come'.
Amanda: One example of what's to come is a program that we are working on to help computerize retailers who aren't already using them, and to offer either free or low-cost inventory and point-of-sale programs to our members along with extra tech support to help set up and implement these.
ICv2: What will the dues for membership be? Will there be different levels of membership with different dues?
Amanda: There are currently two different levels of membership: a Full Retail Membership for stores who want to be fully involved with the organization and have access to all of our services and voting rights within the organization, and an Associate Retail Membership, which we've created for newer stores who may not have the resources to be fully involved in the organization but still need the support of many experienced retailers and some of CPRO's group rates, and for existing retailers who want to support the organization's purpose may not be ready or able to be involved fully. The annual rate for a Full Retail Membership is $299, and for an Associate Retail Membership is $99. As Joe mentioned earlier, several of our current members have expressed that our credit card rate alone will save them much, much more than the cost of their membership.
ICv2: What sort of qualifications will there be for membership?
Joe: We are currently open to direct market retailers with a retail storefront.
ICv2: Will membership be limited to retailers or will other segments of the industry (publishers, press, distributors) be allowed to join in some capacity?
Amanda: Right now, we're starting with memberships for comic book retailers only, but as we grow (and as our membership gets a chance to decide how we want to expand) we plan to include other ways for industry professionals to be involved.
Joe: As an example, there will be memberships offered in the near future that will allow freelancers in the creative end of comics a chance to participate in our group health plan.
ICv2: What sort of governance do you have planned for the organization? Who will be in charge and how will they be elected? Who will be in charge of the organization's finances -- will they be elected or appointed? Will the organization be hiring anyone to perform any of its executive duties, or pay its executives or elected representatives for their time -- or will everything be on a volunteer basis?
Amanda: The organization is a not-for-profit corporation run by a Board of Directors who will be elected by the membership. The finances will be in control of the corporation officers, who are Board members, and their actions will be voted on by the Board of Directors as a whole. Our major courses of action (beyond operational mechanics, I mean) will be put to the membership so that they have a vote in how we want to use our resources.
Joe: For the time being, members are doing everything on a voluntary basis, and it's working well so far. While we're in a 'walk before we run' spot, ComicsPRO is already getting things done for its members. We are also relying on the unique talents of each of our members to make the organization stronger.
ICv2: Have you used any other trade organizations as models of what or what not to do?
Joe: I think all of us have learned from experiences with other trade groups. As someone who has been involved with other comic retailer trade groups, including the Direct Line Group, CBRI and Bay Area Comic Retailers, the difference I see with ComicsPRO is that we're starting from a better position with a solid number of 'founding' members. The Internet is also a big difference between the trade groups of the past and ComicsPRO now. The ComicsPRO board is in regular contact via e-mail and through the Delphi forum. That regular contact means that ComicsPRO is never off the radar for any of the board members and the trade group won't get lost in the shuffle of the other day-to-day concerns
Amanda: In the creation of the paperwork for the corporation and how to run the organization, we looked to current trade organizations like the American Booksellers Association and past comic industry groups like PACER.
ICv2: Why do you think previous attempts at creating direct market retailer organizations have accomplished so little -- and why do you think your new organization will do better?
Joe: Some organizations have failed because the over-all business of comics was also failing at the time, so individual retailers stayed 'home' to work on their individual operations. ComicsPRO is forming at a time of relative health and prosperity for existing retailers. In the past, specifically with CBRI's last attempt, that was an outside group trying to rally retailers they just didn't know. The Internet has allowed many retailers to get to know each other a bit better without being face to face. In addition, the founding board members of ComicsPRO are a strong group of successful retailers here for the long haul. In short, I know retailers can trust us to do right for them. Along with Amanda and me, we're joined on the board by Chris Powell from Lone Star Comics of Dallas TX, Brian Hibbs from Comix Experience in San Francisco CA, Michael Drivas from Big Brain in Minneapolis MN and Gary Dills from Phoenix Comics in Herndon VA. That's a lot of successful experience on the founding board--- and I belive that with each new participating retailer membership, we'll get progressively stronger.
Amanda: The success of an organization for retailers will be determined by how much effort the retailers themselves are willing to put into it, themselves, and their industry. There are many things that PACER did accomplish, and like all groups they drew to a close when their membership's interests turned elsewhere (and as Joe said, inward) -- I don't think that was a failure at all, just a change in priority for retailers. We're at a point again where retailers are more active outside of their own retail space and now we have more in place to keep them together and keep them organized. I've met many new retailers starting comic book stores within the last few years who have enormous energy and desire to improve their industry as a whole, and ComicsPRO will be a good place for them to put their enthusiam to valuable use.
ICv2: Why do you think retailers should join your organization?
Joe: To have a larger voice in industry politics and decision-making, to take advantage of group deals individual retailers couldn't get on their own, to have a stake in the direction of comics retailing, and to help the profession of comic book retailing move progressively forward together.
Amanda: Our organization is based on everything that Joe just said, and I'd offer something else to retailers: as our main product becomes more and more popular within larger chains in the nation, it can feel daunting for your small business to hold its ground against the giant discount stores in your neighborhood. We can help each other stay successful, and improve the growth of our own industry. Let's do more than just talk about it!
ICv2: What do you think is the most serious problem facing comic book retailers today and what do you think your organization can do to help?
Joe: I believe our most serious problem is that retailers, while gloriously independent by nature, need to also be much more cohesive on occasion. I envision a day when we can pull together enough retailers to do our own verifiable sell-through charts. A concerted effort like this will give us an immediate voice with everyone else in the comics' biz. We can be a very positive force for the retailing profession if we can learn to work together.
Amanda: Something that holds many of the stores in our industry back is a lack of business expertise and a lack of time -- when you're running a small business that you started because you love comics, you don't have a lot of time to learn everything about calculating the optimal sales per square foot for your store and whether or not your product is doing the work it should for you, about how your display affects your customer base, and an enormous amount of other necessary business knowledge. I've seen many stores run on the principle that packing as much inventory into a space as possible will yield the best results -- and many of us have a serious lack of healthy cash flow and profit margin. As an organization, we can invest in the business savvy of comic book retailers as a whole and share the burden of time and cost to improve our stores together.
ICv2: How can interested retailers find out more about ComicsPRO?
Joe: ComicsPRO had its first public introduction at the San Diego Comic-Con and all retailers were invited. Board members Amanda Fisher from Muse Comics in Missoula MT and Chris Powell from Lone Star Comics with stores in the Dallas TX metroplex joined me in taking ComicsPRO to new prospective members, Friday July 15 in room 22 at the San Diego Convention Center. We hope to see a lot of retailers there.
Amanda: If you couldn't make it to the San Diego Comic Con this year, we have started an informational website about ComicsPRO. There you can read more about our organization's structure, future programs, and check out the membership applications.