The fact that an increasing number of stores are just one bad decision away from disaster has prompted a lot of discussion in the industry, and made many retailers understandably risk-averse, at a moment when more publishers than ever are competing for the comic store audience. That dynamic is unsustainable, but neither retailers nor publishers nor Diamond has any incentive to change their own behavior.
Is there any way insure this doesn’t happen? Read on.
Annoyances, Problems and Catastrophes. The risks facing comic retailers can be grouped into three main categories: general small business/retail headwinds (rising rents and wages, taxes, Amazon, etc.), problems specific to the comic space (publisher shenanigans, issues arising from non-returnability of inventory, tensions and changing tastes within fandom), and business continuity risks (lost income related to missed shipments, medical emergencies, bad weather, bad luck).
The first category are annoyances that are part of the landscape. Nothing anyone can do about them, so just suck it up and press on. The third category are catastrophic events with the potential to put the entire business at risk if you don’t have contingency plans in place. Good businesspeople lose sleep over them. Desperate businesses don’t have a cushion and simply pray they don’t happen.
In between those two boulders is a small set of operational concerns that individually don’t add up to much, but are the only part of the equation that seem to be under anyone’s control, so they feel like problems that want solutions. Phil Boyle helpfully enumerated many of them earlier this year (see “Something Has to Change”).
Cut your losses, cut your gains. Boyle’s proposed solutions to many of his critiques of the direct market fall on the shoulders of publishers and Diamond. But publishers – even when they agree with Boyle’s diagnosis (see “Phil Boyle Argued ‘Something Has to Change’ in the Direct Market – Will It?”) – can’t unilaterally make moves that might lose them market share if competitors don’t or won’t follow suit. Diamond, by virtue of its position, has more leverage, but far less room to operate because of its own cost structure. And, as Boyle emphasized, Diamond and Steve Geppi personally have already extended themselves above and beyond to keep stores afloat. It’s a classic dilemma of collective action, where everyone’s smartest play is to pursue a strategy that ends up hurting the common good.
Boyle’s approach is to reduce orders down to the bone on any titles where there is no certainty on sell-through. This has the effect of cutting back on the range of material on the shelf, making it nearly impossible for unknown books to break through or for nontraditional audiences to find something of interest if they walk in without already being a hardcore fan or subscriber.
That strategy makes perfect business sense in his situation, but if broadly adopted, it would be poisonous to the comics market top to bottom, because it would lock in place the death spiral that we’ve been trying to escape for decades just at the moment when comics are making an ambitious push to bring in non-superhero readers as a mainstream audience.
Step back from the brink. I’d argue that we’re looking at the wrong set of issues. Boyle’s gripes with the industry have been with us for decades. What’s changed is that the other two challenges. The economic headwinds are stronger, which gives retailers zero margin for error in the event of unforeseen troubles, even small ones.
Not being able to make it to a convention due to car trouble or weather; a missed shipment at the wrong time; a guest creator cancelling an in-store appearance at the last minute after lots of money’s been spent; a box customer skipping out on a thousand dollars of pre-ordered and unsalable inventory; or a store employee being named in a social media scandal that tarnishes the reputation of your business: these could all be multi-thousand dollar hits to the business out of the blue. How many stores are strong enough to weather those storms? Retailers are dancing on the edge of an abyss, so naturally they’re worried about slipping on pebbles.
Here in Seattle, we had a snowstorm last week, which paralyzed the city in ways our Midwestern and East Coast compatriots would find laughably pathetic. Nevertheless, lots of stuff that should have happened on Monday and Tuesday didn’t, including comic shipments to some retailers. This Saturday, my local comic shop’s shelves were nearly bare, and the manager said they’d been getting about 15 percent of average traffic for the week. In other words, down 85 percent.
Imagine if this week had been the drop date for Detective #1000 or some other event book designed to bring in peak business. Imagine if every other store in the country, and maybe a few others in your market area, got their books and you didn’t, and by the time you did, all your customers had gone elsewhere?
Risk is our business. Fixing the “one bad week from disaster” problem might make it easier for stores to get beyond a risk-averse, defensive, blame-the-publishers crouch. If only there were an entire industry dedicated to reducing measurable risk to the business… Oh wait, there is! It’s called insurance. Could it help mitigate the risks facing comic stores? Maybe.
Most businesses carry insurance on property, health and liability that pay for lost or damaged inventory, medical bills and legal exposure. That helps, but not in those situations where the cost can’t be measured simply in dollars out of pocket. For that, there’s an emerging category of coverage called Contingent Business Interruption (CBI) that “covers an insured's income loss resulting from covered loss, damage or destruction of property owned by others on which an insured is dependent, such as the insured's suppliers or those who receive the insured's products and services,” according to one carrier, Property Casualty 360.
Sounds like that would pay out for that missed shipment and cover that 85 percent dropoff.
CBI policies used to be for mid-sized businesses to cover stuff like a tornado wiping out the fleet of trucks used to make deliveries, so the business wouldn’t go under for lack of income while the trucks were being replaced. These days, CBIs are becoming more specific to the needs of smaller businesses in very narrow niches, and, I assume, priced accordingly. I found one policy tailored to independent bookstores that includes a liability rider in case a visiting author slanders someone during an event at the store and the store becomes party to legal action.
One reason insurance is becoming more responsive to special-case scenarios is because insurance runs on information. These days there’s data about everything, which means, in theory, you should be able to insure against almost anything.
I don’t believe any insurance company has taken the trouble to figure out the main insurable risks that are specific to comic and gaming retail business and priced them affordably, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Somewhere there’s an entrepreneur, or an innovative small insurer, nimble enough to jump on the opportunity and smart enough to be reading this column.
Less risk, more reward. Being able to hedge against ordinary, specific but unpredictable business risk by paying a little bit every month instead of a lot when you can least afford it might push the blade a few inches away from the throats of retailers and allow for breathing room so owners can get out of their defensive crouch and grow their businesses.
Better insurance won’t protect you from over-ordering a crappy title or remove the frustrations of a popular book rebooting every nine months with a new creative team. But it could put those problems in the correct perspective: annoyances that the market will correct in its own way, rather than existential crises that could push the business over the brink.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.