Reading the new TCJ #301 interview with +Michael Kupperman and Al Jaffee, it occurred to me that declining industries seem to counterintuitively react by trying to cover MORE bases poorly, rather than provide better value for the things they're actually most capable of doing well. Kupperman made a remark about magazines and print media responding to digital culture by dumbing down their content to hopefully attract a larger audience.

I think the same idea applies to specialty shops, bookstores, comics shops, etc. -- in a changing market where suddenly you're not the only available outlet for whatever it is you sell, the answer is not to sell MORE at dwindling profit (see Borders, et al), it's to get BETTER at selling what you are best at selling, what you provide that another may not, or at least not as well as you.

In terms of comics shops, carrying a complete line of books so that you never miss a sale is no longer the best business practice. Your bottom line is choked with maintaining an ever-expanding backstock of books, trades, hardcovers, deluxe hardcovers of the same books and trades. Like as not you're providing a better browsing experience for a shopper that will later purchase that book on Amazon at 40% off cover.

But Amazon can never be as good as even a mediocre comics shop in stocking things for a specific customer base, things that don't work with the mass market in the same way. For example, The Beguiling in Toronto has a good stock of regular comics stuff, and a great stock of manga -- but one of the things that makes them irreplaceable is their stock of weird stuff, untranslated European and Japanese books, out-of-print books, minicomics, art books. And a knowledgeable staff that can talk confidently to a shopper about whether or not that Igort book is available in English, or whether this is all the Blueberry volumes, etc.

I definitely think the comic book direct market is on its way out, at least in its current form. It's just too backward a system, still based on the mid-70's newstand market it was formed in. Pamphlet comics are dwindling in importance as book collections and original book length stories gain ubiquity; it's only a matter of time before the periodical market is dominated by digital/handheld releases, with the collected editions being the first time they appear in a print form. And there are many MANY more places that are better at retailing books cheaply than your average comics shop. But the best comics shops, and the ones most likely to survive over the next 5-10 years, are the ones smart enough to double-down on what they're best at, which is essentially boutique/specialty bookselling, as opposed to mass market bookselling.

I think both have a place in comics shops, but the current system is squarely based on weekly Wednesday-based revenues, which means the fate of most comics shops is tied to the fate of weekly periodical comics, on some level. People are more comfortable reading comics on their computers and phones and iPads than ever before -- that isn't going to change, and it's foolish to think that corporate entities like Marvel and DC, owned by Disney and Time Warner respectively, are going to act to shield the comparatively tiny swath of direct market retailers from the coming shift to a majority-digital publishing world. Just as it's crazy to expect dwindling newspaper audiences to act in an altruistic way to buy newsprint papers that are smaller and smaller, filled with more ads than ever, but with increasingly dishwater content between those ads.

What comics shops are good at is the EXPERIENCE of comics -- not just browsing, looking through old comics or back issues, seeing what's new week to week, but FINDING comics, discovering new work, being around other people interested in comics, actively engaging with a hobby or artform or just an afternoon distraction. The best comics shops seek to amplify this experience, create more unique value for their clienteles, and make themselves a destination, as opposed to simply another place to buy a thing.

We're still adjusting to this new world where we're connected instantaneously to... every other part of the world. Increased connectivity means increased competition. Companies gobble each other up and become more and more similar as they diversify. Maybe it's the way our culture has been organized up to now that makes us try to be better at everything at once, but it's my feeling that the next phase of our new information society will be one where specialists fill the cracks between the larger entities, carving out their own niches in territory that might otherwise be unfriendly. I think this applies just as much to the creative, content-driven side of things as it does the mercantile side -- although it's increasingly hard to tell the difference between the two.
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