Hi everyone, it’s Jesse Post, Papercutz Chief Knock-Knock Joker, reporting in. Papercutz is having a great time at the ComicsPRO annual meeting in Atlanta right now. Or at least I think so; I’m stuck at home missing all the festivities while Fearless Leader Terry Nantier and Hardest Working Man In Show Business Tony Shenton wave the flag. Sigh. So you guys tell me — is anyone having fun? Or at least enjoying the free food?
ComicsPRO, for those few of you who don’t own a comic book store, is a pretty amazing thing: a whole organization dedicated to helping comics stores improve their business. I can’t even imagine the knowledge in the room when the whole meeting is convened; probably enough knowledge to wrap around the world twice when laid end-to-end. And apparently, there actually are moments when it’s all in one room, like during the Papercutz lunchtime session yesterday.
I was really excited about talking to this crew because my job at Papercutz is to help stores sell our books, and the comic book store is where I think kids’ comics have the most room for growth and the best chance of success. Comic book stores, after all, only sell comics (or at least mainly sell comics) and the people who run comic book stores are comics experts. When they pick up a Papercutz book, they think, “Hey, this is a comic. I can sell this!” while many other types of retailers might pick up a Papercutz book and say, “Eh? What’s with all these pictures?” Since kids’ comics traditionally don’t sell as well in comics stores as they do in bookstores, libraries, book fairs, and the rest, I thought we should put our heads together and start brainstorming. And then, of course, illness befell our household.
From what I hear on Twitter, Fearless Leader and Hardest Working Man In Show Business did a bang-up job with what I called our “Kids’ Comics Pep Talk,” and I thought I’d break out some of the main ideas here on our … what does Beth call this thing? A blog? There we go. You can see the whole thing over there on Slideshare if you like.
Our presentation dives right into stats and charts and figures because it was presented to people who live and breathe retail math. But for anyone else who might be coming in cold, it might be worth some set-up, especially if you haven’t been to a comic book store in a while. Selling kids’ comics in comic book stores is surprisingly challenging when you consider the chocolate-and-peanut-butter-like quality that pairing conjures up. There are some good reasons why (and some bad ones!), but the situation remains:
We think this can change if we join forces to come up with new ways of doing things. A lot of stores are already on the case and doing pretty much exactly what we talk about in the following slides. I’ll probably post case studies from those in the future, as I hear from everyone individually.
But I’ve also heard many a complaint that if kids’ comics aren’t working then they should be left at the side of the road as stores focus on what they are already doing well. To this I say, “Well, yes, that’s actually quite reasonable.” One of the challenges we face is that for several years we, as an industry, have been putting out the same type of kids’ material to be sold to the same audience at the same numbers and have expected something different to happen. The reason to sell kids’ comics is to make money (actually, that’s the reason to sell anything!), but we’ve developed this idea that, sales aside, kids’ comics are something that we should be getting behind anyway, which isn’t the best way of approaching it:
Top Two Reasons Not To Sell Kids’ Comics
- What About the Children?! One of the prevailing memes today is that retailers have a moral obligation to carry kids’ material for the sake of literacy and humanity. I like this in the sense that it acknowledges the amazing benefits that comics bring to a child’s life — which I believe in with every fiber of my being, by the way — but it’s not a good reason to get into the children’s publishing business.
- The Hobby Is Dying Out! This isn’t exactly true; comics, like any art form, doesn’t require its patrons to develop a lifelong affection for it when they’re young and impressionable. People come to comics at any age they happen to discover them, and that includes superheroes if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s all going to be OK.
Any approach to the business that revolves around non-monetary concerns is exposed to the danger of doing the same thing and hoping for a different result. What we’d like to see is a shift in attitude from “I should sell these” to “I must sell these for the sake of my bottom line.” And the bottom line can really benefit from this, if we’re to look at bookstores for some examples, contrary to some popular beliefs:
Worst Two Reasons to Not Sell Kids’ Comics
- Kids’ Comics Don’t Sell This one comes up often in online discussions about flagging sales of kid-targeted superhero monthlies. It’s shorthand for, “Kid-targeted superhero monthlies don’t sell as well as I’d like them to in the Direct Market,” which may be true, but the shorthand version is patently false. Kids’ comics don’t just sell; they sell in the millions. In my previous life as a comics editor at Disney, I had the pleasure of working for a kids’ comics magazine with a paid circulation of 1.5 million, and the issues that trumpeted “Comics!” on the cover sold better. At Papercutz we’ve enjoyed six-digit and even seven-digit sales on some of our top series. We could go on and on with examples, but the point is that kids’ comics are in high demand.
- Kids Don’t Like to Read We’ll get more into this later, but I think this is one of the more dangerous roadblocks to building an effective kids’ book business. There’s a weirdly pervasive belief that kids unilaterally stopped reading books when video games were invented, and when someone makes this statement on a blog or message board, they never explain why kids didn’t stop reading when movies, TV, VCRs, and home espresso machines were invented. Kids aren’t goldfish, distracted by the next shiny thing that floats by; they’re information sponges, and they devour books.
Overcoming the problem really comes down to one overly simplistic solution with lots of sub-solutions:
The main reason we don’t see kids’ comics moving the dial in the Direct Market as much as we’d like to is that we’re selling them to the same customer, namely the regular adult readers of monthly superhero comics (albeit the ones who have kids of their own). Stores who have set out to build a new audience that’s separate from the Wednesday people like me have already seen their kids’ comics sales increase. There’s a great potential opportunity out there in specifically reaching out to kids and families as a broad group. We helpfully think of it as, “The Promise of Kids’ Comics.” We can learn a lot about who kids and families are and what they like by looking at how they buy books:
We already mentioned that kids love to read, but books are the absolute #1 media choice for kids by a huge margin, in every study and poll I’ve seen, including the recent Bowker one this slide pulls its numbers from. For adults, books are something to fit in when we have time. For kids who have just learned to read (or are still learning to read), books are their whole world.
Children’s publishing is astonishingly digital-proof. The commonly accepted average digital/print split for adult trade publishing is 50/50, and leaning more towards digital every day. In children’s trade publishing, it’s 10/90! I’ve seen major best-selling children’s books move 1% of their print sales in digital. A Papercutz book that achieves 3% of its print sales in digital is a significant bump.
While adults like to read books, kids like to hold them, draw in them, trade them, show them off at school, throw them at their siblings, and collect them in shoeboxes. We read a lot about the cautious progress with digital in the comics industry because of the very real fear of hurting our retail base, which makes it all the more strange that kids’ comics isn’t a more urgent part of the discussion.
But enough about what kids like; are they actually buying these books? Why yes, in fact! So much so that no matter how bad a year the rest of the publishing industry has, children’s books routinely swoop in to save the year-over-year comps:
Here’s where we think a perspective shift away from selling “comics” (and whatever that means, individually, to everyone reading) and towards selling books is useful. The math here is heartening for anyone who makes a living selling books; children’s means dependable revenue, much like the flagship superhero titles currently are in comic book stores. And it’s able to do that with only 10% of the overall business.
Teaching these kids that they can not only get many of the books they love in comics stores but also have fun doing it is a fantastic goal, and we think the number on that goal is 10%. That doesn’t require a huge bump in orders from what comics stores are currently doing, but it is the industry average children’s percentage.
Which leads us to the main question of how to do that teaching, and how to get that business to to jump six or seven points. I think this is where the team-up comes in, because each store is different, and as I mentioned above, the collective retail knowledge at ComicsPRO is pretty staggering compared to the thimble-full I have in my publishing brain. But a great place to start is a look at how the audience currently shops and what it’s looking for, and then figure out how we might meet those needs:
One of the key things to keep in mind when taking the plunge into becoming a full-on children’s book destination is that kids are influenced by the people they know, in a much deeper way than adults. Adults will respond to reviews, press coverage, and even ads. Kids are somewhat influenced by all these things, but nowhere near as much as they are by grandma. Reaching out to influencers is Step 1, and maybe even Steps 2 and 3, for getting kids to buy something. It’s so important that I’m wondering why I made it the second bullet point in that slide above.
But on the subject of that first bullet point, kids always drive the purchase, end of story. Some people think that parents make the sole decision in these matters, but those people obviously have no kids themselves! Once kids know what they want, they’ll ask for it, and if a parent has already decided to buy something, the requested book will be it. How does the kid figure out what she wants? Easy:
We certainly don’t have to tell retailers how important browsing is. It’s obviously the main way anyone discovers books, and effective browsing is often the difference between a successful store and a failed store. But there’s a huge difference in the way kids and adults browse. Familiarity obviously drives kids into a store to get that thing they already know (“I like Pokemon!”) but browsing will introduce them to something entirely new (“Oooh, I want this one with the dragons!”). Unlike adults, kids will embrace the new thing immediately, and so it’s key to attract them to the shelves and tables where you can let those awesome book covers do all the selling.
The fact that kids and parents mainly acquire books at libraries and online retailers isn’t much of a surprise: libraries are convenient and influencers are found there, online retailers are convenient and have sophisticated recommendation engines and reviews and good deals. What it all means to an independent store is that kids and parents will purchase in environments where they feel understood, catered to, and part of a community. While stores can’t compete with Amazon on price, they can absolutely compete on all the other points. Giving a comic book store all the attributes of a library or a trusted adult who knows them will help drive kids and their parents inside.
Since parents, teachers, and librarians are some of the primary influencers in a kid’s purchasing decision, teaming up with this crowd is a sound investment. This could mean partnering with libraries on Free Comic Book Day (as many stores already do), working with teachers on comics-in-the-classroom programs, and generally marketing the store as a family-friendly destination. And Papercutz can help! We have teacher’s guides you can share with your local schools, and we do tons of marketing to libraries. The kids who frequent your local library already know and like our books; you just have to let them know they can buy them from you.
On the browsing front, turning a store into a kids’ paradise like they do at Chapel Hill Comics can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Kids won’t look at spines, but they will stop and look at tables, posters, and kid-height displays with beautiful artwork. This kind of thing not only keeps kids engaged but it shows the parents that this is a good place to come back to while running errands. Papercutz has shelf-talkers and posters in our retail resource kits and if you have any special requests, we always do our best to accommodate.
Trading on kids’ familiarity with certain properties is important, but it’s also the last step in a long chain. First, publishers like Papercutz have to go out and secure these top licenses (and we have, just check out our character list up there!), then we have to get the word out and let people know that graphic novel tie-ins exist, then all you really have left to do is let the kids and parents in your community know you have them. We can help with that, too — those retail resource kits mentioned above also have pre-approved window signs and we can help with graphics for your local advertising.
Becoming a third space in your community for kids is perhaps the most vaguely defined point on this list, but also the most important and all-encompassing as it covers a lot of the kids-and-family needs we’ve gone over so far. When you’re one of the third points in the School—Home—Blank triangle of a kid’s life, you actually become one of those key local influencers. Parents who come to trust your store as a place to hang out will come to think of you first when they want to buy a book for their kids. Store promotions are one way to get started (like the ones we announced at ComicsPRO this year), but it’s just a piece. The whole thing is a perspective shift: “We have a children’s section, and we really want you to spend some time there.”
Right now, superhero periodicals are the main source of dependable revenue for comics stores, and when sales flag, retailers can count on Marvel and DC to deliver a summer crossover or reboot for a jumpstart. This is awesome, and it will last because superhero comics are awesome, but the opportunity to build a second stream of dependable revenue gives comics stores a tidy advantage over other bookstores that don’t have such specialization. And when parents and kids start bringing the money they’re already spending on kids’ comics to comics stores they will, of course, discover all the other amazing things that are in a comics store.
Contrary to what you may have heard out there, there’s no better place for a kid to discover comics than a whole store devoted to them, staffed by people who are the smartest and loudest advocates for the medium. All we have left to do is do it.