Hand-selling is another way of saying what we, as comic shop owners, are really doing, and that’s curating: taking everything that’s available for you, as a customer and as a reader, and creating a specific slice of the industry. Something that speaks directly to you. The book you were looking for but didn’t know about. And that, at its core is what we as retailers need to do: connect the product with the customer.
As a small store that depends on long-term relationships with our customers, that’s THE most vital thing we do, as far as what directly translates into a sustainable business model. It’s not stocking the most product it’s not running the best events or holding the biggest sales when we put the right book into the hands of the right person, we will have a customer forever. We will always be the people who turned you on to CHEW or INVINCIBLE. We’re the one that looked into your brain and figured out the book you weren’t reading. Everything else we do is garnish. The meal, as it were, is getting a book in your hands.
The other facet of hand-selling is when we encounter a book that is so exceptional, something that can appeal to most anyone who comes into the shop, that we just start recommending it to everyone. Having just read a preview for SAGA #1, it’s the sort of book whose target audience is anyone who comes into a comic book store. It is a book we will literally put into the hands of every adult who comes up to the counter. A book that transcends what you think you like if you like comics at all or comic book storytelling, there is for you something in a book like SAGA.
As part of our long-term relationship with you, we can’t just put every book on the rack and call it done, hoping you just find what you want. By having the chance to give you a great book you weren’t even asking for, we create the opportunity to continually approach you with new or new-to-you books we strongly believe you will enjoy.
One of our favorite current books is THE STRANGE TALENT OF LUTHER STRODE, a book that was under many people’s radar. Had we read that but kept our enjoyment to ourselves, it would have sold okay. It is too good of a book for people to not find it on their own. But, since it’s so much fun and we both love it, we mentioned it to everyone. As a result we’re selling over ten times what we expected we would. Ten times. In today’s off-the-rack/wait-for-the-trade marketplace, that is spectacular. And it’s that kind of fan excitement that gives us the most hope for a continued future for our beloved industry.
What’s great about our industry — and why we even opened Challengers to begin with — is that this kind of fresh, exciting material is now coming out all the time. It is almost a detriment as we look at the book shelves at the shop and think, “Oh yeah, that! We haven’t been mentioning that for a while!” As so many new, gripping books come out, we tend to lose track of the previous new, gripping books. But then again it’s always rewarding to bring the spotlight back on to a less-recent property and watch it flourish once again under the gaze of a new audience.
Where we, Dal and Patrick, differ in our ability to excite potential readers, is in the pitch. Dal is so very good at giving you the “high concept” pitch, the “something meets something else” kind of framework to build in people’s mind what you’ll be enjoying. “Joe Keatinge’s GLORY is like Robert Kirkman writing ‘Promethea.’” Or he can distill a book into a simple sentence that makes you want to understand what he means. “THE STRANGE TALENT OF LUTHER STRODE is ‘Kick Ass’ if it didn’t hate you for reading it.” Patrick, on the other hand, uses the direct, “Have you read this? It’s SO AWESOME!!” style of enthusiasm that while you may not know what the book is about, you know HE loves it and that he wants you to as well. Less informative as Dal, but no less effective.
All of this? This love of comics we share and the desire to find something new? It works for everyone. It goes for us, as well. If there are things that you read and you love, tell us. Tell each other. We ALL want to be excited and surprised and entertained. Tell us what we should be reading. There are plenty of books we love that we did not discover on our own. Write a blog. Post about it on Facebook. Tweet it (and also tag the creators and the publisher so they can see your excitement). But most importantly, tell people. Tell us. Tell the people behind the counter of your comic shop about books you love. It can help them suggest similar books to you, but it can also help them suggest that very book to someone else.
In today’s different-than-ever-before publishing landscape, there are more books than ever for retailers and customers to choose from, but it’s also harder to find them and to stock them. There are plenty of creator-owned books we stock directly from the creators because we can’t get them any other way. There are Kickstarter projects we support and small-press comics we help get printed because we believe in them and want to be able to spread the word. Books like Eliza Frye’s “Regalia” and Jason Brubaker’s “reMIND” and Justin Peterson’s “Very Near Mint” and Ryan Browne’s “God Hates Astronauts” and “Blast Furnace: Recreational Thief” and Mike Norton’s “The Curse” and Karl Kerschl’s “The Abominable Charles Christopher” and Sarah Becan’s “Ouija Interviews” and “Shuteye” and the list goes on. All books that are not available from a distributor, but all books that deserve a look. And for every 1 of those books we find and support, there might be 100 that we miss.
Advance reader copies of upcoming books are hugely beneficial in helping us make ordering decisions. Not nearly enough publishers make these available, but for those that do, we wind up increasing our orders on the majority of the titles we can read before we place our final order numbers. And I don’t mean by one or two copies, I mean by double or more. We keep using SAGA as an example, but after reading it, our numbers will be five times higher our already larger-than-average initial thoughts. Our THIEF OF THIEVES numbers will also go up from our initial expectations, and that’s a book for which everyone is already excited.
And speaking of books you were excited for… thanks to an ordering incentive from Image, we ordered twice as many copies of FATALE #1 as we have for any other single Brubraker/Phillips issue yet. Double our Incognito numbers and more than double Criminal numbers. And we sold them all. Sure, it was our recommended comic of the week, displayed right at the front counter, but it didn’t need to be it seems that everyone already anticipated this book. We never thought it would do this well and we never would have gotten the chance without Image taking the chance on our sales. We will always push a book where the publisher and creators go to extra efforts to help us sell it. How can we not?
Okay, this is about to spiral out of control, so we’ll end it here. We called this “Hand-to-Hand Combat” because sometimes being on the frontline of comic book retail is like fighting a military campaign. It’s a struggle we want every side to win, but it’s still an ongoing fight. Helping you discover a great new comic is how we win each battle. And we want YOU to win the war.
About Challengers Comics + Conversation
2010 Will Eisner “Spirit of Comics” Finalist, Named “Best Comic Shop” by the Chicago Reader (June 2010) and “Best Comic Book Store” by Chicago Magazine (August 2009), Challengers Comics + Conversation strives to prove that the best thing about being in a comic book store is being in a comic book store. With a combined 41 years of comic retail experience, owners Patrick Brower and W. Dal Bush endeavor to bring Chicago a full-service, technologically interactive comic store that has the same level of wonder and enjoyment as the comics they sell. And read. And talk about. And champion.