Free Comic Book Day 2010 Report
I can’t say that this will be much of a report, more like my general impressions, but it’s become tradition around here so I couldn’t resist posting something. The bottom line is that since moving to San Diego, I’ve really been soured on the experience by retailers who don’t seem to understand the point of the day and completely botch its execution. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I’ve ranted at length about it numerous times before, but to me there are two primary tenets to understand about the day. One, the point is to give away free comics. Now, that might seem like a Master Of The Obvious comment to make, but you’d be surprised how retailers don’t seem to grasp that this is an opportunity to get comics into the hands of non-readers with a no-risk proposition. Two, the promise of free comics only gets people to your store, it’s up to you to do something with them once they’ve arrived, namely converting their interest into sales, sustained sales if you can, by growing your customer base.
I went to two retailers that day, along with one of my friends, and my daughter. I think we were in and out of both places in under an hour, because it all just seemed so stupid. At the first store, the free comics were outside, which is okay I guess, but it meant that a lot of people simply rolled up, grabbed their comics while the car was running, and then went about their day, never stepping foot inside the establishment. But then again, you could only take 4 comics per person, on free comic book day, when all the comics are labeled as free, so who would want to go inside to see what other debacle awaited? This is the same retailer who has all of the previous years' free comics up on a spinner rack still for sale for 30 cents or something, and not one of them has ever moved. So, I’m glad to see that there’s some point to limiting the freebies. Way to understand how to move your free inventory, pal. Wouldn’t you be better off having given them all away, freeing up your floor space for actual saleable merchandise, secure in the knowledge that you just “did the right thing” and gave away all of your free comics and exposed the masses to them? You're not supposed to make money on them, jackass. They're meant to be loss leaders to stimulate other profitable sales. Duh. There was some arcane “check out” system being employed where some woman who wasn’t really paying attention was bagging up your free comics and then tying the bag shut, assumably to make sure you didn’t “steal” any more free comics(?) This retailer had some type of sale going on, but it was printed on a small flyer, nearly indecipherable, that was so busy it looked like a computer screen full of pop up ads. I guess the bottom line was that you could get like 10% off any item (gee, thanks for covering the sales tax for me, let me buy you a pack of gum and show you how to chew it) or $5 off an Iron Man trade, or something something about a lamp with Incredible Hulk on it. I guess the guy was trying, but it felt completely weak and not anything substantial in the slightest. The store was so cramped, not from throngs of customers, but from poor layout and design, that it went into complete gridlock anyway. It was not conducive to shopping. It might have smelled too. After 5 minutes, my friend and I took one look at each other and agreed we were done.
The second retailer looked insanely busy. There was a parking lot full of GI JOE toys for sale, people drinking beer, excessively in some cases (awesome for a family friendly day) and violating California’s open container law, news crews rummaging around looking to find what exactly they were supposed to be reporting on, a guy live-blogging… something, and a nifty CGC’d copy of Action Comics #1 on display. So, I give this guy a lot of credit for the sheer effort, trying to draw a bunch of attention and attracting a massive crowd, but it was like nobody knew what to do with themselves once there, and it was just a bunch of blokes standing around uncomfortably trying to figure out what all the hubba bubba was about, and why they were being shown a $24.99 mint-on-card Major Bludd action figure. Nothing was on sale. No comics anyway. The free books were out on a table in the parking lot baking away in the sun. The biggest thing this retailer did right was to say “hey, there’s no limit on free comics, just don’t be a d-bag” about it, and most people self-policed in an admirable way. However, by the time I arrived, there were basically none of the FCBD free comics left, save a couple like Love & Capes, and I think the John Stanley YOW! book (which is an interesting bit of commentary in itself, which are the last free comics left standing, assumably with the least interest, all things being equal). The retailer had made a great attempt to on-the-fly supplement the free table with $1 bin comics, but the content was questionable. I’m sorry, but nobody really wants a copy of Sam Keith’s The Maxx or some dusty old copy of All Star Squadron. Some of the books that came out also were most certainly not kid appropriate, I flipped through a copy of Joe Casey’s WildCats (a good book to be sure), but the first page I stopped on had a choice “motherfucker” right up in it. That was next to the John Stanley book, just for reference.
In all of the stores I’ve ever seen, in all of the year’s that FCBD has existed, I’ve never seen anyone do it better, or even come close, to Lee Hester of Lee’s Comics in Mountain View, CA. Lee gets crazy, there’s a booth out front, he typically has all of the day’s offerings, there is typically no limit, he typically supplements the FCBD freebies with quarter books for free, I’ve seen free donuts, pens, t-shirts, in-store creator signings, 50-75% off trades, $1 bins, quarter bins, 50% off sets, 20% off Silver Age, 10% off new books, toys being blown out for $2, coverage from radio stations broadcasting live, newspaper coverage, friendly staff, a workable process for the day, taking pictures for his web-site, chatting up customers, generally having a ball, etc., etc., etc. There’s just no end to the innovation the guy will try, and succeed with I might add, to get hundreds of people into the door, get them as much free stuff as they can handle, indoctrinate them with an overwhelmingly positive experience, and convert their interest into further sales and frequenting of his store(s). The guy does it right and he should be writing books on successful retailing, because trust me, most of the retailers I’ve seen could use the pointers. It's worth noting too that Lee doesn't just wait for FCBD to do this either, he has multiple events all year long (probably quarterly on average) that look just like this. It always strikes me as quite ironic that the city that’s the home of the world famous San Diego Comic Con has some of the absolute worst comic shops I’ve seen.
Oh, the books? Well, you know me. I like numbers and statistics and shit, they can tell a story, so let’s break it down a little... There were 33 official free FCBD books available that day (we won’t count the War Machine HeroClix, because gosh, with a big action movie sequel coming out, what kid would ever want that cool little thing, but for the record I didn’t see that either). Let’s start at the very top; which books did I actually even see at either establishment? I saw 14 of the 33 books available. That’s 42%, not even half. So, if I’m a total newbie and I have no idea what you’re gonna’ do or what you’re gonna’ order, and all I have to go by is the list of stuff I saw on the FCBD web-site, there is only a 42% chance, that by going to two different stores in a major metropolitan area, that you’re even going to have the one I happen to be interested in. That’s disappointing. I did not see the other 19 of the 33 books available. That’s 58%. So, the majority of the free books on free comic book day, I can’t even get, I don’t even have access to them. I didn’t even see these, I’m not even talking about getting them, I never even saw them physically! Do they exist? Are they unicorns? Why didn’t I see them? Out of the 33, I’d say that there were actually only 7 books (or 21%) that I was personally interested in checking out. These would be: Iron Man/Thor (it’s Matt Fraction and John Romita, Jr.), the Radical Sampler (Antoine Fuqua, Leonardo Manco, etc.), Stuff of Legend (positive buzz), Sixth Gun (new #1 from Oni Press), Doc Solar/Magnus (returning), Atomic Robo (positive buzz), and the Bongo Comics Free For All (is usually hilarious). The rest I really couldn't care less about. Out of those 7 books I was interested in, do you know how many of them I got. Do you want to guess in your head real quick before I reveal the actual number? Well, I got 2 of them (Iron Man/Thor and the Radical Sampler, for the record). By going to two stores, I got 2 of the 7 books, 29% of the ones I was actually interested in, or 6% of the original total available. That’s pitiful. At this rate, I don’t even really see the point in me going to Free Comic Book Day. The intent of the day is not really geared toward me, and the vast majority of the books I’m not interested in, if the precious few I am interested in never make an appearance, then what’s the point? I will say that I would go just to support a great local retailer, but I think we’ve covered that little vacuum of quality. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but it’s times like this when I really miss the San Francisco Bay Area.
My daughter really liked her Shrek and Toy Story comics though. So, I guess that’s something…