Retailer Q | #2: Free Comic Book Day

Welcome to Retailer Q, spinning 52Q’s format at top Canadian comic retailers.  Comic Book Daily asks the question and our retail friends give their perspective.

[box type=question]Free Comic Book Day is now a huge event and one no retailer can afford to skip, but how well does it work for you?  Does its benefits outweigh the costs, since the event is in no way free for you?[/box]

[box type=shadow]Christopher Butcher is the manager of The Beguiling Books & Art in Toronto, Canada. In addition, is the Co-Founder of The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and blogs about the comics industry.[/box]

It’s funny that you mention that no retailer can afford to skip it, because this was the first time since the first one that we actually did skip Free Comic Book Day. The long and the short of it is, The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a great big comics show that The Beguiling sponsors and that I run, ended up being the same day as Free Comic Book Day and we just didn’t have the staff to run the event. We usually go all out on FCBD with creator signings, press, etc., and with TCAF soaking up all of our staff and time we had to give it a miss–I’ve got a few thousand FCBD comics in storage right now.

All in all, I like FCBD but we haven’t noticed any slow-down for not participating. Hell, we didn’t even really hear much from our regulars about not holding it. I think it’s because we do so much outreach throughout the rest of the year–on average we’re doing 30 events for the public in a calendar year, and that’s not counting TCAF. We’re always trying to bring new folks through our doors, and while FCBD and legions of cheap giveaway comics are certainly helpful in that regard, I don’t really think they’re the only weapon in our arsenal, so to speak. It’s worth participating, like any well-thought-out promotion, but I think it’s a bit foolish if it’s the only thing you’re doing every year. I might actually go so far as to question the wisdom of a store making its primary promotional event/public relations event one that is, necessarily, tied to every other store (including competitors) and tied to one distributor.

Scott VanderPloeg: Slightly off topic Christopher: TCAF and FCBD were on the same weekend this year and they’re scheduled for the same weekend next year. Coincidence?

Christopher: Largely coincidental, yes. This year’s TCAF was on our preferred dates–Mother’s Day weekend, which is a day that generally isn’t counter-programmed by any other comics conventions or festivals, and it also happened to overlap with FCBD. It actually worked out well for us, and for several of the stores in town, though I did regret not getting two ‘kicks at the can’, so to speak, for promotional outreach in May. For 2012, we were informed that availability at our venue was limited to counter-programming Free Comic Book Day or counter-programming the Anime North convention that draws 18,000+ people to the suburbs of Toronto. As far as we’re concerned, it makes considerably more sense to throw a comics festival on a day dedicated to promoting comics internationally than to go up against another Toronto convention that we quite like.

[box type=shadow]Jay Bardyla had one clever thought in his life, to open Happy Harbor Comics, in Edmonton Alberta. The rest of his thoughts he hopes to get an official pardon for.[/box]

Free Comic Book Day is an invaluable tool for store like mine who lack the resources to promote themselves, and the industry, to the masses. After 10 years it has established a history and reputation that allows us to entice the media to take notice of what we do and for that we are very grateful. Each year, every local media outlet has provided us with coverage of our festivities before, during and after the event and the ultimate goal of enticing new readers and bringing back lapsed ones is a success.

Further, we’ve been able to use the event to create additional awareness of local comic creator scene as we utilize dozens of them to raise collections for the food bank during the day and to inspire the youngsters they create sketches for. We have also created a system where libraries, especially in remote communities, can host their own FCBD and inspire new fans and creators.

I can’t think it would even be remotely possible to do anything on our own that would allow us to generate the same kind awareness and outreach on and I’m sure there are hundreds of other shops as challenged as ours that see FCBD as a fantastic tool to help grow the industry.

One of the things we have learned to do without is conventions. We prefer to take part in school and library book festivals where we can focus on growing the fan base and we visit more than 50 schools a year (for free) teaching how comics are made and the job opportunities in the world for aspiring writers and artists.

[box type=shadow]Marc Sims, owner and general manager of Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario. Our life is comics and life is good.[/box]

FCBD is always a big success for us and continues to grow each year, but it is far from the best bang for the buck that we get in terms of advertising dollars. The event is getting more expensive each year as the cost of the ‘free’ comics has gone up dramatically recently. I wish we could get the kind of media coverage that Jay gets, but aside from small local papers, the media here in Hamilton are not interested in covering the event anymore. Without an angle to cover it, they see it for what it is: me trying to get free marketing. They won’t run that and I don’t blame them. When we did massive donations to the Hamilton School Board and had the director of education in the store trumpeting his literacy programs, we had a full-page story. When we did massive donations to the school board the next year and the director of education had no interest in coming down, we didn’t get a peep.

So we have to hustle and hustle hard to get awareness out there. The local libraries and schools have been our strongest supporters the past few years, sending carloads of kids into the store. This year we offered $250 worth of graphic novels at no charge to the school that sent us the most kids. That worked well, but again, it adds to our costs.

All in all, I really do love FCBD and will always participate and work really hard at making it a good promotion. In that regard we approach it like every other promotion we do. The payoff will only be as good as the amount of time and effort you put into it. FCBD being an industry wide event only makes me step up my game even more, since I know other stores will be participating I need to impress the general public that much more.

As far as conventions go, we used to travel all up and down the eastern seaboard going to shows but with a really strong Canadian dollar those days are done. We exhibit at Fan Expo Toronto and other local shows but no others. Fan Expo for us is typically a month’s worth of sales in 3 days so that’s a no brainer. Lately I have been setting up at smaller local toy shows as well. But we are one of the now becoming rare breed of comic stores that deals extensively in vintage material. It’s all about diversity!

Jay: Interesting. Edmonton has a bigger population than Hamilton and we can get media but we can’t get the school board to recognize comics as something worthy to put in their schools. The majority of places we supply/support are remote communities and private schools.

Marc: Of the 5 stores in Hamilton, I’m fairly certain only 3 participate. It’s pretty sad really.

Jay: Depending on how you define “participate”, in Edmonton we have 11 comic stores of which we are the only ones who advertise/promote the event. 4 others have a couple of the titles out on a table but usually without signage, according the people who make the rounds on the day. One gaming store took part this year with events.

[box type=shadow]John Tinkess, manager of Another Dimension in Calgary.[/box]

We hold multiple events throughout the year but Free Comic Book Day is definitely the biggest. Like Marc, we’ve had little success getting the local media to pay attention so instead we have to rely more on guerilla tactics such as cross-promotions with other local businesses, prominent signage on a very busy downtown street and good, old-fashioned word of mouth. FCBD has grown for us each year and I think the consistent date and industry-wide marketing has helped to in grain it in more people’s minds. It is also typically our highest sales day of the year so, while our investment in the “free” books and extra staff is significant, those costs are more than made up for by the additional sales. We have also had decent success handing out bounce back coupons on FCBD, bringing some of those new faces back into the store at a later date and in turn having some of those turn into regular customers. It’s ironic that you refer to it as the event “no retailer can afford to skip” because there are at least a couple of stores here in town that stopped participating several years ago but I’m always happy to have them send customers my way. Anything that can help bring new or lapsed customers into the store and give us the chance to convert them into regular readers is a good thing and FCBD is absolutely worth the effort.

Christopher: I’m wondering why other shops don’t participate in Free Comic Book Day. Do you think it’s apathy about the possibility of reaching new audiences? Are some stores not well-capitalized enough to do a $250 marketing investment? We’ve come close to opting out in the past because none of the offered books were ones that we were interested in promoting, in either the short or long-term, but I can’t imagine that’s a problem for most shops. Why do you think they don’t bother?

John: “Too much hassle” is the response I’ve heard and I think if they’re not going to do any promotion outside of their existing customer base, then it probably is. Having a stack of books at the counter that you’re grudgingly giving out to regulars really misses the whole point of the day.

[box type=shadow]Bruno Andreacchi, B.A.’s Comics in London Ontario.  Slight spine damage otherwise I’m fine to very fine.[/box]

FCBD. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

We see a lot of new faces and more kids than we can count and we always have a fantastic sales day. The publishers give us a better selection every year. It’s an amazing exhilarating experience! But we’re sooooo glad when it’s over. We always say, “Never again! We’re too old for this. Time to stop!” Maybe next year…

The books cost more and more each year and some people are still shocked to learn that we pay for the “free” books that we hand out. Some items don’t arrive in time or ship so close to FCBD that it means a lot of overtime for stamping and reading (or attempting to) for any possible inappropriate content that may cause problems. And then there are “the vultures”. We see them every year, once a year, with FCBD bags already stuffed to overflowing as they’ve circled every shop in town. “How many can we get?” (That’s usually all they say.) I swear, sometimes I think I’m a mere micron away from throwing a razor-sharp pog at them, like Oddjob, or banning them from the store forever. Maybe next year…

Perfunctory mentions notwithstanding, the local media barely seems to notice anymore. Something extraordinary, like fisticuffs in line between Batman and Joker, would have to happen to garner some real press. Maybe next year…

And then I come to my senses. As you say, Scott, it’s an event “…no retailer can afford to skip” and I sure don’t want to be “the comic shop that didn’t” because, that, I can’t afford. But, despite the headaches and all the hard work, I’m already looking forward to next year. And the next. And the next…

Jay: That reminds me; stamping comics. We found two problems with stamping comics. The first was the publishers. You know, those inconsiderate enough to not leave a space for a store to stamp the books and share the credit or those thoughtless enough to use a high gloss cover so the books can’t be stamped. And the second was space, spreading the books out so you could stamp them and let them dry.

So we switched to labels. Less physical space (and time) required to brand the books and if the publisher was thoughtless enough (and some still are after 10 YEARS) to not leave room for a stamp/label, we can put our sticker right over top of their logo!

[box type=shadow]Jennifer Haines, The Dragon in Guelph Ontario.  MA, B.Ed. Full-time teacher and comic store owner? Some say crazy… I say just crazy enough to work![/box]

I love FCBD in concept. It’s a fantastic event to reach out to people and bring them into your store. More importantly, it puts books in the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to afford them. And I love seeing the store full of people. We stamp our books and we give away unlimited titles to our patrons. And we always run out of books by the end of the day. This year we had a face-painter and she was a HUGE hit with the kids!

The downside of FCBD is the price and the fact that it’s hard for us to gauge how many books we are going to need. I’m the first to admit I don’t do a great job of tracking how many people come through the door that day. Next year, we plan to ask for a small donation from each person who comes, which we’ll split with Plan Canada. This will defray our costs a bit, let us feel like we’re doing something bigger picture with the event, and determine just how many people come by for the event.

I want to do more with FCBD; the face-painter this year was a great example! People just loved it. I had a stormtrooper last year, who unfortunately cancelled this year due to illness. I had guests last year and I also would have liked to have had guests this year, but TCAF really made that impossible, and that’ll be the reality of next year as well. I totally understand why the Beguiling wouldn’t want to give up the phenomenal commerce that is Anime North, but it really puts a mass number of comic stores at a disadvantage, being unable to book a pro to be at their store for FCBD. I get where you’re coming from, Chris, that TCAF is a festival celebrating comics on a day when the industry celebrates comics, but the timing makes it detrimental to comic retailers, especially us Southern Ontario ones.

As for media, Guelph simply does not care about FCBD, and that doesn’t bother me all that much. I look at it as a service for my customers. Anyone else I get through the doors that day is icing on the cake!

Overall, I will keep doing and improving FCBD each and every year!

Christopher: You might want to watch out for that {small donation}, as I think asking for money in return for comics in any way tends to get you kicked out of the Free Comic Book Day event. Retailer to retailer, that is something I would definitely clear with Diamond first, they’re very strict about that. Hell, I don’t think I’d even say that in public if that was my plan.

You know, that’s a fair point, it can be hard to book the creators you want for Free Comic Book Day every year–even more so when TCAF is going on. We’d gotten flak in the past on the years where’d we have 20+ creators signing at the store for Free Comic Book Day because that supposedly dried up the well for available creators too… It rings a little false to me. I mean, if I was doing FCBD this year on top of TCAF, I would have asked comics superstars not exhibiting at TCAF like Francis Manapul (Flashpoint), Marcus To (Red Robin), or Dave Ross (Daredevil), or great kid friendly creators like Sam Agro (Looney Tunes), Ty Templeton (Batman), or Patricia Storms (Owlkids) to my event… but I kind of had my hands full as it was 🙂

I think that a creative retailer can find ways around certain creators they want being ‘booked’–J. Torres managed to do a Free Comic Book Day signing in Whitby and then hightailed it down to TCAF this year in the afternoon, and the Kill Shakespeare guys did the same thing but at The Silver Snail. There’s also bringing creators in from out-of-town which a bunch of Toronto stores (us included) have done in the past to some really excellent results.

I do think it’s a bit of a moot point though–there are dozens of ways to make the event a success. We’ve participated in FCBD every year since the first (except for this year, sadly) and we’ve done years with 2 creators and years with 20 and years with none. When people come through the store (or usually the patio out front), they’re just happy to get a comic. If there are artists then the kids are happy to get sketches of Spider-Man or Batman or Wolverine or Darth Vader. And I wanna be clear, we rarely-to-never have artists that draw those characters ‘professionally’, but the kids don’t care at all! They get to see real comic artists doing real art, that’s cool. They want free comics, they want to hang out, and they do a hell of a lot of shopping that offsets any and all the costs that we put into the event (best sales day of the year for us, usually!). We get hundreds of folks who aren’t store regulars through the shop on FCBD, and that (and the other 30+ events we do each year) are the kind of thing that keeps our business growing: bringing new readers into the fold.

I think for any small town that doesn’t have a big-name local creator, or can’t afford to bring a big-name creator in, or just can’t get the creator they want, they should consider working with local aspiring creators, bringing in non-comics artists like caricaturists, kids book authors, etc. to draw and hang out with kids all day. The only ones who’ll even notice are the die-hard comics fans and regulars–and let’s face it, they’re gonna be at the other events you hold throughout the rest of the year anyway.

Free Comic Book Day really is what you make of it… the vast array of responses to how and why the retailers on this list participate in the event is a pretty clear testament to that…!

Jennifer: Thanks for the tip on asking for money for FCBD, Chris! I’ll have to look into that and possibly come up with something else which serves the same purpose.

John: Jennifer, I think something like “limit X number of free books, but a donation to our charity entitles you to additional freebies” would work within the FCBD rules.

Jay: We too thought it would be a problem to not have “special guests” for FCBD due to TCAF as nearly everyone we asked was going (then we had 1 no-show). So we loaded up on local talent and had the single best day we’ve ever had (just under 1000 visitors). However, we still really enjoy having guests so we put out invitations for 2012 already, noting the conflict, and have received some confirmations already so it still should work out well.

Christopher:  Awesome! A big part of why we announced early and mentioned FCBD in the announcement was to give folks a chance to make their plans with all available info. Glad to see things worked out for you, Jay.

Our image selection this Retailer Q comes from FCBD 2011 Silver Sponsor comic books.

Scott VanderPloeg
Scott VanderPloeg

Scott works in I.T. but lives to eat and read. His other ramblings can be found at AE Index and eBabble. Art collection at Comic Art Fans.

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