Talking the Evolution of Comic Shops, Metadata, and Sales Charts with Manage Comics’ Brian Garside

Sales charts have been a big topic of conversation in comics of late.

That’s for a good reason. In this multi-distributor era, they simply don’t exist in the direct market. That means publishers know how much their titles are being ordered, but they don’t know how they’re doing relative to other publishers or how specific titles are performing compared to others. And if they lack that information, readers and retailers have even less insight into it than that. While not everyone thinks that this is a big deal, the lack of charts does make it difficult to point out when something is an exemplary or surprise hit, and it also allows for a malaise to take hold when there may be little reason for it to.

The funny thing is, though, that sales charts have…kind of never existed in the direct market? What we talk about when we talk about sales charts are actually order charts, with those numbers representing sales from publishers/distributors to comic shops rather than sales at comic shops to readers. To really get a sense of how things are going in comic shops and in the direct market as a whole, it’d be helpful to have sell-through charts — meaning sales from comic shops to actual customers. Those would reveal what’s really moving the needle in shops and help create a greater sense as to what readers are actually excited about.

Of course, one of the major issues facing shops right now is that comic book metadata — or the data shops get from publishers and distributors about the comics they’re buying — is often inaccurate, incomplete, or inconsistent. In short, it’s a mess. That makes the job of tracking in-store sales difficult for even individual shops, let alone large groups of them. To get to a point where direct market-wide numbers would be trackable (amongst a great many other things this would allow for) that needs to be cleaned up. The good news is, there’s a contingent of folks working on remedying the metadata problem. That’s a big deal, and something worth exploring. So, to dig into the major issues facing shops with metadata, how that project that could result in actual sales charts, and how a little more progressive and collaborative thinking could help change things for the direct market, I talked to one of that project’s key players in Manage Comics’ owner Brian Garside.

Garside took me into what his team is doing at Manage Comics — the pull list software company he runs — the metadata situation, its impact on everything, the efforts going on to find a path to sales charts, and a whole lot more. It’s an interesting conversation about some inside baseball things that could have a major impact on the direct market going forward. It’s also been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the basics. For those that don’t know, which is most people, you own and contribute to the product development and lead support side of Manage Comics. And Manage Comics is, and I quote, “the ultimate comics pull software that simultaneously powers your website and your comic book point of sale.” I know what that means, but can you explain to readers what that means? 

Brian: Manage Comics is a simple subscription management software that makes it easier for customers to subscribe to their favorite titles and makes it easier for the stores to actually pull those titles, hold them, and then sell them.

So, practically speaking, Manage Comics is both the software that shops put their orders into and then check people out with, and then people can also manage their pull list online through the system, right?

Brian: Correct. And what’s nice is, unlike anything else, Manage Comics is part of a store’s website. So, customers are not going off to a third-party site or anything. They’re keeping their customers on their own websites. If you use Challengers (Comics + Conversation, a Chicago-based comic shop) as an example, basically every single product page on their website has become an endpoint for customers to subscribe to things. So, Batman has a subscribe to this series button right on it, so you would click on that and be able to subscribe to Batman right then and there. Manage Comics helps with stores getting new customers as well, because people that go there to buy one thing can immediately subscribe to something else and get it every month.

It’s funny, I added two books to my pull list at my shop today, and the way that my shop did it is they wrote that I wanted them on a yellow pad of paper, which hopefully ends up in my pull eventually. It was for Birds of Prey #1 and the upcoming G.O.D.S. at Marvel. I forgot to pre-order the former and it was sold out by the time I got there on Wednesday, and I wanted to make sure to get a copy of G.O.D.S. when it launches. But if my shop used Manage Comics, I would’ve just updated it without even going there and not missed out on Birds of Prey #1 because I go on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. And that’s just one of those quirky things that doesn’t seem like a big deal but would help both the shop and the customer.

But let’s go back a bit. Manage Comics is something you created. What was its path to becoming what it is now?

Brian: I’ve been involved in comics retail since I was a teenager. I started at a local comic shop in 1989, helped open a huge shop in my hometown of London Ontario Canada in ’91. Went to college in Toronto, worked in dot-coms in the 00’s, learned IT and project management, got married, had kids, opened my own primarily subscription based shop in 2005, sold my shop to my partner, and started the first version of Manage Comics in 2015.

In 2020 when the pandemic began, we pivoted Manage Comics from just subscriptions to helping stores stay open, and looked at how to strengthen our system.

Shopify was the largest e-commerce player at the time, and had just launched their own POS. I realized we would be stronger if we focused on the thing we did super well – comics subscriptions, and let a 100 billion dollar company handle the stuff that is really hard – POS and E-commerce transactions in a completely secure way.

We launched Manage Comics 2.0 as a Shopify App at the tail end of 2021 after rebuilding everything. The entire landscape of comics had changed, we had to build a database to handle multiple distributors, place orders to those multiple distributors, check in products from different distributors with different invoice types, provide curbside and in-store pickups, synchronize online and offline sales, and so much more.

Our system was built from the ground up for the new model of selling comics. Comics are largely pre-order based now and many stores place enough orders to only fulfil pre-orders on 90% of the catalogue.

Manage Comics is designed to help customers more easily pre-order the books they want, and discover what new stuff is coming out, help stores get paid faster, and ultimately to help stores make more money with comics.

Jorge Jimenez’s cover to Batman #137

One thing that is important to establish for readers is why these sorts of things are important. Why is a system like Manage Comics not just necessary but important? Is it important to move on from the yellow pad of paper era basically?

Brian: Yeah, for sure. Having been in the dark ages of that stuff, when we first started way back when, I built us a super simple access database for the store I worked at, because how do you collate how many Batmans you need to pull when you’ve got everybody on an individual sheet of paper? You literally have to go through and say, “Okay, 1, 2, 3, 4,” and hope that Simon didn’t remove it between the time that you ordered it and when you did through final order cutoff (FOC) or whatever. Getting them off paper is the number one.

Number two is probably getting them off Excel and all that. Number three is getting them off of any sort of non-network solution. I can’t tell you the number of people that have told me a horror story about how their database crashed and they lost all their subscriber information. That’s terrible. But yeah, it’s a scary world out there. I always joke that we have 150 stores using our system and they use the system 193 different ways. Every store is unique. And then within a store, you’ll have unique people that do things differently.

I can’t help but notice that the second number was bigger than the first number. (laughs)

Brian: Significantly, right? That’s what is hilarious about it. So yeah, getting consensus is impossible.

To really simplify what you do, you make retailer lives and the lives of their customers easier. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

Brian: Absolutely. Especially in the multi distributor world, your customers don’t care where you get stuff. They just want to know that they’re going to get it. So this is a way for them as a customer to know that I don’t have to go to the store on a Tuesday and a Wednesday because my book’s going to be there whatever day I go. We prefer it if you went every week.

But even if you don’t, one of the magical things about Manage Comics is Patrick can invoice any one of his users at any time and say, “Just come pick up the books next time you’re in.” If you’re going to be away for a month, don’t leave the store on the hook for three extra weeks. Just pay your invoice. These guys are paying usually net seven, and if you’re not picking it up for a month, you’re leaving them on the hook, floating you basically an interest free loan for that period of time. So yeah, having different ways of helping stores get paid quicker is important too.

For readers that don’t know, net seven speaks to how long you have to pay someone. In this case, you have to pay your distributor within seven days.

Brian: Exactly.

Otherwise, you’re in trouble. That’s the reason you always see the classic retailer posts on social media where there’s this massive stack of books that no one has picked up in their pull boxes for forever. That’s one of the nice things. Let’s say I’m a customer at Challengers Comics + Conversation in Chicago, who use Manage Comics in concert with Shopify. If I know I’m not going to be able to get out there for a month because I’m going to be on vacation or something, then what I can do is I can go ahead and pay for that and then when I come back, they’ll just hand me my stack of books and they don’t have to own that for so long.

But I’m curious. To me, it seems like your job of selling Manage Comics to shops…it seems like selling a point-of-sale system that offers these sorts of things should be a pretty easy sell. And yet we still have modern comic shops that use the pen and pad method. Not saying that there’s only one way to do it, but it does seem like it would be a lot easier for them if they did this route. Is it still a hard sell to shops?

Brian: Yeah. It’s so hard. I think the pandemic fundamentally changed people’s opinions of the way that things work. Shops were really hesitant to go online in any way, shape or form. Then post pandemic, a lot of them realize they have to be online. Even if they’re not shipping stuff, they need to at least have click and collect capability. Also, with all the new variants of COVID, we don’t know if we’re ever going to have another lockdown. I assume at some point in my lifetime there’ll be another lockdown where we can’t go out and you’re going to have to figure out how to collect your comics still. So having e-commerce has now become more of a necessity rather than a bonus. Then on top of that, stores that have e-commerce options see lifts in sales, like a 20 to 50% increase in sales over pre-having e-commerce.

Who would want that, Brian?

Brian: Everybody loves money from what I understand.

Let’s bring up the next subject, which is another important one, but we’re going to need you to define this one once again for all involved because we’re getting deep in the weeds. Metadata is a very common talking point amongst shops and amongst people in the industry these days. It’s also not something everyone understands. So, if you could simplify it, what is metadata on the comic side of things?

Brian: Metadata is the data that we get that describes a product, and that’s really all it is.

That comes from the publisher and distributor or publisher or distributor?

Brian: It comes from distributors, but it initiates from the publisher. A good example of this is on the book trade, and it’s one of the reasons why I was really passionate about getting involved in this at the early stages. I’m a huge Matt Wagner Grendel fan. There was a Matt Wagner Grendel: Devil by the Deed – Masters Edition where he is doing this book while basically redrawing the entire Grendel: Devil by the Deed, which he did in 1986 but is now doing it as a 50 something year old man. So his storytelling skills have improved and everything, but I immediately saw that it was listed on Bleeding Cool or something. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go to Manage Comics and subscribe to it from my local store.” I couldn’t find it. Well, I know the guy that has all the data. So, I went into the database and searched Grendel: Master’s Edition, and it wasn’t there.

So, I was like, okay. I went to Penguin Random House’s site and I typed it in and it’s on there. So I’m like, “Okay, wait, it’s on their website, but it’s not in my system.” So I go to the evil online super retailer and I type it in and I can pre-order it there, which means I can pre-order it at every comic shop’s biggest competition. I can find all the information on Penguin Random House, but I don’t have it available for comic stores. So I started digging down the path and found out that the book trade gets information months ahead of the comic trade. It’s the same information that we’re going to get. They just get it with less…basically it starts out as a really fuzzy picture, and then every time that more data comes in, the picture gets clearer and clearer until it becomes an orderable product with a date and everything. But at the very beginning, it is literally just a SKU and probably a title, which isn’t final.

SKU is the product number, basically.

Brian: Actually, the UPC or the barcode. Yeah, that’s the primary ID.

In terms of metadata, the main information that’s related to it are the comic’s title and then…is a synopsis part of metadata?

Brian: Yes.

What’s included in metadata?

Brian: So, we go at the highest level, it’s UPC/ISPN and title, and then we go description, creators. Price is metadata, number of pages, weight, height, width, length, units per case, ordering date, final order date, ship date. So all these things are individual pieces of metadata. We’re currently tracking around 90 data elements per product.

But fundamentally, the reason it’s important is because A, this information is often not available to you until way later than it is for the book market, and B, often super jacked up and/or inconsistent. Is that correct?

Brian: Correct. Also, we lived in a world where there was one primary distributor and they controlled most of the market, and now we live in a world with four or five primary distributors.

And that’s just single issues. Well, I guess there’s what, four for single issues, and then there’s all the book market distributors you can order from also.

Brian: Yeah, we’ve got Hachette and Ingram and all those dudes as well. So making sure that all this data is, one, consistently presented and, two, gets updated when an update happens. So if Marvel puts a new creator on the thing, that data is important for customers. Maybe I’m only buying this book because Donny Cates is writing it. It’s important for the retailers because the retailer knows Jim isn’t going to buy this if Donny Cates isn’t writing it anymore. So down the line, that stuff has to get updated on time and the data comes to us in a bunch of different shapes. So, we have to re-massage that all into a similar kind of shape at the end of the day.

And fundamentally the reason why this is important is because all the data being either incomplete or inconsistent creates a situation where retailer jobs are harder.

Brian: Yeah, way harder. Also, they’re often working blind, and we’ve got duplication of data all over the place and things are getting solicited without UPC codes. That just should never happen, end of story. Or even worse, some smaller publishers reuse UPC codes. If they cancel a book, they reuse that UPC code, but most systems will use a UPC code as the primary identifier. So, if you reissue that, you reuse that UPC code three months later for Aardvark Man and before you had solicited King of All Platypuses with that code, when you go and reuse that for Aardvark Man, the first cover might be King of All Platypuses, and then the second and third covers are going to be Aardvark Man #1. This stuff happens far too often. So having checks and balances to make sure it isn’t happening at different phases is really important too.

Brian, I’m not going to lie…this is how many comics there are today. I have no idea if Aardvark Man is actually a comic.

Brian: No, I made that one up.

Okay. King of All Platypuses is real though.

Brian: Oh yeah. I believe it’s platypodes.

There we go.

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