The Tony Shenton Interview

Photo of Tony Shenton, from the Drawn and Quarterly blog, 2011

Tony Shenton has been working hard on getting self published cartooning to comic store  customers for over three decades. His main beat is New York City, where Shenton sells work by his zine and mini comic clients (his role is most clearly described as a 'rep') directly to comic retail shops. If you are in the regular habit of browsing area stores, you'll at some point find Shenton doing the hard work of checking a stores on-display inventory, making notes, crossing out old information in a notebook and updating it with new data, mostly to determine if the store is running low on any of his clients work and in need of a re-order. Often times, Shenton is trying to make sure an easily obscured (by a larger book) or improperly shelved mini comic is retrieved, rather than lost forever in the unforgiving retail stacks.

Comic book stores have a lot of potential to sell self-published material, but the odds are often stacked against the owners and staff in realizing this. There's rarely enough time to communicate with an endless parade of artists. Lots of people make mini comics and separate agreements with dozens of artists eat up the clock. There are also rarely enough resources to keep track of the zines themselves which are, by their nature, outside of a straightforward ISBN inventory system. Finally, there's a largely habit driven customer base, eager to get their weekly superhero comics. The Wednesday Diamond offerings keep the lights on and, like it or not, need to be prioritized. But mini comics can provide some retail freedom, if cultivated. In the Utopian view, they can bring in a group of customers indifferent or unaware of Diamond's machinations. Shenton provides a service that can help this cultivation happen, though it doesn't come easy.

Shenton has worked in all aspects of the industry, as a store manager and as a sales rep for NBM/Papercutz. Given his time on the ground and his variety of experience in the industry, TCJ thought it was important to record some of his thoughts at this moment in time. Diamond, comic book stores, and basically all aspects of comic book retail are very much in flux right now. Here's Shenton's particular view of where we are at and what might be ahead.

Austin English: Can you talk a little bit about your history in comics as it relates to the direct market...specifically, given the circumstances, can you talk about your time managing Forbidden Planet and what the direct market felt like then? 

Tony Shenton: My memory of those days is a bit hazy because I started in the shop, I think, in October of '85. The shop had a very good relationship with Seagate Distribution. It was almost as if the shop was married to Seagate. So there were always plenty – if not too many – of any comics distributed by Seagate in the store. I wasn't a manager or a buyer until later, though. The store's main distributor was Heroes World, but we bought from Last Gasp and Rip Off Press, Catalan, NBM, and others directly as well.

What was a typical customer in your time at FP buying? Lots of Claremont X-Men and Euro stuff?

I'm not sure there was one single type of customer. Some bought only slews of Science Fiction books. Some bought only comics, and the Uncanny X-Men was the top seller. Some bought only toys. Some bought only Catalan books. Some bought a mix of everything, but I'd have to say that it would be rare for a customer to have bought, say, a Catalan title or Tin-Tin, or Asterix AND also X-Men or whatever DC title might have been selling well at the time.

You told me that during your time there, Forbidden Planet didn't work with Diamond. I'm sure you brush up against them now...can you talk about your feelings towards them and what you think about their current situation?

There has to be some source for periodicals, and Diamond is it. I think they do a good job of servicing shops with weekly releases. The problem is backlist – both graphic novels and periodicals. There are vendors who think Diamond should carry everything. It's (in my opinion) impossible to stock significant quantities of every comic and every graphic novel and every related book published for this market. Every store has its own particular sales history and their customers seldom make a sea change giving their loyalty to other, perhaps upstart, publishers. Would the industry be better off with competition? I think most vendors would say yes. It's possible, I suppose, that some publishers might reconsider their exclusive deals with Diamond when things get back to normal, but I would not look for major deviation from the familiar.

Forbidden Planet storefront from its mid-1980s location on 56 E. 12 St.

Can you describe what you do for local NYC stores, how your mini comic and zine distribution operates?

Sure. I'm a sales representative – which means, I walk new issues from my client small press publishers into certain New York and Brooklyn shops and show them to the buyers. If they order, I transmit the orders to my clients for them to fulfill. I work on a commission-only basis with all my clients whether large or small.

I've seen you on the floor in local stores, taking inventory. Can you describe the nuts and bolts of how a typical work day for you goes, just the various things you do to get these things in stores? When I worked with you as a mini comics buyer, you were very analog, keeping track of things in notebooks, looking around stores to see if zines had been misplaced, which I appreciated.

I still do that, but I've added electronics: a tablet, and, for one store, I have access to their computerized inventory, which is a great help, but can't be used on its own. When not visiting shops, I am sending out lists or PDFs for my publisher clients to the shops that have agreed to receive email. Some publishers have a lot of news each week, some might scrounge for enough news for one monthly email. Sometimes I have to do the scrounging myself. When there's just a little dead time, I may also send out new release news and / or reviews from trusted sources that may beef up sales. I'm also telephoning shops, texting a few, and up until the virus spread, there wasn't much dead time at all.

You are someone who works to get self-published work into, generally, Diamond product heavy shops. Can you talk about why this appeals to you? I sometimes wonder if self published or artsy work in a mostly mainstream shop is a losing battle, but you have always had faith in it...what do you see mainstream readers engagement with this work being, ideally?

My first experience with mini-comics wasn't good when I was in retail. Creators would show their stuff at Forbidden Planet in hopes we'd carry those comics, but most of what I saw was...just not very good at all. It wasn't until an early Peter Bagge mini that I saw something good. In regular comic format size for self published work, the first good thing I saw was a comic called Brother Man [from Big City Comics]. And while I wasn't ready to see a trend, I was open to the possibility. As a rep, it was mini-comics from Highwater Books authored by creators such as Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Leif Goldberg, and that stable that started me off looking for others that might sell. I learned a good story, with adequate if not good production value, would sell well no matter the size of the presentation. However, all things were not equal for all comic shops. And when you have a creator with drive and talent, one can shape the business side of things to help that creator produce attractive pricing for customers.

The reason it appeals to me is more selfish. I like knowing who may be the next major talent. I like pushing those works and helping that client enlarge the fan base, so when a major publisher signs them to a deal, there is already a set of enthusiastic readers waiting for that book, and if the major publisher is already working with me, then the sales are built in. While I wouldn't have guessed it when I started, I surprised myself for having a good eye for talent. If I started to name some of the past clients who have gone on to big publishers, I'd forget someone, and that would be insulting. So I'll skip that.

Does a Diamond focused store, in your view, need someone on the floor hand selling the more off beat stuff? If they have someone doing this, does it positively impact the stores bottom line in a significant way?

In the best of all possible worlds, my answer would be yes, and that all staff members should be as familiar as possible with as much merchandise as possible. If a shop carries a wide variety of small press comics, it would certainly help to have someone who knows the material and the category. A good salesperson should be able to sell a significant amount of these comics – certainly, with order tracking, justify the buys with profit.

The times are changing, of course, so what I was doing 10 and 5 years ago is much different from what I did in October. Things keep changing. Locally, the closing of Bergen Street Comics, for instance, severely impacted the introduction of new readers to the small press category. The changing of a buyer can also change the focus of the range or content of what a store carries. There are shops that trust my judgment, then give me parameters on what and how much to carry, and there are shops that may select just one item to push and sell until it's no longer available. I work via email or phone call with shops that aren't local, so every shop that is interested or has been interested, will have the option to look at a new publication.

'Shops that buy one item and push it until its gone.' It does seem like some shops just don't know what to do with this kind of stuff and are grateful to sell one round of it and then call it a day, rather then reordering something that did actually sell. Speaking towards the shaky ground a lot of stores have been on...there seems to be a tendency with many stores to rely on this Diamond system, and a suspicion of anything outside of it. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but my feeling is that the structure of Diamond makes stores have to survive week to week, so anything that might, in the long term, prove healthy doesn't have a chance to grow. Is there something I'm missing?

No, I don't think you're missing something. Shops are not charities. Owners need to be concerned with the bottom line – self-perpetuation, if you will. Therefore, for a buyer to consider carrying a comic issue or paperback of some sort, it has to have the potential of selling X copies in Y amount of time, and the deal offered by that publisher needs to conform closely to the profit margin that store has established. Buyers have so many more choices now than they did 10, 20, or 30 years ago; they need to be very careful when they gamble, They don't owe a creator or publisher shelf space simply for publishing a new comic. With Diamond being a comic shop's major supplier, they have to be paid first.. but more importantly, they have to be paid.

I'm curious about mini-comics function in Diamond specific stores in general. They exist outside of the Diamond system. In some ways, they are oddly the most positioned thing to survive all of this, because even with their exclusion from most stores or institutions, they continue to thrive. With what's happening in this current moment, how do you see your efforts with mini's continuing?

I think I need to add some context. In the Great Recession, we lost too many good shops. Although some were direct economic casualties, others were already on shaky ground for health reasons or other operational problems. Readers, then, have less money, and were looking to get more comics for their dollars rather than purchasing a signed, numbered, slipcased oversize $50 coffee table book. Vendor stores who sensed this used mini-comics to diversify their stock, and I was working with over 100 small press clients. The cream rose to the top; many items sold well in quantity. I don't sense that the motivation of customers is headed back in that direction right now.

After that, when the country began to recover economically, several factors led to the diminishing of my client base, and also sales reductions in this category. Among them were: client authors being signed by big publishers, local artists bringing their own work into shops, stores shifting to consignment sales, a greater amount of graphic novels and big publisher periodicals filling the shelves taking up space, and sometimes the operational difficulty in billing, shipping and invoicing.

While I agree that this category will survive past Covid19, there's too much in the market now for small press to regain the foothold it once had. So my role is being here, offering new books as they are published, and taking orders...because I believe there's worthy talent that may be more promising than the next superhero genre comic. However, I am working with fewer small press clients now, and until I see a revival of buyer interest, I may not sign up a new talent. What I would be looking for would be several outstanding comics from the new source with good to great production quality, good bang for the buck, good business skills or the willingness to learn, and regular output. This isn't easy for the new self-publisher, but unless there is a very special new single comic, my solicitation will be ignored.

With the stores that do take a chance on more out there stuff: I think a lot of literary comics/art comics/zine comics people don't realize how intertwined they are to the weekly income Diamond creates for stores that subsidize purchases of riskier work or smaller publishers. I'm not sure if you agree (and maybe my assumption on this is totally wrong), but how much do you think independent publishers are going to be affected by this? What's the future you see for literary comics publishers catalogs appearing in comic stores at the end of this?

There are shops that support the “literary comics” category and always have. Getting into regular trade bookstores used to be the holy grail for comics publishers, even though there are issues with returns (most comics and graphic novels bought through Diamond are non-returnable) - and returns cause a lot of headaches. But bookstores, whether chains or neighborhood independents, reach a different audience, and the potential for expansion is there... perhaps an illusion for most publishers, but still... it's possible.

There seems to be some growth in the market for literary comics in comic shops, but considering the amount of periodical publishers, only the best literary graphic novels will find space and sell.

I love comic stores. What are your feelings about them and what would you like to see them do differently in the future when this is over and the dust clears?

This may shock you. I'm not sure any successful shop should do anything differently.

Whether they carry only the big two, the top ten, or a little bit of everything that sells, they are successful and you don't need to reinvent how they do business. I'd hope a successful shop continues to add or change product to suit its customers' needs and if that means some experimentation into small press, good. It also may mean establishing a larger area for kids graphic novels, or whatever fad turns into a trend and regular sales next.

But... there are times, perhaps, when I'd like to see what would happen if a shop shelved by publisher, or by genre, moving perhaps all travel comics together or grouping biographics on the same shelves. Just an example there. I think a shop that might want to try that would already be selling a good variety of non—superhero books. I just sometimes find it jarring when a Sartre biography is next to Sandman for instance. Does it really help the sales of either to shelve things like that?

As someone who has been in the industry a long time, how do you read the current plight of stores and of Diamond, especially in light of DC's decision to break ties (possibly only temporarily) with Diamond? Is this as big of a moment for change (or catastrophe) as it might appear?

This situation is still evolving. I think an opportunity was missed – although since I'm not a retailer nor have been associated with Diamond – to meet virtually with all periodical publishers long before [they] closed down to say: look, we may have a disaster in the making, we need to come up with a few different plans including a worst-case scenario that will help preserve as much equality among comic shops as possible. And then all publishers need to abide by that plan so customers and shops are not confused about what's happening to their comics.

One of the differences now opposed to the Great Recession is that the Federal Gov is working on direct stimulus, grants, loans, and extended/expanded unemployment. If the glitches can be ironed out, and everyone who needs help gets it, then the carnage will be less. Shops should be able to reopen, if they are closed, with sensible social distancing policies. Customers should return to shopping – masked and gloved – at least six feet from each other. Shops may need to redevelop their online stores and services to respond to the next germ crisis and handle in-person shopping differently. I don't think content or format of what sells will be changing much, unless periodical publishers see that sales are not recovering. That's months away. This may be an excuse for a good house-cleaning, where, as in the aftermath of other disasters, some of the good folks on all sides – retail, publishing, customer – are swept away with the those who won't be missed as much. As in the past, we will mourn the loss of great stories and storytellers, and great places to buy those stories, but it's too early to mourn at the moment. Let's take that as a small victory.