Rozanski and Buggy Whips

By | Wednesday, April 12, 2023 Leave a Comment
I've written about Chuck Rozanski on this blog before; he's the founder/owner of Mile High Comics and is often pretty vocal with his opinions on the industry. I know there are people who don't like his business practices and some people who don't like him personally, but he's made a living selling comics for a half century so he's doing something right. Last week, The Comics Journal posted an interview with him. It covers a fair range of topics from his origins as a 12-year-old comic book seller to his recent health issues. There's a lot of good stuff there, particularly if you're not already familiar with his story. But what I want to focus on is his broader business strategy, which they talk a bit about.

In 2017, Rozanski very openly announced he would no longer attend Comic-Con International as a vendor and that Mile High Comics would no longer have a presence at the show after over forty years. He cited several reasons at the time, but they basically boiled down to: the show was too much work and generated too little profit for MHC. Which is a completely fair reason. Somewhat less well-known is that he stopped selling new issues some years ago. He'll put in a pre-order for you if you ask for it, but he doesn't maintain a newsstand type model where a customer can just browse what issues came out this week or this month. In the interview, he notes...
When I helped to pioneer the direct market in 1980, doing things non-returnable totally made sense if you could monetize things as back issues. But as the cover prices went up, that ratio went to neutral, and then it turned powerfully negative... You have to recognize when things have become structurally flawed. It has nothing to do with your talent, or your meticulousness, or your ability. It has to do with the fact that the game has changed, and you can't win.
What he's saying is that, as a retailer, buying new issues and assuming you can sell from a back issue bin anything that doesn't sell as new issue is going to lose you money. He actually sat down and made the calculations on that. Years ago, I wrote about his doing that. His business model is very much not centered on selling new comics. He defines his model in the interview as: "secondary market reseller of pop culture." Let's break that down.
  • "Secondary market." That means he is not buying directly from distributors. He is not part of the "typical" flow of producer > distributer > retailer.
  • "Reseller." That means when he sells you an item, it's already been sold once before. That is, he's selling used goods.
  • "Pop culture." Despite the name "Mile High Comics," his focus is not comics. Not even comics-adjacent. He's very conscious that he's looking at something much broader.
What does this look like in practice? It's Rozanksi buying your collection -- whether your collection is comics or "anything Batman realted" or Back to the Future memorabilia or whatever -- as a collection and then selling off the invidiual items one at a time. A lot of comics shops do to some degree; that's often where they get large portions of their back stock. But for Rozanski, that has been an active part of his business model for years and he's very consciously done that at a larger scale than most shops. He's not waiting in his store for someone to come in looking to sell the one long box; he's spent decades going to conventions and buying dozens of long boxes at a time. And he does the same thing with Funko Pops and Star Wars action figures and whatever else. I'm sure if you walk into his store with your small handful of items to sell, he'd be willing to buy them, but he's not waiting passively the way most shops that focus on new items do. The time they're filling out Diamond order forms, he's haggling over someone's old collection.

Now, some might argue there's a bit of an opportunist/predatory nature to this. If you're a retailer trying to unload years worth of comics that you bought new and eventually resigned yourself to selling them in a discount bin just to recoup something, and you've dragged one hundred long boxes to a convention to try to sell each issue for a buck a piece, and then Rozanski swoops in and offers $15,000 to take them all off your hands right then and there, that might be a tempting deal. Even when you realize that that is half the price you're currently trying to sell them at. (100 long boxes times 300 issues per box times one dollar each = $30,000) But it could be tempting because Rozanski would not only eliminate your larger problem of taking the entirety of that "extra" stock off your hands in one fell swoop, but because you're at a convention, that means you don't have to pack it all up and haul it back to your store or storage unit or wherever; you can just get in your car and go home. I'm sure Rozanski knows this; I'd say he's counting on it, but he's not exactly desperate for back stock so I expect he takes a "no skin off my nose" approach if you don't accept his offer.

But, whether you think that's predatory or just capitalistic or whatever, my broader point is that Rozanski has been very conscious of his business model and whether or not it continues to work in the current environment. That interview is rife with examples of "this is what I was doing but I changed when I saw it was no longer working." As is pointed out in the interview, while the Mile High website is running off 25-year-old foundations and is radically out of date from a technological perspective, it still works and people are still ordering comics through that system. While Rozanski might be missing out on some opportunity costs (how many more comics could he sell online if the site was mobile-friendly, for example, or if the UI was easier to navigate) but if he's got 100,000 online customers -- which is what he claims in the interview; I'm not sure exactly how he's defining that, though -- would an additional 25,000 or 50,000 be worth the time/energy/resources to essentially develop an entirely new system from scratch?

(As an aside, my guess is that that 100,000 is accounts/addresses who have order from him within the past month or maybe quarter. Normally, I'd think that's the number of people who he's got any account information for, so I could be considered a customer even though I haven't ordered anything from them in probably five or six years at least. But since Rozanski is talking about that 100,000 in the context of losing 10,000 customers when he came out as nonbinary, genderfluid, he could only know that if he's couching that in some kind of relatively short time frame. If it was a loss of customers from one year to the next, you can't really peg that to a single event. Quarter to quarter seems to me about the absolute longest time frame you could consider here.)

What I'm getting at, though, is that even though he's not trying to optimize his business model to the Nth degree, but he doesn't adhere to business models that no longer work. When one approach stops working, he changes it. He was a big proponent and helped roll in the direct market, but he largely got out when that stopped working. Selling back issues at Comic-Con? He stopped when that stopped being profitable. If you recall, too, he had actually "quit" Comic-Con a year or two prior to his actually quitting because it was not profitable, but had a change of heart afterwards because he had a long emotional connection to the show. It actually took another year or two of bad experiences for him to get to his 2017 announcement. So he's not immune to the basic human tendency to avoid change, but he's cognitzant enough to recognize that situations do change. That external factors do change. And that failing to adapt to those changes is, in his words, a "death trap."

Whether you're a comics retailer or an independent webcomiker or accountant at some comics publisher, it behooves you to pay attention to the industry on the whole to see where things are headed. It's a modern version of the old saw about buggy whip manufacturers -- those that kept trying to make a living making them after Henry Ford introduced his cheap, assembly-line automobiles found themselves out of work. You need to keep up so you can move on to the next thing on your own terms before you're forced to move on to something just to earn a living.
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