Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Comics Industry: Pamphlets, Digests, and Magazines - Oh My!

Allright, so this is a bit of an essay/rant/diatribe that I've been wanting to write for a while. Over at Fanboy Rampage there was recently a post about cheaper comics. The gist of the post was that comics companies (meaning DC and Marvel here) should put their products out on cheap newsprint and price them close to $1, instead of the $3 price-point with superior paper that comics have now. The upshot of the whole thing seeming to be that if the comics cost less, more would be purchased, and the comics industry would be SAVED!

Now, let's leave aside the whole thought about whether the "comics industry" needs saving. Johanna had a good post the other day about why the "comics industry" is actually doing quite fine, if you include manga in that description. I'm going to assume here that "comics industry" means "direct market and the big two publishers", though I agree with Johanna that the actual state of the market as a whole for comics is much better than it has been in years.

So, what about the "big two" then? Would making $1 comics bring them back the fans who had left, drag in new young readers, and generally get the superhero comics back into the limelight that they held in the mythical "golden age" of comics? IMHO, eh - not so much. And it has less to do with whether you could get more people to read comics at that price point (an argument I'm willing to have, but not here), and more to do with how retail works.

The standard retail model works (in a simplistic fashion) like this: Producer of goods sells goods to distributor for a set price. Distributor marks that price up by a percentage, and sells it to a retailer. The retailer then marks that price up again by a percentage to sell to a customer. Everyone along the chain gets a cut of the action.

So, why should Diamond carry and distribute a line of $1 books when they could be distributing a line of $3 books instead? They get more money per book, the retailer gets more money per book, the publisher gets more money per book, everyone in the chain is happier in general. And, since the purpose of this exercise is for each of these companies to make money, you can see which direction things are going to trend.

What about a selection of loss-leader books? Remember, the sales of the books have to support their weight in overhead costs for the publisher, the distributor and the retailer. If a retailer has shelf space for a number of books, and he has to choose between selling 100 copies of a $3 book and 100 copies of a $1 book, you can see what he's going to choose.

And, when we get outside of comic book stores, it gets worse. Look over the magazines at your local newsstand or Barnes and Noble. Check out those cover prices. Do you think with the selection of magazines available, the Barnes and Noble wants to take up precious shelf space with a bunch of $1 comics? That's the whole reason comics got pushed off the newsstand in the first place - magazines were going up in price and the comics companies refused to change their format to allow them to stay in the newsstand market (see "DC Comics Implosion")[1].

So, if I don't think that you can get comics to the masses by making them cheaper, how do I think you can get them out? Simple, make them more expensive. I'm serious. Look again at that newsstand example - the average price of a magazine right now is in the $5-$6 range, with many of them running into the $10-$15 range for some "specialty" areas. How can you get newsstand vendors to put your product on their racks? Make sure that your product is giving them a chance to make at least as much as their average mags are getting them.

Now, the other thing that you have to do is make sure that folks don't look at your magazine and laugh. If you tried to charge $5 for your average 32-page pamphlet, most folks would laugh in your face (or punch you, maybe)[2]. Look at the page counts of those $5-$6 magazines again - they've usually got over a hundred pages, even if they have a lot of ads. People expect VALUE for their dollars, which includes more than page count, but page count is a part of it.

So, what do I suggest doing then? Lets take Marvel as an example. Currently, Marvel puts out some ungodly number of Spider-man comic books and X-Men comic books. Marvel also has two of the most recognizable comic-book movie properties right now with Spider-man and the X-Men. These are the names that COULD be bringing folks into reading Marvel's superhero comics IF they could get them.

I contend that Marvel could easily combine two of their monthly Spider-man books into a single magazine - "Amazing Spider-Man magazine." Charge $5-$6 bucks for it, make it actually magazine sized, and fill out the back half of the magazine with reprints. Fans would still be getting their $6 for two stories, while the format would be more conducive to people picking it up from their local grocery or bookstore newsstand. I would also have some editorial changes to make one of the new stories in the book a "stand-alone" story with the second new story an on-going one, but that's less of a format decision than a "marketing" one.

They could do something similar with their X-Men books - pick two to combine together into one book (say Uncanny and X-Men) and name it "Uncanny X-Men magazine". Charge $5-$6 bucks for it and put reprints in the back.

As time passes and readership builds, Marvel should be able to add more advertising, and maybe offset the costs of replacing the reprints with new material. Spin-off characters like Arana could be tried in the back of an Amazing Spider-Man magazine, instead of giving them a six issue limited series. Stories that really only work well in collected form could be used as backup material with an eye towards getting them into digests, etc.

A similar case could be made for DC. In fact, with DC, Superman and Batman books suggest themselves right away, and with the number of Superman and Batman books on the shelves, consolodating two into a monthly magazine should be even easier than with Spider-man.

The objection that will come to the front is that Marvel tried this just a few years ago - with their Ultimate and Marvel Knights magazine. This plan would be different from that one because this one leverages the existing readership of Amazing Spider-man into the readership of the magazine. You may lose a few, but with format chages you might actually get some back (especially if you combine a serial with a "done-in-one" story). You can then use that readership to grow out to newsstands and subscribers.

Now, I really think that branching out into non-superhero properties is how the big two will survive in the future. But, if they're serious about being in the monthly serial business, the time has come to really re-examine what they are doing and what formats they are using. The direct market is suffering, and without an injection of new readers, bad things are going to happen to it.

[1] Newsstands also have a whole 'returnability' issue that is another reason comics left the newsstand, I know. That's another aspect of the magazine publishing business that the direct market has allowed the comics companies to avoid for a long time.

[2] I could be wrong about this. I never thought we'd see comics get above $2, but here we are. Of course, there's also been a steady drain of readers, so maybe we are approaching some kind of equilibrium point or something.


B2 said...

I would be willing to read my comics 12 months late if I could buy ripped and waterstained copies for fifty cents.

B2 said...

P.S. What's up with your fancy Blogger comments?

Jer said...

B2 -

Sure, but could you find a place that would sell them to you? Even the local Half-Price books rarely sells any old comics for less than $1 anymore.

(And I don't know what's happened with the Blogger comments. I've left the default settings as is - maybe Blogger's doing something new...)