In terms of internet business models, 2005-2015 will be to comics as 1995-2005 was to music. Discuss.
It’s a cute truism, but not entirely accurate.
Firstly, the key similarity: the market by and large considers the product to be poorly distributed and overpriced. People like comics, almost universally; the failure of the industry is pointedly not the failure of its product but of its marketing, distribution model, and its price point. This cannot be understated: comics used to compete with a chocolate bar at the newsstand.
That sentence contains the two failures of modern comics sales. Firstly: “at the newsstand.” Vastly enough has been written about the failures of the direct market and why we should or should not beat Diamond to death with a stick that I don’t feel the need to rehash it in depth, but the near-total noninteractivity of comics publishers with the larger market is damned near impossible to understand.
I don’t particularly want to reopen the scans_daily debate again, but one thing that always struck me was that its detractors in the wake of its collapse decried the “word of mouth advertising” arguments its supporters upheld as a solid raison d’etre for the tolerance of the community’s theft. It was argued that DC and Marvel put up previews on Newsarama, on their own websites, in Diamond’s Previews catalog, and had store presence, and that this was enough for the purposes of advertising.
The problem with this argument is that if you translate it over to any other product it makes absolutely zero sense. Does Coke say “well, we don’t need to advertise Coke to everybody. It’s there in the store, and we put advertisements in Cola Monthly, and we have a website”? Of course not, because that’s idiotic. You don’t even need to mention scans_daily in this argument because scans_daily wasn’t the answer to the larger problem (as much as its supporters wished it were); it was merely a reaction from the existing market to this failure, and an inadequate one at that.
Every so often some website will put up an old cover of a “crossover comic,” by which I mean not crossing over with an established intellectual property (like that Star Trek/X-Men comic that still makes me wonder), but crossing over with an existing and usually wildly divergent brand: J.C. Penney, Hanes, Post Cereals, that sort of thing. Marvel and DC (but mostly Marvel) would strike deals with these companies to put comics – usually crappy comics, but comics – into the hands of people buying things that had absolutely nothing to do with comics. The logic is of course obvious: if 100,000 people buy Hanes underwear with a Spider-Man comic in it, and one-tenth of them are entertained enough to want to buy another Spider-Man comic or three, that’s a big win for Marvel.
(How often does that sort of thing happen any more? Used to be it seemed like there was at least two or three promotions like that every year; now the only “promotional” comics I can think of that the Big Two give away1 – are the occasional comics Marvel produces for the United States Army for the troops. Can anybody think of any others?)
Anyhow. Secondly, consider “used to compete with a chocolate bar.” Comics are horrendously expensive, and in some cases needlessly so. A three-to-four dollar price point puts comics out of a lot of hands – especially young hands. And although inflation is part of that, paper quality is also a big issue. Why not print comics on newsprint again? Does anybody really need that shiny, glossy paper that’s in all the comics now?2
This is to say nothing of the Big Two’s current collection strategy, which is insane: release the more expensive hardcover initially and then delay the softcover for anywhere from six months to an entire year after that.3 Hardcovers might be pretty, but they’re for devoted fans because of their increased cost. A sales strategy concentrating on hardcover promotion is one that prioritizes catering to hardcores.
Now that we’ve covered the key similarity, let’s discuss the key difference, which is that comics, unlike music, does not have a good “try before you buy” mechanism. I’m not talking about previews on websites being comparable to Java-enabled song snippets being available before you download an mp3 from Amazon or the like; I’m talking about the radio. (Internet or otherwise.) That’s how most music gets marketed to the listener: the listener hears the song in some context in its entirety other than looking at a list of songs and says “hey, I like this.”
Some might argue that the previews posted to Newsarama qualify as “try before you buy,” but really, that’s not true. You get a snippet of story (usually not even the best part) which is only a portion of a portion of a larger story. Incidentally, this is another scans_daily argument that detractors didn’t understand – the scans_daily folks might have been excessive, but they concentrated on the “good parts,” the heart of the story, or at least what they thought those to be – and that makes for a better preview than the first five pages of a book.4
Try before you buy, when applied to written material, means a library. And no library is going to touch single issues for obvious reasons (cost, preservability, et cetera). Granted, most libraries now have a reasonable selection of graphic novels, but those graphic novels are the ones coming out after the fact. And since for the most part there aren’t library editions of graphic novels, that means they tend to go for trade paperbacks – or material that’s over a year old. Does the radio still play a lot of 2008’s hottest jams rather than play new tracks?
And that’s a huge hurdle that comics has to overcome that music never did. Well, that and the fact that comics have a much smaller audience, thanks to decades of bad decisions, but that’s neither here nor there.
- Outside of Free Comic Book Day, which is still the most widely underutilized and misused tool of comics promotion currently extant in the Big Two – as opposed to outright nonexistent, anyway. [↩]
- If there’s a serious market for the glossy paper – hell, use it as an additional selling point for the trade collections. Better paper quality in trades can be comics’ equivalent of commentary tracks on DVDs – an additional sales point for material the audience might already have seen. [↩]
- The trade paperback of Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes will ship in July of this year, fourteen months after the final issue shipped. [↩]
- Also consider: movie trailers, which can certainly be excessive in what they reveal, but at least are never boring and always attempt to show how awesome their product is. [↩]