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The Great 2009 Doomsday Scenario for Printed Comics: A Perfect Storm Looms

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I want to emphasize, this is not written for the express purpose of fear mongering.  This is a look at what might happen if a few current industry trends are taken to their logical conclusion.  I’ve discussed these scenarios with a few publishing professionals (both comics and “traditional” book publishing) and the consensus is this could happen if things break wrong.  I’ll be running three parts to this: the Doomsday Scenario (here), “Webcomics in a Post-Direct Market World,” and “Graphic Novels in a Post-Direct Market World.”

Setting the Stage

As we speak, Marvel Comics has raised the price on a number of their “core” titles to $3.99 from $2.99, a whopping 33.4% increase.  At the same time, DC has been having a bad run, in terms of fan reaction, to their latest blockbuster events: Final Crisis and Trinity.  I’ve been hearing chatter of sales dropping off for both of the “Big Two” publishers, in terms of sell-through at the retail level, so I had a long chat with a retailer whose establishment I’ve found to be a reasonable bell weather for comic shops.

This is how the recent months were broken down for me:

Marvel $3.99 titles and other “core” books: Very steady sales

Marvel “secondary” titles: Down roughly 30%

Prognosis: Nobody likes the price hike, but they’re keeping the main books (possibly the “event storyline”) and starting to pare down the non-essential reading.  Yes, you might interpret this as the readership is starting to follow the overall direction of the universe, rather than individual titles.  +30% profit on the top selling titles, -30% sales on the lower selling titles.  Marvel might have a net gain on this, if the top titles are sufficiently better sellers.  Probably a wash, at worst.

DC: Also dropping by 1/3.  Also somewhat along the second tier, in terms of titles.

Prognosis: DC hasn’t raised prices.  The retailer thought that Final Crisis and Trinity were holding on to the late stage readers because those left had committed to seeing those mini-‘s play out, but they were dropping the supporting books in disgust.  This jibes with Rich Johnston’s reports where he found contrast between the reaction to the Spider-Man “One More Day” arc and Final Crisis, except that Final Crisis effected the entire imprint, not just the titles around one character.

Independent Comics: Stable and wished he had more of them.

Prognosis: This particular shop might have a slightly more loyal clientele for independent comics, but they seem not to be upsetting their fan base, just now.

The world of print media: If you haven’t noticed, newspaper and magazines are dropping like flies.  The entire print world is hurting and it’s getting worse.  Comics may be a niche market, particularly in the direct market, but let’s not ignore the rest of the planet.

This is consistent with a recent Publisher’s Weekly Comics Week article (and it should be, I frequent one of those shops).  The question is how widespread is the “selective buying” the more diplomatic shops speak of and how many of those shop owners are going out of their way to be optimistic?

Step #1: The Inevitable Price Hike

Historically, when either DC or Marvel raises their prices, the other company follows suit shortly.  Let’s say DC does raise their prices.  It’s reasonable to expect further sales declines based on that, unless the world of fandom starts getting a whole lot more interested in DC’s storylines.  Would the secondary titles take another 30% dip like Marvel?

Oh, wait.  DC already has announced a limited price hike.  Their initial $3.99 books will add extra pages and back-up features.  Hmmm… does this remind anybody of 1978?  The short lived hike of $0.35 comics to $0.50 comics?  New back-up features in a lot of the books?  Atom and Airwave as back-ups in Action Comics?  Hawkman in Detective Comics?  The Golden Age Green Lantern in Green Lantern?  Tales of the Amazons in Wonder Woman?  You don’t?  Yeah, there might be a reason you don’t.  They did it again in 1980 with less drastic cancellations resulting (and the excellent Nemesis back-up in Brave & the Bold), but that didn’t set the world on fire.

How long will the number of $3.99 titles remain limited?  Will DC’s back-up features prove boon or burden?  (I’d have thought Blue Beetle was a better fit with Teen Titans).

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8 Comments

  1. Good insights – and well put-together.
    But what can we do about it?

  2. (Please adjust your line spacing/leading. The text blocks are hard to read. And the font in this reply box could be better…)

    The worst case scenario is: what if Diamond disappears? If that happens, then I would see an almost instantaneous migration to digital comics via a subscription or ad-funded model.

    A few things to consider: How many cities with a Borders also has a Barnes & Noble? Won’t those customers migrate? Also, you failed to notice the other “direct market”: Libraries. They order books on a non-returnable basis. They choose books on popularity, quality, and intended audience. Librarians are also dedicated bibliophiles, leading the cause of literacy, and promoting authors passionately!

    Two revolutions to watch: Point-Of-Sales software creating better data and analysis; comicbook stores evolving from hobby stores to specialty bookstores.

    Another possibility: publishers continue to use the periodicals to pay for the costs of production. Cheaper black-and-white editions printed on cheap newsprint, possibly in anthologies, would ship to newsstands, with color and better paper available in the trade collection. Comicbooks once again become a disposable medium like newspapers and magazines, pristine copies become more scarce, and publishers can still feed the collectible market by issuing variant editions.

    I imagine the following: Everything is digitized. I log onto MyMarvel.com and edit a collection of, say, White Rabbit stories. I design the book, adding covers, Handbook entries, articles from Marvel Age and other sources. I then send the entire file to the printer, and within the week, a Print-On-Demand edition arrives in my mailbox. I then post this collection to the Marvel message boards, and each time someone orders a POD copy of “my” book or reads one of the chapters I have linked to, I get a small commission, in much the same way B&N and Amazon pay individuals who direct users to their websites.

    Comics.com is a model to follow, as each daily strip has its own message board. Ads help support the site, and readers can order a nice print of the day’s strip, a trade collection, or merchandise. With a robust library, accessibility can be sold for an extra fee.

    It’s like people say about the end of the world… the world won’t end, just our existence on this world. Comics won’t end, but you may not see consumers migrating every Wednesday to a specialty retailer.

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