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What’s Wrong with Periodical Comics???

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Sponsored by Battle Quest Comics

By Brian Hibbs

It’s the end of the year as I write this, so much of my time goes into looking back over the year, and how things went (if you were to care: here is the EOY report for Comix Experience), and, as in most modern years, I am especially struck by how periodical comics are growing weaker and weaker here.

TAW 293-pq 1.pngI don’t believe this is a specific thing to my individual store – when I look around at my fellow local retailers inside the City, they’re all also apparently shrinking the number and quantity of periodicals on their shelves (and most haven’t even reverted back to full operating hours yet, post-COVID – one is even still closed to walk-in shopping). And these same thoughts are being echoed again and again in the retailer Facebook groups – more and more stores are talking about how sales are slowing (if not outright cratering) on periodicals.

So, being a store that has done this for decades (we celebrated a third of a century in 2022) the thing I always do is look back over the changes over the years, to try to analyze what has happened. Luckily, I still have my very first paper order form, submitted just before we opened (February 1989, for April shipping), which helps me with a perspective that I otherwise would have not had.

The world of comics retail was very different in 1989 – I believe that there were probably less than fifty graphic novels back then that were both in-print and had the intention to stay that way as they sold their stock. You really couldn’t have a store back then where GNs were the majority of your sales or rack space (It is about 60% for us in 2023!). Periodicals ruled the roost for new products, and most comic stores were predominately back issue stores. Hell, we were at the start, because that was the only viable path.

Marvel comics solicited 51 new periodicals for sale that April 1989 (and two new graphic novels/trade paperbacks) and DC solicited 57 periodicals and three GN/TPs. Looking at the newest catalog (Jan 2023 for March 2023 shipping) Marvel has a staggering 229 periodicals (though only representing 67 distinct titles – the rest are variants) and 47 GN/TPs, while DC is publishing 197 periodicals (just 49 distinct series) and 20 GN/TPs.

So, this is the first place that the production of the market has changed: too many titles, and too much overproduction. Marvel is publishing nearly a third more titles, and by and large they’re not new characters or things aimed at expanding their audience. Rather they’re generally expansions of existing franchises, for example five distinct comics that are branded as “Avengers”. While at DC, they’re publishing 15% fewer series, but of their 49 series, a preposterous 24 of them – nearly half! – are “Batman”-family characters.

The truth is that the more you over-produce, the fewer people are willing to buy in. Especially when we look at the customers of the “universes” of Marvel and DC, there is a tendency for readers to want to be “all in” in those universes, because (at least notionally) the works are all interconnected. This, of course, becomes far less true as production scales up (keeping continuity on six “Batman” comics was hard enough. Keeping it on 24? Nigh impossible). If one of your primary selling points is the breadth of your tapestry, it’s very noticeable as your threads begin to fray.

I still remember vividly how we used to have “Marvel Zombies” to the point where even the weakest possible title (Say, the reprint “Marvel Tales”) would sell at least ten copies from the rack for us; while the best-sellers were easy triple digit sales. Nowadays, there are multiple Marvel comics where we are not racking a single copy due to lack of interest, and the top-level sales have plummeted precipitously – by 1992 we were selling more than 150 copies of our best-selling Marvel title, while today it isn’t even 50 copies any longer.

TAW 293-pq 3.pngEven year-over-year, the numbers are wretched – in 2021 and 2022 both, our best-selling Marvel comic was an X-Men-related crossover mini-series (“Gala” in ’21, and “A.X.E.” in ’22), but our unit sales were down by more than 10% YTY, while it was around 20% for the best-selling on-going monthly series (“X-Men” both years for us)

The second clear problem is the overproduction of variant covers. Back in ’89, not one of those comics I ordered had more than one cover. Today, Marvel is publishing an average of 3.5 covers for every book, while DC is at nearly 4! The real problem with the SKU-bloat of Variant covers is that it is largely a publishing methodology based on fear, rather than one of joy and wonder and fun. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) rules the day, rather than FOOM (Friends of Ol Marvel), if you’ll allow me some tortured wordplay. It isn’t bad enough that so much of modern periodical publishing appears to rely on the obsessive-compulsive disorder that affects certain fans, but in 2023 a significant percentage of these multiple covers aren’t shown to us more than ninety-six hours before the orders are due, preying on the fears of the retailer of possibly missing out on sales of a “hot” cover and comic.

(I’ve discussed this in the past, but for Comix Experience at least, I can see that while roughly a third of our periodical sales are coming from weekly buyers [and yes, the biggest customers are generally in this pool], another third is coming from people who come in approximately monthly, while the final third are customers who buy closer to quarterly. If the economic focus of your publishing line is about trying to sell more copies of the same book to the same customers, then I think it’s actually much more essential to be able to present those variant covers with much more lead-time so that the majority of customers are given a chance to see and order them.)

But it just isn’t sustainable to have three or four covers on your average comic. It radically scales up the risk for the retailer, and it creates confusion at the point of sale for the consumer. We hit peak insanity the week I write this as Marvel published an issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” with a Disney-character homage that had the “Avengers” logo as the front-cover presentation, since it was an Avengers Homage cover.

Tied to this is the incessant restarting and renumbering of series. Periodical comics are, largely, about building consistent reading habits that feeds the “soap opera” nature of most serial fiction. But every “jumping on” point with a new issue first issue for a new creative team functions more as a “jumping off” chance in the 21st century because of all of impacts from overproduction of series and variants.

As Heidi has rightly pointed out, we no longer have sales charts for the comics industry, so it’s really difficult (if not impossible) to see what the impacts of all of these things are, but I can relate my own anecdotes. When long-running series get restarted, sure we get a spike for an issue or three (often driven by speculators rather than new genuine readership, however), but after that, it usually evaporates back to previous sales levels or lower pretty immediately. Worse still, it generates an unnecessary amount of work for many retailers who have to convert standing orders and ordering data over between one “series” as the next. This would be fine if we were consistently growing audiences, but, more often than not I see it giving readers a bigger chance for escape.

Similarly, the number of mini-series that are focused on characters who already have on-going series (often multiple) usually only splits the audience, and seldom grows it. Here is the thing about the periodical: a significant percentage of the viability of the format comes from the long-term ability to sell back issues to future collectors (You’d think the rise of trade paperbacks would have eliminated that audience, but most mainstream TPed material doesn’t stay in print past a single printing). Back in 1989, you’d be able to take that $1 cover priced comic and sell it for $1.25, which made it rational to hold on top stock for the year or five to increase your margin. But the $3.99 common back issue comic can only be priced at $4.50, and only has people looking for it as long as that series is “active”. Who is still looking for “Amazing Spider-Man” series 3 when we’re currently at v5? And that’s for an ongoing series! More importantly to this point: who is looking for the 2nd issue of some random “Spider-Man” mini-series a year or two after all three or five issues have shipped? Virtually no one. And this means that huge chunks of the “back issue” comics that are being created every month have absolutely no long-term sales potential.

Worse still from my point-of-view is that the “discount” value of “junk” comics hasn’t scaled appropriately over the years – when new comics were $1, we had “fifty cent books”, so we at least broadly speaking were able to break even on our unsold stock. Eventually we raised that to “dollar books”, but we’ve never had the slightest bit of success past that price point for this class of comics – which means on $3.99 comics, we’re actually losing a buck on each sale.

(It’s better than losing two bucks, but it’s a long way from breaking even!)

I’d also like to add that publishing mini-series as a number of unconnected number ones is one of the lowest and worst things that a publisher can do – recent examples would be “Batman: One Bad Day” from DC, which is eight first issues, even though they’re advertising it as a mini-series in print; or series like “Murderworld” from Marvel, with individual chapters as first issues starring “Avengers” or “Spider-Man” or…. “Moon Knight”??? The fundamental problem is that by not selling these things as mini-series, it eliminates most of the “series”-driven tools to connect these books to one another, and makes every buying decision an essentially unrelated one to the others.

TAW 293-pq 5.pngThen we have problems with pricing of periodicals. While there is some need to increase cover prices over time (especially if we’re interested in creators making a living wage to produce those comics), Marvel and DC are continually pushing the line harder and further than is sustainable. $4.99-and-above comics (sometimes as much as $9.99, yeesh!) are now becoming frequent from the market leaders. As you make things more expensive, fewer people are willing to sample; fewer people sampling means less exposure to new ideas. In 1989 we were still ordering $0.75 comics, even while the prices were starting to creep on some things to a buck, or even two – but comics were still inexpensive enough that you could sample and purchase a wide range of books. It’s much harder to do that in 2023.

This has severe downstream impacts as well, because if you’re not feeding in new readers via serialization, generally speaking the eventual book collection a) becomes more expensive itself (further limiting the audience) and b) has less word-of-mouth consumer interest pushing and promoting it. We nearly always, even as a book-focused store, sell serialized work to more consumers in the first year or two than we do of the collected editions. For our personal store top-seller of “Saga”, it is a bit more than two-to-one, while on Marvel and DC superhero comics, the ratio is closer to ten-to-one on average. The clear inference from this is that generally the more periodicals you were able to sell, the more books you can sell – the periodical feeds the book.

What about the problem of the radical lowering of wholesale discounts to retailers caused by the split in the market requiring orders to be placed at at-least three different distributors for periodicals? Not only does this increase labor (for no real benefit to the retailer), but it directly loses us points – basically every moderate-sized comic book store lost at least five base percentage points from their number one publisher, Marvel, so that even if that was offset slightly by “free shipping”, it still means significantly higher costs to most.

And it has essentially broken Diamond’s math on their remaining vendors: In 2021 I paid $9,824.67 in shipping to Diamond on $184,521.87 of wholesale purchases. That’s about 5.32% of the wholesale invoice that went to shipping. In 2022 I paid $10,152.60 in shipping to Diamond on $89,666.48 of wholesale purchases. That’s about 11.32% of the wholesale invoice that went to shipping.

This is a real problem, because if we can’t make a rational profit selling periodicals, there is nothing to do but cut orders.

Connected to all of this the now seemingly Wild West “moving target” of release dates. When Diamond was the sole periodical source many many retailers pushed long and hard (and I mean we worked for decades to make this happen) to have industry-wide consistent on-sale dates that were very specifically a special day for comics to be on sale: Wednesday. This was all thrown in the trash when Diamond pulled out of the DM ecosystem, and all enforcement of on-sale dates were chucked out as well. I’m very sad to admit that the old cynics were right: without consequences, there are a meaningful percentage of retailers who will do whatever the fuck they like and sell comics the second they arrive if they can get a one day (or one minute) advantage over others.

Prior to the 2022 holidays, we’d come to a consensus that we’d “take a week off” between Christmas and New Years. First, because so many of our regular customers are traveling, but also because that holiday week shipping is typically a logistical disaster with winter storms, and vast amounts of home-delivered goods clogging up the shipping stream from UPS, etc. This year, we received what I think was the largest single week of shipped periodical comics we had of all 2022, and it shipped as much as ten days before its “on sale” date (as well as about five days after!), but what we found was that a really large percentage of stores just put it on sale as soon as it arrived, destroying the promise of an equal market. And, for us, at least, the sales we had in that post-Christmas frame were nowhere near what the flood of product that arrived in that period.

TAW 293-pq 4.pngThere are no consequences (except our own consciences) for retailers not putting products on sale on the official dates, which means competition can’t possibly be “fair”.

Finally, although this is always perpetual problem in comics: There is very little to-consumer promotion and marketing. The funny thing is that you would think that the growth of social media would make it that much easier for entities with actual marketing and PR budgets and staff, but it has never changed that the first time that the overwhelming majority of customers have the slightest amount of knowledge about most new comics is when they walk into a store and see it.

When you take this all together: Radical overproduction of series, dependence of FOMO variant publishing programs, emphasis of mini-series and restarts rather than long-term commitments, price increases, squeezing retailer margins and no longer protecting an equal marketplace for the class, as well as not marketing the work to the end-reader, it’s not actually surprising that periodical comics are suffering.

What surprises me, though, is that this is the eco-system that the “mainstream/DM” publishers operate within, and there doesn’t appear to be a meaningful way for them make money outside of that eco-system that doesn’t depend on reducing your creation costs to near-zero – like US Manga and Webcomics publishing seems to be dependent upon…. and so why are you killing your golden goose?

There is a special and precious thing that we have from the specific “mom-and-pop” nature of the independent periodical-driven Direct Market. I think it allows for a broadly democratic access to the market that isn’t solely based on the ability of an artist to promote themselves. I don’t want to lose this thing.

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Want to help preserve it? About a month from today is ComicsPRO’s membership meeting – the first in person in several years, and this time on the East Coast, in Pittsburgh. If you are a retailer or publisher or creator, you should make a plan to attend. It’s always the most useful 72 hours I spend any given year.

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Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

 

Sponsored by Battle Quest Comics

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