Saturday, February 21, 2009

Comics Recession "Doomsday" Scenarios

Get it?

We brought this up over brunch:

What if we had a "doomsday" scenario in the industry and Diamond suddenly folded (or massively scaled back)?

Would this interrupt the shipping of comics until it was all sorted out? Or are there backup plans?

Would the major players go through other, separate distributors to get their comics distributed & shipped? Like DC would turn to Random House for example?

When I was working at a comic shop in the early 1990s, I think we had several comic book distributors sending us books (though Diamond was the main one). Would things go back to this arrangement?

And would such an event rapidly accelerate the mainstream comic book industry's turn to digital? And if that is the case, what happens to the retailers?

One of the conclusions we made was that paper comics will always exist, but there will be a greater "prestige" factor to them. You own a "hard copy" of a comic book or collected edition/graphic novel because you really really like the content. Comics (the pamphlets, at any rate) become less "temporary." The product themselves become more elaborate with higher production values. Card stock covers. Higher-quality of design. And the prices rise on individual issues.

I see this approach extending out to all "hard copy" media. Like DVDs. The casual movie fan will probably choose to stream/download their movies in several years, not purchase them (unless the price point was really low). But the film buff will still want to buy collector's editions of DVDs. These will be more elaborate DVDs -- think Criterion Collection. And you wouldn't just get a DVD -- you'd get a book, film cels, collectible posters, etc. -- all in one package.

In the same way, paper comics would need these bells and whistles too. "Why should I buy this comic for $4-5 when I can download it for $1?" Well, because you get all this other stuff. Plus, you *love* this title, the creative team, the characters, and this is a way of tangibly keeping a piece of them.

Of course, when bells and whistles are packed in, you could in theory rise the price quite a bit.

Now, if the comic book industry can continue to build new readership through outreach and movie/TV/video-game adaptations, this would increase the amount of fans, which would send more of them to the direct market to spend $9.99 on "World of Superman" #1, a slim but trade-paperback formatted monthly/bimonthly book of all-new content that has a supplemental DVD packed in with a new episode of some cool Superman-related thing you can't get anywhere else. (I totally made up that comic, btw, just so there is no confusion)

So to save the Direct Market, then, you need more Fans and less casual readers (because the casual reader is more likely to opt to download). Does this defeat the "placing comics in Wal-Mart & supermarkets" theory of increasing readership? The idea that you make the comics super-accessible so they become something casual that everybody reads -- like newspapers?

I think you need to increase the readership by using these markets, but only with cheap digest-sized collections of the best and most new-reader friendly material. In terms of a $3-4 22-page comics in Wal-Mart enticing new readers? No way. That's too much money for a non-fan/reader-new-to-comics to spend on an unknown quantity. That boat has sailed.

I mean, I buy the paper edition of The New York Times every once in a while. It's kinda pricy, all things considered (considering I can most of this stuff free online). I don't buy it because I need to. I buy it as a luxury for a long train ride. I buy it for the brand. I buy it because I'm a "fan." Similarly, if I buy a copy of Fangoria -- which I think is up to around $8 an issue now -- I do so because I'm a fan. There is no way in hell I would drop anything more than $5 for any magazine unless I *loved* it.

Anyway, though the title of my post included the word "Doomsday," I do not see an apocalyptic end of the comic book, or paper comics, or comic book retailers. But I do see a change of focus. And I do think that you will see a drop-off in overall customers due to the digital downloads. The lost revenue from these customers might be made up by the higher-priced "collector" comics, and by increasing the # of fans through outreach and adaptations in other media. And, of course, there is the Ancillary Merchandise. Toys. Posters. T-shirts. Statues. Magnets. Etc. You can't digitize that stuff.