Friday, May 15, 2009

Thoughts About The Faux-Mainstream & The Future

Disney comic books used to sell in the millions; can they do so again?

Back when the comic book industry targeted their top books towards broad general audiences, they sold individual titles like Superman and Walt Disney Comics And Stories in the millions.

Now mainstream comics has largely evolved into a niche market, with a drastically reduced audience. And that's kinda sad. And ironic – what we think of as the "mainstream" is anything but. It is a niche serving some very specific demographics.

However, the rise of digital, the recession, and online comics piracy are helping push the industry back into their general audiences roots.

As cover prices rise and the recession continues, many "mainstream" comic book readers will either drop more titles and/or download illegal copies from the Internet.

Meanwhile the masses will continue to abandon pay-for-paper en masse for free online content. They largely abandoned the comic book industry a long time ago, choosing instead to occasionally watch movies & TV shows based on their characters.

These masses are hungry for more free online content. The comic book industry could provide that content – but in order to make it worth their while they need really good online ad sales. They get the good online ad sales by either having great demographics or great traffic; by continuing to focus on a niche "faux mainstream" audience, they are potentially jeopardizing the former and definitely killing the latter.

The funny thing is, if the industry made it a point to cater to the mass audience, and not just a niche, many of the niche readers would probably read the comics anyway. But in order for this all to happen, there needs to be management in place who not only have the balls to refocus on the wider audience, but actually knows how to get that wider audience.

Mainstream vs. Niche: General Audience Vs. Limited Audience

I give the target timeframe for the industry sea-change within 12 months. What will shake out are:
  • Even more "niche" and exclusive pay-for-paper monthly content, for the hardcore. Don't look for the great strides in true "mainstreaming" in this department.
  • Higher-priced pay-for-paper monthly content.
  • A far stronger emphasis on trade collections and bookstore sales. Look for the collected editions to be far cheaper than the individual monthly titles. Everything will be done to make monthlies the purview of the committed, hardcore superhero niche collector – and to (de facto) discourage everyone else from buying them.
  • Cheaper digests/collected editions of children's content, though the monthlies will still be pricey.
  • A sudden and sharp turn to showcasing first-run "true mainstream" content online. There will be multimedia components to some of this content, as well as a focus on movie/TV/video-game spin-offs & synergy.
If the comic book industry tries to just pluck the "faux-mainstream" content from the pay-for-paper monthlies and stick them on the Internet, they will find that they will not generate enough traffic from them to make the ad sales healthy enough to the point of supporting a giant company. They need those old-time sales-in-the-millions, and you can only really do that by producing a product for wide audiences. And if you alienate females, you are seriously and needlessly cutting into your potenial base.

The comic book industry originally began to alienate females and discount them as a demographic because some of the guys who were brought up on the first two waves of comics (Golden and Silver) were nerdy and awkward around girls and thus resented them and didn't know what to do with them. Up to the Silver Age, many of the guys who worked in the comic book industry had more or less well-rounded educations and lives. By "well-rounded," I mean their whole lives didn't revolve over an obsessive fascination with childhood entertainment, and sometimes they talked to girls (or guys, if they swung that way).

A particular breed of awkward fanboy who came of age in the Silver Age is responsible for a large portion of the inward-facing exclusivist niche that took a once-healthy industry to a heart-beat away from death. They came of age in the Silver Age, got into power in the Bronze Age, and decided to just reproduce obsessively the entertainment of their childhood (instead of coming up with unique concepts). Then some awkward fanboys who came of age in the Bronze Age -- raised on this regurgitated Silver Age bullshit -- got a boner for that regurgitated Silver Age bullshit and decided to turn it into third- and fourth-generation regurgitated Silver Age bullshit.

This entire mentality will NOT survive the recession, the move from paper to digital, and the easy accessibility of illegal downloads. The people in charge who are still relentlessly pushing regurgitated Silver Age bullshit don't care about tomorrow at this point; they are planning their quick and comfortable retirements. Until then, they will do every stink-nose thing they can do to slow digital down, to keep their pay-for-paper faux-mainstream niche. They claim they are doing this to champion the cause of the comic book retailer. Whereas if they really cared about the retailer, they'd work more aggressively with them to stock trades and graphic novels, stock movie & TV tie-in comics and memorabilia, and to make their stores as accessible and truly mainstream as possible. Instead of selling them pipe dreams, which many of them aren't falling for anymore anyway.

As a person who knows all this is going to happen – and happen damn fast too – I'm sitting here asking myself the question: what will be the most vital comic news and material to focus on? Not just in the short-term, but in terms of the new comics economy.

The mix has to include:
  • a focus on trades & graphic novels
  • webcomics
  • comics for children
  • pop-culture related topics like movies/TV/video games/etc
Again: niche websites and content only yield big returns in only two scenarios:
1. You are a small company and the yield from niche is enough to support you.
2. You control and dominate many niches (like the blog networks that have like 23 niche topics under one advertising umbrella).

*Great analysis on the history of comic book sales here and here.


  1. I really, really, really hope that store owners find a way to survive the recession, because the loss of all the New England Comics shops would be a sad day for me. All of the people that I've met who work there are super nice, helpful, and welcoming to female fans.

    (I'm sure other stores are like this too, and not the stereotypical cannot-take-your-girlfriend-there-because-it's-a-dungeon store.)

    The loss of these shops is definitely going to leave a void in the community. Online forums are popular and awesome, but nothing beats a face-to-face discussion, and you rarely have to deal with forum trolls in real life.

  2. Valerie, have you analyzed why comicstrips are so popular and why comicbooks are so marginalized by the general public?

    Is it content?

    Is it the perceived free cost of comics in newspapers which encourages reading?

    Is it format?

    Is it consistency of a specific creator (or team) which guarantees quality?

    Why do comicstrip reprint magazines fail while more expensive trade collections make the best seller lists?

    Will a comicbook ever again sell a million copies month after month? Very unlikely. (How many regular magazines have paid circulations of over one million?) Will we see a graphic novel hit #1 on the USA Today Top 150? Yes. One million copies published? Already done. Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker? Within fifty years. (Doris Lessing wrote a graphic novel and later won the Nobel, but her body of work is not specifically comics related. Art Spiegelman was awarded a special Pulitzer for Maus. Feiffer, Trudeau, and Breathed won Pulitzers for Editorial Cartooning.)

    There's still lots of money to be made in niche publishing. Go check out the newsstand at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. See how many automotive magazines there are. Or crafts and hobbies. Or sports and recreation. How many cable channels on TimeWarner are niche markets?

  3. Good points, Torsten. But niche magazines are also being discontinued at a frighteningly steady clip. Of course, their replacement is often the niche website/blog. But then we go back to revenue. A popular niche blog can make good revenue for an individual or a small company. But it can't support a corporation.

    I worked for somebody once who thought he could make a fortune off niche blogs. And he got good Google Ads money for some of them. But the revenue was not enough to support his company.

  4. Good points, Torsten. But niche magazines are also being discontinued at a frighteningly steady clip. Of course, their replacement is often the niche website/blog. But then we go back to revenue. A popular niche blog can make good revenue for an individual or a small company. But it can't support a corporation.

    I worked for somebody once who thought he could make a fortune off niche blogs. And he got good Google Ads money for some of them. But the revenue was not enough to support his company.

  5. Amanda, I don't think it's a matter of retailers going out of business en masse. But they need to restructure things to reflect the changing times. And many already have.

    But I think there is this fantasy-world among a select group of industry people that things are always going to be the way they are now. Among this group, there is no contingency plan. Retirement is their contingency plan. And some would (and sometimes do!) rather see their company go up in flames than to change a goddamn thing. And anybody who comes in and says "hey, we have to really make the switch to web content" gets flak. And this is not just in comics, mind you. This is the current drama in a lot of traditional media right now.

  6. And that why I do all my comics which are aimed for kids. The reality of Free Comic Book Day though I saw a bunch of kids in the store I was at with their parents is that they won't be back in that store till the same time next year...

    They may like reading a comic when they are given to them for free, but not enough to seek them out on their own...

  7. I believe that the comic industry and demographics have changed over the years. I think my generation (who came in post-death of Superman) is very different in nature. For us the comic book is a retro art form that is kind of a way to ground us in the 21st century culture. I want to read about DC Comics on twitter, but no way would you find me searching out spoilers in Wizard or something like that. I spend at least 15 dollars in comics per week.

    Also, one has to see that my age group is more likely to buy a trade collection over individual issues (not me personally, but in general). We are used to instant gratification. We don't want to have to wait for another week for the next issue to come out—par for the course. I think that the comic industry has absolutely managed to adapt to this group more than ever. I would easily be more apt to do this had I not started with individual issues.

    Additionally, it would behest the comic industry not to go digital, because it is one of the few industry that has yet to do it 100%. If you look at magazines and newspapers, they have lost considerable traction and money as a result of putting their content online for free. What originally appeared to cut publishing costs has backfired.

    The industry has much to learn from the Newspaper and Magazine industries.


  8. I wonder about the big magazine conglomerates... how many of them have niche magazines, and how many of them have a majority of niche titles in their portfolios?

    What defines a niche audience? Can niche audiences in comics (women, stamp collectors, automobile modders) which are not niche audiences in magazines be marketed to? Can comics crossover? (In much the same way the USPS crossed-over to Elvis, Disney, and Simpsons fans?)

    Also, what paid circulation number defines "niche"? (Be aware that Diamond numbers are sales to stores, not store sales to readers.)

    Isn't a "niche" blog on a website just the same as a "niche" column in a newspaper? Syndicates make large amounts of money with syndicated content. Why not online? (Aren't the comicstrip syndicates making money from newspaper sites which feature comics?)

    People's minds (well, most people...) are niched. Myself, I'm a polymath, have lots of different interests, and have a general curiosity about the world. In other words, how many comicbook readers collect only Spider-Man? How many collect only Marvel? How many collect a wide variety of comics?

  9. Anonymous6:15 PM

    I don't really get this. Disney Comics don't really sell in the states? Here in Norway, the best-selling comic is the weekly Donald Duck & Co and has been for decades.