Comic book circulation is falling, and although digital is picking up some of the slack, when print dies, so do comics as we know them. The number of comic book shops is in decline, and with the number of titles increasing, the print runs are getting smaller. That’s bad for comics who rely on advertising to generate income. And as print runs go down, prices go up and profits fall. We are facing the death of comics as we know it. How did we get here?
The comic book industry is a strange animal.
It is one of the few industries I know that does not sell the product it makes. Let’s talk DC and Marvel. The big two make their products, but aren’t part of the system that markets and sells them. Would Coke or Nike do the same? Nikon cameras have sales reps that travel from shop to shop, showing off new product. Opening a camera shop is easy – contact the nearest Canon or Nikon rep, and they will set you up quick. Most businesses have a way to sell their product and expand their reach, and do so aggressively. But not comics.
Comic book companies make a product that is immediately handed over to someone else to sell.
It is a passive system. I’m trying to think of an analogy. Perhaps car dealerships work the same way as comic shops, and yet I see car commercials on TV all the time and ads for dealerships in every newspaper. They are working hard to get your business, tell you where the shop is, and sell you something. But the people who are distributing the comics and selling them are not in the best position to increase readership or expand distribution, or do not feel there is a need to panic. They should be.
Diamond is the sole distributor of comics, until some small West Coast start-up knocks it down.
Until that day, we rely on them to distribute comics. But since they have a monopoly, they set the rules, and the rules are not geared towards success or expansion. If you have a shop of any kind, there is a barrier to entry if you want to sell comics. For example, you own a Dunkin Doughnuts or candy shop. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a rack of comics to sell? Call up Diamond and see what happens. Their business model prevents small shops from carrying comics. The door is shut in your face.
And if you’re a creator, things are equally hard.
Diamond can promise to carry your title, and shops will start ordering out of their catalog. But if not enough comic book shops order your comic, then they will cancel your order and no one receives the goods. So the comic gets screwed and so does the customer who ordered the comics. Why? Because a comic book shop is not like a grocery store.
When you walk into a grocery store, and all the items on the shelf have been ordered by the store managers. They take a look at how many of each items they sold the last period, and order more based on that. So what’s on the shelves is all there because of past sales. Not so in a comic book shop. What you see on the shelf is overflow. It is risk in the portfolio. How? Because comic book shops pre-order comics for their regular customers, and hold those books in a bin behind the counter. A customer will walk in and grab the titles that they’ve ordered beforehand, probably because they just got a subscription. This is risk free sales for the comic book shop. These are sales that are %100 guaranteed, the customer just has to walk in. And as they customer makes their way to the checkout counter, maybe they’ll pick up a new title or two to try out, usually a number one. So the store will order a few extra comics, comics that are not pre-sold, just to have them out there on the racks. These are the risk comics. These are the ones that have to sell in one month or else they go into the bargain bin labeled ‘back issues’.
But the number of these shops is declining, and it is a race against time.
The machines that print comics take hundreds of sheets of paper just to calibrate. So when the shops drop below a certain point, and print runs get too far below a drip wire, it won’t be profitable to even print them. But Diamond is not out there trying to open new stores or find new distribution points. They aren’t building comic book vending machines or building partnerships with Chuck E Cheese or Regal Cinemas (I can’t for the life of me figure out why not). They aren’t working with Amazon to get print copy of Z-MAN comics as an add on item when you buy a Z-MAN superhero toy. And they aren’t adjusting to changes. They aren’t making mini racks of comics to put in shops, they aren’t providing ways for entrepreneurs to open a cart in a mall. They just aren’t hoofing it to open new venues.
But since there’s such a distance between the comic makers and the comic sellers, the comic companies aren’t adjusting either. There’s no communication between the creators like DC and Marvel and the sellers and distributors. If a comic book shop wants DC to make fewer Batman titles and Marvel to make fewer X-Men titles to boost sales on a single issue, who would listen? If Diamond wanted DC and Marvel to make a lineup of 10 key titles in order to make a portable comic stack that could go Game Stop, who would they talk to? Because comics have become event crossover catastrophes, forcing the reader to read ten different titles just to figure out what’s going on. It is a scam. But if that’s the way the comics are written, how can Diamond do anything but push those 10 event titles?
When a car manufacturer purchases their fuel injectors from a third party overseas, it requires a long arduous process to get the third part to make a change to the fuel injector. But that’s where we are with comics. Comics are printed in China (without the comic book company doing any marketing), shipped to a distributor (that does not work to expand the number of sales points), and then shipped to tiny mom and pop comic book shops that don’t have the money to advertise much at all. Three parts of a machine, creator, distributor, and seller, don’t communicate with one another. But what happens when the comic book shops just all close down? Will DC and Marvel still make comics? I wonder.
So where do we go from here?
We need silicon valley type of thinking here. We need Elon Musk type of thinking. We need to move everything in-house. Comics must be printed in America on low cost machines, so someone needs to build a better printer. Then they should be shipped to sales points that vary in size from a large store to a small rack in a Burger King. So there needs to be a distributor that can handle small orders, and that is out there on the street getting shops to put in a small rack of comics. And the big companies, Marvel and DC, need to take note so that there are titles that are stand alone. And the mom and pop shops need to be part of this for when customers want the other titles in the series – they have to be easy to find.
I’m passionate about comics because comics are stories, and stories are how we understand the world. We understand our life as a sequence – there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end – just like a comic book. And stories shape our morals, our outlook, our understanding of what is possible in life. We need stories to live. We need stories to learn how to breathe, and what breathing means. And when our best stories die, and our storytellers no longer have an outlet, marketing and Hollywood will fill the gap left behind. And we can’t have that. We need original voices telling bold stories on the pages of comics. We need a new company that is not afraid to think different.