Pipeline: Pipeline2, Issue #3: Direct Market Reaction

Fri, June 25th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

DIRECT MARKET REACTION

I actually figured I'd get in bigger trouble with last week's attack on the direct market than I did.

On the other hand, that's not to say I didn't get any responses. Mostly, they just bring me deeper into the matter. It's not enough to talk distribution and format, but you also have to consider placement, advertising, merchandising, and more.

I may never get off this subject!

Those who did write in, however, were kind enough to allow me to quote them in this week's column, so we can discuss this "out loud."

Carlton Hargro writes:

"…the new system you outlined already exists. I live in Atlanta, and here most grocery stores sell comic books. I used to work at a newsstand and we sold comics. The comics we got were from a magazine distributor and they always arrived 2-3 weeks later than the books at a comic shop. The books at the newsstand had different covers sometimes and usually a different grade of paper. And, no one bought the books."

We used to get that around here, too. (I live in Northern New Jersey.) Heck, I bought my first comic books at a newsstand. Back then (1989) paper grades weren't too big an issue,

Maybe the scarcity of comics anywhere other than comic stores and a few select chain bookstores is geographic in nature, and spotty at best.

However, in the end you're right, Carlton. If nobody buys the books, they're worthless no matter how well they're distributed.

"The major problem I see with the comic industry is simple: no one advertises outside of the industry. There are no ads in non-comic magazines, no billboard ads, no TV or radio commercials, etc. How do we expect people to regain interest in comics again if no one reaches out to the people?"

The problem lies in the expensive nature of advertising. Generally, it's just not worth mounting an ad campaign - whether in the tens of thousands or millions of dollars - for a product which has a price tag of $2 and whose profit margin isn't very high. That's why cars and computer makers can advertise so much. At least, that's Standard Operating Procedure in advertising. The famed comic book commercial for G.I. Joe 15 years ago seemed to have brought in tons of new readers. (Of course, at that time, the comic probably only cost 60 cents and probably had a complete story in it, thus making it more desirable to readers at the time. But those are two completely different topics, aren't they? ;-)

It's also why DC co-ops with comics retailers on commercials. In my area, two different local retailers have spots on cable TV advertising their store. The commercials are made up, in large part, of video that DC provides and in exchange, helps to pay for. (Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of the loud music and insanely fast images that get propelled through said commercials. Might be more of a turn off than anything else.) This may be one of the best ways to raise awareness of comic books. The ads benefits the local retailers first and foremost, the large comic companies bring in new readers, which can only help them, and nobody goes broke in advertising fees. Most importantly, the ads reach whole new audiences. I'm just hoping they play on Nickelodeon. (Sorry, I don't watch enough Nick anymore to tell you for certain. Nick is the #1 cable station, though, so it might be prohibitively expensive.)

"Whenever I put a comic book in someone's hand, they generally

enjoy it. We have to do more to get comics in peoples' faces."

Get the comics in supermarket checkout lines, then! Here's a whole 'nother can of worms for you, and an idea someone else brought up to me: Stop spending the couple of million dollars a year in wasted insular advertising and put that money in better distribution and in buying the shelf space in the grocery store alongside DISNEY ADVENTURES and TV GUIDE where people will see it more often and where kids will see it and beg Mommy for it as they wait in line.

It's a big risk and a lot of money, but when you have an industry failing as badly as this one is, what do you have to lose? Let's see some digest-sized BATMAN ADVENTURES up there!

Scott Brown wrote in with more on the idea of advertising comics on television:

"Books like Cages, Understanding Comics, From Hell, among other similar books would profit the most. Their subject matter is more mainstream than superheroes are. Even the occasional ad for JLA, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. could push sales up. I remember when I lived in Alabama, one of the local stores . . . ran a prime time ad for a month pushing books by Gaiman, Milligan, and Morrison. Needless to say, they ran the rest of the stores in the city out of business-- they got all of the new blood."

I think the problem with this scheme is that you're only bringing in the "mature" readers and at the great risk of alienating the parents of the children. What's a parent going to think when the only view of comics he or she has is from that advertisement for books like "From Hell" or "Hellblazer"? Besides which, I don't picture many of those ads being picked up in certain other parts of the Bible Belt.

I think if you want to aim directly for the college crowd and above -- which is what SANDMAN did -- then that's a good way to go. But I fear the end result for the little kiddies who make up the coming generations of comics fandom.

Finally, from far out in left field, comes this response from Mikko Aittola:

"Newsstand distribution can NOT cope only as a way to lure readers to specialty stores. Newsstands need regular readers. When regular readers support newsstand the chances are that newsstand becomes stronger, more profitable and more attractive to EVERYBODY, not just the new "potential readers. If the newsstand is only there to attract the "potential" reader who might accidentally buy a comic book -- just forget it. The sales/orders ratio is doomed to be low. That's why... we need to make it the other way around.

"Guaranteed shipping to newsstand two or three weeks (or maybe even a month) BEFORE the direct market will increase the potential of the newsstand market. It will not mean the end of direct market, but they need to concentrate to things they were created for in the first place: back issue sales and exclusive to direct market books, plus the related stuff (posters, T-shirts, action figs) to collectors."

Sadly, this seems to be the way direct market shops are running these days. They need to sell all those annoying trinkets so they can afford to sell the comic books. This, in my mind, is a damn shame and not the call of the future.

Nor does it always work. Starlog tried a string of stores in my area at least.

They tried to be both a direct market comics outlet as well as a general interest science fiction store. As time went by, the comics became less and less of a draw. They eventually folded. The one in the mall was replaced by BIG Entertainment, which is basically the same store without the comics and with more upscale items.

However, I like thinking like Mikko's. Anyone who's willing to think completely backwards from conventional opinion can get some airtime at Pipeline!

I wish comics would stop selling all the crappy action figures and wrestling accessories and focus on comic books, back issues, and collected editions.

So what answers do we have after two weeks of hashing this out here at Pipeline2? Absolutely none. I figured as much. Someone with a lot of money and a lot of vision has to come in and save us from ourselves. I don't know who or how this will happen, but I think it's our best bet.

Thanks, gentlemen, for your help with this week's column.

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