THE DIRECT MARKET
I'm not going to say this will solve all of comics' problems.
I'm not saying that this would be easy or cheap.
And I'm not saying I have all the answers.
But it's time to do away with the direct market structure as we have it now. Non-returnability and the collector's market need a correction. It's strangling the industry. It's out-dated and ludicrous to go on working like this.
We all know what the stereotype of your average comics fan is. Increasingly, it's changing, but only to the point where the fanboy is a little older. This is because, increasingly, nobody's entering comics fandom at young ages. We're completely ignoring the next generation of fans out of fear for losing what little grasp we may have on the older collectors.
The whole of the answer is not in destroying the direct market. No, there must be an alternate distribution path and alternate editorial material for kids to like.
Let me backtrack.
It's no secret that kids today don't read comics in the vast numbers that they once did. Why is this?
It's a confluence of factors. The first is that comics are looked down upon as a child's medium, and no parent in their right mind would want their kids to be reading comics. They're a rebel's outlets, right? Male power fantasies. Violence. Silly stuff.
Yet these same parents wonder why their kids don't read anything at all. Maybe it's because reading has never been fun for kids today, in light of video games and TV and the Internet. (Although the Internet does involve a lot of reading -- whether e-mail or web-surfing -- it's hardly something to hold attention spans for that long a time, and much of the content is debatable on many levels. Take this column, for example . . . ;-)
They certainly aren't going to imitate their parents' "wise ways." Increasingly, their parents just turn on the radio or the television for their news. The daily newspaper is becoming less a fact of life. It's just one sign of a lack of a reading role model in the house.
When the child does find something to read that he or she might enjoy, their parents yank it away and tell them its junk.
Actually, though, there's an even bigger problem than that. With the system set up the way it is today, there's no chance for a kid to come across a comic book. The only place they're sold anymore are in little bowling alley-shaped stores with dark windows displaying half-naked women and violent scenes. Heck, they probably can't even see the store through the front window.
The comics aren't there at the local pharmacy or ice cream shop or barbershop, even. Distribution to those places is limited.
Older fans today complain that a return to such a system of availability would lead to having to hit five or ten different stores all across town to find all the comics they might want in a given month, just like the old days.
But that's not the point of such distribution. It can work hand in hand with a modified version of today's direct market. You need newsstand distribution to draw the readers in and comic book specialty stores to keep them here.
This, of course, might anger the comics retailer, whose livelihood depends upon the virtual monopoly they have. Well, we can help them, too. They get first crack at the books -- maybe two or three weeks pass between direct market retailers receiving the books and the newsstands. This way, they have an advantage over the newsstands. They get the books and the regular readers first. And their better care and handling of the comics will entice more readers to show there regularly for their books over the local 7-11.
This might allow us to bring in new readers by greater distribution. The only trick is in finding some way for comic makers to make any money off of this. I think it's pretty evident that only the larger producers will be able to do this. Marvel. DC. Maybe Dark Horse or Image. The more independent indie books will still remain at the comics shops, just due to the finances involved. Sorry to say, but that's probably just what's going to happen. It's not that odd. It may also not necessarily be a bad thing. It works the same way with magazines. Your local Quickie Mart will not have the selection of lesser selling magazines such as you'd find in a bookstore.
But Marvel and DC probably aren't going to get away with selling $2 to $3 books at the newsstands and make any money at it. Retailers won't want to bother with something with a low profit margin and parents will balk at a seemingly high price for 20 minutes' worth of reading material. Comics need to go one of two ways. Either lower the price or increase the page count. (Ideally do both, but I'm a dreamer, not stupid.)
My idea is to package multiple books together for the newsstands. Put together four issues of Spider-Man under one cover for $5. Direct market stores may like this, too, actually. They sell Spider-Man books for four months exclusively. Shortly thereafter, the newsstands get those same books packaged together (and maybe on slightly cheaper paper and with less in-house ads to increase the signal:noise ratio) at a higher price point, thus making it worth their while to sell the books. They make greater profit selling one $5 magazine than they do one or two $2 magazines. And the new reader would better be able to enjoy a complete story all under one cover. The trick is not to make these books out to be anything collectible. Do not commission an extra cover for them or extra interior art or stories. Eliminate the obsessive fanboy collector from this equation.
On the publisher's side, more diversity of titles would be nice but not necessarily a necessity. You'd like to include more directly kid-oriented fare, as well as female-centric titles. You'd need some licensed titles, like Dark Horse is doing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You'd also need some non-super-hero titles. Let's get some humor books out there that kids could enjoy. Let's get the Disney books out there again, side by side with the Archies and the DISNEY ADVENTURES.
However, as a stopgap measure, this might not be necessary. You could use the pre-existing super-hero material to draw in plenty of new readers. Kids will be drawn to big names they can recognize like Batman or Spider-Man or Superman moreso than THE ADENTURES OF EVIL AND MALICE, no matter how great and kid-friendly the book , may be.
In the end, the problem is the finances. You need someone willing to walk out on a rather long and slender limb to create this system. You need someone who doesn't mind taking an initial bath to make his or her money back down the road. This stuff isn't cheap. That's why the Disney titles aren't on the market right now. Rising costs and fees in newsstand distribution killed those books.
You also need more than nickel and dime stores, pharmacies, and ice cream parlors to carry these books. You need to get them into the chain bookstores and the record stores. The latter seem to be a golden opportunity that everyone is missing. Look at the mix of stuff there. Most music stores these days also carry videos. They have large soundtrack sections for those movies. How many movies in the past ten years have been based on comics? Why weren't there MEN IN BLACK comics available at your local CD shop that summer? Will MYSTERY MEN pop up next to the soundtracks or videos in your local CD store this summer?
Then you have people like Todd McFarlane and David McKean designing covers to albums. People might recognize them as comic book artists, but would they have the slightest clue as to what they "draw?" Or where to find it?
It would also be nice to see the Warner Bros. and Disney Studios stores carrying comics. Even if it were just trade paperbacks, I'd take it.
Back to the comic shops: It's not enough to throw more people their way. We need to "diversify" the market by allowing smaller books to flourish there. That's the point of comic book stores. They can provide the kind of access to the greater comics community that all of those local newsstands cannot. Part of that includes giving new titles a chance.
How many good books have we seen cut down before their time? Different people will name different books, but the list would probably include VEXT, CHASE, CHRONOS, NOVA (still not officially dead, BTW, but getting there), DESPERATE TIMES, et. al. The way the system is currently configured, retailers under-order everything. If a book proves popular with its first issue and more people want to buy the second, it's in trouble. Retailers have to order the second issue before getting the sales numbers in on the first. If I do my math right, they're ordering the third before the first is out for longer than a week. Comic companies tend to get nervous really quickly these days. Retailers even more so.
But what incentive does a retailer have to order heavy on a second issue? How many clearance sales or conventions have you seen stocked with #1 issues of books that flopped? You need to provide them a way out while still asking them for their help. If the book sells, they make more money. If it flops, they can save face and their business by now losing buckets of money in the process. The companies, in return, get better selling books and can take an extra month or two to decide which titles to cancel. So what's the solution?
I increasingly think the answer is in the form of limited returnability. I don't think full returnability would work. Comic companies would take a bath overprinting books that don't sell. I'm not entirely sure to what degree the books would have to be returnable. Maybe 25% of the total number of copies ordered? If three customers pre-order a low-selling book, the retailer can still put a copy on the stands to see if it can pick up a new reader without losing any money, just some shelf-space. (To that end, I would ask the retailer to not stock GRENDEL masks and LADY PENDRAGON action figures on the same shelves as the comics. That's just me, maybe.)
To sum up: My proposal calls for two separate and distinct distribution systems for comics. One caters to the fanboys, while the other creates them. Comics would be more readily accessible and available. The public would grow more aware of them. (Just cross your fingers that, in this day and age of bi-partisan support for suppression of the First Amendment in light of Littleton, that such a high profile wouldn't come back to bite us all in the collective arse.) Both kids and parents would be happy. Comic specialty stores still can survive and still can thrive, and wouldn't lose any business. They'd also be able to attempt to increase the variety of titles they offer at limited or no risk.
This is all one big thought piece. It's not perfect; no system is. I think there are some good ideals in here (not any of which are original, I freely admit), and others might be blatantly ridiculous. I'm sure I'll hear how bad they are by the end of the day Friday in my e-mail box. =)
But it is definitely food for thought in a system that's currently doing more harm than good. It's a system in need of an overhaul, run by a monopoly, feeding an ever-shrinking pool of customers.
Somebody please do something fast!
Feel free to reply to me on e-mail, but be warned that I've seen the directions this type of discussion can go in. It can get tedious and wander around in circles really quickly. Such is the problem with great change. I'd suggest debating the merits of this in the appropriate USENET newsgroups (rec.arts.comics.misc, mainly), as well as somewhere here on the CBR message boards. Write me. Maybe I can even get a second column out of this one by publishing some of the responses. =)
A quick addendum: I overheard this conversation at a comics shop this past Saturday:
Child: "Look, Superman!"
Mom: "Superman looks mean on that cover. Let's find one where Superman doesn't look so mean."
Child: "Oh, look! Hulk. I love the Hulk. I'm getting that one!"
Mom: "Is it worth anything, do you think?"
Have we gotten to the point now where kids don't think about collectability and value, but the parents do? Has the whole world gone topsy-turvy?