Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #513

Tue, April 10th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THE DEPRESSING SIDE OF BUSINESS

You can see the overall state of comic book sales right here on CBR with John Mayo's monthly column. And then you can skip over to The Beat for the individual analyses of selected titles. Doing that for the April books is likely to give you a headache, though. Or make you cry. If you're a DC fan, it's probably both.

February 2007 is just a depressing month. I don't care whether you're a DC or Marvel partisan, it's just sad to see the state of DC today, sales-wise. It's nothing new, though. While the big event books bring in large numbers and often sustain them, the mid-list continues to bleed readers. And the precipitous drops on display for February are enough to make you wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to publish comics.

Here's the way it all works: The first issue sells whatever it sells. The pattern I'm about to lay out holds true whether the first issue sells 20,000 copies or 80,000 copies, so it doesn't matter. The second issue takes a hit of somewhere between 15% and 50%. The third issue drops another 10%. The fourth issue and all issues afterwards are in a slow decline. Month after month, the numbers fall. They only pop up again in the case of a company-wide crossover, multiple cover scheme, or guest creator. Changing to a new creator might bump the sales up significantly, but only for the first issue. After that, the bleed is back on, and sales dwindle until they become unprofitable and the book is cancelled.

Look at where the "One Year Later" books are today versus their initial issues. Check back in six months to see where the post-Civil War Marvel Universe titles are, and I bet you'll see the same thing.

An editor's job is not to create the best book possible, but to see how many angels they can get to dance on the head of a pin. (Or "tip of the needle," if you want to be accurate.) It's their goal to stretch this dance out as long as possible.

Quality doesn't matter. Take CHECKMATE, for example. It's in freefall, despite a dependable creative team and launching out of a massive crossover. It started at over 55,000 copies a month and is now sliding down to 20,000, one year later. THE SPIRIT is down something like 30% between issues #1 and #3, and we're all happy that it's "leveling off" to something respectable (!), let alone that it's only selling around 25,000 copies?

On the bright side, the old rule of thumb that you should order half as many #2s as #1s has gone by the wayside. I think the new rule is that #3 should be half as many as #1. That might still be ordering conservatively, but you'll take fewer losses that way as a retailer.

It happens for title after title. Rare are the books that maintain their sales. (Y THE LAST MAN is there, and the trade sales no doubt make it a very profitable venture.) Rarer still are the examples of books that gain readers over time, such as THE WALKING DEAD. Even there, the increases are tiny. Over the long haul, they are significant, especially when you add in the sales of trades.

But why would anyone want to get into this racket? All you can do is publish books that, 95% of the time, are going to lose readers month after month. You can construct your storylines to be a series of mini-series and thus get new #1 issues all the time, but even that strategy levels off after a short time. You can publish a dozen Batman books or a dozen Superman books or a dozen Spider-Man books or a dozen X-Men books, but that's about it. The rest are time-wasters and filler, profitable for an ever-so-brief window before being canned or reshuffled into something new. There can be no long-term planning, besides keeping the trademarks alive long enough to profit off the Underoos and January-opening cheap movies.

Why are they rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, basically? And, do manga sales follow these patterns, also? Or is it just the sad state of superhero comics, dominated by a broken Direct Market clinging desperately to the thought that the trade paperback/hardcover market might be the savior?

Maybe the real future is digital?

I don't know. I just know that it's a better thing to read and enjoy the books you like now while you have them. Don't pay attention to the negative comments and behind-the-scenes firestorms that play out across the internet. Don't worry about the sales figures. Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy what you have today. When it goes, those same creators will move on to another book to repeat the cycle and you can join them.

Take comfort in this fact: With all the spaghetti being thrown against the wall every month, something is bound to stick. And then ten new titles will attempt to copy that formula, and water them all down until they slide back off the wall.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Try not to drown.

DIGITAL COMICS

I had a little rant in the Pipeline Podcast last week that I thought I should bring back up here in the column, for those who don't have the chance to listen in every week.

Basically, I get ticked off by the self-righteous "The World Owes Me" type of fan who wants to give Dan Slott a hard time because he dares to ask his fans to buy his books legally, and not download them off of some torrent network.

The fact is, Slott is right. If you enjoy his books and want to see him doing more work, the only way that's going to happen is if Marvel's coffers get a little fatter. Right or wrong, Marvel hasn't opened up its current library for digital download. Those scanned in copies of their comics floating across the internet are illegal. That's copyrighted material that you don't have the right to download, read on your computer screen, keep a copy of on your hard drive, and then e-mail around to your friends.

Whether you like it or not, from a marketing or a moral point of view, it's wrong. Until such a time comes as someone finally steps up to the plate and creates the comics equivalent of iTunes, it's not legal. So quit it. At the very least, don't act like an immature know-it-all and try to make the case that what you're doing isn't wrong. Be quiet about it and hope nobody notices, until you're forced to flee by the bright shining light of some lawyer somewhere. You're lucky comics aren't a large enough market, or else you could count on Marvel, DC, or some consortium of publishers to go after you like the RIAA goes after music downloaders. As it is, the market is too small to spend that kind of money on the illegal downloaders. Doesn't make it right. It's just the economics of scale.

I have no doubt that there are those who got back into comics through the comics they read on-line. I'm sure it's a great marketing tool. And I hope that Marvel and DC hear that message. But they're not going to hear it so long as the pirates are screaming their self-righteousness at such a loud decibel level. It's like a cop pulling you over for speeding, only to have you slap him in the face and tell him that the speed limit ought to be ten miles per hour faster. If that's what you truly believe, there are better venues for that kind of discourse.

If nothing else, this whole discourse has proven that you can't beat the pirates. Ironically enough, it's the pirates' generally smug attitude that makes the companies want to punish the pirates all the more, I'm sure. I know I'd like to at this point. Why do they get their comics for free when I have to pay for them?

Nevertheless, there are always going to be pirates and the only way to beat them is -- well, you can't. You can only open up their market and extract a percentage of that money from it. It's true that if the pirate market dried up tomorrow, you wouldn't see all those downloaders heading to the local comics shop to buy their weekly fix. No, they'd likely dry up and blow away, on to haunt the likes of the pirate DVD fans or pirate video game junkies.

Let's face it: Comics are too expensive. I've heard all the counter-arguments. Going against the rate of inflation and cost of living allowances of the past five decades, you're not spending more today than you were in the fifties. I know that the paper is better, the artistry is more precise, and expensive computers are used to put all of these things together, resulting in new costs and staff. But you know what? None of that matters. $2.99 - $3.99 for 22 pages of story is just ludicrous, no matter how much work goes into it, how many units are moving, or how much technology is used for it. Since the prices went up slowly, we didn't notice so much, but we're quickly getting to the point where comics will price themselves out of existence. The trade paperback economy is a great stop gap measure, but something greater is needed, and I think digital comics are the answer.

But digital comics are also a great marketing opportunity, and just putting the first issue of specific series up on the website to download and read ain't going to cut it, in the long run. It might spur on some new sales, but it's not going far enough.

And when the time comes that Marvel and DC finally realize their mistakes and put their money into a digital distribution system, I hope they learn the same lesson that Apple and EMI are about to teach the music industry: DRM is not the way to go. It only punishes the legal customers. The others will find a way around it. There is no such thing as a copy-protected anything. There will always be ways around it. The DVD format was broken. Apple's DRM has been broken. Microsoft's formats are easily worked around. So what's the point?

I've bought computer programming manuals on-line recently for download. They were ready almost instantly. I could download the PDF in a few seconds on a broadband connection, and be up and running in no time. The files were not password protected nor DRMed up. And you know what? I didn't seed it out to a BitTorrent network. I didn't write a script to block my name off of every page that the purchase embedded it on. I used the book in accordance with the license and all is good.

Yeah, a site did pop up on Digg not long ago advertising "free" O'Reilly PDFs that turned out to be a pirate site. It got shut down very quickly. The community reacted and the link was killed, most likely along with the web site, itself.

Piracy is not a one-way street. There are just as many legit users of media content as there are pirates, if not moreso. And they'll help you out if you're respectful of them.

Of course, the counter-argument to this all is that we're in danger of losing the Direct Market to my proposed nearly-monolithic downloads store. I think that's the wrong argument to make. In many ways, that war is already lost. The number of stores has contracted to what must be an all time low by now. Wide swaths of this country don't have a comics shop within a half hour of their homes. The rise of he trade economy has possibly helped the agile comic shops that adapted to it quickly enough, but it really just opened the door for the larger retailers like Borders and Barnes and Noble to become a force in the comics industry. It also opened up the market to Amazon.com and other large on-line retailers. Unlike dog food, comics are comparatively light enough to ship out without a punitive charge relative to costs.

On the other hand, there are also several large scale highly-discounted on-line stores that offer to maintain your pull list and send you your comics via the mail on a monthly or a weekly basis. I haven't seen the direct market wither up and blow away in light of them, and they offer discounts of up to 40% many of the times. That's a ridiculous offer than no brick and mortar shop could ever hope to compete with.

The real thing saving the Direct Market right now is the lack of a digital reader that nobody's been able to perfect in the ten years it's been talked about. There are enough people who'd rather drop comics than sit in front of their computer to read them to keep the dead wood flowing out to stores. Maybe Sony's latest attempt will be the breakthrough, but I tend to doubt it. Too many of the latest and greatest of these devices has failed to excite the market. When one comes out and take the industry by storm, though, it'll could be the final nail in the Direct Market's coffin.

I don't think I've said anything new here. If you're into this argument, then you've probably run in circles on all of these points by now. I know I'd just like to see a change of some sort. I like my local comic shops, honestly I do. But I'd also like to see the medium of comics survive past the next half dozen big budget movie releases. I'd like to see cheaper comics. I'd like to see omnipresent availability. If we can't get comic racks in pharmacies and soda shops on ever corner, then maybe the modern equivalent of that today is the web. The economics of scale and the logistics behind it all make more sense today with the web. Throw a few programmers at the problem, boil for a few months, and change the world.

There, I feel better now. Thanks for listening to me rant.

But one last thing: Dan Slott needs to be the next Editor-In-Chief of Marvel. The guy proclaimed that he could write more than just funny comics and then created AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE to prove it. Keeping with that "serious" tone, he added Slapstick to the cast. I love it.

Seriously, though, it's a great book.

I imagine I'll be going back to the reviews next week. I'm sure I'll have a full mailbox after this column.

My blog, Various and Sundry is your best spot on the 'net to stop to chat about American Idol the day after every episode. Plus, I throw in link dumps related to the tech industry, TV and movies, and lots more.

I still have a MySpace page and a ComicSpace page, though I don't hang out much on either of them at the moment. I do still check my messages at both places, so you won't be ignored.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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