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Friday, May 26, 2017 

The Atlantic's right about one thing: the business and sales model is outmoded

The Atlantic's written about how badly the medium's faring today, and Marvel's own collapse in the span of at least 2 years. Predictably, they take the side of anybody who insists politicized diversity at the expense of the established heroes and heroines isn't one of the damaging factors in the terrible sales of their recent publications. But, there are a few things told that make some sense, like how today's sales figures are laughable compared to decades before:
The comics industry these days is much diminished from its heyday. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate comics publishers moved away from selling through newsstands and grocery stores, turning instead to “the direct market,” which allowed buyers to purchase books straight from the publishers. This change both fueled the growth of specialty-comics shops and led to the corporate monopoly held by Diamond Comics Distributors, the middleman between retailers and publishers. In the 1990s, an issue of the popular The Amazing Spider-Man that sold around 70,000 would be considered a failure. The collapse of the comics speculation bubble in the mid 1990s—a bubble partially fueled by Marvel’s own encouragement of the speculator boom and flooding of the market—dealt a blow to the market it never quite recovered from. These days, what counts as a successful superhero book is anything that can sell a regular 40-60,000 copies. Most sell quite a bit less.

As it happens, speculation is an inherent feature of the direct market. Unlike in traditional publishing, comics sold to retailers through the direct market can’t be returned for a refund. So retailers have to preorder comics months in advance, knowing that if they order too many, they’ll be stuck with the overstock. Marvel and DC largely judge sales based on these preorders, and a low number of initial preorders can lead a publisher to cancel a series before a customer ever gets a chance to buy the first issue. There’s an incentive for publishers to push out as much product as they think the market will bear, and a narrow window for feedback. Due to the preorder system, books that might reach out to new audiences—such as those starring minority characters—are at an immense disadvantage right out of the gate. As a result, books like David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos’s Nighthawk or Kate Leth and Brittney Williams’s Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat!, and even spinoffs of popular series like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, like rarely last long before being canceled.
Umm, if Coates' BP title is selling at the aforementioned levels, how can it truly count as popular? After all, if 70,000 copies of a Spider-book in the 1990s was considered a failure, wouldn't the same have to hold true for a BP title in this day and age as well no matter how it's marketed? This recent chart shows that the 13th issue of the flagship title actually sold less than the BP Crew title, eyebrow-raisingly enough. The main title sold 30,509 copies (undoubtably at storefront level, which is not the same as customers buying), BP Crew sold 35,604 copies, and World of Wakanda sold 14,547 copies. Hmm. There certainly is a lot they must not be telling us.

The main point, as usual, is that, if the medium's not reaching millions of consumers, then at least from a sales perspective, it's a failure no matter how you look at it. And that's because of something that could've been done long ago, but which the Atlantic's writers are uninterested in stressing: many publishers could've abandoned the monthly pamphlet format and switched to graphic novel format for many of their creations' further adventures in future storytelling, yet they remain solidly glued to the obsolete approach still in effect today. One that's even costing a lot more money for publishers so long as they use it. If Dark Horse is publishing a miniseries that'll also come out in trades, wouldn't it be better to go with the latter format and save money on all those pamphlets that now cost 4 dollars? Or is their faith in their ability to sell a paperback in bookstores so poor, that they can only think to sell according to a test of how well a story sells in pamphlet parts? I'm sorry, it's just laughable.

And it's not just books starring minority characters that're disadvantaged because of the preorder system. Everything today is disadvantaged by the crummy system. Superman sells dismally too, all because of the points I made above. And if I haven't made the following point yet, there's also a marketing approach favoring famous major characters like the Man of Steel and Spider-Man over minor ones like the Atom and Moon Knight, selling entirely according to image recognition instead of story quality. Of course, there's also the problem with selling everything as an ongoing monthly series instead of a miniseries. If marketing and development were any better, there'd be a lot more miniseries than ongoing that'd probably sell better in their own way - and even get better critical reception - than the jokes and excuses we're getting now for monthly titles.

The magazine does raise an interesting point though, when they bring up sales gimmicks:
The uncertainties of the direct market are something all comics companies have to navigate, and sales gimmicks like collectible “variant” covers and special, higher-priced issues are common. Big publishers like DC and Image enthusiastically take part in these gimmicks. But Marvel pursues them at a level that puts other publishers to shame. Their primary trick is the consistent (and damaging) strategy of relaunching books with #1 issues or titles.
Yes, I think they're right; Marvel has gone miles out of its way to make short term sales boosts, with massive variant covers and repetitive relaunching. They've taken steps at times to do everything they could to remain solidly in the numero uno spot as a publisher with publicity stunts pushed to extremes. I think the vicious approach they took to marketing originated with Bill Jemas, who was promoting through a near-sleazy, shameless tabloid-style approach that set a very poor example for a publisher. Today he may be gone, but his influence still remains in the guise of Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso.

Unfortunately, the magazine then fumbles by going the propaganda route with a certain politicized title in the following paragraph:
Marvel’s argument for this approach has typically been that new #1 issues both boost sales and pull in new readers. It’s true that a #1 issue tends to sell quite well on the direct market—but since retailers are ordering inflated amounts sight unseen, it’s an artificial bump at best, and sales drop sharply afterward. In fact, according to an exhaustive and entertaining analysis by the writer and game designer Colin Spacetwinks, this constant churn badly erodes the readership. G. Willow Wilson’s excellent Ms. Marvel, a series starring a young Muslim heroine from Jersey City, debuted at a circulation of roughly 50,000 before holding steady at 32,000; the relaunched version a year later began at around 79,000 before dropping sharply to a current circulation of around 20,000. “Marvel’s constant relaunching ... has been harmful to direct market sales overall,” Spacetwinks writes, “as well as harmful to building new, long-term readers.” With every relaunch, it becomes easier to jump off a title.
It's also become very easy to jump off a title when it gets as dishonest and political as Wilson's book turned out to be. Let's also consider the sales prices at 3-4 dollars (which does come up later on, but remains unsatisfying). Wouldn't that also be discouraging? The magazine's proven they have no ability to at least ponder whether foisting a superficial depiction of a certain religion on audiences could have long term negative effects on the company's reputation. And when they get around to making an argument on rotating artists having a negative effect on books, they say:
Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso told an interviewer at March’s retail summit that he didn’t know if artists “[moved] the needle” anymore when it came to sales. The fact that Marvel has trained audiences to regard those artists as disposable doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind; nor does the possibility that buyers—like a few prospective comics fans I know—might be turned off by constantly rotating art teams.
What if it's because the artwork in itself is no more appealing than the scripts? On which note, again, they fail to seriously question whether the current stable of writers succeeds in entertaining or boring. If it's the latter, how can they expect new readers to stick around long term even for the "diverse" cast of characters when the stories they're saddled with are hugely disappointing?

Now here's the part about prices:
Marvel’s instinct with readers who do stick around, meanwhile, has been to squeeze them for all they’re worth. Marvel comics tend to be priced at around $3.99 to $4.99 for 22 pages, and many series ship new issues twice a month. (Digital editions are usually priced about the same.) Marvel publishes around 75 ongoing series, along with miniseries and single-issue specials. (DC, for comparison, made a concerted effort for the last few years to publish around 50 ongoing series and also had trouble making them stick.) April alone saw five “Avengers”-titled books. Then there are the crossover events—four so far this year—which interrupt the storylines of ongoing series and require readers to buy multiple other books to understand what’s going on. Reading Marvel, in other words, gets very pricey, very quickly, and the resulting flood of product exhausts retailers and ends up driving customers away.
So are they suggesting the companies bring down the prices? Because unfortunately, even if they did want to, it could be awfully expensive to do at this point, although they definitely could cease altogether with the crossovers. Yet there's been telling signs they vehemently refuse to do so, and the Atlantic's biggest mistake is that they don't suggest openly that they call it quits with the crossovers. Another mistake they make is perpetuating the exaggerated tale involving the novelist who wrote the recent Mockingbird solo, although they do note something else:
Marvel’s marketing and PR must bear a hefty share of the blame as well. The company habitually places the onus for minority books’ survival on the readership, instead of promoting their product effectively. Tom Brevoort, the executive editor at Marvel, publicly urged readers to buy issues of the novelist Chelsea Cain’s canceled (and very witty) Mockingbird after the author was subjected to coordinated sexist harassment.

The problem, however, is that the decision to cancel Mockingbird was necessarily made months in advance, due to preorder sales to retailers on the direct market. The book itself launched with only a few announcements on comics fan sites; no real attempt to reach out to a new audience was made. Marvel’s unexpected success stories, like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, are largely built on the tireless efforts of the creators themselves. (In Deconnick’s case, she paid for postcards, dog tags, and fliers for fan engagement out of her own pocket, for a character she didn’t own or have a real expectation of royalties from.)
Granted, they're correct that practically every publisher's failed to promote their products more convincingly, relying almost entirely on the existing readerships. But their failure to note that the Cain case turned out to lack firm evidence is a big minus and dampens the article further, as does their sugarcoating of the politics/retcons that turned up in the book by calling it "witty" without an in depth description. And wasn't the DeConnick Capt. Marvel title canceled last year? Whether it's being launched yet again this year (with surely another millionth renumbering), it can't be called a success if it did finally sputter. Ordinarily, I'd agree that making no effort to market the books to new audiences or promote with serious fanfare is a big mistake, but with the content of Cain's Mockingbird title, I've got a hunch the lack of fanfare tied in with their likely reluctance to let anybody know what kind of bad ideas found their way in.

Amazingly, they do acknowledge the current writers at Marvel who've given the company a bad name:
It might be argued that Marvel has to be judicious about what books it spends money to promote, and that good word of mouth can make up the difference for free. Again, the dropping sales numbers for Marvel’s books suggests this isn’t the case. But even if it were, the publisher’s word of mouth lately has been abysmal. The past decade has been a parade of singularly embarrassing behavior by Marvel writers and editors in public. The former editor Stephen Wacker has a reputation for picking fights with fans; so does the Spider-Man writer Dan Slott. The writer Peter David went on a bizarre anti-Romani rant at convention (he later apologized); the writer Mark Waid recently mused about punching a critic in the face before abandoning Twitter. The writer of Secret Empire, Nick Spencer, has managed to become a swirl of social media sturm all by himself, partially for his fascist Captain America storyline and partially for his tone-deaf handling of race and general unwillingness to deal with criticism.
Well, I'll have to give them some credit for recognizing why men like Slott and Spencer, among others, are bad omens for a once prolific publisher. It's just too bad they won't criticize them for giving liberalism a bad name to boot. Alas, they fumble again when they say:
What’s frustrating about all of this is that Marvel has recently demonstrated an interest in publishing good, socially conscious books. Ewing’s Ultimates and Avengers work is consistently charming and witty; Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is an unalloyed delight; G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel deserves all the praise it has gotten and more. [...]
So the Muslim Ms. Marvel title an entirely positive example, and nothing troubling about it at all? Uh-huh. I'm sure those aforementioned Avengers and Squirrel Girl books aren't worth the paper they're printed on either; the Earth's Mightiest Heroes titles have been particularly awful for years now, ever since Brian Bendis took over the writing chores. And when they try to suggest how the publishers might fix things, they say:
A potential example lies in popular series from Image Comics like Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead and Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s Saga. The former sells fairly steadily at around 75,000 units through the direct market, and the latter sells around 50,000. [...]
Now wait a minute. Even if the above sell that much, it's still nothing to jump for joy about, because they don't sell in the millions, regardless of writing quality. I'm not sure the paperbacks sell much better either, although, as per my prior notes, if the stories in Kirkman's creation are good, why can't they just go exclusively with paperbacks? Again, we have a scene where a payoff is set in motion but never completed. And near the end, they get really galling with a most tasteless suggestion:
Marvel and DC might emulate this model by cutting back on the number of series they publish and the frequency with which they ship them. Both companies could be more judicious in pairing artists and writers for sustained periods, promoting series outside of the usual channels, and warmly engaging with fans. Instead of simply telling people to buy their books, they could instruct new audiences how. And they could listen to what new audiences say they want: diversity not just in racial, religious, or sexual terms, but also in terms of the types of stories told: Is there really any more harm in publishing a comic where Captain America has a romantic cup of coffee with his boyfriend Bucky than one where he’s a Nazi?
Wow, they really think we'll be more forgiving of a story where Steve Rogers is turned LGBT than one where he's retconned into a nazi. Even if it's not as revolting as making Steve the leader of totalitarians, it's still an utterly tasteless idea, and wouldn't be any more respectable of Jack Kirby/Joe Simon than what they've been doing this past year. But what they're condoning pretty much stems from the mentality that led to replacing several other heroes with characters who represent PC diversity, which proves they still don't want to believe Marvel's contrived and rushed efforts had any negative impact on long term sales.

We could also note their curious failure to argue why Marvel would do well to restore Mary Jane Watson as Peter Parker's wife, along with respectable writers to the Spider-Man books, if it would provide any benefit. But that's another topic on which they hugely disappoint, and proves, contrary to what they claim, they're not in favor of diversity.

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Say comic book companies switched to graphic novel-type formatting only for their stories: how long would the average reader's attention span be in this case (in terms of keeping said reader interested in the next installment and ability to steer said reader into trying different titles)?

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