Last time I lamented the current state of new comic buying. This time I’ll look at how we got to this point, from a high-level perspective. Whole books have been written on this subject so I’ll only be skimming the surface. Keep in mind when you read comic it’s the monthly 30 or so page 7″ x 10″ pamphlet colloquially referred to as a comic book
Comics took North America by storm just before World War II. A cheap mode of entertainment, competing with very little for the youth market. Millions of copies sold of each issue. Print ruled the day, with radio and motion pictures providing other modes of entertainment for the masses. A newsstand on every corner offering newspapers (multiple editions daily), magazines, pulps, and comic books.
Distribution for magazines and comics was handled the same way: the retailers got what was hot and only paid for what sold. Publishers didn’t know what was a hit or a dud until the distributors got back the unsold numbers and reported them. This also determined how much profit was made as they were only paid for what sold.
As television entered every household reading declined in the youth population. Still, big numbers compared to today, but there was a waning. This continued into the 1970s. Comics were still available at newsstands, in corner stores, and generally on spinner racks everywhere. But the distributors determined what comics went where and how many copies each retailer received.
Along came Phil Seuling and the idea of the direct market. He offered to buy comics from the publisher outright at a significant discount so they didn’t have to wait for newsstand sales to be reported and then be paid by the distributor. Now comics were available from comic distributors along with newsstand distributors.
Comic shops had started appearing in the 1960s and now with comic distributors popping up, they could order exactly what they wanted and actually get them on time. Of course, they had to buy them outright with no returns, but it was far better for the comic shop than dealing with newsstand distributors.
I started reading comics in 1980 and remember buying everything at the corner store off a spinner rack. There was a decent selection but was always missing issues, gaps in what I was reading, so I would go to the next corner store and the next until I found what I was looking for. About a year into it I discovered a comic retailer at a local flea market and never went back to the corner store’s spinner rack.
Like all industries, comic distribution had its wild west period where everything was tried and the market was open to many. Slowly that number dwindled as well until the industry was left with only one distributor, Diamond. You want monthly comics, you need to deal with Diamond.
When publishers realized the money to be made in the 1930s comic boom everybody and their brother put out comics. That list of publishers dwindled, and there have been booms and busts since. The market is dominated by Marvel and DC, who predominately publish superhero comics. For April 2019 Marvel had 45% of the market share and DC had 25%.
As Diamond is the only place for comic shops to buy comics, so too comic shops have become the only place for consumers to buy comics. And really, that’s been true for quite a while. What’s new is that a comic shop can be an online entity, but they’re still buying from Diamond.
The truth is interest in comic books has been declining since their second decade, starting in the 1950s and taking us to today where the best selling title moves 100,000 copies. In the 1970s a title only selling 100,000 copies would have been cancelled. As those sales numbers declined prices increased. Supply and demand. A new comic is now $4-5 USD for approximately twenty-two pages of content.
North American comics have, for the most part, stayed locked into the format that began eighty-five or so years ago. A monthly periodical. The entire system is built on creating a monthly book, from production to marketing to publishing and distribution.
The rest of the world does it differently, with weekly anthologies and graphic novels. Add to that the cultural acceptance of comics and there are huge markets elsewhere. But the graphic novel has yet to gain ground over the monthly comic, and for some reason anthologies have never worked in North America.
Creators are paid a fixed amount per page, and most North American comics are a collaborative effort: writer, penciller, inker, colourist, letterer. Next are printing costs, distribution and retail. We can try and look at that $4 in terms of each step. Retailers get about 50%, distribution gets about 10%, printing and production get 40% with the creators getting their fixed rate from there.
There was competition, from the publisher’s themselves. Collected editions became an item when groundbreaking comics garnered mainstream interest: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Ronin, The Dark Phoenix Saga. These were the first trade paperbacks I bought in the 1980s that collected a run of comics and put them in a single volume, available to the book market. Yes, we had Fireside Books before that, but those were topical collections from Simon & Schuster. It was a long and slow process, but by the early part of this century, publishers were putting most runs into collected editions. They had already paid for the material through the monthly comic, so this was just packaging and printing.
I was a die-hard weekly buyer at my local comic shop, but I began to notice titles slipping from their schedule, sometimes months late. I couldn’t remember the storyline anymore and would reread the issues again to know what was happening. Or would leave all the comics unread until the current story wrapped up. It was then I decided to give up on monthly pamphlet comics and only read collected editions. Not long after that I mostly gave up on superhero comics.
With the rise of Amazon and other online book retailers the collected edition has become available to a very wide audience, usually at a discount. And even though collected editions are a key part of the market, they are still, for the most part, made up of collections of individual monthly comics.
And then there’s digital. A vast market of available material 24 hours a day with nearly instant access. The price of admission is the device you’re reading on. Once publishers cut out the retailer they recoup 50% of the cover price, with the distribution 10% going to the digital platform. And since they’re just repackaging the same material from the monthly printed comic as they do for collected editions, it’s a third way to sell something they paid for once.
Next time I’ll look at what the future holds.