27 February 2005

Comment: Giving the People What They Want

Marvel EIC, Joe Quesada, and his main partner in crime, Brian Michael Bendis, caused a minor tempest in a teapot a couple of weeks ago during Newsarama's "Quesadarama" PR stunt that gave Quesada "control" of the site for the week. He posted an entertaining mix of informative and self-indulgent interviews with the likes of Kevin Smith, Allan Heinberg and, in a series of five installments, Bendis. During the third installment, the duo hypocritically riffed on the state of online journalism and the merits of Rich Johnston's rumor column, Lying in the Gutters, as well as the signal-to-noise ratio on various comics-related message boards.

"We know for a fact that the internet community is a small yet intense version of our readership. I know some people think it's only a few hundred people versus the 200k loyal readers. I think its more like 10 k on line versus the larger readership. Any of the high profile boards you go to, Newsarama, Millar's, Geoff's, [Quesada's], or mine, you rarely see a hit count pop over 10 k and that doesn't include nerds like us clicking on the same subject over and over."
While Bendis' New Avengers #1 was the best-selling comic book of 2004 with 240,000 copies in pre-orders, considering the marketing push Marvel put behind it, I'd mark that as an aberration, guessing at least 10-15% of those were duplicates, with one copy being read and the other going straight to bag and boarding and eventually posted on eBay. Figure another 10% of sales to places like Wizard that cater to foolish speculators with CGC-graded offerings of every self-proclaimed "HOT" comic, and my guess is "the larger readership" is closer to 150,000 tops. Considering only three comics published in January sold more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders - the 2nd issues of New Avengers and The Ultimates, dropping 36% and 22%, respectively, from the previous issue; and X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong #1 - that would seem to be an agreeable figure.

Interestingly, Wizard itself - the People Magazine of the comics world, both in popularity and editorial focus - claims "a current monthly circulation of 200,000" copies, though the most recent audited figures I could find show back in 1999 they were averaging 178,122 copies/month (down 21% from 1997) before disappearing completely from the Audit Bureau of Circulation's Top 100 in 2000 which bottomed out with USA TODAY BASEBALL WEEKLY's 134,628/month, suggesting either another precipitous drop in circulation - at least 24% - or that they withdrew their ABC membership to hide their declining numbers. That they are not currently listed as being members of either ABC, or its competitor BPA, suggests it might be a combination of the two.

Back to actual comic book sales, however - the vast majority of which take place through the Direct Market, unlike Wizard, which is also sold via mainstream outlets - looking at January's Top 25 comics, pre-orders averaged only 74,572/title, or just under half my presumed total audience of comic book buyers. Expanding to the Top 100, which ends with Breach #1 at 16,891 copies, and the average drops harshly to 40,592/title - less than 33% of my total estimate, and barely 20% of Bendis' guess and Wizard's claimed audience.

This compared to the heady days of of 1991 and X-Men #1's record [estimated] paid circulation of 7,500,000 copies!

Christopher J. Priest hit the nail on the head of the problem, setting the bar even lower for the total audience while lamenting the fate of his short-lived series The Crew:

"These days, in these tough times, comics are an increasingly hard sell. We're not writing to two and a half million largely silent eight year-olds, but to a highly vocal and highly volatile group of somewhere around fifty thousand. Now, we can stay up all night pointing fingers and figuring out who's to blame for that, but the fact is here we are, constantly trying to reinvent ourselves for essentially the same audience when a more informed marketing strategy might be to refresh the audience itself. So, these days, we launch most everything with our backs against the wall. In marketing, I was taught to never advertise something by saying what it isn't. But out-running perception, especially in this business, is more or less the order of the day. And entertaining a loyal but frustrated and shrinking fan base who wants exactly this but not that way and not by him is, increasingly, a shot in the dark."
--Christopher J. Priest, hey, kids, comics!
A look at January's Top 100 would seem to support Priest's take on things, dominated as it is not just by Marvel and DC titles, but specifically by titles directly related to the X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman and Batman - 40% to be exact, not counting their "appearances" in titles like New Avengers, JLA and Exiles. Mark Millar's loathsome final issue of Wanted is the highest ranking book not connected to any of those characters, or published by Marvel or DC, ranked at #29 (43,345).

With this in mind, one wonders if Bendis and Quesada's practical dismissal of the "small yet intense" vocal minority on the internet that questions their every move was fundamentally correct.

Using Newsarama as an example, according to its forum stats (as of 12:45pm, 2/26/05), its 11,617 members had posted 656,004 messages since October 29, 2002, an average of 56 posts per member.
  • 155,126 of those posts - 25% of the total - were made by the top 20 posters - .002% of the total members - including site proprietor, Matt Brady.
  • 24% of their total members have never made a single post!
  • 20% have only made ONE post!
Even Karl Rove wouldn't try to spin those numbers into any kind of a mandate, and taken along with the sales figures that would seem to contradict the feelings of most of the measurable Comics Blogiverse - a small, incestuous "community" of comic book fans, professionals, aspirants and sycophants, comprised of approx. 245 sites, 64% of which have been updated in the past week - I'm left feeling like a member of Dennis Kucinich's optimistic but ultimately doomed-from-the-beginning Presidential campaign.

"When I was on the outside looking in at Marvel, I use to look at the current EICs and wonder why they didn't take the opportunity to expand reader's tastes. Surely with the Marvel machinery behind them, they could force the issue, move the mainstream comic's industry towards a new place, different styles etc. Well, now that I'm in the seat I see not only how difficult it is, but how my predecessors did try in many cases and just had to put their hands up and say okay, it is what it is. We've had so many off-beat projects that we've done, that I had such high hopes for but in the end the fans and retailers basically told us with their dollars that it wasn't what they were putting on the top of their reading lists...

I could give you a laundry list of this stuff, but we both know, that if it doesn't have capes it's a hard sell. And there in lies the mystery to me, because like you, I read the letters, the e-mails, the posts that are craving for material that's not superhero oriented. So much of it that it would lead us to believe that there is really an audience out there, but I think this more than anything attests to that very large silent majority in comics. I now call them the 'Red States' of comics, who are out there – the ones who don't write and don't post on web sites, who are truly driving our industry. And it's not just us, anyone doing non-super hero stuff, for the most part is finding themselves hitting a very small audience...

Look, this won't prevent us from continually doing this stuff, Runaways and The Pulse to some extent are offshoots of this, but we have to be careful taking our shots. Things at Marvel are very simple, if tomorrow the world changed and no one wanted superheroes and wanted romance books, you'd see us producing romance books. There is no conspiracy here, if the industry feels like Marvel is putting out too many superhero books, then it has to look inward at itself. Perhaps we need to accept that ultimately that's what 'today's' fan wants out of their comics, and what's really wrong with that?"
I want to believe the industry can do better and, more importantly, that its fans want better from it, but I just don't see it happening. Especially not when the industry continues to attempt "to reinvent [itself] for essentially the same audience," an audience that is steadily shrinking to the point of inbred irrelevance. Quesada makes a great analogy with his "'Red States' of comics" comment, but at the same I think he's unfairly passing the buck.

As a leader in the industry, Quesada and Marvel have the responsibility to not just give the fans what they want, but to also "take the opportunity to expand reader's tastes." That means, among other things, putting the same creative and marketing muscle behind their experimental titles - which, as much as I like it, The Runaways is not an example of - as they do into their gazillionth X-Men spinoff.

Uncle Ben said it best: "With great power comes great responsibility."


Greg said...

This is a topic that bugs me, because I agree, Marvel could, with the right push and a degree of patience, get people to try other, more experimental books. Are you telling me they can't use some of the money they make from all the movie licensing to push books that initially don't make money? Maybe the money doesn't cross paths and movies remain separate from the comics, but that's crap if true. Unless a product is an instant hit (and comics no longer are) a company has to be willing to be patient, and I don't see that from Marvel or DC. It's annoying, because I do like superhero stuff, but not mediocre superhero stuff, and that's the majority of what Marvel and DC put out, and most people are buying it based on nostalgia. Nostalgia dies out, though, and I don't see Marvel and DC doing enough to refresh, not the audience, but their product. I heard a comment about hockey that applies to comics -- you're a viable product when your hard core fans accuse you of selling out. Hockey has become marginalized because it has no casual fans, and comics books are as well.

SMASHER said...

I think the onus also falls on the comic book store retailers to drum up more readership. The retailers are on the front lines but they need more support and instruction on how to better market themselves. When you consider that poster child of the comic book retailer is Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, and that comic book stores look more like sex shops than Game Stops it is no surprise why parents aren't taking their kids to buy comics.

Publishers should step in and help those stores by (among other things) donating furnishings to improve the look and feel of these stores, and hosting small business seminars on marketing, advertising and customer service.

There is too much of a disconnect between the publisher and the retailer in this industry. Retailers need to know that they respected and appreciated for selling the publishers's books. Publishers need to better educate its retailers on how to become better sales and business people.

Too many retailers are fanboys first, business people second and publishers should make it their mission to help turn that around.

But both sides will need to give each other a chance.

Greg said...

It's interesting you bring up retailers, because I agree totally. I frequent two different stores, and one is run like a business and the other ... not as much so. I like the one that is less business-like, because it's a single owner, old school kind of place, but the owner's not interested in dipping into his profit and trying to spend money to bring in new readers. The space next to his in the strip mall came open not long ago, and I asked his right-hand man why he didn't rent it (or buy it), knock the wall out, and make his business more accessible. The right-hand man said he was happy with his clientele and didn't want to risk his profits. His clients are people like me -- definitely not teenagers, but older males who are, let's face it, comic book geeks. The other place I go to is more sterile and, while they're friendly, it's more of a salesperson friendly than anything else, but there are a lot of kids in there (okay, they're playing games, but they're still there) and it looks like a store rather than someone's converted garage. Parents feel go about taking their kids in, as opposed to the one I usually go to, where there's a bunch of guys sitting around on Wednesdays talking about how hot Vampirella is.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I definitely agree that retailers are also complicit in the problem, though I'd argue their "giving the people what they want" is a bit more understandable when fulfilling their pull lists literally keeps the lights on.

Of course, if Marvel and DC weren't flooding the market with so many overhyped, low-quality spinoffs, perhaps more retailers would be able to afford to take chances on something new and different.

While Midtown Comics is surely not representative of the average LCBS, I think their practice of seeding the main racks with indies is a great idea that every shop should follow. Awareness and lack of visibility are two of the toughest obstacles for low-profile comics to overcome, but if Fade From Grace is sitting next to Wolverine or Teen Titans - or, better yet, promoted up front by the register - there's a much better chance of someone checking it out than if it's hidden over in the corner of the store in the "Indie Ghetto."

There's some good back-and-forth going on over at the Comics Reporter about the direct market and the troubles retailers are facing competing with mainstream bookstores.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

An article over at Ninth Art, also inspired by the Bendis/Quesada interview, focusing on the "online comics community [being] an audience worth listening to - even at its worst."