How 500 page comics for $5 on the newsstand, funded by advertisers, could entertain a nation and strengthen a flailing industry.
Originally posted July, 2009. Still relevant.
Every third movie made today is based on a comic book. Comic book writers also are writers of movies, TV shows and New York Times bestselling novels. Comic book artists often work as art directors on movies and TV shows. The public is interested in the characters. The public loves the writers. The public loves the artists.
So what's the problem? Why are there only a half million comic book fans in a nation of 300 million people? Because comics are misunderstood, too expensive, and too hard to find. I have a plan to overcome all three of these problems, and save an American art form from disappearing.
I started reading comics in 1983. Comics were sixty cents each. According to the Inflation Calculator, that would be $1.28 in today's dollars.
Over the years, the price rose steadily. It was something like this: $.60, $.75, $1.00, $1.25, $1.50, $1.99, $2.25, $2.99, and then, suddenly, $3.99. Over the past month, the price of an average new comic went up a full dollar. In fact, that $2.99 price tag was still pretty fresh, so it feels like a jump from $2.25 to $3.99 in a single bound. Three ninety-nine is so outrageous a price that every time I type it my fingers want to backspace over my mistake. My brain can't catch up.
This month, for the first time since 1983, my comic book intake is going to drop from 10 books to three - Dark Horse Comics are still $2.99.
I'm not abandoning the art form entirely. There are lots of fantastic deals out there right now in the back issue market. Comics from two years ago can be had in some places now for less than two dollars. There is also a huge market for used trade paperbacks (reprint collections) on Amazon.com and at used bookstores. So, I'll actually be able to read more comics now that I've given up on buying new ones. But I will miss the immediacy of buying them as they are published. I will have to avoid spoilers when I read articles about comics. When something big happens, I'll be the last to know. It's sort of like reading last year's newspapers for entertainment. I'm saddened that I've been priced out of my hobby. But I'm more irritated than I am sad. It doesn't have to be this way.
A New Comics Business Model
My subscription to Wired magazine costs me twelve dollars a year. My subscription to Rolling Stone is free. I didn't even ask for it. It just started showing up one day. I also have free magazines arriving a couple of times a month that are related to my profession, computer programming. Who pays for my magazines? Advertisers. They also pay for my television shows, and most of the Internet content I consume. The comic book industry needs more advertisers. Why don't we have enough of them? Because comics are misunderstood, too expensive, and too hard to find. (Didn't I already say that?) Let's clear up some misperceptions, and more people will want to sell their goods to comic book fans.
Who are the current comic book fans? In my experience, they are mostly men between the ages of 17 and 45 with disposable income. They are readers. They are collectors. They are generally interested in technology and pop culture. They are usually very intelligent. They drive cars. They drink Coke. They use toilet paper. They have high cholesterol. They vote. They are, essentially, the same group as readers of Wired. If the people advertising in Wired or Rolling Stone would also advertise in comics, then a one year comic book subscription would cost ten bucks instead of twenty five. (Comics are 30% to 50% off if you buy a subscription and let the Post Office mutilate them.)
Comic Book fans need desperately to identify themselves as consumers so that businesses with products will pick up the tab for their entertainment. Comic books are too expensive because they are misunderstood.
The new $3.99/issue price tag cannot be justified in terms of its entertainment value (about 15 to 20 minutes). That price can only be seen as reasonable by someone foolish enough to believe they will one day be able to sell it for at least three dollars. That will happen occasionally, but not nearly often enough to make the hobby sustainable.
I gave up on the idea that my comic book collection would one day pay off financially way back in 1994. Ain't gonna happen. I READ comics. I try to keep them in nice shape, just in case, but I have no delusions. I am not an investor. This is typical. Most comics are bought these days in the form of "trade paperbacks," book collections of six to twelve issues of a monthly comic. These are not collector's items. They are reprints, worthless except as entertainment. And they are very popular.
There's an opportunity here. If most comic book readers are in it for the entertainment value and not for the hope of financial gain, then why must every book, every month, be packaged as a collectible? I want to see comics packaged like a Brides magazine, or Computer Shopper. I want there to be 500 pages in every issue. If I could buy a 500 page comic book every month for $4.95, I wouldn't care if the paper was thin and prone to tearing. I wouldn't care if it had sat on the shelf crooked and the corners were all bent. I wouldn't care if there was a subscription crease down the center of it. I would even bend the cover back when I read it. These are all things I care deeply about ONLY because I've been paying $2.99 for 24 pages of story. If comics were worth the money based solely on the entertainment value they offer, then I wouldn't mind buying a crinkled copy.
The idea of "comics as collectibles" is the reason you can't buy them at Wal-mart or in gas stations anymore. I witnessed Wal-mart testing comic book sales once a few years ago. They carried them in the toy department, even though almost none of them had been written for children. They were in a metal rack and most of them had been folded one direction or another. If comics were priced as cheap entertainment instead of as collectibles, this would not have been such a nightmare. If comics readers were not so misunderstood, these comics would have been with the magazines instead of with the toys. Comic books are too hard to find because they are misunderstood and too expensive.
Put out a comic book with 500 pages for 5 bucks, and certain problems will disappear instantly:
- The book will have more than enough intrinsic entertainment value to justify its cost. You can buy a beat up copy from Wal-mart or a gas station and be okay with that, because you are not counting on the book's future collectability to subsidize your present entertainment.
- If Wal-mart and gas stations are carrying comic books again, they will be back in the public eye. As it stands right now, you have to go to a comic book store to ever see a comic book. Only people who are strongly motivated to buy comics will find their way to a comic book shop. Comics are forgotten, because by trying to position them as collectibles, publishers have lost sight of their entertainment value. On an artistic level, comic books are higher quality now than they ever have been. Practically no one knows this, because comics are too hard to find. This will end when comics are marketed as a strong entertainment value, and not as a collectible.
- Strong entertainment value and high availability will lure advertisers. We need a lot of advertisers to make a 500 page book for 5 bucks profitable. It has to be profitable to save the industry.
- The Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures books for kids currently are too expensive to make sense for most parents. You don't buy a collector's item and hand it to an eight year old. But a phonebook sized funny book for five bucks? That makes sense. Advertisers could sell toys, sugary cereals, bags-o-glass, movies, left-wing political ideas... Do you remember how cool Saturday morning was before the FCC ruined it by saying advertising to kids was intrinsically evil? Well, there's no FCC here. Go ahead, seduce those innocents. Did you just call me a capitalist pig? My only response is, "Oink, Oink."
The content for these 500 page bridal-magazine-sized monthly behemoth comic books should come from comics that were published three months ago. This way the collectible market can keep on trucking.
In June 2009, Marvel is publishing 99 comics. That's a really impressive output. That's about 2000 pages a month, so they could likely put out a 500 page book every week. The vast majority of their books are suitable for teens and up. They have a kids line of comics, but it isn't large enough to separate into its own 500-pager, unless they did it just once a year. Marvel also has an Explicit Content line, MAX, but the output under that imprint is small. Also, Marvel has a policy to NEVER sell MAX books on "the newsstand," by which they mean Wal-mart and gas stations.
DC could do exactly the same thing: Three 500 page books of their mainstream titles for teens and up, one 200 page Johnny DC book for the children, one 375 page book for their WildStorm group of comics, and one 300 page Vertigo book for their "mature readers" line.
Dark Horse could do a book, Image could do one, Dynamite could do one. At five dollars a pop I'd buy them all. Independent comics would get way more exposure than they are getting right now. They might be half the size of the big two's monthly collections, but they'd still be a good value at $5.
Gas stations and retail stores, record shops, game stores, toy stores... They could all carry the collections appropriate for their patrons. It would be such a great value that everyone would make a profit selling them, and the nation would be entertained by reading them. There are great stories being told by amazingly talented and dedicated writers and artists that would finally be given the readership and popularity they deserve.
Now, imagine what would happen to the comic book back issue industry, your friendly neighborhood comic book shop, if suddenly there were 25 million comic book fans instead of a half million. Think that's impossible? Then explain how The Dark Knight grossed over 500 million dollars in the US last year. There are a lot more than a half million fans of these characters. There is a massive potential market for comics that is completely untapped because comics are misunderstood (because they are underground), too expensive (because they are manufactured as collectibles, and they haven't won the support of enough advertisers), and too hard to find (because they are underground collectibles instead of disposable entertainment). The "500 page comics for 5 bucks" plan solves all of these problems in one fell swoop.
So, Comic Book Publishers: Do this and save the comic book as a viable commercial art form. Ignore this and watch your audience dwindle more and more until no one is left to care about your work.
- Find out who reads comic books. How much money do they make? What do they spend it on? What are they interested in? Advertisers want to know.
- Approach the businesses that are most likely to see an increase in sales if they spend their ad dollars in comics.
- It's okay to continue publishing comics for $3.99 a pop if you want to, but that will never be accepted as a good entertainment value by the average American consumer.
- Focus on getting comics into the hands of a much wider audience in a much more affordable format.
- The price per story page has to be low enough for people to feel comfortable buying the book even if it is creased and torn. The pages can be thinner. The ink can come off on your hands. The cover can be wrinkled. That way comics can reasonably be sold everywhere magazines are sold. No one ever passes up a copy of US News and World Report just because the corner is bent. That's because the content is worth the money, even though there is no collectability.
- Get in with a magazine distributor. Diamond is good at distributing collectibles. As long as comic publishers think of comics as primarily collectibles, there is no hope. That is cart-before-the-horse thinking.
The increase in the number of comic book fans will be a boon to Comic Shops. They won't seem like strange places anymore. One day, there might even be girls there. Girls go see superhero movies. They watch television shows like Lost, Heroes, and Law & Order, where comic book creator's names are all through the credits. It's a bizarre accident of history that our favorite storytelling medium lost an entire gender of its audience. With comics mainstream again, this could be corrected.