The comic book has been an American institution since World War II. While the strips themselves remain popular, the industry standard medium used to publish them in retail over the past 70 years, the 32-page comic book is becoming unsustainable. In the wake of changing economic forces, I have to ask: this the end of the Comic Book?
In its golden age, from the late 1930’s to the mid 1950’s comic books like Superman, Batman, and Shazam sold over 3-5 million copies a month. Today a bestselling comic book barely sells 70,000 copies and many struggle to sell on average 15,000-25,000 copies a month. In the wake of these declining numbers many publishers like Time Warner’s DC Comics and Disney’s Marvel Comics are relying more and more on product licensing such as toys, video games, movies and television to stay profitable and keep their characters relevant with younger audiences.
Currently the average age of a comic book reader is 35, and the audience for comic books is getting older, not younger. Since the Comic book industry bust of 1994 following The Death of Superman, the industry has not attracted any new readers from any demographic in over 16 years.
In the wake of the industry decline, the business model for publishing comic books is under tremendous pressure. With no new readers to sustain growth, publishers have been raising prices to cover their printing costs for a shrinking comic book audience. Unfortunately, those price hikes seem to have hit a market threshold. The few remaining older readers have balked at recent price hikes of $2.99 and $3.99, and aren’t willing to pay anymore for a 32-page comic book. Comparatively, a 300 page pocket paperback book only costs $6.99 and a 300 page trade paperback book is $15.00.
With prices at the market threshold, comic book publishers are reaching a breaking point for the medium in its current 32-page state. After paying their writers and artists for their work and then paying for printing of the books themselves, comic book publishers have to offer distributors like Diamond and retailers like Barnes & Noble a 55-60 percent discount to get their product on store shelves. With just a 30-day window for sales, and a 30-day shelf life for product at retail, the profit margin for comic book publishers has narrowed to just a few cents per copy.
In between a shrinking older audience, high production costs, and high retailer discounts, the business model for the 32-page comic book has become difficult to maintain over the past few years. Soon it will become unsustainable.
The 32-page comic book is dead. Only the comic fans don’t know it yet.
Most publishers have fought to keep the 32-page comic book in print out of tradition to that small base of readers and to maintain the trademarks to their large catalogs of characters, but soon this will not make any financial sense. There aren’t enough readers available from the older reading audience to sustain the business model for 32-page comic books long-term. Eventually publishers will have to look at more profitable products to present the medium of comic strips on.
In stores such as Rite Aid, CVS, Toys R Us, and Kmart the 32-page comic book has become irrelevant to consumers. With no children to notice them, the thin books easily get lost on retailer racks next to larger magazines and ignored by the largely female audience that frequents these venues to shop. At Bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders they’re routinely stuck on revolving racks in the back of the magazine section and also ignored by the largely female audiences who shop there. Over the course of 30 days, the books wind up damaged, soiled, and unsold.
Unfortunately, unlike magazines, comic books can’t be returned to the publisher for credit. So retailers who buy them are stuck with them until they sell all the inventories of titles they have regardless of what condition they’re in. As a result of this constant merchandise shrinkage and turnover of product with no profit, many retailers, bookstores and newsstands have stopped carrying comic books.
In order for the comic strip to survive, the medium will have to find a medium with a business model that’s more profitable than the current comic book. It’s clear publishers must find a product to present strips in with a longer shelf life, appeals to big box, and bookstore retailers in addition to comic shops, and can be visible to customers whether displayed spine out or cover forward on store shelves. Any new product will definitely be bigger than 32 pages.
Current products that will allow the comic book industry to adapt to a more profitable business model include digest magazines, hardcover books and trade paperbacks. Bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon like the trade paperback and hardcover omnibus editions. These books have a shelf life that can last years. Moreover, they can be displayed spine out on or facing cover forward on a bookstore shelf.
Smaller retailers like Target, Kmart, Rite Aid, and CVS will probably prefer the wider, larger, digest sized comic books like Archie Comics currently produces and large 500 page magazine sized books like Shonen Jump. Both are cheaper to print, are more visible to casual customers and have a longer shelf life than 30 days. In addition, the digest and magazine sized comic offer more pages for advertising than the current 32-page comic book to cover the cost of printing and production.
These comic strip mediums can be competitively priced with paperback books, e-books and magazines. In the case of paperbacks, digests and hardcovers, retailer discounts offer an opportunity for publishers to lower prices and target new audiences of casual readers in addition to comic fans. $14.99 for a trade paperback or $7.00 for a 500 page digest magazine is more of a value to a casual consumer than paying $18-$24 for six 32-page comic books.
Currently the industry uses hardcovers, paperbacks and e-comics to present mostly reprint material. The obsolete 32-page books are still used to publish new stories. Moreover, the industry continues to use the obsolete business model for publishing 32-page comics to sell trade paperbacks and e-comics.
That’s going to have to change if the comic book is going to survive into the next century.
Along with the change in comic mediums, comic book publishers will have to adapt to a new editorial and creative model for writing, drawing, and publishing comic strips. The Graphic novel, a self-contained story that tells a story using comic strips in one volume will have to become the new industry standard for publishing stories featuring comic book characters. They’ll probably be 96-180 pages long and be released on a bimonthly or quarterly schedule.
There will probably be an adjustment period as editors, writers and artists adapt to a longer production schedule of 60-180 days between titles. This larger window for production turnaround may mean fewer books being produced per year, but overall comic products that will have better editorial and creative control than the current 32-page comic book.
In addition the graphic novel model must offer more creative freedom for writers, artists and editors. Currently comic books published at Disney’s Marvel and Time Warner’s DC are restricted by a tight decades-long continuity where events in one comic book story directly affect events in another. This continuity is extremely difficult for new writers and artists to work with and for new readers to access on bookstore shelves.
When the industry transitions to graphic novels it must do away with the baggage of continuity and start fresh. It’s the only way to offer new readers access to characters. Moreover it allows writers and artists an opportunity to write stories where they aren’t restricted by the decisions of previous writers and artists. In most cases a graphic novels’ story should be resolved at the end of the single volume so readers can have the option to pick and choose stories they want to read.
The only thing preventing comic book industry from completely adapting to a new business model is their loyalty to a small audience of aging comic book readers. And unfortunately most of those older readers are resistant to change. However, as the declining business model forces publishers of the medium to meet a cross-road in the next few years, they’ll be forced to either adapt to a more profitable business model or die.
It’s the end of an era for the comic book. But it could be the beginning of a new era for the graphic novel.