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Monday, February 18, 2013

The 20th Anniversary of the Comic Book Industry Collapse- Celebrating Two Decades of Doing the Exact Same Thing & Expecting a Different Result

Twenty years ago the comic book industry collapsed. And sadly in those two decades that have passed, no one has learned anything.

They say insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. If one follows the pattern of the major comic book publishers since 1996 the approach to business has been the same cycle of events:

Sales decline. Big event storyline. Series cancellation. Series Reboot.

And the cycle repeats itself again and again. Worse, the cycles are getting shorter. Back in 1996, reboots of a series cycled every seven to ten years. But by the mid 2000s, they were cycling through title restarts every three years.

Comic book series went from going hundreds of issues in the 1980s to barely a hundred issues in the early 2000s before a sales decline. Now barely going 24-36 issues before sales declined to numbers that led to the vicious cycle of events, cancellations and series reboots starting all over again.

What’s even worse is even as these vicious cycles repeat themselves is that comic book readership continues to decline. While many books start off with somewhat strong sales with their new number one issue, they soon quickly decline to the low numbers of the original series or even lower than the original series.

Unfortunately, instead of trying new business approaches, comic book publishers still continue to produce gimmick items suited towards the peak of the speculator market of the mid 1980’s and early 1990s.  Along with the new number one issues, publishers like DC Comics continue to publish titles with features like variant covers and gatefold covers. Items that led to the collapse of the comic book industry 20 years ago.

Doing more of the same hasn’t worked for the comic book industry since 1993. But comic book publishers continue applying archaic and obsolete business approaches to selling comics in 2013. Seriously, who are they selling these gimmick items to?

The collectability of comics is nonexistent. The only reason why old comics had value back in the 1980s and early 1990s was because they were rare. Paper Drives of World War II and parents throwing them in the trash in the 1950’s and 1960’s and 1970’s led to a limited supply of back issues of old comic books. And  it was the high demand for the limited supply of back issues that drove up prices.

While the back issue market limped along since the collapse of 1993, it’s all but dead now in the aftermath of the multiple reboots of the Marvel Universe in 1996 and the DC Universe in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Since the early 1990’s millions of back issues sit in warehouses and comic shops not in collectors’ homes.

And why should the consumer buy them? The books are worthless. And with every universe reboot or series restart, they lose value as the earlier stories have no connection to newer continuities like DC Comics’ New 52.

Then there’s the sentimental value of that number one issue. Why collect a number one issue anymore in a world where there will be another number one issue in another 24-36 months?

What value does a back issue of a comic book have to a reader when they can buy that exact same story in a trade paperback 6 months later at half the retail price of the print run of 32 page comics?

In addition to this madness is the continued obsession with maintaining a large catalog of titles. In 1993 publishers produced over 500 different titles and printed six million comics every month.

Today publishers like DC Comics continue to offer large catalogs of 52 plus unique titles and are on their way to printing close to a million comics a month. In 1993 at the then affordable price of $1.25-$1.50 per copy it was next to impossible for comic readers and speculators to buy all the comics that saturated the market. Today At $4 a copy it’s become economically impossible for the new customer to even consider buying two or three 32-page comics let alone even consider trying new titles in a publishers’ catalog.

This is why the value of a four dollar 32-page comic book is only worth a quarter these days in a few years. And why people can buy boxes of over a thousand comics from the past four decades for just under $50 on eBay.

What’s the readers’ incentive to start buying a series and getting invested in it if the publisher will cancel it in 24-36 months? Why should they commit to collecting comic books when the publisher doesn’t have the fortitude or the finances to hang in there and commit to the series? Why should readers start buying a new series when it’ll abruptly stop in 6-8 issues?

Comic publishers say they’ve made all these efforts were supposed to make the industry more open to new readers. Ironically, it’s actually become HARDER for new readers, especially independent readers, tweens and teens to enter the world of comics than it was 20 years ago. All the events, reboots, have led to multiple volumes of a series, multiple titles of a series and multiple numbers, and renumbers are enough to give anyone but a diehard comic fan a headache. It’s so confusing that a young reader or a casual reader just can’t access the world of comics.

And the industry grows more insular with each passing year. Comic books have gone from a product every man, woman and child could enjoy back in the 1980s to a shrinking niche product a handful of older White males enjoy today.

Following a failed pattern of logic, the comic book industry is on the brink of a second collapse that could cripple not just the industry but setback the storytelling medium. If publishers continue to produce gimmick products like variant covers and die-cut covers and continue to focus on inaccessible events it’s going to lead to further readership declines.

Those declines are going to lead to the remaining comic shops being forced to close. As they get stuck with thousands of non-returnable product and as inventory backs up on their shelves like it did in the early late 1980’s 1990’s speculator booms, they’re not going to be able to order new comics.

While the corporate owned conglomerates like Disney’s Marvel and Time Warner’s DC will still have a limited revenue stream from licensing when the print market collapses again, it’ll be the small indie publishers who will take the brunt of the closing of comic shops due to this second wave of product saturation. Outside of Amazon and online retailers, comic shops are the only venues where people know about these small publishers’ products. Moreover, they’re the only venues where people can touch and feel them or know about them to buy them.

Sadly, Comic fans and comic book publishers are so stranded in their own world can’t see the problems plaguing their business objectively. They don’t understand that their approaches to business haven’t worked in two decades and they’ll never work again.

Yet comic book publishers keep trying to do the same things they did twenty years ago hoping, wishing, and praying for that different result. Thinking that the cycle will end with the next big character . Trying to write that one big story will lead to droves of new readers rushing into comic shops to buy comics again. Looking to produce that Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Showcase #4, Amazing Fantasy#15 or Fantastic Four #1 or even the next Giant Sized X-Men 1 which will revive interest in comic books again.

Not understanding that the paradigm for publishing has changed in the last five years. The publishing industry collapse of 2008 has totally changed the landscape of the publishing world. Trade publishers today are shrinking their catalogs and publishing fewer titles.

Only comic book publishers continue to publish large catalogs of books like it’s 1993 when big storylines like Infinity Crusade and Zero Hour dominated the sales charts. While that approached to the launch of a dozen new titles or spurred renewed interest in struggling ones then, It’s a business approach that doesn’t work in 2013.

In the last twenty years it’s clear the event model of storytelling has run its course. In today’s fast paced world where apps, games, and eBooks compete for peoples’ attention no one has the time to sit down and read over 100 comic books to finish a story. Especially when they cost $4 a copy. In these tough economic times who has $400 to spend on comic books when they need that money for rent?

It’s clear to me that today’s reader wants comics in the storytelling medium. But they no longer want 32-page comic books or monthly serialized comic books. And with the way comic book series get cancelled every 24-36 months in a vicious cycle of low sales, events, cancellations and reboots it’s just no longer economically viable to keep publishing them in that format.

Looking at the way customers buy comic books it’s clear that the 21st century readers want their comic stories told in one self-contained volume. eBooks, trade paperbacks and hardcover omnibuses are how people have been buying comic books over the last ten years. And they’re how comics are sold all over the world. It’s cheaper for the consumer. And buying stories in these single volumes allows readers young and old to access comic book characters in a simple easy-to-follow format where they can read stories they want without the baggage of decades of continuity.

If the industry is to survive it’s clear that the business model for the comic book has to change. With readers preferring trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and single volume self-contained stories I’d like to see more of a focus on those types of original publications than 32-page comic series. With comic series now getting cancelled after only 36 issues it’s just a lot cheaper to do three trade paperback volumes or one hardcover omnibus casual readers can access at a library, bookstore or online bookseller than to print comics only a handful of readers will buy at a comic shop.

And some stories don’t need an ongoing series of 32-page comics. They’d be better told in the graphic novel format. Plus graphic novels would probably sell better with audiences of new readers like kids, tweens, young adults, and other casual buyers who don’t want a commitment to a series.

And these kinds of products allow comic book publishers to compete in the growing market of library sales. Yes, libraries buy comics. And there’s a huge opportunity to reach new readers there.

The opportunity for reaching new readers of all ages in the 21st Century is there. All the comic book industry has to do is adapt to a more profitable business model and stop the insanity of following business strategies that haven’t worked for decades.

1 comment:

  1. 20 years is a long time, yet for some its just another day. I found that while one era ends, another begins. 20 years ago there rose up in the midst of Marvel and all the other 'old' kids on the block, the Black Age of Comics. The founder claims that the movement is not where he pictured it would be 2 decades after its kick off in Chicago at the Southside Community Arts Center, yet its presence has been made known, coast to coast and internationally. You probably know all the players, the artists/writers/inkers and such. Many of whom are still beyond collapsing, by excelling. While a whole generation have grown up looking at comic books made into movies, I think, the cover to cover reading and making comics still have value. Crazy has it may seem.