Thursday, December 11, 2014

The death of the comic book industry (circa 1970)

I've been working my way through the archives Mark Evanier's site. I was familiar with his work as a writer and comics historian, but I only recently caught on to his blog. Many of the posts from a decade ago suffer greatly from a loss of topicality, but most stand up fairly well and a few actually benefit from the added perspective.

This post from 2004 has certainly remained current. We frequently see stories (many of which grow into accepted narratives) about media and industries that are shrinking and facing serious new challenges. The standard response is to assume that trends will hold and business models will remain unchanged until the institution in question rides off into the sunset to join the ice wagon and the rag-picker.

This does, of course, happen, but not that often. In order to completely wipe out a product or service, you have to replace it with something that's better in almost every respect (think chemical film, 8-tracks and, while we're on the subject, ice boxes). If there is still value in something, the market is very good at finding a way to exploit that value.

Creative destruction has become one of the most beloved buzzwords of the Twenty-first Century. It is seen as a moral good, an inevitable force of nature and an irrefutable argument (you can't stand in the way of creative destruction"). The result falls somewhere in between conventional wisdom and a better-a-gram-than-a-damn Pavlovian response. In these cases of groupthink, it is always useful to remind yourself of counter-examples, in this case a major branch of the publishing industry that looked like it was about to disappear.
Around 1970, when I got into the comic book business, the consensus was that there wouldn't be a comic book business for long…and not because of me.  The traditional method of distribution — comics sold on a returnable basis to newsstands around the country — was failing, or at least it was failing comic books.  The biggest distributor, Independent News, was making large sums off more expensive, adult publications like Playboy and Penthouse, and some there suggested that newsracks were no longer a place for kids or low-priced periodicals. Since comic books were low-priced and largely for kids, this was a pretty ominous suggestion, especially when you considered that Independent News not only distributed DC Comics but was a part of the same company.  In other words, DC's wares were being sold by an outfit that no longer believed there was a future in selling comic books.  With that attitude, there couldn't be much of one.

The "returnable" part was what was really hurting comics.  Marvel would print 500,000 copies of an issue of Spider-Man and would get paid only for those that actually sold.  So if the racks were crowded (or the distributor trucks filled with an extra-thick issue of Playboy that week), 50,000 might not make it to the racks at all.  Many more copies would get damaged and returned with all the unsold copies for credit.  300,000 might actually be sold and the rest would get pulped…obviously, not the most efficient way to do business. In the past, the ratio had not been that bad, and a publisher could make a tidy profit…but by the seventies, the numbers were closing in on the comic book industry.

To the rescue came not Superman or Batman but a Brooklyn school teacher named Phil Seuling.  Phil ran the big comic conventions in New York for years so he knew the fan market and its buying power.  Around 1973, he began proposing to DC and Marvel that he sell their comics in a different manner, by-passing traditional newsstands and getting them directly to comic book dealers and shops.  He would pay slightly less per copy to the publisher but he'd be buying the comics on a non-returnable basis, so a sale would be a sale; no printing five copies to sell three.

At first, publishers rebuffed his proposal.  The "direct market," as it would come to be called, did not seem lucrative enough to warrant the attention, to say nothing of how it might further destroy the old method.  But before long, it became apparent that the old method was being destroyed, with or without selling books the Seuling way, so DC, Marvel and other companies tried it.  Within a year, around 25% of all comic books were being sold via "direct" distribution, through Seuling's company and about a dozen others, with 75% still on conventional newsstands.  Within ten years, those percentages were reversed.  Today, the "direct market" is the primary market…though Phil, sadly, did not live to reap the full benefits of his idea.  He died in 1984 at the age of 50.
There's also an interesting demographic side to this story, but that will have to wait for another post.

No comments:

Post a Comment