Wednesday, May 21, 2008

New Multi-Tier Model for Comic Book Publishing

[Expanded from a short essay originally posted to Superland in 2006]

The comic book industry needs to cope with certain realities.

Reality #1: Comic book sales have seen some increase in the last six years, but no where near as high as they have been in the past.
Reality #2: The collectors market for comic books is gone and is likely never coming back.
Reality #3: Specialty comic book stores need help staying afloat.
Reality #4: Comic books need wider distribution.
Reality #5: A viable, for-profit model needs to be found for online comics.

The only remaining large publishers of traditional American-style comic books publishing 20+ titles per month are DC Comics and Marvel Comics. These two companies need to be in the vanguard of re-shaping the field.

Trade paperbacks reprinting monthly story arcs have proven themselves to be profitable. Right now, publishers are printing both trade paperbacks and monthly comic books on high quality paper with glossy covers and computerized coloring, essentially doing the same job twice, but the first time (monthly comics) inefficiently and then reprinting them (as trade paperbacks) efficiently.

Few comic books published in the last few decades have achieved collectability (through scarcity) because these collectable-quality comic books are long-lasting and durable.

Comic books have had difficulty finding widespread distribution for years because, with their high cover prices, they are no longer an impulse purchase.

I propose that the major companies reduce collectable-quality monthly comics to 10 titles per month. Popularity should determine the ranks of the top 10, with the company’s best overall selling titles for one whole year being the top 10 titles for the following year. This top tier will conform to how comics are being currently published.

The next 20 titles below the top 10 in sales should be downgraded to a new middle tier. Going back to basics and abandoning the collectable standard of the top tier, these comics should be published as cheaply as possible – recycled newsprint, cheaper coloring, or even black-and-white only. The goals achieved here are a) making comics scarce again (because middle tier comics will not age as well, and b) reduce the price of comics as much as possible to the point where they can be impulse purchases. The former is beneficial to the goal of specialty comic book stores that sell rare comics to collectors and the latter is beneficial to the goal of restoring old venues of comic book distribution, such as grocery stores and drug stores, both of which are looking for impulsive shoppers rather than collectors.

All titles below the top 30 should go web-only (“bottom” tier in this model). Users can buy online comics on an individual issue basis via a service like Paypal or they can subscribe to the online service, pay up front for a certain number of issues per year, and then select those issues themselves as they become available until their tab runs out.

A comic book can, after a year, move up or down from one tier to the next. Anything moving up a tier would be guaranteed to have the previous year’s issues reprinted in trade paperback compilations. Low sales would not force comics off the bottom tier (though more electronic ads might be necessary to offset loss in sales revenue).

Top tier comics would continue to cater to the needs of specialty comic book stores. Middle tier comics would re-open old opportunities to sell cheap, budget-conscious comic books in other stores without directly interfering with specialty comic book store sales. Bottom tier comics with a near-infinite existence on the Web would keep low-selling, but still worthy titles (and more importantly, potentially valuable intellectual properties in the future) from disappearing. By keeping comics segregated into these tiers without printing the same comics in multiple formats, it will keep these three sales outlets from directly competing with each other, while encouraging readers to try different titles in the different formats.

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