Monday, August 04, 2008

Anthologies are the answer!

I was thinking this past weekend about writing a post about some issues regarding the comics industry and then along comes Tom Spurgeon with some well-timed nuggets of wisdom that really kicked my thoughts into overdrive. While Spurgeon occasionally seems a little vague or obtuse in making his points or in his use of historical analogies (although, the fault probably lies more in my ability to understand than in his writing), I find a lot there to digest.

For one, the hard number that it takes 3500 copies to break even on a black and white comic or 4600 for a color comic is nice information to have out there in an industry where hard numbers are hard to come by and sometimes even avoided. Some comics pros even take to message board bemoaning the fact that some pesky journalists demand to see sales numbers. Thanks to Spurge for plucking that one out.

The idea of a sales threshhold “magic” number also leads one to question the “profitability” of comics that fall under that sales threshold. I guess cover price has a lot to do with it since most comics come in at $2.99 and a book priced a buck more might be able to sell less copies but make more than that minimum needed to continue publishing. The price of “talent” and overhead likely is a factor- comics that pay an inker, a letterer and a colorist (or person to do graytone- colorist doesn’t seem a good term to begin with but especially when a book lacks “color”) are probably much harder to be considered a profitable or even break even venture with so many mouths to feed from one product. An indy book created by one person for a small company could maybe continue on under the 3500 level where a book with a large creative team from a mid-level indy company might not (or, conversely, maybe the mid-level company has a lower overhead cost per-book than someone doing it on their own as a sel-publisher- an interesting thing for further future investigation). Much like a touring band (where a power trio may be able to make enough to keep going where than 9-piece orchestra has a much tougher time), a book with less people to pay can be profitable at a smaller level.

This is one reason why Vertigo takes so much heat when the monthly sales charts are discussed at Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat is that people understand that a large company like Time Warner (DC) means more overhead and higher costs, thus more copies need to be sold to keep a book going. Although a large company can also afford to swallow early losses if they think a book will pay for itself later (either in trade paperback form or through other media such as film deals and licensing). A Big 2 title selling near that 4600 mark has to be in danger of cancellation and Spurgeon makes great points that companies seem to be doing a piss poor job of finding a larger audience to sell those books to.

This gets in to the next phase of this rant and that is the catch-22 in comics where the existing audience and market often do not support new and interesting books that could represent the growth of the medium and the industry but the mythical “potential” audience isn’t interested in walking into a direct market store outside, perhaps, of a few select outlets scattered in major cities, most along the coasts.

Every comics reader with a blog seems to realize what has been labeled the “death of the floppy” but few seem to understand the larger implications of it and companies seem so beholden to the cash flow of their weekly output into the direct market that they appear unable to break free. Lots of fans have offered advice but are shot down with the usual line that they don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t understand the big picture, and if only they knew the inside super secret password then they'd see that all is fine and even if it wasn't there's nothing anyone can do about it anyway. But it’s pretty obvious to most anyone with half a brain that the big picture is the entire media landscape is shifting and things don’t look much like they did 10 years ago and in another 10 years may be even more unrecognizable. It’s apparent that the landscape has shifted and all media companies are having to evolve or die. We may be a long way off from the deaths but it’s never too soon to start the evolution.

One part of that evolution is for everyone to realize that the current method of serializing comics in monthly pamphlets is becoming more economically unsustainable. Higher paper costs, higher gas prices leading to greater shipping costs and other factors are driving up the costs of what was once a disposal “sampler” package. In the early days of comic books, the basic format was a higher page count with a variety of many stories in different genres- in other words, the Golden Age blossomed under a rather similar model (with many less pages, obviously) now employed by Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat- more bang for your buck and giving new series a chance to find an audience. With production and distribution virtually free on-line more and more people are understanding that a model that includes the web in the “first run” makes more sense* (something I will hopefully tackle in my next attack on this subject matter).

Currently the US comics market makes it’s money on monthly pamphlets that later get collected in trade paperback. The problem is that the model is redundant. It might make sense if the cheap sampler package was affordable, on cheap paper and could be easily recycled or thrown away, but due to the collector’s market that boomed in the 90s (and led to a bust, I might add) we now have what was once a trash, disposable medium printed on archival paper with prices that effectively shut most people from buying as many books as they’d like or a newcomer from sampling that first taste that might get them hooked, especially children.

The answer, it seems obvious to me, is for comics companies to go back to the model that worked in the past when paper prices were high- more pages and more stories, and definitely more genres. We see this starting to take place, and I don’t expect like some commentators do, that this change can happen overnight or that companies will ditch one reliable revenue stream
(even if it is a dwindling one) to try a whole new one. But I do notice that more and more I notice Marvel repackaging recent material into different format, this is especially true with it’s kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line where stories that originally ran in the monthly comic get reprinted along with others (including some classic early stuff from the 1960s) and puzzles, games, pin-ups, etc. in a larger magazine format (which I think are even sold at newsstand outlets or big box stores). Marvel seems willing to at least test the waters.

Now, my dream is to the Big 2 US comics companies try to publish one monthly anthology, perhaps at the end of the month, collecting all their “family” titles into one themed anthology book. Imagine all the Bat-Man titles in one “Detective Comics” anthology bringing that book full circle? Imagine one complete Avengers anthology or X-Men. Imagine an all-Vertigo anthology? Marvel is already doing as much with it’s thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man though still publishing three separate books- how about on the fourth week they publish one fat with those three issues in one comic for those who can wait and want it all in one chunk? Why not try it?

Does anyone in comics realize Heavy Metal has been around for as long as it has operating on a similar model? No one in comics seems to notice Mad Magazine or Nickelodeon as potential models either.

What I like about the idea is that, as I said, it brings comics full circle. One reason, besides lowering overhead, that comics flourished in the days when they were published in thicker anthology style comics is that anthologies allow for experimentation. If DC had only featured one hero in Detective would they have given Batman a chance? If Marvel didn’t have an anthology of “Adult Fantasy” would Spider-Man have gained enough audience to sustain a monthly series? Without those anthologies would names like Siegel and Shuster or Kirby or Ditko be as well known? Would those creations even exist?

Anthologies allow unknown creators to get a few pages in front of an audience to develop, grow and even experiment. Anthologies allow new ideas to be tested in the same ways big companies use test markets to try new products. Marvel threw a lot of stuff at the wall in those early days and a lot of things didn't stick, but enough did that a tiny company with a handful of employees became a dominant force in the comics industry and now in Hollywood... all because of anthologies.

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