If you haven’t heard, someone who works for Marvel said some pretty shocking things at a conference of retailers. His theories on why Marvel sales have been down recently were the most alarming. Basically saying that readers were tired of diversity in the Marvel line. A more detailed and accurate synopsis can be found elsewhere on the internet. Here’s one at Newsarama
To borrow a line from a Marvel Comic I read last night: “I don’t have one emotion over this. I have fifty.” (yes, I know it was a Friday night but I’ve never really been one to define my self esteem be defined by what I do on Friday nights).
The big question: Is this a fair assessment?
I’ll skip past the part of whether Marvels sales are down and just assume they are.
To be clear, I can’t explain why sales have declined with 100% certainty. I don’t think Marvel can either, but they likely can come to a conclusion with more certainty than me.
But here are few considerations and hypotheses based on the segments of Marketing:
Marvel has consistently priced higher than other publishers, while DC tries (sometimes) to price below everyone else. Granted Marvel gives extra digital content with each issue, but from what I can tell a lot of readers do not claim the digital content and therefore I argue that the price is not based on the additional content.
In a slightly different take, Image comics generally has the lowest cost trade paper backs (collections of issues) for the first volume of a series. Usually at $9.99 and then the volumes that follow are priced at about $15.99.
It might seem irrelevant to the conversation because the person at Marvel was referring to declining sales of single issues. But it is relevant if consumers are switching from single issues to tpb. Or if the coveted new readers are skipping single issues altogether. After all for the price of 1 image tpb a consumer could only get 2 full price marvel comics that had less than half the content.
In business terms. Image has created a loss leader and it works for them. I don’t think either of the Big 2 have responded to this model. Maybe they don’t need to since they are both part of large entertainment conglomerates and it is possible that the comic book divisions themselves are the loss leaders.
I should mention that starting with trade paperbacks and larger volumes was similar to my experience of becoming a comic book reader, but I eventually came around to single issues.
I don’t think Marvel has supported the diverse character line with any serious promotions to new readers. There were some moments I remember where they were able to receive a generous coverage in mainstream media, but after that I don’t remember anything remarkable promotions.
Think about that for a second. They only promote when a new character or an existing character steps in to assume the mantle of a hero, but then don’t promote any of the plots/stories?
In a different context that would be like announcing the lineup of an Avengers movie and then never making a trailer or advertising for the movie. Sure loyal fans will see it, but over time that base will erode.
It is entirely possible they did make an effort to promote the titles to the new readers they were trying to attract and it didn’t reach me or I don’t remember it.
But wait… There’s more… There are cartoons and movies that have the heros, but they don’t align with the comics in current form. It begs the question: Are the movies and cartoons ads for the comic books or are the comic books ads for the movies and cartoons.
Actually, it doesn’t matter because neither are likely to be effective at promoting the other if they confuse the consumer. Ideally Thor could be a man in a cartoon and a woman in the comics (or vice versa), and both mediums would reinforce that the mantle can change. So when a fan of the cartoon picks up a comic book for the first time they don’t think “This isn’t what I was looking for. where is the thing I’m looking for?”
And in all honesty, it won’t be the other way around. I find it hard to believe that someone reading the comic books that they’ll rent a Thor movie and be confused. The characters in movies and TV are far more accessible than the ones in comic books.
And that is because…
Comic book readers are required to be informed consumers (especially if they are buying more than one title). They know where to purchase their books and what they want out of that experience. It has been that way for a while.
To bring in new comic book readers Marvel either needs to educate them or disrupt industry norms so that consumers do not need to be so informed.
Marvel’s product has changed in other ways besides an increasingly diverse line-up of characters. The volumes are significantly shorter even for major titles. Some get only 12 issues before being moved to a new volume to start at #1 again. Others get fewer.
Issues are also faster to read. Frequently taking less than 10 minutes to read the first time. Older issues had enough content to take up twice that time. This may be a benefit to the consumer as attention spans shorten. But when coupled with a higher price the benefit disproportionately goes to the publisher.
There are more events that disrupt a title’s story. This doesn’t just mean that there is an event issue, but the event can alter the character and the current story line enough that it sabotages the story line for the title the publisher had promised its readers.
Lastly, Marvel is competing against DC’s product which is showing an increase in sales. DC successfully relaunched/rebooted or whatever they called it. It appears to have brought back some of the readership it had lost with the New 52, while retaining some of the newer readers as well. It may last, it may not. As you can see, there are a lot of factors to consider. Noteably: DC changed some of its marketing strategy as part of the initiative. It lowered the price and number of titles offered, but increased the frequency that some titles are published.
Direct Market (Comic Book Stores) – Comic book stores solved a problem for comic book publishers. They were losing readers because grocery and convenience stores stopped buying them due to low sales. So the direct market solved a problem with retaining readers, and from what I understand it did a really good job of it. But this distribution channel has not adapted to bring in new readers with the same success.
Digital Market – It is routinely communicated that digital sales don’t come close to print. But that sentiment doesn’t segment new vs existing readers. When I was a new reader I exclusively read digital. I didn’t know where to buy a comic book and didn’t know what to buy. This overlaps with the comments on low priced trade paperbacks impacting the sales of single issues.
The digital market also includes subscriptions. Marvel offers a digital subscription service for as little as $69/year. It offers a huge catalog of older issues, many as recently as a year ago. Which brings us to…
Secondary Market – The single issue sales referred to in the comment only referred to sales of new issues to retailers. In the broader context, there are about 300 titles per month for sale each ranging from about $3 to $5. As mentioned before these new titles compete against trade paperbacks, but they also compete with the secondary market, otherwise known as “back issues” to the comic book community. To everyone else they are better known as “used”.
New issues constantly compete against the market and the secondary market has a couple of advantages. Again breaking it down by the 4 main areas of Marketing… Price: Back issues are generally less expensive. Some can be as expensive or more expensive than current issues, but there is enough supply that one could spend years probably only reading discounted back issues. Product: For the Big 2 back issues use familiar characters to tell familiar stories. They are longer reads with longer runs. Placement: Many comic book stores sell back issues too! And probably have a wider margin on their sales. There are conventions too which overwhelmingly sell back issues (I’m talking smaller conventions that do not make the Entertainment news). And lastly, there is a healthy assortment of sites that consumers can purchase back issues from.
In addition to that, the secondary market offers another benefit to consumers. Namely, the ability to participate as a seller. Despite the hype, most collections do not sell at a premium. But they can get enough to lower the overall cost.
Anecdotally, as I venture into buying discounted back issues I’m mostly finding Marvel titles in my price range.
Black Market (Pirated copies) – These are most likely digital. Again, hard to track and personally I think pirated copies eventually contribute to more sales. To be clear I do not advocate, purchase or read pirated copies.
Back to my original question: was it a fair assessment? No. The person who made the comment blamed the audience/consumer. I don’t think that’s a winning strategy. But while we’re here lets briefly speculate on what that audience is.
My understanding is the new portrayals of the Marvel cast was to appeal to new readers. That approach was not likely to go over well with 100% customers who were loyal to Marvel, or maybe even a character/team/title/whatever. Is it possible that Marvel did not realize how many customers it had who might be upset by a character switch-up to a different gender or race? And at the same time over estimate how many new readers would commit to years of reading a these issues?
Possible, but not in isolation.
It’s more likely that there are flaws in the pricing, promotion, distribution and design of Marvel’s products.
Framed as a question, could the diversity have been more successful with a better executed marketing strategy?
My opinion: Yes
To bring things back into perspective. I don’t think this is Marvel’s official stance. I don’t think this person was an expert in analysis. I think this was a salesman who slipped up when he was trying to reassure his largest customers (the direct retail market… comic book stores) that the decline in sales was not a reason to buy fewer titles from the publisher and that the publisher was correcting the problem.
Clearly, some of what he said hit a nerve (at least with me).