Sidepost: Disney and 21st Century

Sidepost is a series of opinion posts that are slightly off topic for a blog about comic books and genre fiction.

The Case of the Tortured Metaphor

Remember that expensive thing you wanted so badly because you thought it would increase your coolness factor so much (or in my case… give me a coolness factor).

Imagine if when you went to buy it the retailer apologetically explained that someone else was willing to pay significantly more for it. After thinking it over you offer more, but you have a great idea that if the retailer accepts a different offer they pay you for your time and trouble. In cash, not store credit.

Inevitably, the other person offers more. What do you decide to do? BTW, that great idea gets you $1.5 billion for your time and troubles. Again, in cash, not store credit.

Disney’s High Risk Maneuvering

Disney, who had been making these offers with corporate stock, has been saying they will be able to capitalize on the coolness factor. But by raising the stakes, the risk rises each time that they will not profit from it, because the cost is higher.

Additionally Disney has made a new offer, which means they essentially are walking away from the $1.5 billion assuming Disney wins out.

In this last offer Disney has apparently offered the option of cash instead of stock to fend off more cash offers from Comcast. This puts a real price tag on it that it will have to clear, which I think is somewhat preferable to offering shares of ownership to the Murdoch family. Yes, they are media savvy, but history has shown that they have an agenda and it flies in the face of the types of features (movies, TV, comic books… etc.) Disney makes its bread and butter on.

Do you like innovative stories that focus on including different types of characters? So do I, but I’m not convinced the owners of 21st Century Fox do too. I’m guessing that as soon as one of those movies doesn’t perform well, the new shareholders start pressuring to suppress all the properties they don’t like.

So ya, it’s risky with cash, but it is even riskier with stock. because you aren’t just acquiring property. You’re acquiring owners too.

The Cool Factor

For Disney 2 things are at stake (the cool factor they are willing to risk so much to acquire): 1) The Fantastic Four and X-Men movie rights 2) The rights to the original Star Wars trilogy.

These round out two recent acquisitions for Disney which have been very profitable. Specifically: Marvel and Lucasfilms.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a Fantastic Four movie in the MCU. Even though the FF is considered the first family of Marvel, their best comicbooks are wayyyy out there. I think now, after Avengers Infinity War, the MCU is sufficiently weird enough for a Fantastic Four story.

But the Star Wars saga is at a crossroads, if not an identity crisis. I don’t think Disney needs to spend vast quantities of money until it is resolved or at least on the road to being resolved. Basically, before they buy the cool accessory to complete their collection they need some assurances the collection will still be cool for the foreseeable future.

A Back up Plan

There are other ways to acquire the properties other than acquiring a company. Disney can just as easily make a generous offer just for those specific properties. They could probably even do it with a financial instrument tied to the revenue of just those properties.

Or do a joint venture, like the one with Sony for the Spider-man properties.

My Advice (Opinion)

Don’t sell your soul. Especially when you can get $1.5 billion cash money for not selling your soul.

 

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Sidepost: Marvel, Diversity & Sales

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:

Price

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.

Promotion

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.

Product

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.

Placement (Distribution)

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).

A Rebirth at DC

DC_Rebirth

Yesterday some important people at DC Comics posted a simple image that suggests something big is happening. I have no inside scoop and but here are my random speculations and questions.

  1. A renumbering of titles. That would make sense if a publishing company is going to have a ‘Rebirth’.
  2. An attempt at tighter continuity or maintain the current loose continuity?
    1. The previous tighter continuity of the New52 required Batman to have 6 Robins in like 3 years (or something almost as ridiculous). It also complicated the Batman Eternal storyline when Batgirl’s character was redesigned.
    2. The post convergence continuity is a lot looser. The Wonder Woman in the Comic has a different costume than the one in the Justice League. It allowed for titles like Bizarro, which was a hilarious departure from the grim and gritty universe is at stake (but not really… because reboot!) of the DC Universe. The looser continuity also allows for titles like Dark Knight III, which has been a huge boost to DC.
    3. My own opinion is that DC’s continuity has been disrupted and beyond repair for decades. I like to current focus on trying to write better stories and worrying about continuity later.
  3. More Digital First Comics?
    1. I have no proof but this seems like an unmitigated success. DC chops up a story line into thirds and then does a print run. It’s a good way of proving that the title has enough demand to sell through the more expensive channel.
  4. Price hike?
    1. While I’ve tried to steer away from super-hero titles in my reading. The prices of DC (usually the lowest) keep me in. The ads aren’t any more distracting than the ones in Marvel’s books. But I’m much more likely to pick up an ongoing DC title than an ongoing Marvel, based on price alone.
  5. Weeklies? or Bi-Weeklies?
    1. I read an internet rumor that DC was going to start printing some titles twice a month, but in the past couple years DC has produced some titles weekly. (Batman Eternal being a rather important one for me).
  6. ?
    1. Will DC follow Marvel’s lead and include vouchers for digital versions of the purchased book? In part to justify a price hike?
  7. Tying in or Aligning with TV and Movies?
    1. Very few of the characters that are on TV are remotely close to their characters that have books… assuming they have books. There are a few inbetween stories told in comics of the TV shows, but they aren’t even alluded to a little bit in the shows.
  8. What’s going to happen to the titles I’m reading?
    1. Black Canary… ok I actually was planning on stopping after the first arc, but the end of the first arc was inconclusive. They have a great set up now for what could turn into a long run. If they align the character to what’s on tv… it will end before it even started.
    2. Gotham Academy… The series has had a strong start, but has had to deal with the typical tie ins that disrupt the momentum. It could have a nice long run. But it feels incredibly fragile.
  9. Will titles ship on time?
    1. This has been a problem since DC’s move to LA.

That’s all I can think of for now… What else am I missing (or got wrong)?

 

Sidepost: Moving from Digital to Print Comics

Sidepost is a series of slightly off topic posts to this comic book & storytelling blog.

Somewhere a Marketing Director has earned her or his wings. Over the past year I have moved almost completely away from digital comic books on Comixology and Amazon Kindle to actual comic books printed on paper in real life. Here are some of the reasons I switched:

  1. Two page spreads. These render terribly on my tablet and my tablet is fairly large. I think it might have been after the 4th issue of Gotham Academy that I just couldn’t take it any more. The art was so captivating and I just couldn’t fully enjoy it on my tablet. Not only did I commit to purchasing new titles in print, I went onto ebay and ordered back issues of the series.
  2. Resale Value. Not talking earning a return on investment here or even a store of value. Just resale, however small. I’ve always been in the habit of trying to buy used books (novels, nonfiction etc…) before buying new. For me part of buying used is selling a handful of what I have from time to time. The offers are never a lot, but I essentially treat it as a discount. I plan on extending this practice to my comic book collection.
  3. Batman Eternal. This was a weekly title and it got me interested in reading a title every Wednesday. Not only that, but I’d read the reviews online to see what other people were saying. I know this is probably atypical, since it seems the conventional wisdom is that a cross-over event should be what sucks readers in, but for me it was a weekly. And I’d take a weekly any day over a mega-crossover event. It’s also worth noting that there were a lot of two page spreads in Batman Eternal and after completing the series I was bummed that I had spent all that money on something that couldn’t retain its value. (See #2)
  4. Breaking up the Work Week. Buying print copies offers me an an excuse to get out of the office for an hour every Wednesday during my lunch break. This ritual may seem insignificant, but it has actually become an important part of my week. I look forward to Wednesday afternoon as much as I look forward to Saturday morning.
  5. Local Comic Book Shop. The people working the store do a great job of fostering community and making newcomers feel welcome.

Sidepost: What’s good for Disney

Continuing from a previous sidepost, This post continues down the rabbit hole of the Marvel Comic book universe.

Some fans divide themselves into Marvel and DC. To me it seems more like Marvel and not Marvel.

It has been rumored for a while that DC has been not hitting revenue targets (which is different from losing money). More noticeably DC has been losing market share, while Marvel apparently is not. This suggests to me that people who read DC titles also read titles from other publishers, while Marvel fans stick to Marvel. I may even guess that those non DC titles might not be super-hero titles.

I’m not speculating on DC’s downfall, but I will mention that it doesn’t appear that Marvel’s fan is growing.

In my previous post, I shared my struggles of trying to enjoy Marvel’s Spider Gwen, a title that was supposed to be accessible for new readers (which apparently meant never having read a Marvel comic book but completely understanding the Marvel comic book universe).

I left that series thinking that in order to love Marvel, you must first love Marvel.

The question I ask is this: Will Disney execs let this perpetual barrier to new readers continue?

I imagine their interest is to sell Marvel products to Disney’s loyal fan base (customers). And use Marvel to expand Disney’s fan base. This second piece is a lot harder to implement. I don’t think anyone views Marvel as a gateway to Disney.

Maybe this is the reason behind the non-reboot renumbering. (Wild speculation follows) Maybe Disney gave marching order to make the comic books more accessible to new readers (Disney fans), but Marvel pushed back and said it would be at the expense of losing loyal (Marvel) fans. Disney, of course, didn’t care. Marvel exists for Disney now. Not the other way around. Nothing personal. It’s just business.

(speculation continues) So Marvel’s trying to convince Disney it’s making them more accessible by resetting the numbering and introducing origins that may or may not be understandable to new readers. But at the same time Marvel is holding the line and saying it is not a reboot.

(speculation continues and grows wilder) If it doesn’t go well Marvel will blame the orders that came from Disney, and Disney’s response will be it’s your fault, this new guy will solve it. Sorry, but you’ve been replaced.

I’m sure I’m projecting a lot of drama onto this scenario.

Sidepost: Marvel

Sidepost is a series of slightly off topic posts to this comic book & storytelling blog.

Comic book fans tend to divide themselves (and each other) into two camps: Marvel and DC. To me it appears that it is really Marvel and not Marvel.

The Marvel comic book universe has always been impenetrable while simultaneously appearing to be inescapable. A fortress that is next to impossible to break into, but when you do it seems like you are never able to escape.

That’s not to say that I haven’t tried. But here is one of a handful of examples where I tried to scale those walls: Spider-Gwen.

I love the art. I love the concept. I don’t connect with the plot because I’m not a level 9 Marvel fan. The issues of Spider Gwen rely heavily on the drama from the characters counterparts in the more established universe.

So for a new comer like me there’s a lot of subtext and no way to enjoy it without spending hundreds of dollars.

Let’s take a step back to appreciate that for a second.

In order to appreciate to approx. 22 pages of storytelling in a $5 comic book, I must first invest hundreds of dollars in obtaining back issues or digitally. All of which suffer the same problem. You must understand the whole to appreciate the parts.

The movies, cartoons and TV shows are fun, but it’s not a cost effective substitute for purchasing the Marvel comic book canon.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or it sucks. It just doesn’t work for me as a reader and I would speculate it won’t work (much longer) for the execs at Disney.

But I’ll save that for another Sidepost.