By Todd Allen
Today, we keep seeing attempts to bring back limited versions of the newsstand comics rack. 2011’s Barnes & Noble program being the most prominent to get a little press. Interestingly, in recent weeks, both Jim Shooter and Chris Clarement have made comments about the demise of the newsstand system. Coming from these two, the opinions are a bit more interesting as both were on the top of industry when things shifted over from the newsstand to Direct Market in the early-to-mid-80s.
What seemed to be happening was this: The Newsstand market, with its many tens of thousands of outlets (around 75,000, I think) served by the 400+ ID Wholesalers in North America was continually bringing in new readers. Some of them became enthusiasts and found their way to the comics shops. But new newsstand buyers kept turning up to replace them.Titles like G.I. JOE, Transformers and Star Wars helped attract new readers at the newsstands. Most people, especially kids, didn’t know or care who Iron Man was, but every kid knew G.I. JOE. Sooner or later, a kid with a Snake Eyes figure in his pocket was bound to pass a spinner rack somewhere.The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.
He then sets up his idea to throw the newsstand a bone before it disappeared and the conflict with Carol Kalish
As the Direct Market boomed, increasingly it became the focus at Marvel. It was a low-margin business, yes, but it was firm sale, and it was pretty easy to target Direct Market consumers. We knew what they wanted.It was like shooting fish in a barrel.Kalish loved it. Direct Market success meant success for her. She pushed hard to make it our main business. She wanted it to be our only business. The Direct Market was her turf.But all Marvel was my turf. I felt that we needed the newsstand market. That, if we became completely dependent on the Direct Market, we’d wind up in the same position as when we’d been entirely dependent on the newsstand market. Up the creek without a paddle. Screwed. Helpless. At their mercy.I spoke with Marvel’s newsstand sales manager, Denise Bové. Denise was in charge of our dealings with Curtis. Like me, she felt the pendulum had swung too far. So did our Curtis account people.We came up with a number of support-the-newsstand-distribution ideas. I suggested, for instance, doing a newsstand exclusive. Why not? You know the Direct Market shops would go to their local ID’s and buy copies anyway. It would be a big hit for the ID’s, and maybe the retailers they served. And great PR in that market. Maybe get them interested in comics again. A little.
We all know who one this one, but it’s interesting to hear Shooter’s account of Kalish’s anti-newsstand speaking point:
Kalish vehemently opposed a newsstand exclusive. She vehemently objected to any support of any kind for the newsstand. She claimed that the Direct Distributors and shop owners would see any such things as betrayal, rise up in anger and retaliate against Marvel. Why not just hand the Direct Market over to DC?
Which is the exact argument that’s used for any non-Direct Market proposal to this very day. Anybody heard this argument applied to digital over the years?
Kalish is considered a saint in many corners. Shooter specifically mentions her cash register initiative earlier in the article. It’s the first time I’ve heard her placed as driving the stake through the heart of the dying newsstand market, rather than the savior leading comics to the Direct Market.
Then over at CBR, you’ve got Claremont recalling the transition:
Comics publishers are used to looking in a very, very narrow focused prism. It’s like when I started writing X-Men. Our “meat and potatoes” money was made of newsstand sales, while anything that came through the Direct Market was considered gravy. In everything we did in those early years up through the ’80s, everything we sold to the Direct Market was pure profit because we’d already paid for the printing with our newsstand sales; we were just cranking out money.
But on the flipside, when DC made the decision to go exclusively to the Direct Market, it made life much easier because they’d have the orders in before they set the print runs and would just print a marginal amount of extra copies. That way you didn’t have to worry about 200,000 excess copies unsold by the newsstand, for example. But the negative to being exclusively aimed at the Direct Market is that you’re selling to a committed audience and not bringing any new kids in the door. When Marvel followed DC’s route for the Direct Market, they were going for guaranteed profit and minimal risk, but newsstands had a much bigger potential for sales and induction of new readers.
Once local comic shops began going away in the ’90s, it put a lot of those readers out because not many people are willing to drive 40 or 50 miles for comics; they’ll simply move on to other things. The fiscal decision in the ’90s to maximize profit at the expense of investment was like cutting our own throats. But on the other hand, the guys making those decisions are now billionaires.
Claremont lays the blame on DC moving into the DM and Marvel following. Shooter says Kalish and the suits abandoned the newsstand for the non-returnability of the DM and DC followed. Both agree on the economic argument for the newsstand.
The funny thing is, everyone used to just agree that the newsstand was in a lot of trouble at the time. Has it now been long enough for hindsight and blamestorming to kick in?
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.