So what’s up at Marvel anyway! Asher Elbein at The Atlantic, of all places, has an excellent round-up of their recent travails until the title The Real Reasons for Marvel Comics’ Woes which blames “the company’s decades-old business practices” for the sales slump. The piece links to all the relevant think pieces and drags, including several at The Beat, and points to many of the reasons that Brian Hibbs alluded to in his much read column on the matter: too many #1s, too many titles, not enough artistic consistency, and so on:
Marvel’s argument for this approach has typically been that new #1 issues both boost sales and pull in new readers. It’s true that a #1 issue tends to sell quite well on the direct market—but since retailers are ordering inflated amounts sight unseen, it’s an artificial bump at best, and sales drop sharply afterward. In fact, according to an exhaustive and entertaining analysis by the writer and game designer Colin Spacetwinks, this constant churn badly erodes the readership. G. Willow Wilson’s excellent Ms. Marvel, a series starring a young Muslim heroine from Jersey City, debuted at a circulation of roughly 50,000 before holding steady at 32,000; the relaunched version a year later began at around 79,000 before dropping sharply to a current circulation of around 20,000. “Marvel’s constant relaunching … has been harmful to direct market sales overall,” Spacetwinks writes, “as well as harmful to building new, long-term readers.” With every relaunch, it becomes easier to jump off a title.
While Elbein does a fine job of rounding up all of Marvel’s most obvious woes, the ones that intrigue me the most are the invisible ones: the strange edicts on publishing from owner Isaac Perlmutter. The whole FF/X-Men/Inhumans mess for instance, or the even more perplexing problems with the book market.
Marvel has an awful backlist. They have trouble keeping books in print even when the direct market is clamoring for them, as Todd Allen detailed in this story from 2012:
“[It’s been going on] at least five years, possibly more,” says Brian Hibbs, owner of San Francisco’s Comix Experience. “There’s no publisher I remotely have the same problems I have with Marvel.”
“At least five to ten years,” says Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago’s Chicago Comics. “I feel like I’m not part of the logic loop.”
“At least fifteen years,” says Nick Purpura, manager of New York’s Jim Hanley’s Universe. “In recent years, especially, there’s been little rhyme or reason to what’s in print or in what format.”
Marvel has gotten a little better at this as the MCU has become more successful; Old Man Logan was a bestseller for them when the Logan movie hit, and various Guardians of the Galaxy books seem to be doing well now. But in the book world, a backlist is a license to print money; you put out a book, keep it in print and rake in orders, no new costs except printing. Given Marvel’s dream treasury of comcis classics this should be a very easy thing. But it isn’t.
While working on my recent piece on comics in libraries for Publishers Weekly, I came upon yet another problem for Marvel: working with libraries – another source of easy money for most publishers – isn’t much of a priority for them. I had to cut this section out of my piece because of space, but librarians weren’t shy about it.
As one prominent librarian put it to me, “People [in the library space] ask me is there a way to contact Marvel and I say, ‘nope it’s just impossible.’ Often, they’re people who want to buy 200 copies of something. I say ‘Good luck!'”
Another librarian noted that Marvel rarely has representatives at library shows and “they’ve never shown any interest in collaborating in any way or helping out or being involved.”
Now, to be fair to Marvel, they aren’t the only publisher who doesn’t exhibit at ALA or make a representative more available to the library world. They are the most inscrutable, however.
Marvel’s bookstore distributor is Hachette, who reps them at BEX (Book Expo), ALA and other book world shows. Here’s the Graphic Novel event schedule for this year’s American Library Association annual show in Chicago. Kids book publishers, and DC (an early adapter on the library front). Image, Abrams, and Dynamite are among those with a robust presence, including panels and signings. There’s no obvious sign of Marvel participation at all.
EDITED TO ADD: As the comment below reminded me, Marvel is also the ONLY major publisher not available on Hoopla, the digital lending service for libraries that has revolutionized digital lending. I haeard some rumblings that that may be changing but we’ll have to wait and see.
Stronger ties with the library world – which can make up as much as a third of a publisher’s sales – are low hanging fruit for Marvel. It’s true that young readers love Marvel characters and librarians are almost obliged to order their books. But coasting on the pocketbooks of Marvel zombies is a strategy that seems to have become less and less effective every year.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.