Re what we love to talk about endlessly in the comments, Brian Hibbs shows up to rescue the endangered maiden pamphlet on his charger of charts. It’s an excellent essay that touches on the attention economy, the monthly payment option, and the fact that periodical sales are up in both units and dollars over the past decade. The last decade is a *bit* misleading since ten years ago we were in the comics equivalent of the Great Depression but the fact stands.
Where Hibbs makes a good point is that the tankoubon ($9.99 manga-sized paperback) model is one that is enabled because the material is already serialized in Japan. And as someone who had worked on P&Ls for traditional book publishers on the costs of making graphic novels, yes, paying a living wage page rate for something that will sell between 10-20K copies IF YOU’RE LUCKY is challenging.
Hibbs also flatters me by referencing my “satisfying chunk” theory and stating that 22 pages CAN be a satisfying chunk — it’s just that these days, it isn’t, but that is a creative problem more than anything.
Where the problem lies, I think — and perhaps this is some of my own doing — is the psychological effect of the “standard attrition” model. It is a fact that comics periodical sales on monthly titles go down on a continuing basis at rates that threaten their profitability. While the war may be a win, the individual battles all seem like “lose.” Or as a widely quoted Tom Spurgeon line from yesterday has it:
I hate to backseat drive companies because I’ve barely made like sixteen dimes from working in comic books, but at some point it seems that if well-regarded series after well-regarded series is broken on the rocks of a market that won’t respond to them, you should start to look at changing the game board to be more receptive to such series as opposed to picking up a game piece you think might work better.
I’m not sure the game board is the only problem. Editorial malaise, increasingly watered down and uninspiring “house styles,” and the tyranny of “branding” have all taken a toll on the spark of creativity that is what makes successful entertainment.
Take another look at Matt Price’s list of 2009’s best periodicals:
3.”Superman Secret Origin”
A subjective list, to be sure, but all of these titles have gotten a wide range of praise and attention, so they could be emblematic of the Class of ’09. (I know GANGES is a ringer but let’s play along.) They also exhibit a fairly significant degree of individual creator vision, or at least craft (I haven’t read SUPERGIRL but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt). I haven’t the time right now to run all the numbers, but UNWRITTEN is up to issue 6 and selling at a level that is a big success for a Vertigo book In This Economy, (north of 15,000 copies) and CHEW has been a big success story out of left field while maintaining a still low (in the scheme of things) but rising sales level.
Of course these books are all overshadowed by events and their henchmen, but there is life in the pamphlet…WHEN ALLOWED.
Who is strangling the periodical? I would have to say, at this point, the buyers themselves, caught in a cycle of fleeting thrills. It’s like getting high huffing glue from daddy’s workbench. It’s temporary and it lasts about seven issues.