By Brian Hibbs
I want to congratulate you on your new position as Editor-in-Chief at Marvel comics; from what I know about you I think you’ll probably fit the job pretty well. There’s been a lot of chatter about Marvel’s content, and I’d like to talk a bit more about it from this retailer’s point-of-view.
You don’t really know me – as I recall, we had a drink together at a Garth Ennis-hosted event after the first New York Comic Con in ’06, though I wouldn’t expect you to especially remember that, or me. I imagine you meet a lot of people, and your focus hasn’t typically been on retailers. However, all of the people we have in common have pretty nice things to say about you, and you certainly have a fine reputation for taking care of creators, which is pretty important in my worldview.
I have (he said, understating things) a bit of a history with Marvel comics. I led (and won) a class action suit when the Jemas-era company decided to not honor the contacts that they wrote, and I’ve generally been a critic over the years. But what I sure hope you and the rest of the folks at Marvel understand is that when retailers are critical it’s because we want the Direct Market’s biggest publisher to succeed, and help us retailers succeed – literally, if Marvel drops in sales, then each and every retailer in America drops along with them.
I believe that Marvel comics is the best-known brand in comics, even to the point where the general public can confuse things – I’ll never forget the fight a customer picked with me on the phone insisting that Marvel comics created Superman! I also believe that readers like serialized entertainment and that the low-cost entry that periodical comics equal means there’s a pretty huge market out there for Marvel comics that has, by and large, been mismanaged for the last decade or so.
In my store, most Marvel periodical comics are selling really badly right now. For example, at my main store, for January-shipping books, my single-highest order for a Marvel comic is “Black Panther” #169 at just 40 copies ordered. There are only two other Marvel books that we’re ordering over 25 copies of that month. Even more worryingly, there are twenty-six ongoing Marvel series that I’m not even ordering double-digit numbers of. It’s probably pretty safe to say that Marvel sales are at their nadir for my store, and when we look at the national numbers, things seem bad for everyone when the first post-Legacy issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” (#790) – Marvel’s best-selling superhero title – can’t even beat 53k.
But, here’s the important thing for me: we’re currently selling 110 copies of “Saga” at my main store – nearly three times as many as Marvel’s biggest hit for us – and we have five other series from Image that are also selling more copies than Marvel’s number one book, despite Marvel being better known with more resources. This suggests to me that there’s no paucity of people who are interested in purchasing serialized comics whatsoever – it’s just that they’re not really interested in purchasing what Marvel has on offer and/or the manner in which Marvel offers it.
Because of Marvel’s clear advantages in name recognition and branding, I happen to think that if “Batman” can consistently sell over 100k in the national market, Marvel should have no less than five regular ongoing comics beating that each and every month.
I don’t really thing I am saying anything shocking or surprising here. The fact that you were brought in, and Axel Alonso was forced out before the second month of sales figures from “Legacy” even went public is recognition that something needed to change – but I want to caution you that I don’t think the problem is only content.
Oh, sure, that’s part of it, and the content certainly needs to be given a big ol’ stir and kept freshened up, but at the end of the day, I think the bigger problem facing Marvel is the overall nature of Marvel’s publishing plans is the opposite of how consumers are interested in purchasing comics.
Specifically: Marvel is radically over-producing, both in the absolute number of comic books that are being released, but also more specifically in the number of series produced within each “family” of series, and even more specifically for the number of issues-per-year that each of those series produce. While it’s bad enough that there were 158 comic releases (including variants) being offered to me in January 2018; it’s more specifically bad that there are eight different Spider-Man related series being published that month; and it’s even more specifically bad that in the four months of “Legacy” that Oct-Jan represent, Marvel has offered eight issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” alone.
The quintessential bandwidth problem that this presents to consumers is, of course, multiplied by Marvel’s pricing structure with $3.99 comics as your vanguard.
So I don’t think that “merely” changing some of the content will especially change the trajectory of Marvel’s sales in 2018 – more than anything else, you have recoup the faith of the market; both consumers and retailers.
But, here’s the problem: “Legacy” flopped badly in the greater market as far as I can tell. Obviously, the December and January numbers will tell more of the tale, but the anecdotal stories from retailers of every size and shape are pretty uniform: “Legacy” shat the bed. Not only did it not reignite sales, but in many cases I’m hearing from scores of my peers, sales are actually lower than they were before “Legacy” started – they certainly were for me on multiple titles. It’s the kind of the once-in-a-generation burn that will change the ordering behavior of many retailers forever – I can see many of my peers with so much overstock of both lenticular covers and the “regular” editions that they’re resorting to sell copies at below-wholesale costs just to recoup some cash flow, so they can keep the doors open.
In my general area of Northern California, there are at least two stores that have already announced imminent closure, and I know three more that have told me how badly they’re struggling, and there are two more that my mark-one eyeball can see are on probably their last legs. If this is even remotely similar in other regions, first quarter 2018 might see the biggest wave of store closures in decades. Certainly, my own stores are at eight and sixteen-months of consecutive year-over-year comparative declines, and as a percentage, a greater percentage of those declines is coming from Marvel than other publishers.
It is my opinion that the current state of affairs is almost entirely in the hands of publishers – yes, including but not exclusively Marvel Comics – who are radically over-producing racks full of mediocre comics and then failing to do essentially any marketing and promotion to then sell consumers on those books. That, as a methodology, worked pretty well in 1988, and worked at least marginally in 2008, but in 2018 is a fast-track to terrible sales.
Part of the problem is that there are now hundreds of hours of superhero-based entertainment out there in a moving, talking form – and depending on your own household, most of it is essentially “free”, being beamed into your house with little-to-no intervention. This, in my mind, is actually tamping down much of the enthusiasm for new superhero comic books, unless they’re done with exceptional craft, or are breaking new ground in some fashion. Which the majority of new superhero comics don’t and aren’t.
In some ways, this is the natural outgrowth of the last decade worth of trends in trying to push the comic out into bookstores and to other media – the wider the marketplace, the less space there is for marginal ideas and execution to succeed, (Because markets eventually weed out prime market access to everything except the most profitable material) despite it being slightly easier to barely-hang-on since there are a greater number of eyeballs now looking overall.
The problem is that for physical-based retailers, the sheer explosion of mediocre midlist is essentially untenable: carrying and displaying and handling inventory carries a cost and once you drop below a certain threshold of sales, most of your cash flow isn’t providing an especially large amount of profit (if any). As a general rule, that threshold is almost certainly above a national sales amount of about 20,000 copies – that averages out to something around ten copies per store, and below that we’re not really generating any real profit to handle those books.
Again, I don’t think I am saying anything especially new here – we can all read the sales charts, and do basic math! – but I think it’s critical to Marvel’s 2018-and-beyond plans that you try to rethink your actual publishing and marketing goals and efforts because content changes, alone, won’t move the needle effectively.
I think that the following needs to be done, regardless of any other changes to content:
First and foremost, it’s time to put a stake in the heart of the gated variant cover. I’m not generally a fan of variants in the first place because of the way they distort the marketplace and send the wrong messages to collectors, but putting variants behind “gates” (ie: “you must buy 150% of what you bought of X, in order to buy any copies of Y”) is anti-competitive and a sure way to make retailers are buying products that they can not sell. Dividing retailers into “haves” and “have nots” only makes the weak weaker, and at the end of the day, margins on comics are not so healthy that there’s really any room for stores to purchase material that they can not sell-through, radically reducing profit unless they’re inflating the cost of those variants, which inherently becomes consumer unfriendly. When you’re dealing with a business predicated at least in part upon collectability, telling consumers that they can not access every release is a sure-fire way to turn a percentage of them from the hobby itself.
Second, unless and until individual-title audience-size rises fairly dramatically (which absolutely can be done), there’s really no current Marvel “family” which can properly support more than a single release in any given week, and, to be perfectly honest, virtually none of them can really viably support more than one a month. Marvel has taken crown jewels like “X-Men” that used to sell well more than two hundred thousand copies a month, and reduced them to series that have a hard time reliably hitting over a fifth of that. Even your one real remaining periodical success, “Star Wars”, has dropped by nearly a third once you started ramping up the number of series being produced each month. You’re splitting your own audience, and asking them to choose between your own company’s releases. I think there’s a serious problem when the month a brand new “Star Wars” movie is released, the eponymous comic book sells barely sixty-five thousand copies, and it seems to me that this problem is clearly on Marvel.
Third, the correct publication frequency for the vast majority of periodical comics is monthly. Faster than that and consumers have a really hard time keeping up, retailers get stuck with more unsold product, and you give nothing but encouragement for the market to cut the number of copies entering the market, rather than trying to maximize sales. Highly targeted and marketed, fully-communicated increased shipping can work for books that are on creative- and story-driven highs, but randomly scattering sixteen issues throughout a year on nearly every series, just assuming the customers will absorb all of that yields little but faster churn on “standard attrition”.
As a corollary to that: due to the nature of the non-returnable marketplace, there is no occasion in which it is acceptable to launch a new ongoing series where retailers do not have the full and complete normal FOC cycle for the first four months of release (that is: having the current issue in-hand, with a full week of sales data, before the next issue’s Final order is due) – without some sort of safety mechanism (like: returnability) designed to mitigate the redistribution of risk that brings to the retailer. Weekly, bi-weekly series, these things completely suck to order in the best cases, and the wild swings that new series can have between releases in those initial issues are never the best case.
Fourth, something has to give in terms of pricing – at $3.99 for a bare twenty pages of content, the material has to superlative for the consumer to be willing to support that. There certainly are comics that consumers will pay that price for without blinking twice, but exceptionally few of them are published by Marvel today.
Finally, the comics should be leading the conversation of who and what the characters and stories are, you should not be following other media. Making the Marvel Universe more in lockstep with the MCU is not bringing in new readership and is alienating some older readers. ‘nuff said.
I think a much smaller, much tighter Marvel universe – something much more like 8-10 releases a week, where each and every comic released “counts”, where a normal person could conceivably read them all, and would really want to – is where you want to be. I want in my stores more books where I am selling triple digits, and really none that only move in single digits. I can’t profit from the latter, and they only take away visibility for the former.
You’re Marvel Comics, for god’s sake, a periodical that sells less than fifty thousand copies should be cancelled for damaging the brand!
The last few years of treat-them-like-an-ATM publishing did a lot of harm to Marvel’s brand, and “Legacy” put a horrible cherry on top by promising a lot, and delivering exactly the same thing the market has now rejected over multiple cycles. And the well is poisoned enough that I’m not sure how you’re going to ever get a big retailer buy-in again without dramatically changing the underlying publishing dynamic. It can’t be same old, same old any more, the market itself is very close to fundamentally breaking if something from the Market Leaders doesn’t change significantly, very quickly.
In other words: welcome to the X-Men, hope you survive the experience!
Thanks for listening, and Make Mine Marvel. (Please!)
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.