Why Comic Book Sales Suck, by Mike Gold
Last week, ComicMix commenter Alan Coil and I got into a brief discussion about what constitutes decent comic book sales. It is certainly fair for Alan to compare sales against current trends; I like to compare sales against sales potential in the marketplace.
There’s a market for comic books. This is borne out by the fact that ComicMix, much like Wizard Magazine and other venues over the past decade or so, attracts a bigger audience than the vast majority of all comics published in the United States, as measured by the number of different people who actually read the stuff. Yet despite all the success of comic book product in other media – from Iron Man to Road To Perdition – there has been little if any increase in domestic comics sales. How could this be? Herein lies a history lesson.
Forget about the never-ending über-convoluted and oft-retconed continuity. I’ve bitched about all that before, and, happily, our commenters comment consistently thereupon. To look to the root of this particular evil, we must set our WaBac Machines way back to, oh, around 1948. That’s when the comics publishers started to piss in their own soup.
In 1948, comic book publishers were sailing in dire straits. Average sales were down, the number of titles were up, rack space was getting crowded, and super-heroes weren’t selling like they used to. Clearly, that trend was winding down. Magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest were telling parents that comic books caused juvenile delinquency and promoted homosexuality. Neighborhood candy stores and newsstands started to disappear, as did local drug stores. Bolstered by the G.I. Bill, young adults with small children were leaving for the suburbs – a mysterious land with higher-rent open air shopping strips where drug store owners couldn’t make a buck off of selling high-maintenance items for 10 cents.
Creeping Werthamism aside, comics publishers were not alone in this situation. The diminishing presence of traditional newsstands grossly affected newspaper and magazine sales across the board. Papers raised their price from three or four cents to a nickel; a substantial increase, percentage-wise. Magazines raised their prices in a similar fashion; the dime novel, which by now was 15¢, was being replaced by the 25¢ paperback book.
So what did comics publishers do? Did they follow the other publishers in raising cover price? The other publishers weren’t fighting PTAs and major magazines and, eventually, senate subcommittee hearings as they were. They felt that increasing their price to 15¢ was a bad idea. So they cut content.
Actually, they cut content by one-third. They downsized from 48 interior pages to 32. This made the entertainment value plummet by, oh, roughly one-third. It virtually killed the anthology comic, which was the bread-and-butter of the industry to date.
It also allowed more comics to squeeze into the spinner racks. That might sound like a good idea, particularly if you’re one of the smaller publishers who previously found your titles underrepresented in the stores. But if you’re one of the larger publishers, you’re finding yourself in competition with the smaller guys who, not having Archie Andrews or Clark Kent to fall back on, started to delve into the crime and horror fodder that upset the censors so much. It was great for Gleason and for EC Comics, but not so great for the 400-pound gorillas.
More important – most important – the retailers made exactly as much money off of a 10¢ comic book as they did before. Had the price gone up to 15¢, they would have made half-again as much money. On a dollar-volume per square-foot of retail floor space, a paperback rack was much more profitable. If they put their comics on the same wooden racks as their magazines, the profit on a 10¢ item simply wasn’t worth the effort.
More and more, comic books were getting dumped into a cardboard box on the floor of the rack, next to the newspapers. Hardly a great way to promote individual titles, and a less-than-enticing opportunity for mothers who had to wash their children’s clothes that were actually being dirtied by those dirty comic books.
As mom-and-pop drug stores and five-and-dime stores continued to disappear under competition from the chain stores in the lovely shopping strips and, increasingly, those newfangled enclosed malls, comic books were simply too cheap to be worth the store manager’s time. In 1962, publishers finally took the plunge and raised their price to 12¢; too little and far, far too late.
The funny thing is, I strongly suspect that had comics kept economic pace with the rest of the publishing world, they would be no cheaper and probably even more expensive today. But we’d still have 48 page comics, and we’d be able to buy more of them in a whole lot more places.
The “direct sales” system was created to supplement newsstand sales, not replace them. When the late (and much-missed) Phil Seuling started the whole thing in the early 1970s, he initially sold books to “comic book clubs” and then only in 25 copy increments. There was no intent to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course, now with today’s convoluted multi-title asinine-event story structure, you have to hang out at your friendly neighborhood comic book store in order to understand a damn thing… if then.
With the success of all these super-hero movies, American comic books have never been more successful. And, ironically, average American comic book sales have never been lower.
What a way to run a railroad.
Mike Gold is editor-in-chief of ComicMix.