16 October 2009

The Future of Comics: A Retailer's Perspective

I have been casting a wide net recently, in hopes of a greater understanding about the state of the comics industry and Direct Market. This week I snared two retailers, Tim Broman and Aaron David, who jointly run Collector’s Connection in Duluth, Minnesota. Tim and Aaron have been in the retailing end of the industry for 20 some years, and as such, I think they have some valuable insights into what is happening in the comics world.

Alexander Ness: Is the Direct Market for distribution of comics dead, and, was the former model better in any respects, that of the newsstand distribution? What distribution model will likely be the one of the future, if there is a future?

Tim Broman: The question behind these questions seems to be in regards to Marvel Comics being taken over by Disney. Direct Market dead? Not from where I sit. The only problem is “not enough players on the field.” Instead of more distributors, I think that the smart Disney people will use the newsstand style distribution to get more Marvel Comics into more spaces. "Marvel Comics - available anywhere with floors, doors, and oxygen."

Aaron Davis: As a whole, the only problem I see with the direct market distribution is the lack of competition/distributors. I know it costs me more money and I get poorer service since Capital City Distribution went under.

Is the Direct Market dead? No. If we did not order through the Direct Market and get the discount necessary to make a profit, we would not be in business. If the direct distribution ends, the only place to buy comics would be stores like Barnes & Noble. There would be fewer buyers and fewer comic specialty stores.

What was/is the most destructive trend in comics that contributed to their downturn as a product, if not artistically?

TB: Nothing -- although the comics industry has always had the bad habit of discovering the Golden Goose, and killing it through overdoing things. Examples of G.I. Joe (the Marvel ones), independent comics, variant covers, #1 issues, no matter...whatever is hot, gets done and redone until no one cares anymore. But every time the prices go up, we lose committed readers. Of course by the time most of them turn 16, we lose committed readers...it’s just that at 16, we start to lose them to cars, and girls. Currently, I hear several complaints about the costs ($3.99 per issue, on average), and the lack of quality that you get with these books. Marvel Comics puts out 16 pages of art -- and most of them are two panels per page -- and the rest is ads. All for $3.99 per issue. But hey...after 23 years in the business, I heard the same stuff when comics hit 75 cents...then a buck...then $1.50...and so on, so forth, and-you-get-where-this-is-going...

What was/is the most destructive trend creatively that contributed to the downturn of the comic market readership?

TB: Again, I say nothing. Comics have always been a “kids” medium. You read them as a child. It wasn’t until the movies made them hip that you would dare read comic books in the open. Otherwise other adults might think you retarded (and we all know that’s what the WWE is for).

AD: I have been reading comics regularly for more than 30 years, and owned a store for 25 years. There are very few comics I follow anymore. For me, the problem is the continuing storylines. The plots are complex, bizarre and hard to follow. It seems the creators are catering to the comic nerd, and not to the mass market that like to pick up a comic once in a while. Some of those casual readers will become regulars if they enjoy the issue they pick up, but if the casual reader has no idea what is going on, you will not gain a new regular reader. The creators seem to have lost the ‘fun’ part of comics, trying to be artsy, gritty, or trendy. Get back to basics, and you will gain new readers to replace the ones that are lost due to the natural life progression. Many readers stop collecting as they enter the high school and college years, but pick it back up once they settle down and have kids of their own.

For me, the comic heroes are fine, but the stories should be based more on reality. I can identify with a hero fighting a human with enhanced abilities attempting to rob a bank, but some of the comics feature the heroes fighting bizarre space aliens trying to blow up the Earth in a story that started 14 issues ago. I have a life, and I cannot follow the story-lines that take months and months to complete.

How does the internet contribute to the problems, how does it offer a solution to them?

TB: “If it don’t kill ya’, it probably makes ya stronger.” That’s how the Internet is. Admittedly, it is harder for a retailer to sell his back issues when you can buy the same thing on eBay for about 25-35% less (including the shipping, which no one does). I’ll bet that a lot of the “brick & mortars” that used to be open are still on Amazon, or eBay.

The internet does offer a solution via its multiple outlets for free advertising and promotion. Collector’s Connection has a FaceBook site. It also lists items and events via CraigsList. We just signed up for LinkedIn (a FaceBook site for Business People), and there is a Yahoo! Group called DULUTH DEALS that we list on. And, aside from your time and labor, it’s all free. So far...

AD: For my business, if I do not have a comic or back issue in stock, my customer will find it online. In the past, the customer would buy something else for his collection, and/or wait until I could find the item he wanted. Now, there is no patience. I cannot carry everything, and I cannot compete with the online community, either on price or selection.

As far as a solution, I can sell my excess inventory online.

I personally don't believe comics will die, and the market is just going through a transformation, do you agree with that? Or is the outlook much more bleak?

TB: From where I sit, the fundamental difference between Disney and Marvel is that Marvel has been actively working on Branding, and Product Placement since the 1990's (although they started in the 1960s, they stepped up a notch in the '90s). But the Disney people have been doing the same branding and placement since the 1930s, and are therefore a lot smarter about it.

If you doubt me, pick a large corporate chain (Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, etc.). Wander through and keep a mental tally of how many Disney items you see, versus how many Marvel items. If my theory holds up, the number of Disney items will be larger. But, in about three to five years, the Marvel market penetration will be on par with the Disney stuff, thanks to the smarter Disney people.

Short term -- lotsa Marvel Comics available anywhere you find Magazines. Bad news for comic shops. Long term -- lotsa new Marvel geeks who will want your back issues. Good news for comic shops.

Also, long term, you will be able to turn your home into something that’ll make you think that Martha Stewart got bitten by a Radioactive Spider...Good news for comic geeks...bad news for comic geeks that want female companionship.

AD: There will always be a core group of collectors, but when comics are not trendy, the number of collectors will shrink, reducing the market, print runs, and number of stores catering to them. They will come back, but there is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar, and the trend is toward flashy electronics. I don’t believe comics will achieve the level of popularity they enjoyed in the past.

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