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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Objection: Facts not in evidence

Not to evaluate every mass-media reference to trends in the comics market — much less places that do unsigned snippets about Madonna, video games, and American Idol like gossip-and-fad-chaser Radar Online — but its latest "exclusive" revelation on "The End of Comic Books" cobbles together a couple of data points and leaps wildly into the blue.

Following the discussion of the potential impact of electronic readership on comics, the piece quotes DC's John Cunningham from the New York Comicon panels saying that, "if 10% of the readers migrate to an e-device, that is gonna throw off the economics for 60% of the (comic) books that are published in this country." Fair enough, and possibly true. But it's incorrect for the reader to infer that online migration is a flat loss to the publisher, since the publisher does play a role in determining both the economics and the timing of the online migration. Ten percent leaving to read bootleg is not the same as 10% being otherwise monetized by the publisher — and while no current known monetization scheme would allow a publisher to see the same $2.99 on an electronic version, the presumption has always been that publishers wouldn't depend on just that 10% of existing readers, but a larger pool, available only online, to make the books balance. If offering an online channel cuts print sales by 10% — and an online channel needs to attract, say, twice as many readers as you have print customers to make up that 10% of lost print sales — you're not likely to offer that channel in the first place until you can expect that level of interest. That's why it's taken so long.

So point #1 leaves a few steps out. Point #2 from the piece, saying that while sales of graphic novels are up 5% (a number it got from Advertising Age and previously from Diamond), "that is expected to go in reverse as more content becomes available online." The problem is, thus far, the absolute opposite has been true. Overall comics and trade paperback sales have been up eight years in a row at Diamond. Not by as much in this last year of recession for the general economy — but trade paperbacks continue to lead the way. If the amount of comics-related content has increased every year of the Internet's existence — and graphic novel sales have also increased every one of those years — where is the causal relationship? So if it's an expectation, it's an expectation based on looking at something else. There's more evidence to say that the Internet, with its promotional power and the presence of Amazon and eBay, has popularized the trade paperback as has harmed it.

The unnamed author expects Marvel and DC to remain merchandising powerhouses, but predicts the end of the local comic book shop — "and it's not gonna do the bag-and-board makers a whole lotta good either." This reference overlooks a constant — that because of the tens of billions of comic books already in collectors' hands, comics will always be with us. I expect the Bags Unlimited of the world will have things to bag for a good long time.

Obviously, this isn't a searching analysis by a business site, but a blurb on a pop-culture gossip aggregator. (There's no way to respond to Radar's post on the site — and even the "contact" section is blank, "currently being updated.") But these are the sorts of reports that build narratives when unchallenged; I fully believe that mass-media reports on the sure-fire speculative value of new comic books in the early 1990s aggravated the situation in the market — especially as many appeared late in the game encouraging unprepared publishers and collectors to jump in. External decision-makers don't always have access to all the facts.

It is well to look at the trends and wonder where the future lies — and there are certainly a variety of issues facing comics and categories where numbers are going the wrong way. People who write on message boards that comics are in trouble often aren't aware that industry dollar sales in aggregate have been trending upward annually for most of this decade, but they often are responding to component trends, like unit sales declines within monthlies and price increases. But among pieces directed at the outside world, the more helpful ones are usually those that base their predictions — and statements of current conditions — on as much of the available data as possible.
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Unknown said...

But do publishers really see the full 2.99 on paper editions? It's possible that the lower price point of digital edition might bring in a equal or better roi than paper editions - and that's not eve taking into account all the long tail sales such a distribution method might have. :)

-jim Shelley

John Jackson Miller said...

You're right, they only see about three eighths of the price -- but then the also see revenue from advertising and then reprinting as a trade, which depending on the work could work out to less than $2.99 a book or substantially more.

The amount needed to "replace" thus varies by publisher and by title, but the larger point was that, as of now, the advertising alone in digital editions hasn't been enough to drive the traditional publishers that way. I have heard varying formulas over the years along the lines of "30 online readers replace 1 print purchaser, etc." -- I don't know what that number would be, but my guess is it's still too high for the old revenue model.

Unknown said...

Ah! That 30 to 1 ratio might be how the are getting the 10% = 60% formula quoted in the other article maybe?

Thank you for the explanations and interesting commentary btw!

- jim Shelley

John Jackson Miller said...

No, I just gave 30-to-1 as an example -- no one knows what the number will be, as it'd be different for each title. A title related to a video game might offer better online advertising opportunities, for example, and wouldn't need as many replacement readers online as something with less potential for advertisers.

Cunningham, I think, was saying that if all titles lost 10% of their circulation, the economics for 60% of them would change substantially -- not break even, perhaps?

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