Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chronic Analysis: Winnowing!

The more I think about winnowing the direct market, the more I'm convinced I'm right. Now, CB Cebulski is quite certain that I'm an idiot and that only the Powers That Be at Marvel have the situation down cold. And, you know, clearly they've got everything under control over there. ;-)

Frankly if I were CB Cebulski, I wouldn't trust me, either. Look at my hair for fuck's sake. That is not the coif of a credible source. And yet...go copulate yourself, Mr. Cebulski.

Because you guys DON'T have an exclusive line on truth, or even marginally good ideas. You have seven readers under the age of 30. Your characters have created literally millions of movie fans and billions of dollars, and you've translated all of that exposure into exactly ZERO new comics readers.

So go fuck yourself and the high horse you're perched on at present. Now I'm not talking to you, CB Cebulski. I'm talking about snarky executive types who believe in their own papal infallibility while their city burns to the ground in front of them. Maybe it's time for a new tactic. Maybe it's time to listen to the people. That's where I come in.

Winnowing: The Basic Concept

What I propose is that Marvel and DC review their publishing strategy and drastically reduce the amount of titles they offer on a monthly basis. It's that simple.

Q: But isn't that insane?

A: I know it sounds a little counter-intuitive to offer less product in the midst of frighteningly low sales figures and aggressive attrition. There are lots of reasons why it makes logical and economical sense.

Name one.

All right, let me ask you this - is it better to sell:

A) 20,000 copies of 10 different titles
B) 100,00o copies of 1 title

It's way better to go with A.

Actually, it super isn't. The easy math says A sells twice as many copies as B. But life is rarely that simple.

In the short term, it's possible that you make out slightly better with A, but just by a hair if at all. Part of the problem with A is that you're paying 10 different creative teams, where B is only paying one. So the production costs are not equal.

Neither are the margins on printing. If you've ever planned a wedding, you know that it costs about $7,000 to print 50 invitations, and about $7,025 to print 1,000 invitations. A similar phenomenon exists with comics printing. The actual cost between running 20,000 issues and running 100,000 is negligible, even in color. As your print run increases, so do your margins.

But there's more.

Attrition is a fact in the current market. Unless you tie a book directly into an event or suddenly switch to a higher-profile set of creators, your book is going to sell fewer comics this month than it did last month. Next month? You guessed it, it will go down again. That's just the way it is in 2010.

At 20,000 issues, you're in the black, but not by much. And the clock is ticking...fast. You're on life support, and the prognosis is terminal. If you're an indy creator, selling 10,000 issues is enough to make rent, and the trade collection might even get you a new car someday. If you're a publicly traded company owned by Disney or Warner Bros? That's not even Taco Bell money. There's no point. All of your money got caught up in production.

At the 100,000 issue level, you've got a nice healthy profit margin. Your creator costs are going to be roughly 10% that of B, your margins are better by a mile, and perhaps most importantly of all....you have time. That 1-2% monthly attrition hurts, but you're a long way from the red. There's time to let the fields lay fallow for a bit before you shake things up again. You're not living every moment of your life with one foot in the grave. There's time.

That's great, but if it was so easy to make 100,000 copy selling titles, they'd just do that. How is it going to happen?

It's going to happen when you winnow the chaff out and give the buyers a 20-25 title stable of healthy, delicious wheat.

How do you know that?

I don't know that, per se. But think about it for a moment. What is the prevailing profit strategy for the big 2? Are they going out and aggressively drumming up new business? Are they advertising to non-comics readers and sending them into your local comic shop to try things out? Are they going out of the box and expanding into other venues and reaching a wider audience anywhere?

No. The publishing strategy at Marvel and DC for as long as I can remember is to simply milk more and more out of the same turnips. The strategy lately is to find anything that sells more than 30,000 copies and then flood the market with five satellite books and twelve spin-off one shotters.

People like Deadpool this month? Give him eight titles this month. Hulk is having a renaissance? Let's give him another ongoing, let's turn one into a Hercules book, let's have two more pseudo-events, and for God's sake somebody write me a Hulkity Hulk mini series, stat!

It's absurd. And the scary thing is that it would work....if they advertised their way into an expanding readership. But what really happens is that Consumer X is spending $20 a week. Now, Marvel would like to pretend that Consumer X looks at the those seventeen new Avengers titles coming out and just buys them all on top of their regular ongoing pulls.

But we know better, don't we? What happens is that Consumer X either ignores some or all of the extra books, (and is probably irritated about having to make the decision) or they buy all of those Avengers....at the cost of Ms. Marvel. Or Booster Gold. Or Star Wars Legacy.

Consumer X isn't spending any more than his or her budget allows. What Consumer X is forced to do is shuffle that money around into an increasingly chaotic and crowded rack. Marvel and DC are forcing a limited supply of money into more and more books for less and less and profit.

The numbers back that up?

The numbers back that up. For the first time in a long time, total dollars spent on comics and trades are going down year over year. So it's a little worse than I just described, actually. We aren't drawing on a stable pool of discretionary income, but a shrinking one. This in the midst of a golden era where comic book properties make billions at the box office and are exposed to millions of eyes that are never ever pointed toward a comic shop.

And winnowing the number of titles helps us how, exactly?

As I just described, the operating theory of comics publishing is that there are a finite number of comics readers who simply want to read comics. The sales data suggest they have a stable or slightly shrinking pool of discretionary money that they are going to spend... on comics.

If Marvel and DC winnow into a stable of 20-25 titles, your comics constituency are going to funnel all of that money into a coherent universe of highly profitable books created by top-flight creators. (Marvel is going to keep Ed Brubaker, not Joe Schmoe)

Comic book readers will be far better able to keep tabs on what is going on in these universes, some may even have the ability to collect a publisher's entire line. New readers will have a sporting chance at finding a book they might like, because there won't be 300 titles of white noise shouting at them from the racks.

Quality goes up on every book, because we just got rid of all but the best writers and pencillers, at least at the Big 2. Everybody else can now make a name for themselves on an Indy title, if they so choose.

And guess what? Indy books might actually have a prayer at an audience now should new readers ever enter a comic book shop, because the rack isn't glutted with fifty miles of crap!

OK, that sounds good, but what makes you think it would actually go down like that?

Do you know why college and pro football dominate the sports market now? Because they put out a good product, and each game is an event. You've got 16 regular season games and a handful of playoff tilts. Everything matters. Football rules because it's a great game offered in limited quantities.

Martin Lindstrom reports in his book "Buyology: Truth & Lies About Why We Buy" that if you ask somebody to pick a chocolate out of a box of thirty or a box of six, they grab from the box of six. Chocolate is good, and it's easier to make a choice out of six. Have you ever noticed that you have a DVD in your collection that you never watch, but if it shows up on TV you're quite content to sit down and view it over again? It's because you're paralyzed by your collection. Too many voices, too many choices, the whole thing is paralyzing. When it's just sitting in front of you on the television, it's obvious that you want to see it again.

Lindstrom talks about a book store that was tanking. He walked in to find a clutter of ten tables loaded with bestsellers. Before he got down to brass tacks with their marketing, he told them first thing to remove those tables and replace them with a single display table containing a handful of quality books chosen by the staff. Revenue instantly went up 2%.

If I were a potential new reader thinking about starting up comics right now, the # 1 obstacle would be continuity confusion. Where do I start? What is what? What am I looking at? It's a mess, all of it. Winnow it down to something a human being can wrap their head around. Right now, Marvel alone is pumping out about 130 titles of "canon" material a month. Who can possibly stay on top of that? Who would want to?

If you came out of a movie theater and wanted Iron Man stuff, what would you get? I took a quick spin through May's releases, and I found 6 Iron Man comics, a Rescue 1-shot, a Black Widow book, and 4 trades. How is a newbie supposed to walk into a comic shop, parse through that and make a decision? That's not even accounting for the myriad of Avengers books he was featured in as well! It's madness.

If you winnow into a manageable stable, here's what happens instantly:

  • You get better books, because only the top creators are left employed
  • You get more profitable books, because readership increases on what's left
  • You get a more coherent, manageable, readable level of coherency and continuity
  • You make it much easier for your current clientele to make purchasing decisions
  • You make it nearly possible for a new reader to make a purchasing decision
But if the big 2 cancel a bunch of titles, won't that irritate readers into jumping out entirely?

It will irritate about 53 people into hitting the forums and whining about quitting. They won't. Let's face facts. If the $3.99 price hike for no additional content didn't drive them out, I don't know what will.

We are what we are, until the publishers get off their rear ends and find some more of us. We are here to buy comics. We love the medium and we will take our allocated funds and buy the most appealing books that are out there for our tastes. Funnel us into a reasonable number of quality titles that actually make money and buy the direct market some time until we can figure out how to coexist with digital. Please!

- Ryan


Chronic Insomnia said...

Kick ass article dude. Very informative and I agree with about 97.6765% of what you say, which is a record for me. Great job.

Chronic Insomnia said...

Oh yeah and Jay Leno called and he wants his hairstyle back. That looks even more ridiculous than it did last night man. Holy shit you need some serious Grecian formula...STAT!

Aleksandre said...

I totaly Agree with you even if they scale down to about 20-30 books there is a verry good chance I will get all of them right now I pick up whatever I feel like money is not a big deal But I wont pick up x-men Because I dont realy know what the hell is going on in there
and I donth think the footwork to figure it out is worth it
they scale down to one book and make it possible to get into it I will pick it up but you know its not happening

Chronic Insomnia said...

Aleksandre -

I think you're right in that it's not happening now as a philosophy. In fact, DCs response these days is to recruit MORE writers for MORE books to try and out-Marvel Marvel. Which would be a disaster, in my opinion.

My fear is that the market is going to winnow itself a bit, as launched titles often hover around cancellation levels. But wouldn't it be wonderful if they did it preemptively and tried to actually heal the beast instead of riding it into the ground?

- Ryan

Aleksandre said...

Well the situation right now is ridiculous S.W.O.R.D. Got canceled before the second Issue shiped why because there are 10 "X-men" books and only 2 of them are worth reading and now look at all this avengers crap you somebody is going to drop secret wariors to read avengers academy and its a damn shame too
I think If the people at marvel grow half a brain they can bring a ton of readership in but they dont even try anyway great show guys I am a long time listener keep up the good work

Irish Mike said...

Well put, sir! I am convinced that you are correct. Your CB reference reminds me of his 'transition' from an EDITOR into a TALENT SCOUT.

You ever hear the tale regarding a Powers TPB going out with the title MISSPELLED on the fuckin' spine? It was brought to his attention on a message board and he came back with some hack response that was RIFE with MORE typos, misspellings, etc.

Credibility check? Anyone? Anyone?