I followed one of the insty’s links called something like “How to sell comics in the twenty first century,” and found myself wrinkling my eyebrow in confusion (one of the reasons I’m developing the WTF [yes, winning the future] wrinkles on my forehead.)
I’m not going to dispute Glenn’s ideas that the comic book reader has changed. This is by and large true, partly, I think, because more adults are not literate enough to enjoy a story without the support of pictures. No, I’m NOT casting aspersions on all comic book readers. I read them myself – it’s a mood thing – but it used to be considered déclassé past a certain age. Then whole word reading came in (that far back, yes) and people found it easier to “guess the right word” with the support of pictures. So THAT barrier was broken as more adults never “graduated” past comics and therefore comics had to develop more adult themes and ideas and more complex plots. Which in turn made them more palatable to MORE adults, including those who read other stuff. Now comic book readers are likely to be voracious readers of other stuff as well, and usually twenties or older.
At least this is my view of how it came about, though I’ll concede it’s entirely possible it has to do with us becoming more visually wired due to visual entertainment from an early age and/or with fewer kids reading comics at one point – due to more entertainment available – and the creators moving to more adult stuff.
In itself, this is a good thing. Story is story, and any way it’s delivered it’s a good thing for us story-creators. And there is no inherent reason WHY comics should equal childhood. It was just a cultural thing, once upon a time.
So, I’m not going to dispute that the average comic book reader has aged and therefore is more likely to wish to read serious themes and titillating ones, like sex.
But when I followed the article – I confess to curiosity – I found that this was not actually what they were talking about.
What they were talking about was “Shock value.” I.e. they insisted that you know, sex sells – not in the sense of having sexual plots, but in the sense that revealing a long-running character is gay will sell out that issue. Race sells they say, because people are more racially aware or whatever. But what they actually mean is that rebooting a character (or bringing an alternate universe one in) with difference race will sell out the issue. And – this was the giveaway – death sells. Kill a major character, and you’ll sell out the issue.
(Sarah gives her world weary sigh.) They take each of these in isolation and THINK people are mostly interested in sex, death and… race? Okay, I could buy sex and death, as eternal themes, but no human being in the United States in the twenty first century, who is not a raving lunatic, wants to read about race for entertainment.
They might want to buy the race issue to show they’re enlightened, they might want to be seen reading it, but my guess is they actually buy it for collecting.
The same with the death issues – which as I said is the giveaway since it doesn’t have the politically-correct charge of the other two – because the death is… a death and not really in general an examination of the metaphysics or human ways of dealing with death, the ONLY reason people would buy it would be… collectors.
So, what problem do I have with this? It sells out the issue, right?
Yes, indeed. And I’m going to tell you the problem I have with it – it is that the publishers are drawing the exactly wrong conclusions from it, and also that continuing to do this does in fact slowly diminish their REGULAR audience.
They think that “hip people want us to bring in more racially diverse characters” that by itself might be true, though probably better with new characters, guys. “and characters of different orientations” also probably true with new characters TO AN EXTENT, and they want us to kill off more long running characters. So, we’ll do that more.
Because apparently comic book publishers, like other book publishers have zero concept of market research and of core audience versus sporadic audience. They’re looking in other words, at unscrubbed numbers. In unscrubbed numbers these “shock issues” sell everything else under the table. So they do more of them.
I ran the article by younger son, who, being intensely visual, used to be a bit of a comic fiend. I got rolled eyes and “Yes, they’ve done this so much I no longer buy any of the long running series – they take so much retconning to bring stuff in line.”
Younger son is what you could call a long-term comic reader. Before they – apparently – disgusted him by creating so many timelines and alternate selves no one can develop an interest (they’re just going to do something else/undo it, he says. There is no emotional connection) he used to spend all his spare money at the comic bookstore. They could count on him to buy x amount of comics a month.
I bet there is a core readership like him per comic book series. (I used to love Superman, but that was long ago and in another country.)
Of course that readership is not as massive as the number of collectors and not-comic-readers who’ll come out and get a “breaking! Spider man latino-black” issue to “save for the grandkids.”
But it is a steady readership and one, moreover, likely to pass the bug to their kids and grandkids.
The alternate sales format is these “shock” issues that destroy line continuity and make the core readership wander off.
So that comic article should have been entitled “How to sell anything, once.”
The problem I have with it is the same problem I have with the publisher’s sales model. They too tend to go after the big-big thing. With print-no pictures publishers most of their publications not being episodic – comics are – it’s not so much a matter of “shock, violating probability” as a matter of pushing something they DECIDE should sell until it’s everywhere.
An example would be The DaVinci code. Yeah, they could sell it massively and sell all his previous books to an extent, but it palled quickly (partly because of the clone bandwagon thing – which comics are inclined to, also “more gender issues!” “More race!”) because well… It’s just one thing, and it brought in – because of the massive publicity – people who normally don’t read for entertainment and in fact, probably, never read those books, just bought them because everyone was talking about them.
Twilight is a little different as, as I’ve said before, the author seems to have a direct line into “sickish” pre-adolescent teen-girl fantasies. Ditto with Harry Potter, which – for other reasons – stood on its own, though I suspect there the numbers were also inflated through massive publicity and its being a YA book. I mean, we discovered them while they were still England-only and ordered from overseas, but my kids eventually had a copy in each format, plus a box set, courtesy of relatives shopping for xmas/birthdays and going “oh, look, they like to read, and this book is everywhere.” I’d bet there were on average three copies sold per kid under 15.
It is this lack of distinction between core-audience and occasional-mega-seller-audience that is killing publishing. They think they should capture that occasional audience every time. It can’t happen and the pursuit of it has destroyed things that used to be normal, like the slow-build mid-list career. Now you either are selected for greatness, or you get fired, as far as most publishing houses are concerned.
And as with comics, what it’s doing is causing a slow down-trend in baseline sales. In science fiction I HEAR a print run of 70k used to get you fired. Now 7k is not bad and will keep you working (even if not at spectacular advances.)
In comics, I understand that descent has been much, much faster (I think because it’s an episodic medium so continuity violations are both more profitable “I have to get the one where superman dies” and more disruptive when you keep doing them.) It still outsells print – I think – but I’ve heard grumbles from all my comic-writing friends that “it’s not what it was ten years ago.”
This is not because sex or death have stopped selling (and thoughtful treatments with non-continuity characters might do very well indeed with the core audience) or that race and gender don’t sell – again, in the right place, those could do very well.
The problem is the short-sighted pursuit of gimmicks at the expense of long-term audience building. The result is always predictable. And, apparently, always a surprise.
Perhaps if the core audience for comics/genre fiction was PUBLISHERS these gimmicks would keep succeeding. At least doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result seems to be how they function.
And this is why, ultimately, indie and houses that act like indie (in the sense of cultivating the long audience instead of the gimmick) like, say, Baen will eat big publishers’ lunch. They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the money for massive publicity that will put a book in every person’s hands across the land. G-d knows they can slip up (both indies and houses that act like indie) on production or proofing. It’s part of doing more with less.
BUT they’re cultivating readers and are in touch with readers, not with non-readers who want a quick rush.
In the era of the long tail, ironically, big publishers are going for the “big, big hit” that even non-readers’ buy. And are missing out on the “million steady sellers that build an audience for other like books and which, in aggregate, make a boatload of money.”
What can’t go on, won’t. And outdated business models will get replaced by more efficient, nimbler ones.
The future is ours.