Friday, February 28, 2014

Growing The Base

So, Eric Stephenson’s speech.

(Note that headline is misleading as fuck – really, Rich? But we’ll get to that in a bit)

Some context: This was a speech to retailers that went to the ComicsPro meeting dealie. So when he’s saying we, he means the retailers and Image. He’s not speaking for or to other publishers, and he doesn’t mean fans. This is actually important to remember.

Now what he mostly talks about is growing the comics industry. Not making more money, as such, but actually increasing the number of people who buy and read comics. This too, is important context.

So when he talks about 4.99 and 7.99 issues, for instance, or shipping more than one issue, what he’s saying is that those tactics are designed to bring in more money from existing fans. Likewise, variant covers and new number ones are designs to get people who are reading comics to spend more money.

Now I don’t think (and I could be wrong) that this is meant to be a blanket condemnation of those things in and of themselves. Indeed, Image does some of them. What he’s condemning is doing those without doing anything to grow the comics reading base.

Because they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong – comics is a business. Even in my creator owned work I keep an eye to maximizing the amount of money I squeeze out. I am actually kind of amazed that ways Marvel (and  Marvel seems to better at this than DC) has found to maximize their revenue. They understand who is reading their books and how they purchase them, and designed their business to get them to buy the most product.

But all of the above – expensive comics, variant covers, double shipping, reboots, hell, events – are things that only service people who are already reading comics. They are not things that are bringing new people to comics, and focusing only on getting most milk with the minimum of moo without breeding new cows is not good for the long term.

(I will push a metaphor until it breaks, yes)

So I agree with him there.

(I may also be wrong – the music industry analogy sort of sounds like he’s down on the whole practice. Hey, I’m not a mind reader. Not until I reach level 99 in Jordanology)

I got into comics because when I was a kid, comics where everywhere. I grew up in a rural county in Pennsylvania with a current population of around 40,000 people. As you might guess, there weren’t any comic shops around.

But every grocery store and every convenience store and what not had comics. I could go three miles down the road and but Ninja Warrior and Thrash at the AP. I got into comics because when I was a toddler my mom grabbed Popeye comics for me to…well, look at, I couldn’t yet read…when she was shopping.

I understand why comics aren’t, for the most part, in any of those places now. I do. But the truth is that thirty odd years ago, comics were infinitely more discoverable than they are now. And that’s a problem.

Where Stephenson and I part ways, to a certain extent, is on licensed comics.

A tangent: I said that Star Wars headline was misleading as fuck. And it is. A lot of people are reading it to say that Star Wars comics, and licensed comics, aren’t “real” comics

He isn’t.

He’s saying that people reading those comics are reading them because they can’t get the source material. They read Star Wars comics, but what they want is more Star Wars movies.

I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it’s a different notion than implying he was saying they weren’t real comics. He wasn’t. He said that The Walking Dead TV show isn’t the real thing either, but what he meant isn’t that it’s the original source material.

Now I’m going to thread that tangent back into my main point. Stephenson is of the mind that people that read licensed comics want that thing, and aren’t interested in comics per se, so licensed comics don’t do anything to grow the comic market.

I don’t think that’s precisely true. For one thing, I think that people that read licensed comics are, by and large, comics readers who happen to like that property. Again, this doesn’t really grow the market, so no disagreement there, I just think he’s mischaracterizing them.

Now some of the people who are reading those licensed comics surely are people who just want that property. And again, selling comics to those people doesn’t really grow the market as a whole.

But I do think that some of those people must start buying other comics. I mean, that has to be a thing that happens. But I also don’t know that it amounts to much, growthwise. So I don’t entirely disagree with him.

I do agree with overall thrust, which is that the comic industry needs to devote more time and energy to expanding their base.

If I were a retailer, I would give free comics to kids. Not just kids that came into my store, but I’d give out free issues to kids in schools. I would make sure every school and high school and library in my area was stocked with trades (and if I could, I’d make sure they all had plates that said who donated them).

If I were a publisher, I would do the same thing. I would make digital comics that kids could read on their game platforms or computers. I would make sure they had an interest in comics, not just toys or characters.

Yes, all of this would cost money. But it’s a relatively small investment against future gains.

But that’s me.