Thursday, January 31, 2008

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step Two

So, in last week's column, I discussed the first step in transforming Marvel from its current status as "niche publisher of specialty products" back into "major publisher with a highly visible, well-distributed product all across America". (And again, I'll remind everyone that the same plan applies to DC as well, but I'm using "Marvel" because calling the series, "How To Save Comics" is even more rampantly egotistical than its current title.)

Judging by reader response, the first step--retooling the product line to be more "all-ages friendly"--is a little the sense that I didn't even know that many people even read my blog, much less felt strongly enough to comment on it. I gotta say, I'm a little nervous; having started with a "Step One" that's basically, "Ignore the fanboys and try to get new readers," I feel like I better back that up with some good ideas to do exactly that, or people will dismiss me as a crazy person. (These people may not actually be wrong.) Because obviously yes, having retooled your product line to appeal to kids and casual readers, you can't just expect these people to walk through the door looking for your product.

Except that in a very real sense, that's exactly what Marvel does. Look at where their advertising goes, and where their products are distributed to, and you're quickly going to find that unless you happen to be standing in a comics store, you don't know what Marvel is publishing and you don't know how to get it. With the occasional exception of crossovers that fall on a slow news day, Marvel markets its comics only to existing comics buyers. It buys ads in comics-related publications like 'Wizard' or 'Comics Buyers Guide', it does interviews on comics-themed websites like Newsarama, and in general, it jockeys for market share more than anything else. Even if you do hear about a comics event you want to read about (like, say, the death of Captain America, or Spider-Man unmasking), you have to go to a comics store if you want to read it; outside of the occasional spinner rack at a bookstore, and a few half-hearted attempts to colonize the magazine racks at Wal-Marts and Targets, comics are very hard to find outside of specialty stores.

This is not something that can be reversed overnight. It took twenty years to ghettoize the industry, and it's going to take a while to climb back out. Marvel just does not have the resources to distribute its product on a massive scale to newsstands and drugstores like it did in the 60s and 70s (and into the 80s), and it doesn't have the resources to conduct a major publicity blitz. Like it or not, if Marvel wants people to read comics, it needs to get them into the comics stores. The company can't massively distribute or massively promote, it needs to pick its shots.

Luckily, it has a secret weapon that is the centerpiece of Step Two. Diamond Distributors, the exclusive distributor of Marvel Comics, has had for quite some time now a "Comic Store Locator". Either by dialing 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, or by visiting, anyone can just enter their zip code and get the 3-5 closest comics stores to them listed, complete with phone number. (And address, if they use the website.) Diamond provides this service free of charge, and Marvel should really start taking advantage of it in a big way (while hoping Diamond doesn't read Step Three of this series, he says ominously.)

This means that all existing advertising should stress, somewhere in the ad, that 1-888-COMIC-BOOK is a free call that tells you where the nearest local comics store is. Marvel can cut back drastically on in-store promotional material; all they need to do to make sure existing comics fans know about their product can be done with interviews in comics publications (which are free advertising.) They need to be pushing their stuff outside the comics world, and they need to be doing so in such a way that tells people how to get their stuff.

And the best part about this is, just about anything can be advertising if you put that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" on it. Licenced a line of Marvel sleepwear for kids? Tell them that one of the conditions of the deal is that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" has to be on the packaging somewhere (along with the words, "Mom and Dad--it's a FREE CALL!") Putting out a new line of action figures? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a major studio for a movie or TV series? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, either at the beginning or at the end. Putting out a trade paperback that's going to be in bookstores as well as comics stores? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a cereal company to let them use Spider-Man to promote their cereal for a month? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making an appearance on 'The Colbert Report' to tell them the exciting news about Captain America coming back and your upcoming 'Secret Invasion' storyline? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, for God's sake, Joe. It's not enough to tell them what's out there, tell them where to find it and do it quick.

Naturally, a lot of people reading this will think about their local comics store, and wince at the thought of new customers coming in and meeting Cranky Fred, the owner who puts up cheesecake posters all over the store, files DC back-issues by which Earth they occurred on, and shouts "This is not a library!" every time someone starts to flip through a comic. This is why Marvel would spend a little of its dough on a Retail Support Team, a group of people whose job it would be to travel the country and show local store owners how to be more new-customer friendly. (It's an ugly job, but somebody's gotta do it.)

Another important point is to make sure your existing distribution networks are hitting their audience effectively. Bookstores currently shelve all comics under "Graphic Novels". Talk to the major chains (Borders, Barnes and Noble) about shelving kid's comics in the Children's section...where children will look for them. The 'Essentials' series are tailor-made for kids; they're cheap, they're thick, and they look like big coloring books. Get them put where kids can see them, buy them, and see on the back page of every book (yes, I am going to harp on it. The whole point is that you need to harp on it...) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

And last but not least, you want to have at least one publication that is mass marketed, that gives you a "brand footprint" in all the outlets that carry publications. Much in the same way that seeing 'Shonen Jump' in a supermarket gets kids hooked on manga, you want to have something that kids can find just about anywhere they go, and which will suffice to get them hooked on the stuff. Like, say, a magazine. (This might sound familiar to regular readers, as I've described the idea in a previous column.) The magazine, which I'd call 'Marvel Treasury', would be about 120 pages an issue (since you can't reduce the price, you can at least give them a big hunk of story. 120 pages for ten bucks feels like a better deal than 24 pages for 2 bucks.) It'd contain four or five short, self-contained stories in every issue, continuity-lite material featuring Marvel's more famous characters (say, a Spider-Man story every issue, a Hulk story every issue, a Fantastic Four story every issue, an Avengers story every issue, and a random fifth story every issue.) It would also feature articles advertising upcoming comics, recapping important stories to bring readers up to speed on the history of the Marvel Universe (in the way that 'Marvel Saga', 'Marvel Age', or the 'Handbook to the Marvel Universe' used to do), activities pages, letter columns, fan art, and other such community-building material (nothing quite makes you feel like a part of the Marvel Universe like getting a letter published)...and, of course, at the end of every issue, there'd be a nice big double-page spread of a Marvel hero showing you, the reader, how to find the comics store nearest you by dialing (I have it on cut-and-paste by now) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

In other words, step two is all about getting the readers to come to you. Next week, I'll cover Step Three: Going to where the readers are.

What will the fans think of this step? There will probably be some who get a little cranky when all these new people come into the comics stores, just because there are some of us who, well...aren't so great with the social skills. But improving public awareness of comics might make some fans feel a little less ostracized, and that can't be a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why Marvel wasn't heavily advertising Spider-Girl or Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane in GL or American Girl. And if they'd turn Dazzler into a Hannah Montana type story they'd rake in the money. Sorry different rant. ;)TokyoPop advertises in the tween and teen girl magazines. And we know they're selling books.

Also I've noticed some B&Ns are starting to divide up some of their graphic novels and manga. It does take longer to find all the books I'm looking for - I buy for several age ranges - but it makes more sense than putting Superfriends next to Y the Last Man.

The idea of a phone book size Marvel or DC Monthly is a good one. Viz's Shonen Jump gets its covers worn off in our high school library, so a similar format could work for the "Big 2."

Looking forward to Part 3. Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

These all sound like good suggestions, although I don't think they amount to saving the industry. Although I understand your point that price increases may be a response to reduced sales, that only means that comics-publishers are caught in a vicious cycle in which price increases depress unit sales which in turn provoke further price increases. Publishers need to find a way to break the ghettoization of the industry while bringing prices down to what people who are not already devoted fans will reasonably pay. I think putting the Essentials and Showcase lines in childrens' sections of bookstores is a good start, but I still maintain that offering comics for sale on-line as downloadable files, which allows the publishers to cut out the middlemen, and, with a little advertising (especially on-line), get better exposure, is really the way to go.

Incidentally, and I know this is off-topic for this post, for which I apologize, but do you take requests for your story-engines series? I ask because, having just discovered it, and having enjoyed it very much (I'm planning to go through it at some point a leave a couple of comments here and there), I was wondering if you might consider looking at one of my favorite characters, Nexus. Not being published by either of the big two, he doesn't have a perfect equivalent of Showcase or Essentials, but Dark Horse is now in the process of republishing the entire series in hardcover, and it remains, in my opinion, one of the best comics ever. Anyway, thanks very much in advance.

Anonymous said...

I think this "step" is far less controversial than the last one. I think the idea about having the larger bookstore chains shelving books according to age appropriateness is a good idea. I also think it'd be a good idea to have the singles of the more popular titles in these stores as well in the same section as the magazines (if they don't already).

However, I think the key at this stage in the game is online sales. Personally I don't have too many comic shops in this area (and those that are are pretty small and tend to be more on the expensive side to compensate comparatively), and quite honestly a majority of my comics come from online sources. Marvel is trying to do an online thing but quite honestly it sucks. They get points for trying but the effort is far short of what it should be, especially considering you can download scanned versions for free just about anywhere with little to no effort. Yes, it's illegal. No, I don't endorse it, but let's be realistic. Marvel right now is offering for a monthly (or yearly) fee access to an entire library of back issues. Great. But I don't get to keep them on my computer. I have to be online to read them. And I have to wait 6 months for any new issues. Why not offer a comic version of iTunes where you can download high quality CBRs of these comics?

Many of the people I know who download scans do so to read the new issues then buy the trades when the stories are collected. I know that just about every one of them would be more than willing to pay for those issues they download if it were offered in a reasonable service, and they'd still purchase the trades so they could have them in-hand and treat the downloaded singles as a "digital backup".

Marketing online is a reasonably simple task that could be quite cost-effective, and you could do so at websites that target your audience specifically and even have links to online stores where people interested could purchase either a digital download or the singles/trades and have them shipped to them. Why a larger focused isn't put on this aspect is amazing to me, and shows just how far behind the times many of the people making these decisions for both major companies are.

Austin Gorton said...

The Barnes and Noble I work at part time (in the Har Mar Mall, for John and any other MN readers)does a pretty good job of keeping certain manga and other graphic novels (Runaways, Spider-Man Loves Mary) in the teen department and digest reprints of the Marvel Adventures books and other such things in a graphic novel section of the kids department. So we have three areas of graphics novels/manga, one for each age group (adult, teen, childrens).

Granted, this store is the largest in the state, but I know that other, smaller Barnes&Nobles, while not carrying as many titles, maintain the same age divisions (title placement in this way is corporate-mandated).

Also, despite the large amount of square footage my store devotes to graphic novels, we do a very poor job of stocking the shelves with Showcase/Essential volumes. The Sci-Fi/graphic novel Lead is a good friend of mine and I harp on her constantly about it, but the sales (for our store) just don't warrant it-if we get those volumes in (usually ordered by me), nobody (but me) buys them. I argue with her, saying that's because nobody who wants them knows they can buy them at the store, because we never stock them. And we never stock them, because no one buys them, and...well, its a vicious circle I don't quite know how to break us out of.

Something else of interest I realized writing this-all those non-manga graphic novels stocked in the teen and childrens' departments? All Marvel. DC has absolutely no "kid or teen friendly" digest or other alternative. All Superman, Batman, etc books, whether their content is kid friendly or not, get stocked in the "regular" section as far as B&N is concerned.

Austin Gorton said...

And on the subject of single issues in bookstores, my store does keep a large 4 sided spinner rack of comics in the magazine department, stocked with everything from Archie, Scooby Doo and Simpsons comics to Dark Horse's Star Wars titles and Buffy (we've even been getting Umbrella Academy) and various Marvel and DC stuff.

I'll shut up about Barnes & Noble now...

The drawback is that we have no control over which titles we get-like all magazines, those decisions are made on a corporate level and are sales based-we sell a lot of one Star Wars book, they'll make sure we stock all of them. We had She-Hulk for awhile, but apparently it didn't sell in our store because we don't anymore. Unfortunately, this creates a cycle not unlike the Showcase/Essential one I mentioned.

I also question how much the corporate magazine person knows about different comics. For example, we carry all the Marvel Adventures books (and have for awhile, so they must sell well) except for Avengers. Does the magazine buyer just not know such a title exists? I'm sure it would sell as well as the others.

Unfortunately, I don't know how that process works well enough to know if, in this case, its Marvel's fault for not making the retail chain buyers aware of these titles, or if its the buyer's fault for willfully ignoring it. And there is no way I (or any of my managers) know of to contact our magazine buyer and make suggestions on what we should carry.

I also know that the "comics spinner rack" is, in a rare bit of corporate individualism, not at every store; some have one, some don't, and some that don't still carry a few comics amongst the game magazines, and some don't at all. I have yet to determine a rationale for why some stores have a spinner rack (and increased stock) and some don't.

Anonymous said...

The Books A Million in my town has comics on one rack with the tpbs in the same aisle, and the Manga in the next aisle over.

Getting comics in the grocery stores is a great idea. Maybe even try to get them into convenience stores and gas stations. One of the highlights of my week as a kid was going to the 7-11 with my brother and getting four comics for a dollar (Yes I'm that old!) and a Pepsi Slurpee.

Even with spotty distribution at places like Circle K or AM PM, it might be enough of a hook to get kids to vist the local comic shop (directed there by the 800 number) to find the next issue.

Book Stores should be an easy sell, since while kids are looking at the comics, mom and dad could be browsing in the mystery or sci fi sections. Increased sales all around.

Another hook for advertising: Marvel used to print little blurbs of current comics in the bottom margin of each page. Things like 'The Hulk versus Cobalt Man in Incredible Hulk #whatever' It might be a good way to bring reader attention to less popular or lesser known titles.

Mark Clapham said...

The Marvel Treasury idea is not a million miles away from the Panini reprints of DC and Marvel books in the UK, which are distributed via newsagents over here - publications like 'Batman Legends' publish 3 US issues in one comic at around the same price as one imported issue, usually with two recent reprints and something a bit older. It's not quite the 'Shonen Jump' model, but it's a step in that direction.

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

We need new blood in the comic shops. I live in Austin, Texas, and we've had something like four or five comic shops shut down in the past year and a half. The two comic shops near the suburbs - both gone. Now the only comic shops are in the middle of Austin. There are a lot of kids there, but in the middle class areas where kids have a lot of disposable income, they have no access to comics. And for the kids of urban Austin, neither comic shop is really in a convenient place. Still, Mom and Dad can drive them there with ease, but for kids in north or south Austin - really, the only sequential art they can access is trades, but the trend here, as elsewhere, is manga, manga, manga.

I teach junior highers, and some of those are aware of comics (one names Bishop as his favorite superhero!), but for most they're just working their way up through the trades. They want to know what's going on right now, but they don't have access to the issues. But I don't really want to tell them about the current issues...(uh, Cap's dead, and Tony is a megalomaniac, and DC now has fifty earths, and WWII alternate Batman was brutalized and brutalizing vampire Batman...).

I too am looking forward to Part 3.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Marvel house ads on the bottom margins of the comics pages! Crap, I bought a lot of comics because of that.

I applaud the idea of a magazine that you can make your "public face" in 7-11s etc. Myself, I really wanted to say this: my LCS is a virtual Magic Cave of groovy pop culture. For her birthday, I'm taking my friend's daughter there to just go wild and pick what she wants. They have...well, you know. They have some freakin' amazing stuff. And I love them for it, which is why I want the LCS to prosper under this new Marvel order of yours, and the 1-800-COMIC-BOOK thing is a good first step in that direction. In fact forget the grocery stores, not that I'm not a fan of the grocery stores, but your Step One would be beneficial in the LCS too, especially if you could contrive for dynamic covers to make a comeback. So, yes: get the people into the LCS! I can't imagine an idea I'd be more strongly in favour of. I ask these people a question, and they've got the answer; I can buy huge Caniff portfolios there (!), and copies of There's A Monster At The End Of This Book (!!); they are not seeing nearly the rush of customers they could be. Highlighting the diversity of material they have on offer would, I think, be an excellent part of your 1-800 ad short, I'm for this, nice one, love it.

Marvel Essentials, though...forget it. Kids love colouring books, but they love colour itself even more.

Hey, maybe it'd be time, under your regime, to put serious and responsible thought into a Marvel-based TV series (you know, that was really good)? Which could then prominently feature the 1-800. Not that movies aren't great, but a TV show would pound that 1-800 message in there.

I approve of this measure!

Anonymous said...

Winterteeth said...

Has anyone here been to Newbury Comics in Boston? I really like that store model in that they sell CDs, DVDs, Toys, books and comics. It becomes kind of a one-stop shop for everything cool. Draw in kids who want the latest (I don't know what kids listen to but insert appropriate title here) album and show them that comics co-exist with the most popular other forms of media. Granted, Newbury leaned toward the indie comic scene but I don't care if a kid is hooked on Owly or Spider-Man so long as they are reading something in comic form. The only drawback is that, like the trend towards downloading comics, music and movies are going to be more widely available through computer soon perhaps making brick and mortar obsolete with pop culture all around. Thoughts?

Unknown said...

One thing Marvel (and DC) could do is encourage bookstores with spinner-racks to keep their "floppies" as organized and up-to-date as possible.

I frequent a Borders a town over from me pretty regularly, and while I do dig their generally wide selection of graphic novels and manga (one full unit, both sides, dedicated to 'em), I often find myself dismayed at how dishevled and out-of-date the single issues are. I often have to hunt if I want to find a particular book, and too often what I do eventually find is obscured by some other book placed in front of it. This certainly is bound to happen at a big retail chain, but there are times when I've been to the store multiple times over the course of a week or two, and that copy of The Flash obscuring last week's Amazing Spider-Man is still there each time. Maybe this is just indicative of the stores I frequent, but in my experience the stores just don't put much effort into keeping the area tidy (even their considerable graphic novel section is unkempt and out of any discernable order).

Oftentimes, I'll become frustrated looking for something. Certainly, if I see a couple of copies of a Y: The Last Man graphic novel, and then four more three shelves down, and then another six on the other side of the unit, every day for a week, I'm bound to be a little frustrated, no?


Austin Gorton said...

I will say in defense of the bookstores, both comic spinner racks and graphic novels get browsed HEAVILY, moreso than a lot of other sections, and a simple truth one learns working in a bookstore is that most customers never learned to pick up after themselves, often putting things back wherever they damn well feel like putting them, instead of where they belong.

Add to this the fact that some bookstore employees are "scared" of certain sections, including graphic novels, because they don't understand how they are supposed to be organized (the A to Z, Author Last name rule that governs much in a bookstore doesn't apply there) and you've got a recipe for messy, unorganized sections.

Still, it's terrible that you'll find the same issue obscuring another week in and out; every bookstore (at least, every B&N) has someone who's responsible for the magazines, and should be checking that kind of stuff once a day.

At the bookstore I work at, we have a fairly large group of employees who consider ourselves "geeks" and take great pains to keep the comic book, graphic novel, sci-fi and role playing sections as organized and customer friendly as possible.

Anonymous said...

A Marvel equivalent to Shonen Jump sounds like a FANTASTIC idea. And every issue could be a chance to tell kids how to find a comic store, how to find the graphic novel section at the book store, how to read comics online (er, the legal way anyhow), and how to buy a subscription (through a card readers can clip out and mail in, of course). It sounds so obvious I'm kind of surprised it doesn't already exist...

Anonymous said...

I think this is a pretty good idea, except for the part about creating a new magazine to sell children on the characters (makes good sense, with you so far) and selling it for ten bucks (!!!).

maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I don't see parents dropping ten bucks on a spur-of-the-moment thing. The reason comics used to sell in supermarkets (and such) was that parents would bring the kids shopping and then buy them a cheap comic to keep them quiet.


TJD said...

files DC back-issues by which Earth they occurred on

I think I would happier if my comic book store started doing this. I might have a chance of finding things.

I know this a year later, but I want to also add a few things.

1) Comic book stores that are run by people who don't read comics are a big problem, especially if they don't read mainstream comics.

It's hard for a casual reader or new reader to go to a store and ask for recommendations because they kind of think Spiderman is cool, and get handed Secret Invasions. [Note: This happened with three different people I helped to get into comics in one month.]

I am guessing from their standpoint: Could you follow that title without all the back history? Possibly. Does it give you a good overview of the characters in the Marvel line? Maybe. Can you read it without 1000 tie-ins? Possibly.

But from mine, I was telling people not to start there because it's part of a continuation of a large number of other comics where you won't know who anyone is, and it will turn you off from comics. [That little explanation book they handed out or sold? was helpful - why wasn't there more of those?]

For a niche product, I am really disappointed in the level of knowledge a lot of comic places have. I went to one store in Fort Worth where the guy had the store memorized. I'm not asking for that, but people who have an idea of different comic issues really helps.

People specifically come to me for help them with comics, because I talk about comics, and have an idea of what's going on. [And I am no where near expert level.] I think that level of involvement from comic book stores need to improve.

2) Harassment. Now, I've never had this happen to me [even with about 15 stores in ten cities/7 states] but 90% of the women I know who read comics have gotten sneered at, told to go read manga, guys openly being jerks. It's getting better, and more women are working at stores, but dude, what the hell?

3) The writers and the fans need to get over the "serious art" crap. When I was first getting into DC, so many people were rude to me because [this was before wikipedia, et al...] I didn't know the 70 years of Superman. It's ridiculous, why would people want to get into it when they know people won't help them. [And you have to have help at this point, I'm sorry.]

The writers are openly rude to their fans constantly, capitalize on their popularity [which is ttly fine! But stop pretending that your artwork is selling for a grand because you're so awesome and not because you do a good version of Superman] and are basically jackasses a lot of the time. Yet all I ever hear about is fandom entitlement. It's on both sides, like you said about the serious artist schtick.

/facepalm/ I swear I love comics, and I want them to last. I don't totally agree about moving all main lines to kid friendly venues, I wouldn't have minded at all seeing say, Catwoman pulled into Vertigo, or Manhunter go to them. I liked the violence and awesomeness of those books.

Sorry about the words, I've just been interested in the subject lately.

Anonymous said...

I also wish they'd keep up on omnibuses and graphic novels that go out of print. Not everyone is a collector who jumps on the stuff once it comes out. And graphic novels are supposed to cater to more casual readers.

Also AMAZON.COM. There is no excuse not to have every trade (HC and tpb and omnibus) on AMAZON. Comic book stores have their own culture and I don't think a lot of people want to be a part of it (just like people part of that culture don't want new people). The girl who reads Seventeen may not want to clash with the nerdy kid and vice versa. Online shopping is wonderfully anonymous.