The Problem With Buying Comic Books
In order to purchase a comic, a prospective reader has to go out of their way to find a local comic book retailer that happens to stock the book they're interested in. This kind of approach poses significant barriers to casual readers, who are thinking of dipping their toe into comics. What's more, pricing doesn't help; most comics sell for between $3.99 and $5.99 for a single issue. Assuming this potential reader actually goes to a comic book shop, they'll find themselves bombarded with options, and frankly able to afford only one or two of them.
To use an example, if a new reader wants to pick up a Spider-Man comic, which one should they go for? Amazing Spider-Man (which publishes bi-weekly, with three issues due to come out in March 2019 as a result), Spider-Man: Life Story, Marvel's Spider-Man: City At War, the Spider-Man: Far From Home Prelude, or even Spider-Man/Deadpool? And that's not even counting additional webhead-related titles, such as Venom, Spider-Gwen: Ghost Spider, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, or Superior Spider-Man.
Nothing about this experience is attractive to a brand new comic book reader. And the sheer number of comics published in a month isn't just an issue for new readers; in an interview with ICv2 at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, DC Publisher Dan DiDio suggested the entire market is in trouble. "My fear is that there's probably an over‑saturation of product," he explained. "If you're looking at the numbers, you're looking at 400 new periodicals a month." In his view, the model clearly isn't sustainable.
There is, however, one aspect of the comic book market that's experiencing something of a boom of late. Over the past five years, the North American graphic novel market has welcomed a wave of new readers and grown from about $805 million in sales in 2012 to more than $1 billion in 2017. But these sales aren't happening at traditional comic book retailers; they're happening at everyday bookshops such as Barnes & Noble. And even that wasn't sustained in 2018, with bookshops seeing reduced sales across the board due to a slowing economy. Regardless, the fact that there's such a difference in trend between the Direct Market and the bookshops is quite striking; again, it suggests that the problem is with the retail model itself.
Are DC And Marvel Taking The Right Approach?
The problems in the Direct Market are, realistically, being worsened by the publishers; they're taking short-term strategies that are designed to give a brief boost in monthly sales, at the expense of building an actual ongoing relationship with the readers. Sadly, retailers identify Marvel Comics as a particular problem. Just as in the '90s, many of Marvel's sales are driven by variant covers, often at an exaggerated price. Brian Hibbs gave an excellent example, in the upcoming "War of the Realms" event.
"'War of the Realms' had seventeen different covers on the first issue at initial solicitation, and they’ve also added another eight more at FOC (after, of course, we’ve presold our sets and such) – all of this on a SIX DOLLAR comic. A customer who actually wanted all 25 copies of that one single release would be asked to spend nearly $150. On a single issue of a single comic."
Often, variant orders come with strings attached; so, for example, a retailer will only be able to order limited-edition, higher-demand variants if they purchase over a certain number of the standard edition. The retailer can be reasonably confident these limited-edition comics will be in demand, but rarely has any way to know for sure how well the normal version is going to perform, so they're essentially forced to gamble. Publishers profit from the gamble, but if those books don't all sell, then they're just taking up shelf-space in the shops that could have been used for other titles.
The challenge facing all comic book publishers is just how to respond to the current situation. DC, for example, has already chosen to reduce their line by somewhere between 10 and 15 percent in order to lessen the amount of content on the shelves at any one time; they're also looking closely at reducing the number of collected editions for the same reason, and considering adding material to print versions that wouldn't be available in a digital format. Both Marvel and DC are experimenting with different distribution models that avoid the Direct Market, with DC's Black Label initiative and Marvel's Scholastic deal.
In truth, the comic book industry isn't really in a crisis; it's more that it's undergoing a period of dramatic disruption, with both the publishers and the retailers struggling to work out how best to operate in the modern world. That doesn't mean the comic book publishers are in any danger of going bust; reports that Disney and Warner Bros. are considering shutting down Marvel and DC Comics are complete nonsense, with no supporting evidence behind them at all. Rather, it means that they're going to need to experiment, and deviate from the traditional Direct Market model. DC Comics feel to be the trailblazer right now, but even they haven't quite cracked it. Whoever works out the right approach first will surely become the market leader.
But there will inevitably be real consequences for comic book shops. If the publishers find a new model that works more effectively in the present, it's likely to become their main sales channel going forward. This will increase the pressure on retailers, who again will need to either adapt... or close up shop. What will the future hold if and when that happens? Well, readers will have to wait to cross that bridge.