This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing. It’s the sixth installment of my seven part summer series on independent comic book marketing.
This week, we look at the obstacles to growing your and explore ideas on how to overcome those challenges.
If you want more people to read your comic, you need to attract more new readers to the comics medium.
This is not a simple challenge. The bad news is that the comic book industry faces several substantial barriers to growth that you’ll have to consider and overcome if you want to avoid fighting for scraps. The good news is that comics has a substantial amount of growth potential, so if you can develop marketing that expands beyond the current comic book market, you can succeed while your competition struggles.
What Factors Limit the Growth in Comics?
As an entertainment medium, comics have four major factors that make it difficult to expand the market:
Competition from other media: Your ideal reader potentially consumes stories from several different sources, including:
Television (and other forms of streaming media)
In addition to the threat of unique narratives coming from these distribution channels, the growth of comic related media can theoretically cannibalize readers who might otherwise consider spending time and money on comics.
Higher prices for comic consumption: Your ideal reader can arguably get more entertainment value for a lower cost by choosing other forms of media over comics because economies of scale drive down the cost of a mass market product.
Let’s think about the ideal reader who might be interested in an urban crime superhero story like Daredevil. In 2019, a premium subscription to Netflix costs $13. With that monthly payment, your ideal reader can currently get thirty six episodes of Daredevil, plus dozens of hours of related Marvel Netflix shows, plus hundreds of hours of comic related entertainment, as well as thousands of hours of additional viewing options. By contrast, that same $13 will get your ideal reader three single issues of the current Daredevil 22-page comic. Yes, there are additional embedded costs for having a television and internet access, but those systemic costs are basic to modern American life, so your ideal reader would probably absorb those costs regardless of what type of entertainment they choose.
If you consider the relationship between film and comics, consider the relationship between the movie Avengers: Infinity War and Infinity War the graphic novel. As of 2019, your ideal reader can buy the film for $14. The graphic novel is available on Amazon for $21.
It can be argued that the stories and experiences in each of my examples aren’t the same and can’t be used as a meaningful comparison. You might also think that your story is too unique to be subject to market cannibalization from Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt, but keep in mind that narratives don’t have to be identical to face competition from other media. And even if your story isn’t a superhero epic, you probably found competitors to your story in other media that is cheaper than your average comic.
Isolated Distribution: The distribution of content in the comic book industry is a topic that deserves in-depth analysis, but an overview of the history of getting comics into the hands of readers will help you understand the context for your book.
In the early days, multiple retail outlets carried comics. Newsstands, candy stores, drug stores, and book stores all had metal spinner racks stuffed with books from various major publishers. The fairly low price per book (for years a single issue comic cost less than twenty five cents) and the ubiquitous availability of comics made it easy to reach everyone.
In the 1980’s, shops dedicated to comics started becoming a dominant distribution channel for the industry. By the 1990’s, there were comic shops in every major city in every state of the country. The combination of newsstand distribution and comic shops created a dynamic similar to a gateway drug scenario. A person could stumble onto comics at a newsstand, graduate to their local comic shop, and become a lifelong comic book collector. It was a pipeline that led to significant expansion of the market.
Since then, the pipeline has collapsed for several reasons. First, comic book publishers abandoned the newsstand market to focus almost exclusively on the comic shops. What little newsstand distribution remained became irrelevant when high speed internet made news available on demand online, shutting many newsstands down. The comic shop industry suffered from a combination of speculation, over-dependence on specific publishers, and an insular culture that created unnecessary barriers to entry. The collapse of this pipeline, combined with the other challenges, conspired to make comics harder to buy than they had been in the past.
Keep in mind, other channels of distribution exist that make it easier to access comics than before. Bookstore, library, and digital distribution like Comixology give potential readers to painless ways to get comics. Up to twenty percent of new readers now discover comics online, and two thirds of those readers go on to patronize comic shops, but the pipeline from stumbling on to a comic to becoming a regular reader isn’t as universal as it had been in the past.
Perception Stigma: Unlike movies, television and books, comics suffer from the inaccurate historical image of being a medium primarily for children or losers. Although the success of comic book related media has reduced this falsehood in recent years, the narrow image of comics is a barrier to growth.
This issue has its origins in the 1950’s. Before that period, comics had been popular with children and adults throughout the history of the medium, with specific titles published for everyone from toddlers to soldiers on the front lines of World War II. But in 1954, Dr. Henry Wertham published a book titled Seduction of the Innocent. The premise of this work accused comic books of everything from criminality to homosexuality. Wertham’s work sparked public backlash to the point that Congress held hearings on the dangers of comics to American morality. In response to this public relations disaster, the comic book industry imposed a code of conduct on itself, and developed an organization called the Comics Code Authority to review the content of every published comic from the publishers who signed onto this code.
The Code stunted the growth of comics as a creative medium by forcing every book to be acceptable and appropriate for a child to read. Imagine what the creative state of movies, television, theater and novels today if every story had to be designed for a ten-year-old to consume. Imagine how hard it would be to convince adults to engage with any of these media if the content didn’t evolve with their growing mental and emotional sophistication. This is the situation the comics industry found itself in after Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code. Although Wertham’s work was eventually discredited, the damage was already done. Comic books became perceived as a medium for children, unworthy of attention from any other group.
Eventually, the comic book industry moved away from and rejected the Comics Code. Books like The Dark Knight Returns, imprints like Vertigo and Marvel Knights, and Wildstorm sought to appeal to older readers with darker themes and more adult content. While this did act as a counterbalance to some degree, the overemphasis on sexism in the female portrayals and gratuitous violence created a negative backlash of its own.
Today, there is a mainstream disconnect between comic book stories and comic books themselves. While comics are the source of successful media franchises across the board, that hasn’t translated into an explosion of comic book sales. The popularity of the stories isn’t surprising. Mike Marts, editor of AfterShock Comics articulated this point well: “There’s something classic about comic stories that resonate with people. What matters is the type of journeys these characters take and that’s never going to go away, so I don’t think there is going to be any significant drop off of fantastic movies and TV shows made based on comic books.”
But the divide between the success of comic content presents a confusing challenge. It is as if millions of people decided that they loved wine, but didn’t like grapes. The fact that the stories resonate outside the medium suggest that the problem isn’t with comic book stories, but the way people see comic books.
Established Patterns: Most of America does not currently read comics on a regular basis. The people who do read comics already have their favorites. In addition, most of America is used to having potential entertainment pushed at them in a dozen different directions. They don’t have to go and hunt for it. They don’t have to order most of their entertainment in advance and then show up to a specific place on Wednesday to get it. When you ask people to change their behavior to consume your story both in terms of buying and consuming, you make it easier to just avoid your work completely and stick to their established pattern.
What is the Impact of the Lack of Growth in Comics?
The combination of media competition, comparative value, isolated distribution and negative perception create an environment that suppresses growth in the market. In fact, there are economic indicators that suggest the size of the comic book market is shrinking.
According to a 2018 study, only 4% of Americans read comics on a regular basis. If there are 330 million people in the US, that’s just 13 million people overall. Industry analysis and comic shop owners claim the Big Two are pursuing tactics that attempt to squeeze more and more money from a limited group of devoted fans while their corporate owners only look sell their content to the mainstream market in other media. At the same time, fundamental flaws in the direct market distribution model have plagued the industry for decades, creating a closed system where the majority of growth comes from variant covers, crossover events and narrative reboots that don’t fundamentally change the industry dynamics.
But comic book sales are not limited to comic book shops. In the same way prices in the real estate market rise and fall depending on what city you’re in and what part of the city you’re in, different elements of the comic book market are growing. The library market is increasing. The manga market is increasing. Graphic novel sales overall are increasing relative to single issues. The growth in other comic sectors and the popularity of comic ideas outside of the comics medium show that there is a potential audience hungry for your story, as long as you are willing to find them and build a relationship with them. You can’t rely on the growth of a particular sector to sell your book. The answer isn’t to just avoid comic shops or make graphic novels. You need to go out and build a market.
Where Does the Growth in the Target Market Come From?
Because you have limited resources, you need to focus on those groups of people who will be more open to your message and ignore those who won’t read your book no matter what you do. You can’t win over everyone. For our purposes, we can divide the world into four distinct groups in relation to your book. Each group will have qualities that make them more or less probable to join your market and enjoy your work.
The Target Market: This is your core audience.
Positive: They fit your ideal reader profile and enjoy the medium of comics.
Negative: They are going to be the smallest group and depending on your ideal reader profile, the size of this group might be getting smaller.
Negative: There may be several different existing books competing for their attention.
The Potential Market: This is your largest source of new readers.
Positive: They fit your ideal reader profile.
Positive: They are not reading your competition
Negative: They are ignorant of or resistant to the medium of comics.
The False Market: This group offers the illusion of growth but lack real potential. They include the overall comic book market, other comic creators, and family and friends who do not fit the ideal reader profile.
Positive: They are interested in either reading comics or you as an individual. They may support your work out of courtesy or obligation, but not actual enthusiasm.
Negative: They do not fit your ideal reader profile.
Negative: They drain on your attention and resources without growing your market. They can also create emotional stress if you feel they are rejecting your creative project.
The Non-Market: This group is outside of your direct influence.
Positive: This is the largest group of people because it can include the entire population of wherever you distribute your book.
Negative: They do not fit your ideal reader profile and they are ignorant to or resistant of the medium of comics.
Negative: They are the most expensive group to reach.
Once we divide the world into these four groups, it becomes easy to see where you should direct your efforts. Cultivate and nurture the target market as a foundation and then reach out to engage the potential market for growth. Avoid both the false market and the non-market to conserve your time, energy and money by not wasting them on fruitless efforts.
What Tactics Can Be Used to Increase the Size of the Target Market?
Tapping into the potential market involves looking at both the way you connect with people and the way you interact with them. Remember, you’re not trying to change the reality of entertainment consumption with your book. You’re trying to build a satisfying relationship with those people who are interested in what you have to say. If only one percent of your potential market joins your target market, you can create a significant increase in sales. There are ways to counteract each of the challenges we identified before and spur growth in the readers of your book.
Media Competition: The relationship between comics and other media can be complementary instead of combative. The increased popularity of comic stories is raising the profile of the medium overall. While there hasn’t been a proportional increase in comic book sales, awareness of comics is creating the potential for a new wave of fandom. If you position your book to ride the wave of this new awareness through your high concept or other forms of association, you can use the success of other media to your advantage.
Comparative Pricing: While other publishers use pricing models that make it harder to compete on price, the price of your book doesn’t have to follow the same formula. There are options for you to distribute your book at a lower price (or in some cases at no cost to the ideal reader) and reduce the impact of price disparity. Of course, publishing your book still requires costs that need to be covered and all the different alternative distribution methods and economies of scale might not apply to your book, but you’re not necessarily locked into one pricing model.
Isolated Distribution: New gateway drugs and sales pipelines have replaced the historical models. You can use them to connect with your readers and give them alternative ways to find you. Whether you take advantage of the keyword algorithms of Amazon’s “also liked” functions, or Facebook groups, or social media hashtags, or Google analytics to isolate your potential market, there are opportunities to get your book in front of the right people and avoid the false and non-markets. If you focus on the growing number of independent book stores, book fairs and other specific retail opportunities, you can diversify your distribution options. If you utilize in app advertising, tie your story to emerging mobile and independent games or even prominent YouTube micro stars, you can leverage emerging fan bases who share your ideal reader profile. The potential new distribution opportunities have a lot more potential than the spinner racks of the past.
Negative Perception: As an independent comic book publisher, you can help change the image of comics by becoming an advocate for the medium. This goes beyond acting as a spokesperson for your comic and becoming a champion for comics in general. You can engage in discussions with your potential market that comics are not just for children or even for a certain type of adult. You can educate people that comics are simply another way to tell a story, using aspects of their ideal reader profile to capture their attention. You can expand their definition of comics beyond superheroes to all the other types of stories comics have to offer. You can show people that if they can read a meme, which is essentially images and text used to tell a story, they can understand a comic. You can even buy comics for your friends and family based on the types of stories you know they like, and deduct the cost of the books as a marketing expense for your business.
Pattern Interrupt: People can alter their routines if you provide enough incentive. If you make the pleasure of experiencing your story greater than the pain of trying something new, then you can achieve what’s called a pattern interrupt. A good example of this can be found in the world of video games where flagship exclusive video game franchises like Halo, Mario Kart and God of War are so popular that people are willing to spend five to ten times more than the cost of the game in order to buy the console to play it on..
Expanding the market for your comic isn’t easy. There is no quick fix to overcoming decades of inertia and systemic issues within the industry. You’ll have to engage and re-engage with your potential market trying different methods in a variety of situations over an extended period of time to build that relationship. But the reward is worth the effort. A larger target market means more people reading your comic and more potential revenue for your publishing. If your story can build relationships with people who don’t read comics yet, you can succeed where other publishers have failed.
Have fun with your comic.
If you have questions about the business or legal aspects of your comic book publishing and you'd like a free consultation, please contact me and we can set something up that fits in with your schedule.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR COMIC PROPERTY, DISCUSS IT WITH A QUALIFIED CONTRACT ATTORNEY OR CONTACT C3 FOR A FREE CONSULTATION