Blah Blah Blog – Distribution and Content

A post from my decade-old Marvel blog concerning how changes in teh distribution system altered what was being publsihed.

Distribution and Content

April 28, 2007 | 1:00 AM | By Tom_Brevoort | In General

Continuing on one of the points that came up yesterday in discussing the old Newsstand distribution system and the gradual switch-over to the Direct Market, today we’ll be talking about how this switch impacted on the content of the books in a variety of ways.

The Newsstand system had many flaws, but it was also a very democratic system in terms of being able to come up with a new title and make it a success. And that’s because of the way books got to market: a particular retailer would order “300 comics,” or, later, “300 Marvel Comics,” and within that he’d sell what he got. It didn’t really matter to him all that much, since anything he didn’t sell got sent back for credit–all he was out was the time and the retail space.

And because the books were being distributed to the widest possible audience, there was a genuine attempt at most companies to produce a variety of genres, a variety of types of comics. This was almost seen as a necessity, as the business had proven to be cyclical, and any given genre would almost certainly go out of favor before too long. Like everything else, the superhero resurgence in the ’60s was seen by most all of the publishers as a fad–profitable while it was going on, but destined to eventually end, as it had in the ’40s. That’s why, starting in the very late ’60s, you see so much activity with Marvel and everybody else suddenly testing out all kinds of new books–everybody was afraid the superhero ride was almost over.

There was no Previews catalog in those days, no way of knowing what would be coming up in the various titles outside of the next issue boxes or what might be hyped on the letters pages, or in house ads or the Bullpen Bulletin page. Consequently, much more focus was placed upon the cover of the magazine to sell the issue. There were many differing schools of thought as to what made for a compelling, sellable cover, but tons of effort was put into this, as it was the most direct, most effective marketing tool that a given editorial and creative team had to work with.

Because the system was democratic–retailers got a stack of comics, and sold whatever sold–this meant that a new title or character or concept started out on common ground with the established books. There wasn’t a need to get a retailer to advance order copies of an untried property–if the character was appealing to the readership, the book sold, and the series was a success. The flipside of this, however, was that it could be financially ruinous to back a bomb. This is what led to the rise of the try-out comic book, starting with DC’s SHOWCASE title in the mid-1950s. The idea was that you’d produce an issue or two’s worth of material on a try-out basis, set a reasonably low print run, and then wait for the returns to come in. If a particular concept seemed to sell better, you might do a follow-up try-out, or graduate it to its own series.

The Direct Market pretty well put an end to this type of comic book, in that retailers are forced to order three months in advance, and on a non-returnable basis. So it’s very difficult to give them sufficient confidence to back a new product to the degree that would be necessary to make it a success. Similarly, as the Direct Market developed, it was fueled and maintained by the most dedicated readers–and those tended to be the fans of the superhero titles. As a result, superhero books did well in the Direct Market, but romance comics, crime comics, teen comics and all the rest tended to be shunned. As a result, and it’s no big surprise, you tended to get more and more superhero comics.

Two more shifts in content from Newsstand to Direct: on the Newsstand, it would sometimes make sense to run multiple features in a single magazine, as when Iron Man and Captain America both headlined TALES OF SUSPENSE as a split book–the idea being that fans of either character might be likely to pick up the title, and together they’d give you enough sales to survive. In the Direct Market, readers wanted what they wanted, without having to pay for pages featuring another character they maybe didn’t care so much about. Also, in the Newsstand Market, bimonthly publication made a lot of sense for lower-selling books–the idea being that, with a new issue coming out every two months, a given issue would be on the stands twice as long, and have a better chance of selling through at an acceptable percentage. In point of fact, for years, books like SUPERMAN and BATMAN would be published 8 times a year–bimonthly during the traditionally slow periods of spring and fall, and monthly during summer and winter, when there tended to be more buying activity. But that advantage evaporated in the Direct Market, where people’s buying patterns tended to revolve around regular weekly visits, and the customers paid attention to when a given title would be coming out (and disliked the long wait between issues of a bimonthly.)
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On a completely separate and unrelated note, as their last issue ships today, I want to take a moment to congratulate all of the creators who worked on DC’s 52. It’s no small or easy thing to ship a weekly serialized comic book series for an entire year straight without a mishap–so kudos to them.

More later.

Tom B

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