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#206444 - 09/18/99 12:27 AM Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Jim Hanley Offline
Member

Registered: 06/19/99
Posts: 1313
Loc: NYC
This was originally intended to address some comments in another thread. It seemed inappropriately off topic, so I decided to start a new thread.

The direct market came about because Phil Seuling needed a source of regular income. He had been a high school English teacher in Brooklyn and a part-time comics dealer/convention promoter for 12 or 13 years, when he and two teenage girls working with him were arrested for allegedly selling underground comics to an under-age kid at one of his Second Sunday shows. He had recently separated from his wife Carole and (as he told someone else in my presence) he gave his teaching salary to his family and supported himself with comics.

In 1973, after he was acquitted of the charges, Phil convinced Sol Harrison at DC and Jim Warren to sell comics through him on a non-returnable basis. Harrison & Warren did this purely as a secondary (or tertiary) source of income. If they really expected Phil's little business to supplant the ID market, they kept quiet about it. Phil did it because he saw an opportunity to replace the business he had done in undergrounds. Phil didn't bother to incorporate until 1975 and continued teaching at least until then.

Maggie Thompson told me that DC's earliest records of selling to Phil date from 1975, so who knows what the financial arrangements were before then. It wasn't until 1980 that Marvel hired someone (Mike Friedrich) to specifically handle the Direct Market and it was probably the late 1980's before direct sales surpassed newsstand sales.

All during this time, the newsstands of America continued to recede into a smaller and smaller market segment for magazine publishers. The National Enquirer became a mass market phenomenon by refocusing on celebrity gossip, adding color, and purchasing supermarket display space. It wasn't that long previously that supermarkets published their own magazines to sell at the check stands. I believe that Family Circle was originally published by A&P.

Supermarkets didn't want merchandise that sold to children, that was hard to police and easily shoplift-able, that was low-priced and low-margin, and hard to keep track of. This continued to leave comics out in the cold. The color-bar coding on newsstand comics was added in the late 70's as a sop to retailers who complained of the difficulty in stripping the right comics.

Now, The question is: now that the big publishers have destroyed the comics retailing trade and the newsstand distribution business has withered away, what could be the future means of distributing comics to potential readers. That is, real, solid, printed bundles of paper, rather than virtual Internet comics.

Even the print-on-demand model discussed elsewhere is not necessarily germane to my question. That's more of a cost ratio question for micro-publishing than a new mass market distribution question.

Have I framed a proper question for debate, here? And does anyone disagree with my analysis of the history?

Jim "doomed to repeat it" Hanley

[This message has been edited by Jim Hanley (edited 09-18-1999).]
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"I love him like a brother. David Greenglass." -- Woody Allen - Crimes & Misdemeanors

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#206445 - 09/18/99 11:34 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
eric hess Offline
Member

Registered: 12/19/98
Posts: 488
this is exactly the kind of 'history lesson' i was hoping someone would post. most enlightening. thanx, jim!

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#206446 - 09/18/99 10:26 PM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
David Luebke Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 04/08/99
Posts: 26
Loc: Richmond Va usa
Hi Jim,
Did you expect to see the mess that MVL is in right now subside any time in the forseeable future? To date, I have not seen any hint of dust settling at the house of ideas. Until that time, and the time that there is a direction to go, I do not see any change only further attrition. I am so sorry that the pokemon situation for diamond is not stronger because we would all uniformly benefit. Right now there is no rhyme or reason to the product line. I think our pokemon is our immediate panacea. What are your thoughts?

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#206447 - 09/19/99 02:48 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Chris Juricich Offline
Member

Registered: 09/19/99
Posts: 721
Loc: Berkeley, CA USA
Well, this is a loaded question. Small publishers will continue to thrive in their niche markets which Diamond will continue to service, and the big guys like Marvel and DC will thrive and survive due to their dependence on their licensing and merchandising income--as they have for years now.

More creators and publishers will publish online editions of their work which will be, to a degree, in competition to standard distribution practices. Comics will continue to survive because it's a medium that still somehow embodies passion in its creators and readers.

More comic shops will close until only the strongest or luckiest will survive, and no doubt Diamond/DC will use its distribution clout to its own advantage. The small distributors like Cold Cut will continue and grow stronger, but there will be stronger competition from electronic distribution rather than traditional methods.

And I hope I'm wrong about some of this!
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Berkeley, CA

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#206448 - 09/21/99 12:25 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Jim Hanley Offline
Member

Registered: 06/19/99
Posts: 1313
Loc: NYC
Dave:

Jimmy Breslin wrote a great book about the 1962 Mets whose title may or may not have been a genuine quote from Casey Stengel. The
full quote that Breslin used was something like, "Some days, I look up and down the bench, and I ask, 'Can't anybody here play this game?'"

For me, Marvel has become largely irrelevant. They continue to stumble along with their limited selection of comics. They continue to evince no grasp of what business they are in. Doesn't anybody there know how to publish comics, anymore?

Pokemon is a fad that is of varying help to many comics stores. The only long-term benefit that it is likely to have is to expose a new generation of kids to comics. Whether there'll be comics or comics stores when they get old enough to buy comics on there own is an open question.

Attrition of stores & publishers is of course the biggest worry. How much more attrition can we take before the entire business is unviable? And where is the next market for comics going to come from? Any ideas?
_________________________
"I love him like a brother. David Greenglass." -- Woody Allen - Crimes & Misdemeanors

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#206449 - 09/21/99 12:27 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Jim Hanley Offline
Member

Registered: 06/19/99
Posts: 1313
Loc: NYC
Chris:

My questions above are equally directed at you?
_________________________
"I love him like a brother. David Greenglass." -- Woody Allen - Crimes & Misdemeanors

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#206450 - 09/21/99 01:58 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
David Groenewegen Offline
Member

Registered: 12/06/98
Posts: 353
"the big guys like Marvel and DC will thrive and survive due to their dependence on their licensing and merchandising income--as they have for years now."

One day, very soon, some up-and-comer at Time Warner will be in a meeting where they are discussing DC. Someone will say "We keep DC on because they own and develop marketable properties, and turn a decent profit."

Up-and-comer (lets call him Mr Weasel) will stand up and say: "Hey, these comics guys haven't turned out a really useful, NEW, multimedia property since the 40s. The closest they've been since were the SUPERFRIENDS (much laughter). They trade on past glories, have a stagnant share of a diminishing market, and undermine our copyright control and bring bad publicity."

"Now I'm not saying we need to get rid of them, but we haven't turned out a Bugs Bunny cartoon since the late 60s, and we haven't made a good one since the 50s. But we make more money from him than ever. So why pay for new stuff? Let's cut the overhead, turn the division over to marketing with a few old timers to piece together compilations of existing stuff, and start making some real money. If anyone ever comes up with a marketable comicbook character again, we'll just buy all the ancillary rights."

Mr. Weasel will go far. DC will die. Then what? I don't know.

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Venting My Spleen every week at:
www.digitalwebbing.com/cbem/
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#206451 - 09/21/99 01:43 PM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Jeff Zugale Offline
Member

Registered: 12/06/98
Posts: 1806
Loc: Los Angeles, CA, USA
I think you've nailed it, Dave. Something along those lines is sure to happen. Superman is tired and declining, and this business with the Siegel family is going to cost TW a lot of money -- if not in remuneration to the Siegels (a disaster for them, losing 50% of Superman income!), then in legal fees as they go to court to argue about the "interpretation" of the copyright law for the next 10 years. Since Supes and Batman (who seems to be doing okay) are their only cash cow characters from DC, they're likely to make some kind of move to divest themselves of any dead weight -- ESPECIALLY with the new top-end people coming into power. You can be sure that even now, the viability of DC is being reviewed by the new regime.

But we have no control over any of that, so we'll just have to wait and see...

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Jeff Zugale
Pagan City Comics
www.pagancity.com
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Jeff Zugale www.jeffzugale.com/
My "Just A Bit Off..." webcomic

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#206452 - 09/24/99 05:24 PM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
Joe Zabel Offline
Member

Registered: 11/23/98
Posts: 2546
Loc: Cleveland Heights, OH 44106
Great thread, Jim!

Back when Comicon.com was new, Stephen Bissette suggested we have a discussion board devoted to comics history. At the time, I wrote in opposition to the idea, because we were suggesting so many different boards that I thought it would be confusing. If Rick's reading this, maybe you ought to reconsider the idea-- threads like Jim's would be great to have as permanent reference resources.

Not meaning to change the subject. 'Fraid I don't have anything to add on distributor history.
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#206453 - 09/30/99 03:47 AM Re: Comics Distribution: An Historical View and Predictive Query
iangould Offline
Member

Registered: 07/16/99
Posts: 257
Loc: Brisbane, Queensland, Australi...
Two comments:

1. Jim, you're correct about why comics were pushed out of supermarkets (low cover price, easily stolen, marginal appeal etc).

The answer lies in packaging comics material correctly for that market - just look at the success of Disney Adventures and the Archie digests.

I actually regard DC's 80-page giants and Marvel's upcoming X-men compilation magazine as very positive signs that this may be happening.

In retrospect, Marvel's decision circa 1972 to renege on the deal with DC to go to a 25 cent/48 page package may prove to have been as pivotal to the future of the industry as Phil Seuling's invention of the direct market.

If the companies had stuck with the higher priced but better value for money format they might have maintained a foothold in the supermarket mass market.

David:

The scenario you describe - Dc cancelling all its books and going reprint is a credible one. So credible that I suspect it has already been examined seriously by both Marvel and DC and rejected.

Not that long ago it was reported that Marvel was removing light bulbs from offices and taking away coffee machines to save money. If they were that desperate to save money and they rejected the obvious option of sacking 90% of editorial and going reprint there had to be a valid reason.

Actually I think there were two:

1. The domestic publication of the new material may not make money but it underwrites the international sale of the rights. A mid-level Marvel or DC title may (I'm guessing here) make or lose a few hundred dollars doemsticly - then the company sells the material again in 5 or 10 different foreign markets (everywhere from South Africa to Poland to the Phillipines to Israel to Brazil).

Each of those sales may only add $5, $10 or $20 per page to the book's profits but cumulatively they're significant.

As I understand it, the companies work similarly to the movie studios - if you want Superman or X-men you buy a package which might include several less popular series as well.

I also think it's misleading to say that DC hasn't produced a successful media property since the '40's. It depends on your definition of success. For example, Warlord was optioned for a movie (several times I believe) and was the basis of a toy line.

"Steel" may have bombed as a movie but Dc probably earned a six or seven figure sum from it anyway. Ditto for the Human Target tele-movie.

Remember that "success" to corporate suits doesn't mean critical or artistic success or even a completed product - it means a positive dollar return to the bottom line.

Alfred Bester came close to making a comfortable living simply from reselling the movie rights to "The Stars My Destination" which was under option continuously for about 30 years. He probably made more money as a result of the movie NOT being made than he would have if it was made.

Half the comics on the stands today are there as prospectuses for movie and tv properties. Whether they actually turn a proift from the comic is largely irrelevant provided the company's overall hit rate is acceptable.

One "Blade" movie pays for an awful lot of comics.

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