On Marvel and Diversity: Track more than direct sales, idiots

Marvel Comics has blamed its declining sales on their lackluster attempts to shoehorn in “diversity” simply by having comics feature female and POC characters. Marvel’s sales have been in a steady decline since the late 1970s, and this sinking spiral is due to a neverending cascade of poor business decisions.

Direct Market

Marvel and DC Comics track their sales almost exclusively through direct market pre-sales. Chances are you didn’t know that, and may not be entirely sure what that means, because it’s some hardcore nerd talk. Basically it means that sales only count through the distributors to comic book stores.

Specifically, when the owners pre-order comics several months before the books are released. It doesn’t matter how many copies the store actually sells; the numbers are crunched back when orders for the new issue are first taken.

Yes. That means that any hype that springs up after the first issue of a book pretty much doesn’t count. If the issues fly off the stack like mad? Doesn’t count. If you wait and buy the trade paperback? Doesn’t count. Buy a digital copy online? Doesn’t count. Fan appreciation? Doesn’t count.

Unless you asked your comic book guy to pre-order you a copy as soon as the book’s listing shows up in the distributor catalog, your purchase doesn’t count. Oh, sure, if a title picks up steam and sells out fast our shop owner might order more copies for the newest issues, but for a monthly book that’s looking at at least the third issue, and books often take a few issues to pick up steam. Especially if Marvel isn’t pushing them very hard, and the title relies entirely on fan review and word of mouth.

Which is usually the case.

So Diverse Book X is announced and listed in the catalog. The only people who pay attention are the hardcore comic fans, who, as a group, may not care about attempts to reach out to a broader audience or be actively hostile to it. They may not seem interested, which leads the shop owner to order low.

Comic Rack

A few months later, the book shows up in the shop. Maybe people love it. Maybe they eat it up. Maybe its a slower burn, but by the time shop owners realize and up their orders, Marvel is already disappointed in sales, so they’ve cut back their expectations.

The book, regardless of popularity, is canceled based on sales data from months ago.

The Fans

So sales decline because the only metric that reaches Marvel (and, incidentally, DC) are how comic book stores think that their fans will feel about their comics. And the fans themselves are an increasingly shrinking niche audience.

Young Romance ComicBack in the 1970s Superhero Comics were only one of many genres. There were war comics, and crime comics, and horror comics, and westerns, and mysteries, and romance. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon started Young Romance, a comic that persisted for 208 issues with really excellent sales. Comics were sold in gas stations and bookstores and newsstands and basically everywhere, so were easily accessible to the general public.

Then everything went to hell. There was a late 70s crash. The Big 2 shuttered a lot of their books. Marvel basically only survived the 70s on the strength of the Star Wars license.

The 80s weren’t much better, and the start of a series of poor business decisions predicated on short term benefit. The comics that sprang up were almost exclusively superhero-focused, creating the image of comic fans as interested in only a narrow slice of subject manner. Into the 90s both major companies engaged in gimmick after gimmick to profit from the speculator bubble of the era, establishing habits that would make it increasingly difficult for new fans to approach the media. Prices rose to increase profit margins even as the economy tanked.

Now, in 2017, Marvel’s event-heavy schedule and DCs incessant reboots have created an environment where new fans find it hard to invest in 28-page books that cost $3-4 a pop. Marvel and DCs’ target market is that shrinking population of collectors and die-hards who will keep buying even if they hate what’s being produced. Everyone else has cheaper entertainment options that don’t go out of their way to insult and exploit the readership.

And they blame “Diversity.”

Michael Coorlim

Michael Coorlim is a teller of strange stories for stranger people. He collects them, the oddballs. The mystics and fire-spinners, the sages and tricksters. He curates their tales, combines their elements and lets them rattle around inside his rock-tumbler skull until they gleam, then spills them loose onto the page for like-minded readers to enjoy.

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