In the mid-1960’s, Mort Weisinger explained newsstand distribution to me. A publisher contracted with a National Distributor. DC Comics used Independent News, which was owned by the same parent company, National Periodical Publications. Through some strange circumstances I’ll explain later, Independent News also was Marvel Comics’ distributor.The National Distributor was like a bank as much as anything else. It financed the creation of the publishers’ magazines or comics by paying the publisher an advance based upon the anticipated sales of each issue.
The National Distributor arranged with local distributors to deliver to retail outlets. These local distributors, called Independent Distributor Wholesalers, or “ID’s” almost without exception had a monopoly in their city or region. Pittsburgh, for instance had Triangle News. If you bought a magazine or a comic book anywhere in the greater Pittsburgh area, Triangle News had gotten it to the point of sale. The New York area was a large enough market that it had Hudson News, Kable Media, and I don’t know, maybe more. At that time, there were, as I recall, more than 500 ID’s in the United States and Canada.
The National Distributor set “draws” for each ID, that is, how many copies of each given comic book or magazine would be shipped to them. The total of all the draws, plus copies to be sent to subscribers and office copies comprised the print run for each comic book or magazine. ID’s were seldom interested to participate in setting their own draws, and you’ll see why in a minute. Except, once in a while, an ID would decide to simply stop carrying comics, therefore making their draws zero, if you call that participating. Only very rarely did any ID’s request higher draws on any comic book, as many did with The Life of Pope John Paul II. We even got reorder requests from ID’s on that one.
Wise publishers did not accept the National Distributor’s draws and set the draws for every title for each ID themselves, based on past sell-through performance. Publishers, who were paying to print and ship those copies were a lot more careful. The idea of “order regulation” was to minimize waste—give each ID as many copies as they were likely to sell and a few besides, just in case the issue got hot for some reason.
The comics, bundled on pallets, were shipped directly to the ID’s by the printer (and subscription copies were mailed by the printer). The ID’s sorted the comics and delivered by truck a supposedly appropriate number of each issue to each retail account—newsstands, drugstores, supermarkets, what have you. Generally the retailer unbundled the magazines and comics and racked them. Some ID’s provided that service.
At the same time the ID’s drivers were delivering new issues, they picked up the unsold ones from the previous month, the “returns.” The retailer would remove the old stuff and set it aside, or the driver would pick them off the racks. The retailer paid the ID only for the number of copies actually sold. The ID counted up the returns from all the retailers and paid the National Distributor for all copies sold. The National Distributor paid the publisher the difference between the advance and the actual sales revenue, less their commission. Of course, sometimes, if sales weren’t as good as anticipated, the advance was more than the sales, and the publisher owed the National Distributor money. Generally, that was deducted from the next advance.
The reason unsold books were called returns is that, in ancient days, all unsold copies were returned to the publisher intact!
Publishers were free to redistribute their publications to secondary or international markets, offer them through a back issue service, or sell them for pulp.
The cost of shipping the returns back was a burden. Eventually, ID’s were allowed to merely tear the covers off and return those as evidence of the number unsold.
Of course, some ID’s would then sell some of the coverless books through various lower-tier or bargain outlets, or for paper pulp.
Then, again to save chump change on shipping covers, the ID’s were allowed to tear off just the top part of the covers. That actually had the unintended side effect of making the copies marginally more saleable through the less-than-proper outlets.
That’s how things were when I started. There was a “general store” in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, a run-down, old building with that musty old frame building smell, in an area called Coverdale, which I believe had been the company store back when Coverdale was a mining town. They sold coverless and partial cover comics there. That’s where I bought Amazing Spider-Man #2, with half a cover for a nickel. I wondered how come that store had comics with half the cover missing until Mort clued me in.
By the mid-seventies, when I started working at Marvel, newsstand distribution had taken another turn for the worse. The distributors were able to force publishers to accept “affidavit returns.” No more full copies, no more covers or partial covers. ID’s sent in only affidavits that alleged how many copies they’d sold.
So, it worked like this….
Marvel’s circulation people would determine how many copies of, say, Fantastic Four Triangle News should draw. Let’s say, for the sake of round numbers, V.P. Ed Shukin decided that it should be 10,000 copies. Months later, Triangle News would deliver an affidavit to Marvel’s National Distributor, which was Curtis Circulation at that point, swearing that they’d sold 3,000 copies. The accompanying payment would be for 3,000 copies.
Now, let me tell you what really happened. In this hypothetical instance almost certainly, Triangle News received 10,000 copies of a given issue of the FF—the people at the printer, World Color Press, were pretty reliable. Triangle News would have distributed some copies to the retail outlets. A few retailers actually liked carrying comics, but most were indifferent. Comics weren’t after all, an absolute necessity to most retailers who sold periodicals, in the way that Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Time and Sports Illustrated were.
So, let’s say they actually delivered 5,000 copies to the retailers. If they bothered to deal with unwrapping and sorting, if they had room on the trucks….
Most likely, they’d only actually deliver comics to retailers who would complain if they didn’t get comics and places that sold enough comics to make the driver’s effort worthwhile.
Let’s say the retailers sold 4,000 copies! Pretty good. 80%. 1,000 were returned to the Triangle.
Remember, 5,000 copies of FF never left the warehouse, so then, Triangle had 6,000 copies. No need to deface the comics under the affidavit system. So, they might sell some copies at a discount to bottom-feeder retailers who came around looking for a cheap merch, or shrink-wrap bundles of comics into “bricks,” which warehouse clubs like Sam’s or Costco would buy. Or they might sell them to secondary or international markets, just as the publishers used to. Or toss them into the paper wolf and sell the pulp.
So, Triangle News might, hypothetically, have sold all 10,000 copies, albeit many at a steep discount and some for pulp.
But they only paid for 3,000.
And that worked so well, why not claim to have sold, and pay for only 2,900 the next month? 2,800 the next month?
So, Marvel’s newsstand sales through Triangle looked pretty grim. Under 30%?! Geez, Louise!
I don’t remember what the breakevens were like in those days, and I don’t have time to dig out the paperwork or do the math, but under 30% was probably below breakeven considering direct costs only, certainly considering contribution to overhead.
If Marvel “regulated” their draw down to try to stop the bleeding, say cutting Triangle back to 7,000 copies, to keep making the same money with their affidavit scam, Triangle would swear to even lower sell-throughs.
Here’s a statement of ownership from the very first comic book of mine ever published, Adventure Comics featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #346, on sale around April 1966:
|Click to enlarge|
Average print run for twelve issues for which final sales information was available, “As of Oct. 1, 1965,” it says, was 757,000 copies. Take away the subscription and office copies and the print run, or draw, for distribution through the National Distributor/ID Wholesaler system was, on average, 746,418. Copies sold through that system, on average, 510,000. That’s 68.3%. Not bad. And other DC titles, like Superman, did significantly better.
I’ll provide the documents when I get time to find and scan them, but ballpark, Marvel’s sell-throughs via newsstand outlets was in the 40% range when I first started there, but trickled down steadily.
Aha, here’s one sales analysis. I’ll show more later:
Things were pretty bad for comics in the mid-seventies.
Then the Comic Book Direct Market developed! It saved us, then!
And it’s killing us now.
NEXT: Fish in a Barrel
P.S. For those who can’t wait to read more about the origins of the Direct Market, Chuck Rozanski has a great account of the early days starting here:
[MikeAnon:] I'm reading through the Mile-High articles now. If anyone's interested, the "Shooterrelevant" entries begin here:
(I was going to say "Shooterrific" but that's way too kiss-ass.)
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! [–MikeAnon]
Got that book.
Flo-fans should track down a copy of Comic Book Artist #18 which is still available from publisher Twomorrows:
Half the book is a tribute to Fab Flo, starting with a great Marie Severin cover spoof of FF #51. (The other half of the book isn't too shabby either – a long interview with Jim Starlin and Alans Migrom & Weiss).
Flo is still proofreading part-time for Marvel! And yes, there's nothing about her that isn't awesome.
Flo did some proofreading for Marvel either at the end of my tenure or soon thereafter. Flo was publisher, I think, of a one-shot, Big Apple Comics, one of the best anthology comics ever made, IMHO. The Archie Goodwin story alone is a pearl beyond price. Flo is lovely, sweet, wonderful, beautiful, brilliant. I love Flo. Anyone human who doesn't is suspect.
Milla Jojovich reminds me of a girl that used to work at a local comic shop. She used to sell Randy Queen comics and some images of Dark Chylde look exactly like her. She was phone friends with J.G. Jones' wife because his wife was a rep for I believe DC that called the stores.
Publishers are gonna have to find SOME other way to sell their comics. $4 for 32 pages is well beyond my limit. No way I'm gonna go into a shop and pick up any comics on a whim at that price.
I can buy tons of back issues for half that–and they are more to my liking anyway.
Flo Steinberg is possibly the cutest human being ever. She does look a bit like Jennifer Tilly! She didn't work at Marvel when I was there, but we became friends and used to hang out a bit. She's just a lovely person on every level.
And, I've always identified with Angela Basset. But maybe, if I could have a really big ego for a moment, they could get Milla Jojovich. She's my favorite and I devoutly wish I looked like her. Her character in Dummy was perfect.
I know it's off topic, but I came across the following recently:
Thanks for the explanation of comic book distribution. Publishing has always had a razor-thin profit margin and a publisher has to sell books to make money to recoup their printing costs. It's the volume of sales that keeps a title in print.
Sadly today's comic market doesn't sell enough titles to sustain at any retail level.
Worse, The comic book currently has the lowest entertainment value for the dollar these days in proportion to cost to the consumer. With today's comics padding stories out to 12-24 issues it takes $72-96 to get the entertainment value of a $10 DVD, a $12 movie ticket a $15 paperback or even a $2.99 ebook. At $4 a copy comic books can't compete against other forms of media.
The 32-page comic is on borrowed time. There is no way a publisher can continue to sustain these print and production costs even if they raise the price to $10 per copy. It's just cost prohibitive.
I see the market headed towards graphic novels, and more licensing of characters and merchandise. The 32-page comic may not exist in five years.
Personally, I feel when comics walked away from retail, the industry lost an opportunity to access a generation of new readers and signed its own death warrant. It's hard to get new customers to try comics because they just can't find them. Comic book sales have always been about volume, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Without the retailers like supermarkets, drugstores and mom and pop shops involved it's hard to sell 200,000-300,000 copies of anything.
Jennifer Tilly even kind of looks like Flo Steinberg! Time to dust off my TV if that ever came on. Literally.
Each season of Funny Business could cover a different decade. From the Golden Age to … whatever it is now. The Ultimate Age?
JayJay (or Jim), was Flo Steinberg at Marvel in any capacity during your time there? I know of her role in 60's Marvel and that she left during that decade but I don't know a lot about afterwards (I know she had something to do with an underground women's comics publication). She looked and sounded lovely though!
Also, both a 60s and an 80s Marvel period peice would be cool.
Let me guess, the actress would have to float like a bee and sting like a butterfly?
Well… It would have to be someone incredibly badass. lol. ; )
And who would play the lovely Ms Janet Jackson?
There might be a shortage of women's roles in the show. lol. But Jennifer Tilly would make an awesome Flo Steinberg!
I would think AMC, FX or one of the movie cable channels would be all over a behind-the-scenes comic book show. Especially AMC since they've got a show coming out this February that's reality-based centering around director Kevin Smith's comic book store in Jersey called "The Secret Stash".
My vote for a potential title is: "The Bullpen".
It's on the list, thanks.
I like Mad Men and Pan Am. The Marvel Comics story would make a great period drama, but it would have to be complete fiction. No one would ever believe any it if Jim told the truth. The truth is too wild. lol.
Roger Stern wanted to pitch a sitcom about Marvel back in 1976. His proposed title: "Funny Business."
Interesting thoughts. Thanks. And, you're welcome. : )
I'll try to do a post on digital distribution soon. Thanks.
Yeah, It's tough these days. I read somewhere that Savage Dragon was selling less than 5000 books a month. I love that book. But creators are still putting out new things every year. If Jim can be in control of picking his artist, letterers etc, he might make a run at it.
do you plan to write about the creation and the secret identity of the Hobgoblin? I think it's one of the better known stories of Marvel, still a somewhat confusing one. How come Stern didn't share his plans with the other writers, how come the people in charge did not collate their ideas about the resolution, etc.? It would be interesting to hear some of your thoughts, though I'm not sure how much you did know about all this as EIC.
In all honesty, there is a built in audience if Jim was to buy some of his past properties… but why do that? Jim can create new characters from scratch. He could model them after characters we like and actually make them better by making them up-to date and simply completing his stories. The problem is that ANY publishing venture at this point is an uphill challenge. Distribution and reaching the potential customer is a huge obstacle. Some people think digital distribution is the answer, but the music industry is still billions of dollars behind where they were with CD sales. I would not gamble on it saving the industry.
Defiant was settling down to sales in the 20.000 – 30,000 range by my estimates. Broadway was dipping down to about 10,000 units. That's not a huge audience to carry over and make it worthwhile to pay a licensing fee. Most of those collectors have left the hobby and I'd say it's a safe bet that only a fraction of that number were truly reading them enthusiastically.
A publisher benefits no matter "why" a comic sold. If people were using them to line bird cages, it doesn't matter because the money enables their business model. A publisher does have to worry about reaching an audience and sustaining a customer base. They need customers to come back and bring a few friends and family to read also. Any creative concept can do that without the burden of buying characters or paying someone to use their characters.
From what I've read, it doesn't sound like Jim is too excited about the prospect of thinking small and struggling for years to put all his knowledge and survival instincts to the test every single day. It sounds like he'd rather hit the ground running with enough money to make sure it's all done right. Jim can correct me if I'm wrong. Monetarily, there is a huge gap between what Jim says it takes to do it right and what you or I could donate for a kickstarter project.
It would be nice to see a small seed planted and know it could grow into something big from the ground up. At what point would the investment in time and labor make everything worthwhile? I can't answer that. If I knew for sure, I'd be sitting down and drawing (scribbling on paper) right now rather than reading this blog.
Yeah, I never buy DH either but i did buy Jims stuff until I heard it was cancelled. I'm almost totally out of the comic buying bizness.
Professor Larry Ribstein published a paper a few years ago about why Hollywood continuously portrays business in a negative light.
From the abstract: "The article argues that this dislike stems from filmmakers' resentment of capitalists' constraints on their artistic vision."
It strikes me that a lot of your pariah status can be put down to the same sort of thing. You always take the business side into account, and rather than chafe at the restraints, you flourish under them and appreciate them (or so it seems). You "get" both the artistic and the business aspects of the medium. Which must drive the "sensitive artistes" nuts.
The full paper is available here, if you're interested: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=563181
As a teenager I worked in a small mom and pop grocery store. This would be around 94 95 and we still sold comics on the racks. One of my jobs was to tear off the covers at the end of the month and send them back as unsold destroyed. Broke my heart every time, but I was allowed to keep the mutilated copies, so free comics for me at a time when Magic the Gathering was eating up my comic budget I got over it pretty quick. As a side note we were one of the few retailers that got the Valiant newsstand editions that are now "collectable" in the Valiant fan community…yeah I destroyed at least 5 copies of each of those titles…sigh
I considered that, but if you look at their market & dollar share in relation to any normal semblance of overhead costs, the publishing portion is not as healthy as people would like to think. You would think Richardson would do what is best for everyone. As it stands, I'm not interested in anything they produce at this point. They are one of the big reasons I've quit buying any new comics at all. I feel like they are just going through the motions. As with all things in life, people are remembered for their last big mistake, not the hundreds of things they may have done right at one point or another. I felt insulted that they would pass off what they did as a "Jim Shooter" comic. It's the typical bait and switch that all the other publishers are doing. I find it insulting to my intelligence.
LOVE the Mad Men idea. Two title ideas: "Funny Business" (like calling comics "funny books"), or "Bullpen", since that'd be the main setting, one presumes.
My point is that the current EIC probably kept Jim away from potentially taking his job.
Of course DH has an EIC. That doesn't mean they couldn't have started an imprint with Jim calling all the shots. It's a waste to hire all his experience and not use it to the fullest. Do they think fans are too stupid to know the difference between their product and what they released? The two don't compare.
Definitely. I was shocked when Dark Horse limited his role to that of writer, when he could have reshaped the future of the company in a positive way. Baffling. 0
I'm gonna assume DH already has an EIC. Don't wanna step on anyones toes. But I wonder if Jim can just purchase some of his former properties and just publish it himself with Image or another publisher.
Jeremy's idea for a TV series, like Supermad Supermen, It'S A BLAST! Or maybe is just Shooter's ability as a storyteller that make seems it so intriguing… but with Big Jim as supervisor…
Fantastic Stuff Jim.
This type of knowledge nugget I really appreciate. I've always been curious how this stuff really worked. Essentially, if I've understood correctly, it seems that distribution was not accountable for sales AT ALL, and that the fewer copies they sold the more money they made on the margins. Thus leaving the Publisher in the red to eat the difference. An unsustainable model to say the least.
Your efforts here in this bloggy-blog inspired me to start one of my own. Instead of industry Pro, I come from the perspective of a cranky middle aged pulp enthusiast. In the links below to my blog I touch on things like digital comics, how advertising partnerships might be used to leverage increasing the potential pool of pulp enthusiasts and why I hate chase covers. I've had a ball with it.
This is as good a segue as any –
Once upon a Defiant ago, I sent you a letter saying something to the effect that I had an interest in Comic Advertising and was wanting to figure out how to do it better. And boy did you ever send me a response. Defiant sent me a big Promo envelope dealie with a lot of comics published by Defiant (most I had already purchased) and a letter from you. I wish I could find it. Sorry I didn't follow thru. It was a while ago. I was young, I was in love. I was highly distracted. I was able to wrestle that girl into marriage and haven't looked back, no regrets on that front. However, I've somewhat regretted not doing more on that advertising notion.
Please consider this a belated thank you for the correspondence and parcel. And thanks for being an approachable guy in this blog.
"In my opinion he is over qualified to be just writing a series."
Definitely. I was shocked when Dark Horse limited his role to that of writer, when he could have reshaped the future of the company in a positive way. Baffling.
"How can the business get new customers when kids can't even find comics anymore? I'd love to know what percentage of American kids 16 and under have even seen a print comic. The number would have to be depressingly low compared to the number before comics became almost exclusively direct market. Kids have to be able to get their mitts on a comic in order to buy one!"
Naturally, most of us on here got into comics after seeing those four-color wonders for the first time on spinner racks or magazine racks in convenience stores, supermarkets, and book stores. It was our point of entry and, for some of us, our only source for comics period. With the advent of comics specialty shops, most of us withing close proximity to a shop were in heaven. Sure, those spinner racks were still around…for a while. Then such factors as the industry bust of the mid-90s, the advent of the internet, and the introduction of video game consoles with improved graphics and gameplay forced comics out of the convenience and grocery stores. Kids became interested in both the internet and Playstation and had no idea about comics or, if they knew of them, had no interest in them. Why spend money on something that can be finished and done with in about 20 minutes when they can spend hours on end with the internet and video games?
As I have followed this blog and felt (this may make me sound like a fanboy but never the less this is how I feel) that I have gotten to know Mr. Shooter more as a person and not just EiC of Marvel Comics, it has become more and more disheartening to me that he was considered a "Pariah". I have found him engaging, personable, accessible, very smart, and very knowledgeable. How many people in the comic industry have this much knowledge of both the creative and business sides of the industry? And yet he has a hard time getting work? In my opinion he is over qualified to be just writing a series. I don't know if it's a case of "piling on" or if it's just safe to not like Mr. Shooter. But whatever it is, I don't like it.
Dear Mr. Shooter,
On the distribution side of things, I was wondering if you'd take a stab at what the future of the industry might be on mobile and tablet platforms. The Apple Store informs me that some of their top downloaded apps are the Marvel and DC readers. I have gone back to reading back issues on my iPad, and I must admit, it's pretty. Those pages take on new life when they're backlit. Virtual comics are cheaper than print on the consumer end, cost the publisher next to nothing to distribute and are instant to acquire (as long as you own a device). They aren't collectable, but then again I see a lot of the Amazing Spider-Man stuff I collected for sale for near cover price 20 years later at the few comics stores left.
For what it's worth, this is a fascinating blog.
I'm too busy to photoshop this –
Jim Shooter – Pariah!
PS – I learned a new word reading that comic. Entertaining AND educational!
Jeremy, are you trying to make Jim a pariah again? Just think how upset Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, John Byrne and others would be at spotting the characters based on them…
On second thought, maybe you should do it, Jim. Have a little fun at everyone else's expense.
Mmm. "Pariah." Does that work as a title for a TV series about the comic book industry?..
This blog is terrific. I don't know if it's because the material speaks to me (as an ostensible grown-up who burned my whole allowance on superhero comics in my teens) or if it's a tribute to your ability as a storyteller, but I look forward to every post, read all the comments, and even follow the links to get (say) John Byrne's version or the anti-Shooter rumors. (I know it's callous, and I know it's your life, but I can't resist good gossip.)
Have you ever considered trying to make a TV series of this? Something like Mad Men, but set in the '70s… drugs, mobsters, sexism, weirdos, and of course, superheroes. I'd watch it.
Fascinating. I'm more focused on digital and find that over 90% of my customers don't buy print comics – even when I offer them free and with free shipping, they prefer online only. I really wonder how the "distribution" system will evolve as digital becomes realized – as in that it can be a different and larger market than print ever was.
Adams seems to be a little conspiratorial on that, explaining why two of his books got cancelled
It may just be that what set fandom abuzz was not relevant to the kids buying off the racks and thus the discrepancy on buzzworthy v. sales
Even now, things that get a lot of buzz-tv shows and what not-are not what are usually the most viewed.
In the sixties, Independent News inadvertently helped Marvel thrive, by limiting the number of titles they could publish each month. It's best to leave fans like nine-year-old me yearning for more. Later, left to their own devices, Marvel overexpanded more than once, and went broke. Good marketing is like pruning a tree.
It wasn't a few thousand. Back issue dealers are thought to have bought tens of thousands of copies from distributors just in the New York area alone.
Many of the comic books marked "hard to find, low distribution" in the Overstreet, were really issues which had not been purchased in huge lots by dealers. Conan #3 is often given as an example.
Adams mentioned one back issue dealer (I can't recall the name right now) in the New York area who had thousands of copies of single issues. Dealers around the country, would reorder large lots of back issues from him.
Being a comic book reader for years and now working in the circulation department for a regional magazine publisher, I can appreciate your explanation of the distribution process. I look forward to your post about the birth of comic book direct market.
'Adams feels that in the budding season of comics shops, during a time right before the direct market, comic book shop owners, and mail-order dealers would go to local distributors and buy up large quantities of comics right from the distributor, and that it was common practice for the distributors to report the comics sold to the dealers as unsold, and destroyed.' Philip
Yes, I read an article that stated comics were sold off the back of trucks to certain collectors/speculators on a fairly large scale.
This practice allegedly caused the demise of the original X-Men series, back when Neal Adams was making history on it, as it SEEMED that the sales of it were appalling; but in fact, thousands of copies were being hijacked prior to legitimate distribution.
I know for a fact that, throughout the 1970s, there was at least one shady comics wholesaler in Sydney, Australia, who would hijack every Marvel #1 issue before they hit the stands in this country — Howard the Duck, Nova, Spectacular Spider-Man, etc.
He would then sell them at 10-20 x cover price a month or so later when local demand was at fever pitch.
I don't know of many resources about the business side of comics publishing. Anybody have any suggestions?
Adding layers of management happened when Perelman took over, not so much when Cadence bought Marvel from Martin Goodman. Example: Stan ran the comics and reported only to Martin. Under Cadence's ownership, I had Stan's old job and I reported directly to the President, Jim Galton. No layers. Eventually Mike Hobson was brought in as publisher, ostensibly replacing Stan. Stan had technically been publisher (though he was no business head) before moving to LA, and therefore comprised a "layer" between Roy, Len, Marv, Gerry, Archie and the President (Al Landau for most of that time). So with Hobson's arrival, we had the "publisher" layer back. His main job was serving as publisher of new division Marvel Books. He nonetheless took a hand in the comics biz, and helped me immeasurably. We had grown, and Lord, I needed help. He taught me a lot.
What he said. That, too.
I've read Adams' theories about that also. I don't doubt that what he described did happen, but I wonder if it really could have happened on a large enough scale to have a significant effect on sales? How many comic shops or back-issue dealers were there in the early 70's? Even if a few thousand copies were skimmed off the top, a typical print run back then was 200,000 to 400,000.
There are some real curiosities surrounding the latter days of newsstand distribution. Neal Adams has talked about what he thinks was going on.
Once things got to the, "Just trust me." point of reporting on returns a lot of funny things began happening. In the case of Adam, Neal mentions that even as Green Lantern was getting major media play (like Time and Newsweek) the sales of Green Lantern were reported as going down, sinking like a stone, issue by issue, to the point the book was canned. The O'Neil/Adams Green Lantern ended up in the back of a few issues of The Flash!!!???
Other "curiosities" were the very poor reported sales of the Joe Kubert Tarzan book, and the Jack Kirby Fourth World, and the beautiful Mike Kaluta Shadow comic book.
It seemed as if the very comic books which were setting fandom abuzz, were tanking.
Adams feels that in the budding season of comics shops, during a time right before the direct market, comic book shop owners, and mail-order dealers would go to local distributors and buy up large quantities of comics right from the distributor, and that it was common practice for the distributors to report the comics sold to the dealers as unsold, and destroyed.
I've read Chuck Rozanski's articles on the direct market, but pre-direct market distribution was always a mystery to me until tonight. Thank you for an entertaining lesson. From Weisinger to you … and then to us! I doubt other DC writers were told how distribution worked. Weisinger was grooming you! I've read statements of ownership before, but now I'll look at them with more understanding.
I assume the distribution of non-comics periodicals worked similarly. Maybe you and/or others could verify that.
I was shocked you had access to DC sales information. Wonder Woman was at the bottom, below G.I. Combat? Ouch! Wild thought: Given how you successfully relaunched the Gold Key heroes at VALIANT, maybe you could make Wonder Woman sell. Every era of WW has its fans, I know, but my impression is that she's never managed to recover her Golden Age level of popularity. The days when she headlined two titles like Superman and Batman are long gone.
1985 was a different world. Detective and even Batman were behind nonsuperhero titles like V, (Jonah) Hex, and Warlord in that report. I wonder whether the nonsuperhero titles also outsold the Bat-titles in the direct market.
I recommend Thomas G. Lammers' Tales of the Implosion, a 38-page 8.5 x 11" book about the Atlas Implosion of 1957. Lots of hard data and research. The way comics history should be done.
Thanks for putting the disappearance of spinner racks for comics into a broader perspective. I'd like to see a comics history book take the bigger commercial as well as cultural context into account. I'm tired of the same old issue numbers, dates, and fan myths.
Much of what I know about the comics business comes from reading Mr. Shooter's interviews and writings. I too hope he can recommend other sources. I've been reading ICV2 for at least the last couple years. And do check out Mr. Miller's site if you haven't already. Happy learning!
Thank you very much for the information. It is much appreciated and I will certainly be using both sources.
John Jackson Miller
Thanks, Jim. It looks like DC cut many print runs in 1986 to the tune of 20-30k copies — all of which came out of newsstand end of things — so the analysis in that 1985 Marvel memo was dead on target.
PF, there was a comics business trade magazine for about 16 years, Comics Retailer — it's gone now, but copies do pop up on eBay. Editor for much of that time, I continue just the statistical tracking on my Comichron site these days. But you might also check ICV2.com, which is edited by a former comics distributor owner and covers more of the range of business topics we used to.
I've seen many articles dealing with the creative side of comics, but have never read any dealing with the business aspects of the industry. Have you come across any that you thought were accurate and can you direct me to them?
Also, I've always been curious if the added layers of management that were heaped upon Marvel once Mr. Goodman sold it were a factor to it's loss of profit. I would be very interested in your opinions on this matter.
The ID's generally liked us and our Curtis reps better than they liked DC. The ID's told us everything. We often knew DC's sell-throughs before they did. We also had sources at World Color Press that would leak info to us.
No time to look it all up, but my understanding is that Martin Goodman left one distributor and got involved with a new start-up that almost immediately went under. His former distributor wouldn't take his account back, so he went begging to Independent News, which accepted Goodman's business, albeit under harsh constraints.
Van GoghX said…
"Yeesh! No wonder the spinner-racks disappeared from the corner convenience stores."
Spinner racks disappeared for other reasons, as I remember the stories. Drugstores, supermarkets, etc. used to have (wire) spinner racks for books, magazines, comics etc., typically lower-profit product lines of relatively lightweight products. In the early 1970s, advances in the plastics industry made it possible to put heavier items in plastic spinners, and some of these were much higher-profit items. I've heard that L'Eggs pantyhose were the first products to be aggressively marketed on the racks, and they pushed comic racks out of stores quickly. A busy urban drugstore could easily have more (dollar-value) sales from its L'Eggs spinner on a single weekday lunchbreak than it would have for comics in an entire week.
Then comics had to compete for space on the regular magazine racks, with mostly higher-priced, higher-profit publications. That was an important factor in Marvel's pushing those magazine-sized black-and-white books as the 1970's went on.
And since the local IDs didn't set their own draws, it would take months and months before distribution was affected. If 20% of the drugstores in a market dumped their comics racks for L'Eggs spinners (and that's a conservative figure; I worked in a city where every big downtown drugstore scrapped the comics racks in a single summer), all the publisher learned, months and months later, was that sales fell by, say, 15%.
Kev from Atl
Thanks for getting to this so quickly Jim. I have no idea why I find this stuff so fascinating, but I do. I'm enthralled.
It's hard to believe that just 15 years ago (in my area at least) I could find comics just about anywhere. The drug stores, the grocery stores, convenience stores, even Wal-Mart. Heck, for a while in the early to mid 90s, Wal-Mart and Revco Drugs (now CVS) even had collecting supplies like bags and boards. Now one would have to drive at least 20 miles from where I live to find a new comic book for sale.
I was shocked to discover one day back in the summer what the general public (aka not comic book collectors) thinks about comics. I had a small box of comics out for a yard sale. Two guys, in their late 50s or early 60s, looked at them and said "Comic books! Wow, you don't see these much anymore!" From the way they were talking, I got the impression that they believed comics are no longer printed at all. I wonder how many non-collectors/readers think that? Since comics aren't available anywhere but comic stores, which non-comics people don't really know about or pay attention to, I guess that's not an unreasonable thing for them to think.
I think it's extremely important to get get comics back out into the public and away from the gaming dungeon of a run down strip mall. Unfortunately, comics suffer because the labor to handle them at all stages ads up quickly and outwieghs the profit margins that can be realized. When collectors want the condition of the product to exceed the process capabilities of the distribution process, it further diminishes the likelihood of turning a profit.Jacking the price up to $4 a copy may seem like a solution to make money, but the only way to ultimately solve the problem is to increase volume. The one time in history when publishers could afford to cut prices (the mid 90's), they opted to keep prices the same and roll in the profits. I'm amazed that publishers have not tried some sort of bundling, to sell perhaps sets of crossover books at a discounted rate.
Comics had pretty good newsstand exposure in my area. Even so, I am from the generation where I had to drive all over town if my local sources didn't get a specific issue. I'm familiar with a lot of the "whys". I'll let Jim and others explain that. I will say that the success of the direct market was possible because back issue comics retained value and that enable direct market retailers to buy in abundance. One local comics shop employee that went on to work for Diamond much later said that when the direct market emerged, he was able to order 200 of just about anything and not worry about getting stuck with comics he couldn't sell. Shops today have to worry about getting stuck with inventory if they order 5 of some titles. Too many comics are produced that have no significance past their initial release. I remember turning my nose up at the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it was black & white… hence inferior in my opinion. The comic shop had a stack of about 100 copies on the shelf.
I'd dispute that 'stupidity' wasn't a factor. To give up his own distribution company in favour of another that he clearly hadn't done enough homework on seems pretty stupid to me.
Yeesh! No wonder the spinner-racks disappeared from the corner convenience stores.
Though I still can't help but feel that the only way to save paper comics is to somehow get them back into the stores. How can the business get new customers when kids can't even find comics anymore? I'd love to know what percentage of American kids 16 and under have even seen a print comic. The number would have to be depressingly low compared to the number before comics became almost exclusively direct market. Kids have to be able to get their mitts on a comic in order to buy one!
I guess the digital market is destined to be the natural successor, unfortunately.
John Jackson Miller
Also, Jim, any idea how Marvel got hold of Warner's projections? I could see how it could get ABC figures, but not necessarily where it would have over-the-table access to Warner's.
The distributor that Goodman was contracted to (American News Services, I believe) were formally accused of anti-trust practices. Instead of going to court, they completely shut down the company. Looking back, it looks like a mob operation.
John Jackson Miller
Fascinating data, Jim!
Chuck Rozanski also has a piece he wrote about the Mile High II collection, a batch of millions of comics in perfect shape that had been fraudulently reported as affidavit returns: http://www.milehighcomics.com/tales/cbg65.html
That 1965 Statement (published in 1966) was part of the first batch that had detailed drill-downs; earlier in the 1960s you were lucky to see a print run, and DC omitted numbers in many Statements altogether on many titles in 1963-64. I have most of the numbers-bearing Statements from 1960-present in my files — close to 3,000 — I've been getting them online a bit at a time. Readers can see where Adventure landed relative to other titles here, for example:
It really helps to see things like the internal analysis you posted, because it helps to illustrate what was going on in the Statements. The 186,800 draw/59,000 sale for SUPERMAN in Aug-Sep 85, for example, would suggest over 40,000 going to the direct market based on the Statement of Ownership (seen here http://www.comichron.com/titlespotlights/superman.html). I have Capital City's internal number for the Nov 85 cover-dated Superman at 9,000 copies — so that seems to square up. Capital would have been a quarter or less of DC's direct sales.
Every data point helps!
As I understand it, Mr. Goodman owned his own distribution company for his lines of magazines. He disposed of it during the Fifties and contracted with a distributor that abruptly went out of business. National agreed to carry his line of comics, whatever they were called at the time, but added the stipulation that he be limited to only eight issues per month.
Stupidity was not a factor, simply business.
In Britain just a few years ago, returning covers for refunds was still the norm. Might still be for all I know. Jim, one of the biggest mistakes Martin Goodman ever made was to get rid of his own distribution set-up and allow National to distribute Marvel comics. Why was he so stupid in this regard?