Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lessons From The Newspaper Industry

Newspapers are dying. Not exactly a revelation for you, I know, but let's be upfront about this. Hindsight is 20/20, but here's where they missed the boat...

It's a typical ad for The New York Times, but pay attention to that bit where they try to play up the snobbery angle, where they start talking about "fluency" in various sections. That's very telling because it's an admission that the vast majority of people are NOT going to read the entire paper. They're going to pull out the sections that interest them, and discard the rest. That means that the newspaper is not catering to what they want to read about. Sure, you might be interested in the Travel and Business sections, but the Sunday Style gets cast aside without even being glanced at. That's a waste at every level -- it's a waste of paper and ink, it's a waste of the reader's time, it's a waste of the reader's money (after all, they're still paying for the WHOLE paper, even if they only read one section), it's a waste of the delivery person's energy to carry the extra weight... Why put everyone through that mess when there are plenty of news aggregators online that can deliver exactly what the reader wants?

What newspapers needed to realize was that they were NOT in the business of peddling newspapers, but that of aggregating news. After all, many articles in many papers are pulled from sources OUTSIDE the confines of that one newspapers' offices! Newspapers needed to have come up with an online portal of some kind. They realize that now and that's why they got pissed at Google -- Google did what they should have done!

The recording industry ran into the same issue, but Steve Jobs had the foresight to see what needed to be done and created iTunes -- it's essentially an online portal for music. The record store model, where any individual album title has (unless it's new and popular) a slim chance of being in stock, and where it's not particularly conducive to sampling music before buying. (That has changed somewhat in some larger stores, but only AFTER iTunes.) Jobs understood the problems with the music purchasing experience and developed an entirely new method of delivery.

Similarly, Netflix is blowing the doors off Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Of course, Netflix will find itself under fire soon, once online bandwidth becomes sufficient to deliver high quality movies on demand.

So what can the comics industry learn from these other folks?

Well, let me back up a step by saying first that Marvel -- as a corporation -- figured this out around 1999/2000. Since that time, they've been a company that sells "character-based entertainment." They are in the business of selling Spider-Man, regardless of whether that's in the form of a comic book, a movie, a TV cartoon, an action figure, a lunch box or a t-shirt. Their web site reflects this with a great deal of screen real estate devoted to movies and DVDs and such. A quick look at their annual report quantitatively confirms that their entirety of their publishing arm constitutes less than 20% of their annual revenue. Despite their origins, Marvel is selling a consumer's interaction with characters (not necessarily the comics they appear in) and doing a fair job of it.

Time-Warner, I think, gets this too. Hence, Watchmen (the movie) and the Wonder Woman cartoon and t-shirts with Superman's stylized "S" on them.

But who doesn't get it, it seems to me, are the comic book publishers. Yes, including the publishing arms of Marvel and DC. These folks are putting together comics and graphic novels under the same operating strategies as were being used 50 years ago. The specifics of production have changed (digital coloring, electronic file transfers, etc.) but the basic mindset is the same: to put together a series of comic pages stapled together for a large audience. But that is NOT what they are selling. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Boom! Studios, Viz... any of them!

Let me throw out another industry to illustrate my point: fast food. Watch their commercials. Look at their billboards. Are they selling you hamburgers and sodas? No, they're selling you fun and convenience and thriftiness. If you just want a hamburger, you have hundreds of options before you, most of which are better than McDonald's. But going to McDonald's (or Burger King or wherever) is a choice of lifestyle! That says something about you, and validates whatever self-image you have. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." Keep an eye on those fast food ads, and pay attention to what they're REALLY selling.

Comics are, like many media, licenses into the imaginations of their creators. Books, TV, movies, video games, etc. all serve that same function. Movies have been working the "immersion" aspect of that with a increasing preponderance of 3-D and IMAX films. Video games have the "interactive" portion of the market down. But comics have not (from what I've seen) really embraced what makes them stand out; they haven't figured out what to sell. They're still selling (largely) the adventure/imagination, which other forms of media do about equally well. There's no reason for me to pick up a comic over a DVD.

To be fair, comics USED to have the limitless imagination angle locked down. Comics were incredible because you could depict an entire fleet of alien spaceships for no more cost than depicting the main hero. Take a look at any science fiction movie from the 1950s, and it's easy to see that as much imagination was required by the viewers as the creators! But with computer wizardry, that's become a non-issue. Things have become so cheap that there are fairly believable alien invasions that can show up on TV shows regularly. But comics haven't really found themselves since they had to forgo that battle.

Circling back around to newspapers, I think the lesson comic publishers should take from them is: sell what your are, not what you used to be. Newspapers haven't been selling what they are for years now, and the result is that they've become irrelevant. Comic publishers are facing the same dilemma, just a few years behind the newspapers. The publishers can't just keep trying to sell their characters because their parent companies are selling them, and doing a much better job of it. Compare the number of people who saw Superman Returns to the number of people who read Action Comics. If you want to see Wolverine in action, there are any number of engaging venues to see him which don't come anywhere near a comic book!

I like comics for a number of different reasons. I like that it's a very visual medium, BUT still provides a singularity of vision that you can't find in other mass media. (Read as: it doesn't take many people to create a comic, so the story is much closer to what's in the creators' heads than a movie or TV show.) I like the craft of comic book storytelling. I like the wide variety of interpretive styles that can be present, and how those styles impact the story. I like that, even if done only moderately well, comics can transcend language barriers. I like that comics are a singular and personal experience. These are selling points for me.

BUT, I don't know that they're selling points for most people.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that might be a selling point for most people is a connection with the creator(s). "Buy this comic because it was written by Neil Gaiman!" Comics do do that to a degree already, though, so I don't know that it's really a solid selling point going forward into the 21st century.

What should publishers be selling? I don't have a solid answer to that. In fact, I half suspect that there's a different answer for each publisher. But I do know that they should NOT be selling 32-page pamphlets; that's just the steak, not the sizzle.

5 comments:

Graham said...

This is an interesting article, but I think to a certain extent you've missed what DC and Marvel are selling. As someone who rarely reads mainstream superhero comics (or rather, never reads mainstream superhero comics unless they have that magic word "Morrison" in front of them) I think what DC and Marvel seem to be selling is a Universe, a continuous narrative, a place where all these characters are real and real, major events (crises! civil wars! invasions!) are happening and you need to buy the comics to know what just happened.

Selling this self-contained universe is sucker's game - you can sell something like that to lots of kids, and apparently a dedicated group of 35-year old fanboys, but someone like me, who was introduced to comics via things like Sandman, Hellboy, and Watchmen, are not interested in "what really happened" but in interesting stories.

What DC and Marvel should be selling is stories. They're one of the last places where honest to goodness traditional storytelling takes place, a sort of graphic tradition to replace the old oral tradition, in which the same old stories are told and retold with different inflections. But instead of acknowledging that they're telling the same story over and over again, they pretend the whole shebang is moving forward - which since it patently isn't, is a recipe for loss.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Thanks for touching on that, Graham.

I actually DID consider that is indeed what Marvel and DC are currently TRYING to sell, but I don't think it's a terribly effective approach. Certainly not a unique one. Witness the various CSI series or the Buffy/Angel universe or Star Trek and Star Wars. Those are all shared-universe licenses that flit between TV and movies and novels and comics and video games. (And, I'd argue, they do a better job of it than Marvel and DC, since those latter properties are decidedly LESS cohesive when it comes to cross-media continuity.) That's not to say that Marvel and DC can't utilize the shared-universe model in their comics, and I'm sure it is a selling point for some people, but they can't really use it as a unique selling point either. You can't say, "Buy Marvel Comics because we've got a shared universe," because the folks who own the Stargate property can say the same thing.

Besides, it's only a model that works for a small contingent of publishers, and not for the medium at large. There are some really excellent publishers out there, like Oni and Viper and Top Shelf, who not only don't use a shared-universe model, but have such a diverse group of titles that it would be problematic to even attempt some kind of integration.

Graham said...

Sean, I completely agree with you that their whole shared universe thing doesn't work very well and is a bad idea, and that other people are doing it much better now. I just think that is what they're trying to sell. And of course, Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly and tons of other wonderful publishers can sustain themselves without having a shared universe.

I still think that what they should be selling is storytelling, pure and simple. In other words, everything should be All-Star format, not in that every comic should have an all-star creative team, but that every creative team should be allowed to take the old parts and play around with them, mixing the old and the new with no intent to have a "definitive" version. That's essentially how all the best mainstream superhero comics have always done it (Watchmen (in its original form), DKR, any of Morrison's classic runs, What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, etc).

Most other publishers couldn't use this approach, but they shouldn't need to anyway.

Cove West said...

If anything, comics seem to be gradually impeding their product. What creators used to produce for peanuts thirty-plus years ago is now only slightly-improved at a significant premium. Would the Galactus Trilogy have been profitably improved as a form of entertainment had it been computer painted on glossy paper with a cardstock variant cover and released over eight months because Kirby wanted to do it as a woodcut? Did four years and twenty-six-ish issues of Whedon, Cassaday, Martin, and Marvel Marketing Department's ASTONISHING X-MEN bring Marvel anything that four years and fifty-ish issues of Joe Claremontlover, Bill PaulSmithlover, a monkey with crayons, and the fact that it has Kitty and Logan and oft-nekkid Emma in it COULDN'T? Not that Marvel and DC should go all Assistant Editors' Decade or anything, but it seems the industry has gone WAY overboard with some fangasmic delusion of artistic meritism and almost completely forgotten that nothing any of them can possibly do to Superman will ever be bigger than Superman himself (if it could, the most recognizable symbol on the planet would be Alan Moore's beard). To go back to your newspaper analogy, imagine if, during all this newspaper crisis, the New York Times was printing on glossy paper with hand-calligraphed headlines and throwing thousands of dollars at Stephanie Meyer to get her to write copy about the daily stock markets that only comes in when she is able to craft it in such a way as to make it romantically vampiric the way she likes.

The problem is that while Marvel Entertainment and Time Warner are selling everyone else the X-Men and Batman, Marvel Comics and DC Comics are selling their readers Warren Ellis and Jim Lee and nice paper and variant issues. They are having to spend more and more money on the things they DON'T own and aren't putting much effort into promoting the intellectual property they DO own. So it costs the customer the same 4 dollars for 22 pages of Batman in DETECTIVE COMICS that he could get for the first half of THE DARK KNIGHT at the theater. Per customer, we're paying more for Tony Daniel than we are for Heath Ledger, more for the colorist than for the guy who made Aaron Eckhart's face disappear.

Mike Leung said...

Well, what's the sizzle of a traditional book?

With a comic, as Alan Moore observed, the reader can crawl at his or her own pace, stop at a panel at his discretion, and jump forward and backward through time by leafing through the pages.

Reader-access is only more closed with traditional text-only print. What works for print should work for comics. The only change is that comics should have more options. (That, and it has to fight the prejudice against a medium dominated by a single genre it no longer leads in.)