Sales ≠ Success

By | Tuesday, September 20, 2011 7 comments
Dwight MacPherson had some thoughts today on the goals of a comic book creator. He said...
I've met many aspiring comic writers who say their ultimate goal is to work for Marvel. When I ask what book, they generally pause and say, "Whatever they'll let me write." Seems like backward thinking to me. Concentrate on creating your own characters and world seems like an aimless goal. Like saying, "My goal is to be someone important." Yeah, well, lots of people are important in different ways... Work-for-hire gigs are fabulous experiences (most of the time). But no writer should set such a fleeting thing as their ultimate goal.

I don't know that I've talked to many comic creators (or future creators) about their goals, but I'll take MacPherson at his word it's a common refrain. It certainly wouldn't surprise me.

He's right, of course, that having your goal to be working as a creator for Marvel shouldn't be an ultimate goal. But you can hardly blame someone for thinking that it's totally valid. After all, we live in a society which is constantly telling us how success is defined in financial terms. Successful comics are the ones the ones that sell the most. The sales numbers on the new Justice League caused people to celebrate. The celebrations were not so much for the content being good or not, but just that it sold a lot. I haven't read the issue -- it may well be fantastic, but that's not what people were cheering about.

Look at webcomics for a smaller scale version of the same argument. Webcomics' success is measured by financial measures. Can the creator earn enough money from their webcomic to make a living? It's a lower financial bar in that regard than what mainstream publishers are looking at, but it's a financial measure just the same. Even the visitor count or page impressions or whatever other technical stats you can find about a webcomic are seemingly irrelevant compared to the "bottom line."

But that's the United States in the 21st century. We are told since birth an infinite set of variations on "he who dies with the most toys wins." Life, according to what nearly everybody tells us, is a competition and the yard stick you're being measured against is your bank account. The "success stories" we hear about on the news are those people who fought a variety of hardships, but still went on to make a good amount of money. Granted, they're generally not considered in the same class as Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, but the root of the story is always, "They worked hard and are making good money now." Occasionally, "They worked hard and stuck to their ethics... And are making money despite their ethics!"

Reflecting on that, it's little wonder many comic creators aspire to simply work for Marvel. Look at the sales charts during any given month, and the top-selling books are dominated by Marvel. Even with the huge sales spikes with Justice League #1 and Flashpoint #5 in August, Marvel still snagged six of the top ten sales slots. And, overall, Marvel had a 37% share of the market in August. Let me re-state that. Thirty-seven percent of all comic books sold in the U.S. in August were published by Marvel. We're so used to numbers like that it probably isn't as staggering as it should be, but that is a HUGE domination of the market. Marvel sells the most comic books. Period.

So if you want buy into the accepted philosophy of the country -- that you can only be a success in your field by making a lot of money for someone doing whatever it is you do -- then an aspiring comic book writer will have a greater likelihood of "success" by working for the company that has the most success itself. That is, Marvel comic books sell better than any others, so writing for Marvel means you'd be writing one of the most successful comics on the market. Even the best selling non-Marvel/non-DC title last month sold worse than 47 others. Of the top 100 titles, only two were not published by Marvel or DC. So even the worst-performing Marvel titles continue to outsell the vast majority of non-Marvel/non-DC work. Yeah, that's great that you sold 100 books at that convention last weekend, but even if you did that every weekend for a year, you'd still be selling less than anything Marvel does in a month. So it makes complete sense that, using the "success = sales" mindset, working for Marvel is the ultimate goal in comics.

If that's how you define "success", I'm not going to stand in your way. But, me? I think there are MUCH better measures of success in life. I don't think that they're as quantifiable as sales numbers, and I know I'm not measuring them against however the next guy is doing. I'm just saying that you should just take the time to really evaluate what "success" really means to you, and how you might try to measure it.
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Excellent piece! I feel baffled whenever creators of original content seem to aspire to write for corporate-owned licenses. But I can see where making a living at your work is a common personal goal.

Right now, I define success as having SMASH added to your "Comics I'm Reading" blogroll to the right.

Matt K said...

Sean, this is awesome. It actually ties right in with some stuff I wrote amidst the most recent Kirby Klamor, in response to what I've sensed is a bit of a misguided fixation on the idea that Jack Kirby was not only "cheated" but that life's failure to reward him with more money/fame is almost the most important thing to say about the man. I say: whoa, step back, this guy had almost everything you could have wanted from life.

I realize no one wants to gloss over injustices, including me, but I feel like beating the "Jack wuz robbed" drum to the exclusion of all else is to basically elevate money and "mainstream" notoriety above everything else that gives life value.

Ethan said...

Nice article, Sean! I agree with a lot of what you said here, but I'd also like to add something. I think it's more than just "I want to work for Marvel because they're the most successful" syndrome. (I feel like having a graphic novel deal with Pantheon would be considered just as successful.) I think aspiring creators mainly aim for the BIG 2 because there's that sense of joining an exclusive club. It wouldn't just be about the money, it would be "Hey, I'm working for the same company that LEE and Kirby and Romita worked at!" The comic industry is small enough that it feels like a community, but big enough that there's a hierarchy. That's just my opinion.

Hear, hear! So many writers want to write a bestseller. If you ask them about what, they just look at you funny. Something that sells, obviously.

I've decided to settle for writing stories I like that make me proud to show others.

@Chris - Thanks! I've got SMASH on my radar now, and I'll try to check it out soon.

@Matt - What's interesting about the Kirby thing is that Jack wasn't at all worried about money per se; he just wanted to make sure his family was provided for when he (as the sole breadwinner) passed on. With Roz gone, too, and the kids all grown up and doing their own things, yeah, it's tough to justify continuing to bang the "Jack wuz robbed" drum. That's why I tend to just focus on studying his actual work. :)

@Ethan - Interesting point; I wonder how prevalent that thinking is among not-quite-pros-yet. I also wonder, though, if that were a creator's goal, would it be just as rewarding/successful to simply work with some of those greats? "I got to work on a comic with Neal Adams!" Which one is more appealing and/or considered more successful?

@PF - Exactly!

Ethan said...

@Sean - Hmmm, perhaps both? Maybe it's a desire to not only join the highest ranking 'club' but to work with the highest ranking creators.

Xion said...

I definately agree with you, however I'd say it depends on your goal. As an amateur webcomic writer who has absolutely no income from my work (and do not expect to get any, since I do it for fun, as a hobbie), I can tell you that my succes measure lies on how much people read my comic, or even better, how many of them like it, how many keep coming back for more, how many send feedback or comment... My point is, if your goal is to make your living out of your webcomic, then income could be a good indicator of success; but if your goal is to just tell a story, reach some minds and have quite some fun out of it, money should be the last thing in your mind.