Digital Backlist Profits

By | Tuesday, October 15, 2013 1 comment
Marvel and DC have huge catalogs of back issue stories in their respective libraries. While most of their income stems from licensing those characters and a reasonable amount from selling new stories featuring them, they also make a bit of money from selling older stories. It used to be just pamphlet reprints, but the trade paperback market has boomed and you can get fairly handsome editions of even fairly obscure titles.

This has ushered in something of a change in how comic shops stock their stores. Since it used to be that reprints were few and far between, you had to track down an original copy of the story you wanted to read. And we saw comic shops with row after row of long boxes, where one could find comics ranging from just over a month old to ones that were printed decades ago. As publishers moved more towards the TPB direction, following readers' lead, comic shops have started removing the long boxes from their floor space in favor of bookshelves to house these new TPBs.

I don't know the specific breakdown of costs, but conceptually at least, the basic formula shops had been using remained in effect. Publishers sold their goods to a distributor, who wold them to retail shops, who sold them to readers. Whether that's a pamphlet comic or a TPB doesn't really matter in the sense that the retailer, distributor and publisher still gets a percentage of the sale.

But here's the interesting thing: the money the they all individually make off that sale happens once. But the retailers, collectively, can continue making money off the same comic.

Once a comic makes it to the retailer, they sell it to a reader, right? Then the reader might sell it to another retailer, who sells it to yet another reader. So now the comic has been sold by two separate retailers and (unless they're making some poor business decisions) they've both made a little profit from it. But the publisher and distributor only get money from that first sale.

Which means that Marvel made their money from Strange Tales #135 way back in 1965. The only way they've been able to make money on the original story that introduced SHIELD was by reprinting it in books like Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos Annual #2 or Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. But in each instance, it's essentially like selling a new book where the distributor and retailer still get their respective cuts. It's less costly for Marvel to print, since the bulk of the labor from generating the story is already done, but they're still sharing profits with retailers.

Now we have digital comics.

Marvel can scan the artwork from Strange Tales #135 and sell electronic copies through comiXology. Marvel is still the publisher and comiXology is now acting as both the distributor and retailer, so that part of the model doesn't change even though there's fewer companies involved. But here's the interesting thing: Marvel can continue to make sales on that issue indefinitely. Every time someone buys a digital copy of Strange Tales #135, Marvel gets that money. They don't have to reprint it in another title featuring the same character, or as part of some collected edition; they can just let it sit on comiXology and sell.

Now there's probably not a huge clamoring for this particular issue, and I think it's safe to assume Marvel is earning quite a lot more money with the new SHIELD television show than all the Nick Fury comics they have online combined. But five years from now, they will keep making money off that Strange Tales issue. If somebody who's only two or three years old now discovers The Avengers movie at that time and wants to find out about this Fury character, they'll be able to get to the origin with almost no difficulty. Anything that's been scanned can continue to be available without the bean-counters trying to figure out if they'll sell enough copies to pay for the printing costs.

It's essentially an infinite backlist for the publishers.

None of that is news to you, right?

But I find myself wondering today, where the retailers fit into this? We've seen that their concerns over readers fleeing print for digital regarding new issues were largely unfounded. But, not being a retailer myself, I wonder how much of their income came from dealing in back issues? And was that already undercut by ebay? And how of that was undercut by the move to TPBs?

I'm not doing any "sky is falling" shtick here; I genuinely don't know how much retailers these days rely on back issue sales. Is that a non-issue? Have back issue sales dropped so far prior to comiXology anyway that their debut made zero impact in that realm? Any retailers out there willing/able to share some insights into this?
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Matt K said...

I think I've noted a few times how my favorite local store has almost completely left the back-catalog business. I have no idea how many other stores follow the Carol & John's approach, but I suspect that most comic retailers still in business a generation from now will run along similar lines.

Back-issue bins have all but disappeared, and even the new comics, while prominent, are at the back of the store. Trades, merchandise, and children's items take prominence over floppy-comics of any vintage.

The store also seems to be evolving into as much of a social center as a retailer, which (though I know nothing about retailing) seems like one of the few viable paths as a digital future looms. A few years ago the store traded a much larger suite, optimized for tables of longboxes, for a smaller suite with an adjoining annex they can borrow, when needed, to accommodate regular community events.