The Future of the Niche

By | Thursday, June 17, 2021 2 comments
When mass media started, who was able to reach out with it was fairly limited. It reached a wide audience -- hence the name "mass" media -- but the number of people who contributed to the messages going out was decidedly finite. The issue was that, although media had become cheap enough to produce products that individually cost fairly little, they only worked ecomonically from economies of scale. That is, you could only sell comics for a dime if you printed and sold 500,000 of them. If you only produced one copy, that copy would probably cost a couple hundred bucks, thanks to color separations, plate production, etc. (That's why those handful of Golden Age ashcans that have been found are in black and white. It was cost-prohibitive to do them in color, particularly when they were only produced to secure a copyright.) This meant that the only people who were producing content were those who could afford to purchase publishing houses or TV stations or whatever.

(It would be more accurate to say "the only people who were approving content to be produced..." After all, many publishers weren't actually writing the stories themselves. Guys like Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz didn't actually write the comics they published! But the only reason Superman saw widespread distribution was because the folks at National paid Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create the comics. If they hadn't, the very first story might still be sitting in an abandoned desk in Cleveland, only having been seen by a handful of people.)

But technology has improved to the point where production costs have gone down considerably on the overall production level, to the point where individuals with a relatively small amount of funds can publish "professional grade" material on their own. Look at all these Kickstarter projects where they're publishing thousand-book runs of a graphic novel for under $10,000. Or print-on-demand books that can be published in quantities as low as one, for a per-unit price that's maybe only a third higher than what a traditional print run might be. These are technological/economic changes -- radical ones -- that have really only occurred in the past 20 or so years.

I figure that's going to continue. There will be continued technological advances (that should pretty obvious to everyone, I hope) and those will continue to drive down the costs of producing small scale media ventures. I don't know exactly what form that might take, but at an abstract level, we only need to focus on the idea that it will become even cheaper for comic creators to get their work into people's hands.

And that means that even more people will be producing comics. Which means, simply, more comics. We're seeing some of that already. How many times do you see books you've never even heard of, much less read, nominated for major comic awards? I caught a video literally yesterday where they ostensibly "reviewed" this year's Eisner nominations, but only mentioned the half-dozen superhero titles they knew and then went on a rant about how awards are bullshit because Batman never wins. (I'm exaggerating, but only in that they didn't say Batman specifically.) That's going to become even more pronounced. We're not far off, if we're not there already, that most people, even if they can afford to buy all the comics they want, don't have the time to read everything they're "supposed" to in order to keep abreast of the industry.

Which, in turn, means that instead of people looking and discussing comics writ large, fans will, by necessity, increasingly focus on niches within comics. And that, I think, is where the industry is headed. It will become increasingly fragmented, as it's cheaper and easier to cater to smaller niche groups, and we'll see less and less relevance in comics that attempt to appeal to broad audiences. I doubt those broad audience comics will go away entirely, but they'll become less interesting. They may well continue to be discussed, as common ground for a wide number of people, but their significance to the medium will be only that of a broad point of reference. It's the niche material that will be dicussed with more conviction and consideration.

Something to keep in mind if you're hoping to make a future career in comics.
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Matt K said...

Could you post some time explaining what an "ashcan" is in this context? I mostly associate it with a 1990s gimmick, which I sense was a fairly absurd stretch of the original significance.

That's an excellent point. I'll try to work on something for next week.