Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What I Think Marvel is Doing Wrong - The Business Practices

Welcome to the second part of What I Think Marvel is Doing Wrong. Last week I asked you what you thought Marvel was doing wrong, and on Monday I made my first entry, which was about Marvel's imprints. Make sure to go check and read those entries to get caught up on the format and idea behind this series. For the second entry, I will discuss something that has been making headlines quite a lot these days, some of Marvel's business practices.

Business Practices

Point - Marvel has been raising the price of a lot of their comics to $3.99

It seems like more than half their solicitations are for $4 comics, when every mini-series and special is priced that way, with a highly inconsistent policy about page numbers. This is one thing that I think DC is doing right - adding extra value for that extra dollar.
- Anonymous 

At this point, only a select amount of ongoing titles from Marvel carry the $2.99 price tag while almost every oneshot and miniseries that Marvel releases features the dreaded new $3.99 price tag. In fact, as Kirk recently point out in his article about Marvel's $3.99 Comics the most popular ongoing series like Dark Avengers, Wolverine: Weapon X, and Hulk, also carry the increased price tag and the number of comics being solicited at that price point continues to rise with every month.

DC recently made the announcement that some of their titles will also get a price increase, but will feature an additional 8 page co-feature back-up story to justify their price increase.

Marvel's policy on their pricing policies is spotty at best, with some titles featuring the same page count as a regular title while others feature additional "Director's Cut" content, such as sketches, interviews or scripts, and others still featuring reprints of older issues.

Counterpoint - Popular series and events still sell

Yeah, the prices really suck, but, sadly, I'm still buying the same books as before, if not more. I'm hooked.
- Sebastian 

It seems that fans of certain series will continue to buy their monthly comics regardless of the price. High profile events and series continually make it to the top of sales charts, despite their higher prices, while lower-priced titles that have the same page count sometimes struggle in the middle and lower parts of sales charts.

Events that are priced higher usually tend to have a higher page count and their nature makes it feel as if it's a more "essential" story to understanding the Marvel (or DC, for that matter) universe than the lower priced monthly title and more fans seem to be willing to purchase it regardless of the price.

In addition, these higher profiles projects (whether they are events, ongoings, or minis) tend to have all-star creators, which may "justify" the higher price of the titles in some people's eyes.

Solution - Compromise?

This new approach is causing me to not even glance at a lot of mini-series I would probably be buying if they were priced lower. I'm still buying War of Kings, but if both it and WoK: Ascension were priced at $3, I'd be buying them both.
- Anonymous 

I dislike the price increase in comics as much as the next reader and, while I wish it didn't happen, I understand why there is an increase in the price of comics as there is an increase in price in just about everything else. There has been plenty of discussion and arguments about why the prices have suffered such a steep increase and, despite the complaints, it seems that Marvel (and DC, and other companies for that matter) are planning to stick to the $3.99 price point for certain comics.

Indubitably, at some point all comics will increase their prices, but, for the time being, Marvel should stick with it's policy of high-pricing the popular titles to subsidize lower selling ones. These high selling titles are perennial best-sellers and create a larger revenue than raising the prices of mini series and one-shots ever will, most of which never sell a high number of units or anything close to a Dark Avengers, Hulk or Thor comic.

For the time being, Marvel should avoid putting the higher price on its niche or lower selling titles because most readers will just end up avoiding them compared to the "essential" or "high profile creator" driven books and simply spend their money on other titles.

Oneshots, annuals, and miniseries are usually used to test the popularity and draw of a certain character, concept or creative team, but, if it sports an increased price, it may not prove to be a good measure of how much reader interest there is in these economic times.

Imagine if Marvel had decided to publish Jason Aaron and Ron Garney's four issue run on Wolverine as a $3.99 mini-series instead. I do not think it would have proven to be the success that it was, even with Wolverine on the title, and the team would probably not be headlining the new Wolverine: Weapon X series.

Additionally, Marvel should most definitely not price #1 issues of not-so-popular series, like the recent Exiles series, at $3.99. Number one issues are great ways to get people to read titles that they might not typically consider, usually heralding a fresh start or a new creative team, but a higher price will end up scaring readers away from these series, which do not boast the draw of a A-list character or creative team.

Point - Marvel's recent overuse of variant covers harkens back to the 90's cover gimmicks

They need to do something about Wolverine. First he's on 3 teams, and now he's on every Variant Cover. It makes me sick.
- Zdenko 

Whether it's zombie covers, monkey covers, or Wolverine appreciation covers, there's no denying that Marvel is practically in love with variant covers these days. For example, last year's (re)launch of Invincible Iron Man had the ridiculous amount of six covers plus two new ones for the reprints of the same issue.

This practice of variant covers was very popular during the early 90's and was used to inflate the speculation bubble by increasing the short term rarity and price of certain comics through the limited numbers of variant copies. However, as we all probably know by now, comics are hardly collectibles and investing in them by buying the variant covers will not yield any profit for about 50 years or so and very few modern era comics will see returns comparable to the early waves of comics.

A particular interesting side effect of the heavy use of variant covers is that there are less "iconic" cover images due to the dilusion of the appeal of that cover and lack of people seeing it due to having multiple covers of the same issue. Think of any important single issue in the past ten years and you will probably find that it had one or more variant covers or simply featured an homage to the past.

Counterpoint - Collector mentality

There is still a big enough collector mentality for Marvel (and other companies) to warrant publishing variant covers. The best proof of this was the recent Amazing Spider-Man issue with the Barack Obama variant covers, one for the original print and one for each subsequent reprint.

This Amazing Spider-Man issue was the biggest draw of "collectors" into comic book shops since the much-publicized "Death of Superman" in Superman #75 or the million plus seller, X-Men #1, and its barrage of variant covers, and quickly became one of the highest selling titles of this decade, going so far as to be the top selling comic two months in a row.

It is hard to measure just how much of an impact variant covers have on less publicized issues, as the sales charts do not give us an insight into how big of a fraction any give issue's sales belonged to variant covers. From personal experience, however, I know that some people still buy and even pay more for variant covers on the same week they are released.

Solution - Less Coverage

Mass amounts of variants are also a disturbing trend from the 90's and it's only a matter of time before we see ridiculous chromium or other gimmicks return at the rate they are going with some of these things.
- Kirk Warren 

It is hard to come up with a solution to a problem that does not concern me directly since I have never bought or considered a variant cover for the sole aspect of collectibility. It is a relatively easy problem for readers to dodge since simply not buying them is enough.

However, the problem arises from the fact that, if left unchecked, it could create a speculator bubble that, once burst, could cripple the industry, similar to what it happened in the 90's.

If Marvel must continue to keep using variant covers, keep the practice to a minimum and make sure that the variant cover does, in fact, relate to the content inside the comic. There is very little anyone can do to change the perception of the non-comic-reading public to stop them from purchasing "important" issues, such as the afforementioned Amazing Obama issue, or to stop comic book shop owners that charge exorbitant amounts of money for variant covers on the day they are released.

Point - Marvel renumbers series very casually

This is actually not something particularly new, where series are renumbered to go back to their "original" numbering after they were relaunched as a new volume. It was actually done a couple of years ago for Avengers, Spider-Man and Fantastic Four after reboots for each post-Heroes Reborn, but Marvel has, again, started doing it again in full force for anniversary issues.

Thor was recently renumbered to #600 while Captain America is set to receive the same treatment this summer along with Daredevil, Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man. It is particularly upsetting in these first two cases because they are pretty much self-contained stories featuring the same creative team over the span of the most recent run and, to top things off, have consistently sold well enough that they do not need the gimmick induced sales bump.

On top of this, the renumbering feels unnecessary and gimmicky and, in Thor's case, it counted issues of Journey Into Mystery that he was not even featured in while ignoring issues of the same title when it took over for Thor after its first cancellation.

More importantly, the renumbering is confusing to long time readers as well as new prospective readers. For long time fans, it creates the confusion as to where they should store the issues in their longboxes: Is this Thor Vol. 1 #600 or is it a completely new volume? For new readers, the big issue number is particularly intimidating, as it creates the illusion that there's a whole lot more to catch up on and read about than there actually is, and looks confusing on collections when you see a book that features "Issue 7-12 and 600" (or whatever issues the collection will have). Even casual fans can be boggled by the fact a comic has mysteriously jumped up in numbers, leaving them wondering why an otherwise high quality comic, like Brubaker's Captain America, required a gimmick anniversary renumbering in the first place and actually creating negative connotations with the book they are trying to entice people to pick up.

Counterpoint - Anniversary issues sell well

This is part of the collector mentality, as it tends to drive people out to buy these anniversary issues in hopes that one day they will be worth something on top of the ingrained "anniversary issue = important story" mentality. The good side of this is that it may introduce new people to the current run or direction of a title and, thus, increase the readership of that particular title in the long run.

However, there is no recent data to support this theory. Once the sales numbers for Thor #601 and Captain America #601 come in, we will be better able to gauge the impact of this current round of renumberings. Marvel's anniversary issues tend to have a larger page count and content and, therefore, increase the price and overall profit on sales, too.

Solution - Dual numbering for anniversary issues

All the benefits of the anniversary sales with none of the fan confusion or outrage! For such issues, Marvel should still use the big anniversary number that will drive more people to buy the issue en masse, but also keep the current numbering.

Dan Slott did this for an issue of She-Hulk, which was numbered both issue #100 of all solo She-Hulk appearances and issue #3 of that particular run of She-Hulk. Once the anniversary passed, the series continued with #4 and so on. I checked the sales number and there was only a very small increase of units sold, but She-Hulk has never been a high-selling or popular character, so it is unclear if this would work or not on a larger scale. The real benefit of this system would be to avoid confusion and stop intimidating new readers from checking out new series.

Point/Counterpoint - Marvel's scheduling of their comics

I am a bit hesitant as to whether or not to mention this at all, as I have a feeling it is done so purposely, but it still merits a mention. When you look at Marvel's scheduling for certain weeks, it is not very strange to find several related titles coming out on the same week.

For example, last week featured the release of Mighty Avengers, New Avengers, and Avengers: The Initiative, which constitutes three out of the four Avengers-centric titles (only Dark Avengers was missing). The week before that featured Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy and X-Factor, which made up three out of the four core X-titles (with the exception of X-Force).

It seems to me that, ideally, Marvel would want their big core titles to come out on separate weeks and draw people to the comic book shops every week instead of competing with each other, but, like I said, for all I know this is completely intentional and leads to bigger sale numbers on the ancillary titles (in this case, X-Factor and A:TI) by symbiosis.

Solution - None. Need to investigate further.

Until I see some kind of research to prove whether this is a good or bad business move, I will refrain from offering a solution to what might not actually be problem. One thing that Marvel should keep in mind, though, is the wallet of the readers. If a certain week is flooded with a reader's particular branch of choosing (Avengers, X-Men, whatever), that reader's weekly allowance/budget may go overbudget easily and they will not pick up any other title that they were on the fence about.

For reference, I've seen some weeks with a diluge of titles compared to others with a mere handful of titles. I find that if I leave a title on the shelf one week, I rarely go back for it the following week and will opt for a new title that shipped that week, money permitting, which is why I questioned the use of this tactic. As I said, though, it's hard to tell if this is intentional or even if it makes a difference with how different each title is in regards to quality, creators and marketing behind them each and every week.


Those are some of my criticisms about Marvel's business practices of late, which I am sure resonate with a lot of readers in these hard financial times. Be sure to check back on Friday for the final entry on this series where I will be discussing the hot topic that every fan loves to talk about - the events. Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts and criticism on the topic of Marvel's business practices.

Related Posts


Zach said...

I think the way Marvel handles events is perfect. Take Dark Reign. EVERY superhero is affected by it, since Marvel 616 is the same universe. Its very straightforward. DC, however, exists is a bunch of different ones. What happens to Superman might not have an effect on Batman or the Flash.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

I'll save my event ranting for that article. My comments may not be pretty, but I promise to edit vulgarities. :) Just kidding, I'm not *that* upset.

As for the variant covers, riding the coattails of "Obamamania" artificially inflated their sales figures, which they spun like crazy to "prove" the anti-OMD/BND crowd wrong. So that bugs me right there, and no, it's not political. If they could have done the same with Rush Limbaugh, I'd be just as disappointed.

Even some of the independent titles I pick up use the variant covers. Boom Studios used this rather stupidly for last month's Incredibles comic. Four variant covers for the same issue--in a kid-targeted title, mind you--that come together to form one picture--AND IT WAS A FOUR ISSUE MINISERIES! Why not spread that among the four issues?

What really bugs me about is that if the comic store grabs the cover I didn't want, and I don't get to the store before the other one sells out, I'm out of luck. And if it's a theme variant, like IDW's All Hail Megatron or the aforementioned Incredibles cover, it's throws off the whole visual. This has happened to me before. And that's why it's a bad idea overall.

The time and money spent to track down the right variant, or all of them, would be better spent on a new title. So would the extra money to pay the artist (or another artist) to do the variant rather than building up another title (which the artist could also be spending his/her time on). That kind of offsets any alleged benefit of the variant cover, I would think.

Kevin T. said...

I dunno. . . I don't think I'd consider the Obama variant COMPLETELY tapping into the "collector mentality." It's not just that; it's because a lot of people felt it was special and commemorative for Obama to meet Spidey, because his becoming president is so significant. It might be like, "Oh jeez I need to get this so I can sell it for oodles on ebay," but it can also be like "Oh jeez this comic is really special. I can keep it for my kids to read, and have it as a keepsake to commemorate Obama."

Personally, I agree that this price jump is awful. I've given up Uncanny X-Men, partly because it's moving at such a slow pace, and partly so I don't have to pay for the crossover they're going to have with the Dark Avengers. I also just use Marvel subscriptions for the titles I can, in order to save some money. I AM, however, paying retail for Dark Avengers, and even got the overpriced Granov variant for the first issue.

Because Granov covers are total sex.

Matt Ampersand said...

Zach: Check back on Friday for the post about events, and I do mention that very same point you make

ShadowWing Tronix: Avatar is also pretty ridiculous with their variants, if I'm not mistaken. It seems that every one of their issues has at least 3 or 4 variant covers.

Kevin T.: I partially disagree, if they really wanted to make the Obama cover to commemorate the special occasion, they would have released it as the main cover instead of an ultra-rare cover variant that a lot of retailers couldn't order. Sure, subsequent editions all have Obama on the cover, but the first one is the one that made all the news and drove people to the store. I'm sure lots of people just bought it because they are fans of Obama and wanted to have the story where he met Spidey, but I'm also pretty sure a lot of people thought it will be worth some money years from now.

Andrenn said...

You make a lot of great points Matt. For whatever reason I'm still buying all these 3.99 comics even when I feel a little ripped off by them.

All right, 2 out of 3 and so far no quotes from me. You've got one last chance to use one of my brilliant quotes before I unleash my wrath on you. ;)

Matt Ampersand said...

Sorry Andrenn, I just checked and I did not happen to use any of your quotes. You made some great points, but I just happened to not be writing specifically about what you were commenting on.

Kevin said...

As much as fans want to complain they continue to buy all these titles no matter the price, it's simple supply and demand. And while fans whine and moan they still buy the product even though Marvel, DC, and everyother comic book company aren't pointing a gun at them that they have to buy these books.

Also DC has Warner Bros. as there financial backers and will never stop publishing DC Comics even when it is in the red because they want to lose the rights to Batman and Superman. Marvel is a business were if they don't sell and make money than they're gone.

Andrenn said...

was just joking Matt, no worries about using my quotes.

Steven R. Stahl said...

The size of the market and the accessibility of the material are both factors that enter into readership reaction to issues. For example, NEW AVENGERS #52 featured “sorcerers” who didn’t practice sorcery, and a “magical” battle that was a brawl and hardly featured magic, much less sorcery.

A blogger responded to my criticism of the writing by opining that sorcery written properly was boring. Bendis’s approach to magic and Strange worked for him and others, and wasn’t boring. That’s all that mattered.

In this case, the blogger had some familiarity with Strange, but he thought the character has been weak, his stories boring and confusing. His comments imply that any story about a sorcerer, at least a comics-format story, that had him practicing sorcery and battling other sorcerers, would be dull and confusing to him. He just doesn’t like sorcery in fiction.

The best word to describe that reaction might be “immature.” One should be able to appreciate any form of art on an intellectual level. A romance can work perfectly well, accomplishing everything the writer wanted to do, and succeeding as a technical achievement as well, with the plot, characterization, theme, setting, and point of view all meshing perfectly. But, if the reader doesn’t like romance fiction and thinks the story’s dull -- well, the romance genre doesn’t exist to entertain him.

Once one is past a certain age and has familiarity with writing techniques and multiple genres, “boring” isn’t a basis for criticism. “Boring” is a reason not to buy a book, or not to buy a video, but not a reason to criticize publicly. The reaction is too individualized.

In the context of comics, a reader’s reaction to the artwork might be disconnected from the story content per se, as the reaction to NA #52 shows. Bendis’s various mechanical flaws don’t matter, apparently, as long as an issue he and the artists produce isn’t boring. That’s wrongheaded. If a writer has demonstrable, serious mechanical flaws that ruin issue after issue, then it shouldn’t matter whether his work sells. Either the readership isn’t sophisticated enough to make informed judgments-- that includes overreacting to the artwork -- or they’re buying the comics for reasons unrelated to the story content. In either case, a better writer should have just as much sales success, perhaps more.

If the readership is so unsophisticated as to buy/not buy or like/dislike based on whether a story is boring, then Marvel has no solid basis for insisting that readers are demanding events. The readers will likely react to however Marvel promotes its products. If a return to individual series or title groups was promoted as “exciting,” I’d expect fans to react appropriately.


Michael Edwards said...

Readers want to be entertained, they want to feel like they spent their money's worth, and not be talked down to like their too stupid to understand the literal bullshit some writers throw in their face.

Bendis gives them what they want, a story that is just mindless fun, and doesn't preach to them like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore's work does.

Many people may hate his work, but they can't deny his superior drawing power.

Now, as to the subject at hand, I do agree that Marvel is going over board with the prices, etc. But, there is alternatives to get your Marvel fix like online comic stores such as Discount Comic Book Store, which gives you a discount on what you buy. I've bought stuff for them for months, and got a 40% discount on what I buy. The shipping fee is $5.95. So, if you get say Sinister Spider-Man for .79 cents it would be $6.74

DCBS isn't the only. There's other online shops, which I imagine may not charge shipping. I don't know about the discounts though.

Steven R. Stahl said...

"Bendis gives them what they want, a story that is just mindless fun, and doesn't preach to them like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore's work does.

Many people may hate his work, but they can't deny his superior drawing power."

A story can be fun without being mindless, and can have a theme without being didactic.

Conceding that, yes, his stories are junk ("mindless fun"), but then arguing that the junky quality doesn't matter because that's "what they want" demeans everyone who wants good writing. Believe it or not, writers have been putting out genre stories for years upon years that are entertaining without being mindless.


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