“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”
All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.
When asking questions about the comics audience, a common refrain in blog commentary is that comics publishers have to regain the mass market audience they enjoyed back in the 1940s when comics sold millions of copies per issue. DC has stoked this up with its stated desire to bring in new readers, partly through an effort to jump-start what some call “the new newsstand” by releasing comics digitally and in print on the same day. The “get back there” refrain implies that publishers have simply lost an important piece of the puzzle that, if found and reinserted, would make the business millions-of-copies whole again. But the customer buying superhero comic books today is entirely different from the one buying comic books in 1940, and may not number in the millions any more.
So how did a comic book reader in 1940 shop? At the newsstand, of course. Comic books evolved from illustrated pulp fiction magazines and newspaper comic strips — both newsstand products. By the time the first issue of Action Comics appeared (the one that brought us Superman, the first superhero), Americans who browsed newsstands on the way to work or school were familiar with an array of things that predisposed them to wanting a Superman comic book: cheap prices for cheap newssprint, action-adventure stories with pictures (often with characters who had mysterious powers), and panel-to-panel comics. Though asking 10 cents for such a slim volume was a risky move in a market where one could buy a hundred pages of spicy detective stories for the same dime, publishers tested it out and won big. Comic book publishers were simply giving their ideal customer more of what they already bought, in a format they already knew, at a price they already spent, in a market they already frequented.
And how does a comic book reader in 2011 shop? At bookstores, of course, including several thousand bookstores exclusively dedicated to selling comic books (known as the direct market). The comic book reader of today isn’t browsing an avalanche of ephemeral newsstand products for something cheap to read on the bus, switching between the Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and Detective Comics, on a whim. The comic book reader today likes certain genres and writing styles, certain characters and series, and most importantly, certain writers and artists. Book readers like the same and shop accordingly; they look for very specific reading experiences (be it Harry Potter, V. S. Naipul, or John Grisham), seek them out in specialty bookstores, and pay a premium price for it. Though the newsstand and its audience still exists, and some comics that are still designed for it still thrive there, Batman, Superman, and the rest have evolved away from this audience, building one that’s more loyal, more in for the long-haul, and more willing to spend $24.99 on a hardcover collection of these no-longer-disposable adventures.
With this in mind, saying that book-based comics have to simultaneously transmute back into a newsstand product seems like a lot to ask. A publisher today must, as they did back then, provide more of what their readers want in formats they already like at a price they usually spend in a market where they already spend time; in other words, publishers don’t need a new newsstand as much as an expanded bookstore. It’s actually quite revolutionary that comic book publishers have already figured out a way to sell their readers these books in cheaper installments before giving them the final product, if you can stop comparing those installments to the magazines they used to be. Check out Amazon’s Kindle Singles for just one example of how they are already being copied.
When preparing to send a brand new book or magazine or comic out into the world, these are exactly the kinds of questions we ask self-publishers who work with us. Where does your reader shop? What do they spend? What do they spend that on? How often do they visit? What’s most important to them when deciding which book to buy? Maybe they want a $3 digital slice first. Maybe they want a $30 hardcover with a ribbon and a slipcase and some die-cuts. They may want a deep discount at B&N along with a latte and some DVDs. Perhaps they’re happy with a small bespoke production delivered to their house through the mail. Whatever it may be, you won’t sell your book to them if it doesn’t conform. But if it does, and that connection between book and audience is made, snugly and securely, the results are beautiful. It’s the kind of relationship that, when cared for and allowed to evolve, can last for generations.