Remember the glory days of newsprint, full of morning papers from corner street urchins, waterfalls of colorful superheroes for a dime, the Saturday Evening Post and a pack of licorice for your ride home on the streetcar? Of course you don’t, none of us were alive back then! But did you know the system those old timers set up for printed information delivery (commonly called “the newsstand”) still exists? It looks a lot different, but it’s there: today’s newsstand lives on in supermarket checkout lanes, the magazine section at Barnes & Noble, the impulse buy section at drug stores, and, like Santa Claus, it lives on in all of our hearts.
But you wouldn’t know this to hear it from some of the more vocal comics publishing experts, who like to deride the newsstand as an endangered relic from the 1940s, far in the past and impossibly irrelevant in today’s world of digital instant gratification. And this isn’t just the usual bloggish hearsay; I’ve heard these exact sentiments from real people during real business conversations. Once, while talking about reviving a successful newsstand comics magazine, an executive at a well-known comics publisher asked me, “Why do you want to try and sell comics in this creaky old-fashioned system that won’t even be around next year?” The implication was clear: “Get with the times.” But the ageist take-down also didn’t make any sense given the available evidence: the publication in question had consistently sold 300,000 copies each month in that “old-fashioned” system just one year prior to our conversation. For those keeping score, that sum is three times higher than the best-selling monthly comic books today in the comics specialty market.
Seizing on the newsstand’s obvious shortcomings — its age and its accordingly complicated mechanisms — is understandable as it’s the way we always react to things we don’t quite understand: shoot it down before it can be analyzed too deeply. But it’s also completely besides the point. The comics specialty market — the primary means of selling comic books to fans known as the Direct Market — is only 30 years younger than the very first superhero comic book ever published. The network of bookstores referred to as “the trade” in the publishing industry (a sales channel that most comics publishers consider a high priority growth area) is as old as book publishing itself, and its overly complex modern returnable version is over 100 years old with almost no modern updates. Saying that the newsstand is out-of-date is a strange knee-jerk repulsion that doesn’t happen with other old distribution systems and it doesn’t match up to business realities, either.
Every year, as in every sales channel, the newsstand sees new products launched and old ones cancelled, with the ups and downs that can be expected in every industry but never with the steady downward spiral of death that pundits always blog about and publishers absorb as gospel truth. They may not be major enterprises the likes of which we saw throughout the 20th century print media heyday, but new print magazines are starting up every week. Even a cursory look at magazine genius Samir Husni’s must-read “Launch Monitor” blog reveals a general newsstand fitness that would astonish even the most well-versed paper-and-staple moguls; there were over 180 new ongoing magazines launched last year alone. And Husni reports a record-breaking 85% survival rate that should make any venture capitalist raise an eyebrow and open a wallet the next time a print-repreneur knocks on their door. With juicy big media magazine closures and frequency changes getting the headlines, it makes sense that no one would notice a new biannual about performance art, a “western outdoor adventure” journal, or a seasonal glossy recap of zombie action, but these success stories demonstrate one supremely important thing for comics publishers: far from being dead, the newsstand is a thriving — even nurturing — place for publications with smaller audiences that need some growth.
Despite these favorable points, most comics publishers see the whole thing as a wash, as reported recently by Heidi MacDonald at The Beat and Calvin Reid at Publishers Weekly. According to Calvin’s interview with Marvel Comics Senior VP of Book Sales, David Gabriel, Marvel pulled out of the newsstand game two years ago, and Gabriel seemed surprised that anyone cared about this, observing that no one seemed to notice the pullout at the time. “We have not been able to make the comics newsstand model work for years,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has.” Heidi makes an interesting point that this lack of noise indicates that newsstand sales weren’t very high. It could also mean that the audience it served — however small — doesn’t have as strong of an online presence as comics fans whose needs are served by the Direct Market. People in this less-than-vocal audience could include commuters, casual superhero fans, parents, and seven-year-old kids; the same audience the newsstand has served since 1938 and that many comics publishers are trying to cultivate today.
I’ll get to Gabriel’s point in a bit, but I found a later quote in Heidi’s post from Marvel publisher Dan Buckley even more interesting. In a larger article about Marvel’s efforts to reach kids through digital content at Publishers Weekly, Dan said, “It’s not about being in 7-11s per se, it’s about being where kids are now. The new five-and-dime shop is a kid grabbing your smart phone or tablet and finding the stuff that they like or you feel comfortable them looking at.” I’ve spoken to Dan about kids’ comics and he thinks all the right thoughts about them: a lot of Marvel’s business expansion efforts over recent years have been targeted at kids and creating the next generation of comics fans. But (and you can probably guess where this is going) digital doesn’t have to be the new five-and-dime, because the old five-and-dime is still open and kids are still in it. Why? Because kids still buy soda and candy bars. Kids and parents are also still in supermarkets, drug stores, and subway station news kiosks. Why? Because they still must buy food, soap, and subway rides.
Now, if someone were to come along today and say, “Hey comics publishers, how would you like to keep your existing sales in comics shops, bookstores, and iPhones, but ALSO sell them in established outlets where most of the people in America buy their necessities of life?” I’m sure that would be quite an appealing proposition. The good news is that we don’t have to invent it; it’s already here, and while it’s not for everyone (and definitely not for the squeamish), it’s also not impossible to put comics back in there. Here are some great things about this old dinosaur to consider:
1. Economies of Scale
In the olden days of, say, four years ago, the newsstand was a great place to achieve high sales numbers and that used to be the main reason to get involved. Even today, with sell-through percentages falling like they are in bookstores and everywhere else, Archie Comics, the last major comics publisher in the newsstand, sells an average 41,000 copies of each of its digest comics through supermarket checkout racks. (I wonder how many people in the comics industry realize that Archie routinely outsells 86% of the superhero/action titles in the Direct Market every month.) But high sales are getting tougher to achieve and that no longer has to be the driving reason to enter the newsstand. Publishers with less experience and strength and resources can still enjoy one if its prime benefits: economies of scale.
It costs a lot to print a comic book, but it’s often cheaper to print lots of them. Offset printing has worked this way since it was invented, yet I’m still amazed every time I run numbers for a comics business and learn that it’s cheaper overall to print 20,000 copies and throw away 15,000 than to just print 5,000 at the outset. But rather than throw them all away, the newsstand is a great place to sell those extra copies that the Direct Market won’t order. Conversely, if you’re a Marvel or a DC, you don’t really need that extra sales channel because you can sell 100,000 copies of Spider-Man right there in the Direct Market, all non-returnable. In this way, what David Gabriel said makes perfect sense: why should he take a huge gamble on the returnable newsstand if he can sell an entire offset print run somewhere else, guaranteed? But if you’re a smaller publisher who doesn’t want to pass along a $2 unit cost to your readers for a 5,000-copy print run, boy do I have an idea for you.
2. Wider Audience
When I managed Disney’s comics program we noticed something very interesting about monthly periodicals: if we published something designed to sell on a newsstand (like a $2.99 32-page comic book for instance) and actually sold it there, we would at least double the sales we already had in the Direct Market. So, for every issue of Donald Duck that sold 6,000 copies through Diamond, it would sell another 6,000-8,000 on the newsstand. Not only did that mean more revenue to recoup those printing costs, but it meant 6,000 new people reading comics that wouldn’t have otherwise. Now, some might say, “But what about all those copies of Donald Duck that got returned and thrown in the furnace?” and to them I say, please refer to Point #1 above. With careful operational oversight, total print costs can be kept under control while still expanding your reach to a mass market audience, which leads me to . . .
3. Free Marketing
Well, it’s not free, of course, but an oft-overlooked benefit of newsstand sales is wider visibility. In the comics industry we often ask ourselves how we can get more people to notice what we’re doing. When you sell a comic nationally on the newsstand you give your brand thousands of cover facings that millions of people will walk by every day. They may not all buy a copy, but they saw it, the same way drivers see billboards on the highway or commuters see poster ads at bus stops. This type of mass market advertising accomplishes exactly that — letting the masses know about your comic, which increases your profile and exponentially improves your chances of a purchase conversion further down the line. And remember, this isn’t a costly paid ad; it’s a product that’s generating revenue for your bottom line.
Business is a fickle thing. Two different executives at two different companies will look at the exact same thing in a completely different way. One will see the challenges and say, “Not for me,” while the other will see the opportunities and say, “Huh, I wonder how I could get a piece of that?” It’s that individual creative vision that makes the difference. Which is a roundabout way of saying that just because Marvel left the newsstand, it doesn’t mean the newsstand died.