Time For a Better Newsstand Strategy Than Not Having One At All

2009 newsstand NYC USA 3939712465

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 Direct Market network of comics specialty stores – the primary means of selling comic books to fans — began a mere 30 years after the first superhero comic book; hardly the young, vivacious modern upstart it’s often thought to be. 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.

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How Does Your Reader Buy Books? (and other things you should already know)

“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.

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