“SURVEY RESULTS”

Part Two

Welcome back to What Th--? The column that so far won’t go away. There are times when I wish it would – especially when I’m late and I have to squeak it in before Jason sends the Down Under Brigade after me, but I’ve usually made it. Just about.
Last week (see archives) I printed the results from my “Who’s Reading This Stuff, Anyway” poll. This week I want to see if we can come up with some explanations of the results.

I start knowing the poll is somewhat flawed because only those who go out of their way to find the site and my column have any chance of responding. So that’s going to skew things somewhat. The people who read my column are, of course, among the brightest and most discerning folk anyway. That goes without saying. Obviously. However, as I said last week, even a somewhat flawed poll is better than none.

When you go to the comic shops you generally see older buyers. If you ask the dealer if there are many kids who come to the shop, the answer is generally no. Just a few. This is a shame for reasons which are fairly clear if you look at the poll results.
We know by looking at the results that the readership is older than ever. Back when I started writing comics the average age was 13. Now, according these results, it’s 31. Further, I asked how long people have been reading comics, and the answer was an average of 21+ years. This is interesting. 21 years ago today’s 31 year old readers were 10. Easily within the ‘average’ ballpark of the 13 year olds comics had been aimed at back then. This means the young teenagers from 21 years ago are still reading comics. Long time readers are good for the industry but they are also a problem.

Here’s some non-poll information. When I was at Marvel, we used to cancel comics that sold under 275,000 copies. Today, most comics sell between 20-60,000 copies. If primarily only long-time readers (average length of time reading comics 21+ years) are reading comics, then they are also slowly giving them up. If the average reader has been following comics for two decades it also indicates new people (no matter what age) are not replacing the long time readers. This is disastrous. Without new people replacing the old, you cannot have anything but ever dwindling numbers. And as readers age, many will continue to find other places to spend their money. It’s a fact. Living at home costs less than renting an apartment. Renting often costs less than buying a house. Living alone is cheaper than having a family. Money priorities change. Sales will continue to decline unless new people discover what they’re missing.

Now let’s see if we can figure out why there are fewer readers.

I asked about your race. I know there may be a financial bias here, but I thought it was somewhat important. 90% of those who responded said they were white. That’s a big duh. But here’s the problem: Only 2% of the people who responded were Hispanic and Hispanics now comprise the second largest population in the US. If I remember the figures correctly, approximately 30+ million strong. Blacks are just behind them. This means, according to this poll at least – which was open to everyone – that comics are not that appealing to Hispanics or Blacks. We’re losing a potential audience of 70 million people , and, according to population growth rates, it’s one that is increasing while the white population decreases. This is not good. TV has learned to cater to Blacks and Hispanics. Movies certainly have. Why haven’t comics been able to tap into that audience? Why aren’t they buying comics in the same percentages white people do? Blacks and Hispanics have money for other entertainment, so why are they avoiding comics? Why not find a way to do books they would be interested in reading? That’s not pandering. It’s giving people something they can enjoy but it might not be what the white 90% enjoys.
Trouble is, in my opinion, the comic companies are both short sighted and unimaginative in creating product that doesn’t fit into some form of what has been done before. If we are to find new audiences to buy our product, that will have to change. It also means a complete rethinking of what a comic book may have to be.

By the way, you can substitute female for Black or Hispanic. Only 8% of our respondents were female. Yet they comprise over 50% of the population.

I didn’t ask how many comic shops there are in walking/driving distance, though perhaps I should have. Estimates say there used to be about 8,000 comic shops in the early 90s. Newer estimates say there is anywhere from 1,800 to 3,500 comic shops today. Fewer shops means fewer chances to even see a comic let alone buy one. Many cities obviously don’t even have a comic book shop. Of course, comic shops exist for those people who want to buy a comic. Used to be comics were as much impulse items as something to collect which means somebody who may have had absolutely no interest in buying or even looking at a comic somehow saw a cover that intrigued them and they forked over their cash. That was when you went to the newsstand to buy your comics. A newsstand that also sold newspapers, magazines, candy, cigarettes, sodas, etc. In other words, you didn’t have to go out of your way to see a comic book. It was where you went for other stuff. Comics were there, too. Today, only someone who WANTS to buy a comic can find a comic. That means they already had to be predisposed to comics. As the market dwindles we have to find ways to get comics into markets where non-comic book readers go. We now have comics for all kinds of readers. Trouble is, of course, you’d already have to be a comic book reader to know it.

Anyway, let’s go back to the poll.

The average number of comics bought every month by this column’s bright and discerning readership is 25. Of those 25 you guys actually read 96% of what you buy. That’s pretty good. Higher than I would have imagined. However, of those 25 you only look forward to 78% of them. Not bad, but guess what, those books you don’t look forward to buying? They’ll probably be dropped when money becomes tight. If you consciously only care about 78% of what you buy, unless they get better, you’ll probably stop buying them.
Which leads me to why you buy those comics. The answer you gave is: Might get good again 30%; Collecting 28%; Habit 23%; To Discuss 4%; Resale 1% - Other: Finish storyline. You’re hoping they get better, and with the talent pool today they stand a good chance of doing just that – see Marvel – but 28% of you say it’s out of habit and some unknown percentage just wants to finish whatever current storyline in ongoing. Habits die hard, but they do die. Especially when there is so much other stuff out there that gives the same thrills comics do.

I guess I could go on, but it’s pretty clear. Did this poll teach us anything we didn’t know before? Not really. But perhaps seen in black and white (or whatever color you’ve set your monitor for) perhaps the companies will give more consideration to breaking free of the business as usual scenario of the past 40 years. Our regular readers come under the category of “We had you at hello.” But with sales constantly decreasing even while SF, fantasy and super-heroes make a billion bucks on the big screen, we cannot afford to continue to do what we’ve always done. This will require rethinking everything that makes a comic book a comic book from the ground up. It means the corporations which own the major companies (or soon will own them) have to be willing to spend money to make money. If the companies are or will be idea factories for the movie industry, it is worth a small investment to potentially make big money.
Will that work? I know that when I was the first editor of Disney Adventures Magazine we sold a million copies a month and we featured about 40% comics. When we took polls, however, the polls said that the comics were 95% of the reason kids bought the magazine. Disney spent a fortune getting those magazines on every supermarket checkout rack in the country. Was it worth it? You bet. Every month a million kids (plus an even larger pass along readership) were inundated by the Disney message and publicity for upcoming projects. They were building their business one kid at a time. The other owners of comic book companies need to think the same way and then find the personnel who will look into the future instead of wanting only to replicate the past.
Do kids like comics? Yeah. Are they buying them? No.
Now ask yourself why.

See you in seven.
Marv Wolfman

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