However, if you look at the history of comic-books, these sales figures pale in comparison to the figures from 50 years ago -- even though 50 years ago, not every title that was being published had figures reported the way they do today. But for the 48 titles for which circulation was reported in 1960, a total of over 15 million comics were sold per month. That's right -- comic-books sold nearly 2.5 times as many copies 50 years ago as they sell today. Of course, because comic-books only cost 10 cents a copy, the total sales amount was far lower than in 2013 ($1.5 million), but adjusted for inflation, it would amount to almost $12 million in today's money.
Back in 1960, the two top-selling comics were put out by Disney, and they sold over one million copies per month each. The top-selling superhero comic-book was Superman, which sold 810,000 copies per month in 1960. Compare those numbers in to this past January, when the top-selling comic was Superior Spider-man, which sold 188,000 copies -- nearly an order of magnitude less than the top-sellers of five decades past. And Superman, one of the few titles from back then still being published today, sold a measly 50,000 copies. That's not a typo, folks -- the Superman series sold less than 1/16 as many copies last month as it did each month in 1960. In fact, at 50k per month, Superman didn't sell as many issues in all of 2012 (600,000 total) as he did in one month in 1960.
You might be thinking, "Yes but the comic industry as a whole still makes twice as much per month, adjusted for inflation, as it did in 1960." That is correct, when you look at the gross numbers. But remember, in 1960, only 48 comics reported sales statistics, and those 48 sold for $12 million in today's terms. That means the companies earned roughly $240,000 per month per title. Last month, there were 452 titles sold across all companies, meaning that the $24 million dollars of gross sales averages just over $53,000 per month per title.
What all these numbers mean is that comic-books were a much more lucrative business back in 1960 when they cost only 10 cents per issue, than they are today at $3-4 a copy. Each title could be expected to rake in an average of almost $3 million per year (in today's dollars) back in 1960. Each title today is lucky to take in $600,000 per year. And just looking at total unit sales, comics sold 100 million more copies in 1960 (181 million total) than they are on track to sell in 2013 (78 million total, if the other 11 months are about like January). Thus, comics sold far better in the past, and if you look at circulation numbers, there has been a steady decline in comic-book circulation, and profitability, decade after decade. The question is: Why? To answer this question, we first need to look back on comic-book history.
The Golden and Silver Ages of comicsWhen publishers began printing comic-books, they worked under the same basic philosophy of newspaper publishers, which is that their products are ephemeral items meant to be read once or twice and then thrown away or recycled. You can tell this from the publication method. Although much higher-quality products were available at the time, comics were printed on cheap pulp paper, the same type found in newsprint, using very simplistic reproduction methods. No publishers expected people to keep these things long-term, or start collecting them, and at first, almost nobody did keep them. Thus, although tens of thousands of copies of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, were printed, hardly any exist today, and those that do are worth thousands of dollars to collectors. That's true today, but back in the early days of comic publishing, the idea of collecting comics was absurd. A few strange people might do so, but most people just read comics and threw them away.
Thus, to begin with, comic book companies were publishing items meant to be read, not saved or stored. They were publishing items that cost a few cents (5 cents initially, 10 cents by 1960). They distributed their circulation widely, under the same rules as newspapers (unsold copies could be returned at no cost to the vendor). Significantly, because of the wide distribution, these companies ended up having to publish stories meant for all ages, not just adults. Indeed, comic-books, because of their inexpensive ubiquity, were primarily read by young people (mostly boys, ages 6-18). This is, indeed, what the comic-book industry was like in the 1970s, when I first started reading them. Because the idea of "collecting" comic-books was still fairly alien to most people back then, comic-book publishers had to sell books by attracting readers, hooking them, and getting them to become subscribers or monthly purchasers. In those days, in other words, comic-books were produced for the reader -- the person interested in the story and the art of the book itself.
However, as time went on, and as series that had started decades earlier continued to run endlessly forward, achieving higher and higher issue numbers (into the 100s, then 200s, then 300s), many of those who were readers as children became collectors as adults. And for collectors, an entirely different set of criteria goes into whether to buy or store a comic-book than the criteria of a reader. Instead of good stories for that given issue, the collector wants to find an investment. In collecting, rarity = value, so collectors looked for comic-book issues that depicted a rare event, such as a crossover between Superman and Batman. Such issues soon became the best-sellers in the industry.
The two types of comic-book fans, the reader and the collector, thus have fundamentally different purchasing patterns. Whereas a reader is simply following the plotted events of a given story-line, a collector may care less about the story-line itself than about having every single issue of the story in his collection. For example, a person who is collecting items related to the Superman character, but not the Batman character, may well buy issues of Batman in which Superman appears (but no other issues of Batman). On the other hand, the reader of Superman may not bother with buying the guest-appearance of Superman in Batman #301, because he's not following the story-line of that other title.
The two types of comic-fans coexisted side-by-side for a long time. Chronologically, most people started out young, with little money and the ability to only follow a few titles. They began as readers of their favorite characters (say, Justice League and Teen Titans, or X-men and Iron Man), and read those series for the stories. They were hooked by the serialization of the stories, the end-of-issue cliffhangers, and simply being in love with these larger-than-life characters. As they got older, the readers had more money, and started to realize that the stories in most comics were (to be honest) a little juvenile, so it wasn't quite so much about the story anymore. However, by now these readers had, just through reading for many years, amassed the beginnings of a collection. Now with jobs and money to spend and a hobby that was relatively inexpensive, they transitioned into being collectors. Rather than buying and reading comics just for the stories, they bought them for the investment, or simply due to the collecting impulse. Thus, almost all comic-book collectors were, at one time, readers, and then became collectors as time went on. Remember this point, because we will see shortly how it is directly related to the rapid decline in comic-book sales over the years.
The comic-book "singularity"In the world of artificial intelligence (AI), there is a theoretical stage where the computers we use can become "super intelligent," enough to become self-aware, perhaps, called the "singularity." This event, without being named, is referred to by Arnie in Terminator 2 when he describes the computer system that eventually destroyed the world, as becoming "self-aware" (which led to it trying to wipe out all humans). I maintain that an event like this, which I call the "comic-book singularity," is what has directly led to the decreasing sales figures and popularity of comic-books, and the increasing trend of series being canceled, rebooted, canceled, and rebooted, in response to slumping sales. What happened, some time in the mid- to late-1980s, is that, like Skynet, comic-book companies became self-aware.
Now, comic-books are run by humans, so what exactly do I mean by the industry becoming "self-aware?" Simply this: comic book companies started to realize that the collectors were becoming, potentially, a viable market all by themselves.
In the early days, there wouldn't have been enough collectors that you could sell just to them. But by the 1980s, enough readers had grown up and stayed with comics (and thus become hardcore collectors) that the companies could make a decent profit by selling products to them. At the same time, comic-book shops started becoming more common -- specialty vendors who sold new comics directly from the publisher, cutting out several middle-man steps, and who also stored and sold back-issues. At first, these shops were mainly frequented by the serious collectors. The readers continued to buy their comics on the news stand.
Then in the early 1980s, the "singularity" occurred. It dawned on both +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment that they might be able to sell items exclusively to collectors through the comic shops. Initially they weren't sure this would work, so they tested it. I don't honestly recall how Marvel tested this idea, but I do recall how DC conducted their experiment, because it affected one of the titles I was collecting at the time -- Legion of Super-Heroes. Shortly after LSH #300 came out, DC announced that their two most popular titles (Legion and Teen Titans) were going "direct sales only." They would print these comics on higher quality paper, charge more money for them, and sell them only through specialty shops -- not news-stands. They re-numbered these books on #1 when they started the process. Then the original series were re-named to things like "Tales of the Legion of Super-Heroes" The Tales series would sell through the regular news-stand, and re-printed the direct sales stories, one year later. Thus, if you wanted to buy the story from LSH #1 (the direct sales title) on the news stand, you had to wait a year and then buy Tales of the LSH #317 (I'm not sure if that's the exact number, but it's close).
Thus, DC's initial direct-market offering was limited to a few titles, and was portrayed as a test. +DC Comics clearly stated, at the time, that they wanted to see if the direct-sales market -- i.e., the collector-based market -- was vibrant enough to support this printing and distribution method. Would people pay 25% more (or so) for comics printed on higher quality paper? Would they go out of their way to find the comic-shop to buy them? Would these titles make enough money from direct sales to be profitable? The first direct-sales titles would answer these questions.
+DC Comics knew, of course, that they would sell less total issues of the direct-sales titles. But with a higher cover price and less middle-men to share the sale with, this strategy must have worked. I can say this because, within a few years, comic book prices had soared to $1.00 (from the 60 cents range in the early 80s); comics were being almost universally printed on better quality paper (though not yet the archival stuff on which they appear today); and comics had almost completely vanished from the regular news-stands. In less than a decade, all comics companies (not just DC) had completely re-oriented their sales, marketing, and distribution efforts to focus on the collectors.
In the decades since, this trend to target collectors rather than readers has continued unabated, and even intensified, to the point where the companies are actively, consciously targeting exclusively the hardcore collectors. The evidence that this is their modus operandi is plentiful. Consider cover price. A comic-book in 1960 sold for 10 cents. Adjusting for inflation, the same comics should sell for 75 cents today. The real price is not even close, however, with about half of titles selling for $2.99 an issue (4x the rate of inflation), and half selling for $3.99 (5.3x the rate of inflation). Companies can get away with this run-away pricing because collectors are buying comics as an investment (of sorts). Collectors are older, have more cash, and to them, a few bucks is not a big deal. Conversely, the teenage boy who is simply a reader might not have the money to buy very many comics at these prices.
Consequences of targeting collectors instead of readersThere are many consequences that fall, like dominoes, from the comic publishers' insistence on targeting the collector market so intensively. For example, collectors care about the quality of paper on which a comic is printed; readers do not. For decades young boys and girls read comic-books on low-quality newsprint pulp, and they enjoyed these stories just fine (I know I did). But to collectors, these materials are an anathema. Paper is degraded by acid, which is bad enough, but pulp paper of the sort on which old comics were printed actually secretes its own acids. Thus, comic-books from before the 1980s will essentially self-destruct over time. Now, this process takes decades, so it never mattered to a reader. Before enough time goes by for the acids to start causing deterioration, the reader has probably outgrown comic-books and no longer cares. Collectors, who plan to keep these titles long enough that the acid damage could be a problem, have to go to great lengths to preserve older books.
Therefore, as paper quality improved over the years, these changes were lauded by collectors. Today, comic-books are printed on high-gloss, archival quality (acid-free) paper. They are trivially easy to preserve, and the collectors love it. There is no more need to take excruciating steps to protect one's collection -- just stick them in acid-free bags and boards, and no further measures are needed. However, archival quality paper is expensive, which is one of the reasons comic-books cost so much more today than they did years ago, even adjusting for inflation.
Another reason comics cost so much more is because, selling directly through comic-shops, the companies sacrificed the large-volume sales of the earlier decades for higher per-issue profits. When you're selling 810,000 copies of Superman, you can sell it dirt cheap and even if you only make a penny an issue, your profits will be decent by sheer volume. But when you are only selling 50,000 copies of Superman, you'd better darn well make sure you earn a lot per issue. Imagine for a moment that the penny rate from 1960 is correct, and the total profit DC got from selling 810,000 Superman issues at 10 cents each was $8,100 in 1960, which adjusted for inflation would be about $60,000 . Now let's assume the profit margin from direct sales is higher, say 3x as high, or 33%. If the cover price of Superman had merely kept pace with inflation, and sold now for 75 cents, that would be a 25 cent profit per issue, times 50,000 copies, or only $12,500. Now you see why the cover price had to go up, regardless of the publication materials. At $2.99 per issue, with 30% profit (which is probably generous), DC would make about $50,000 per month from Superman, roughly the same amount as the 10-cent copy made them in 1960. The difference? DC has to earn $1.00 per person from a small number of fans today, versus earning a penny a person from a huge number of fans in 1960.
There is one final factor driving up the price of comics: lack of advertising. The lack of advertiser income in comics is painfully obvious if you read a very old back-issue and then read one that came out this month. In this month's issue of Justice League, for example, there are a total of 11 ads (counting one on the top part of the cover). Of these, 7 are for other DC titles, 2 are for the TV show "Arrow" (which is owned by DC's parent company, Warner Bros., and is about a DC character), and only 2 are from external sources (one from TBS, and one from an art school). Thus, there were only two real "money making" ads in this issue. Compare that with The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl #5 from 1983. This issue had 8 external ads (taking up 9 pages), from Parker Bros., Bubble Yum, Grit newspapers, TSR games, Atari (double page spread), Life Savers, Revell plastic models, and the M gaming network, and only three DC comics ads. These issues had the same total number of ad-pages, but the 1983 issue had four times as many ads that made DC money directly. Thus, DC is making hardly any money from advertisers these days, which means that the cost must be absorbed by the consumer. (If you're wondering why hardly anyone advertises in comic-books these days, the answer is in the circulation: Bubble Yum used to be able to reach 810,000 kids a month with a full page ad in 1960... today they could only reach 50,000.)
Thus, there are three factors driving prices up: (1) the expense of printing on archival quality paper, (2) the need to make about 15x as much (adjusted for inflation) per customer each month, to make up for having 15x fewer customers, and (3) the need to pass on to the customer the publication costs that are no longer being covered by advertisers. The end result is that, adjusting for inflation, comic-books cost 4-5x as much per issue as they did in the 1960s. That is, comic-books, relatively speaking, have become super-expensive.
To see just how expensive comic-books have become, compare the skyrocketing cost of comic-books to the increasing price of movie tickets. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, in 1960, movie tickets cost 86 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $6.60 in today's terms. The average cost today is about $8.00, so movies have gone up a little faster than inflation, but only about 1.3x as fast. If movies had gone up as fast as comic-books have, a single ticket to the movies would cost $29! I'm sure you know plenty of folks who already think 8 bucks is a lot to pay for a movie. Just how many people do you think would go for $29 a pop? Surely, only hardcore movie aficionados would go to the movies anymore. Similarly, only hardcore collectors are willing to buy $3.99 comic-books. The casual reader has been priced completely out of the system.
Along with high prices, another consequence of the "target the collector" mentality in comic-books is seen in how the stories unfold these days. A quick perusal of the offerings by both +DC Comics and +Marvel Entertainment on any given month will quickly reveal that the industry is oriented toward hype rather than quality. They are trying to sell comics to collectors, not to readers, so they do things that would appeal to collectors. The multi-title mega-crossover, in which a story starts in one title, continues in another, then another, and so on, hop-scotching across all the offerings in a given sub-group (such as all the "Bat-titles" or all the "X-titles") is a case in point. Casual readers are unlikely to be collecting all titles in a sub-group. After all, if you are only buying a few titles a month, you're not likely to make them all be related to Superman (Superboy, Supergirl, Action Comics, Superman, etc). So when the "H'el on Earth" crossover comes along, spanning issues 14, 15, 16, and 17 of three different titles (12 issues total, costing a sum of $36), only the hardcore collector is going to partake. Someone just casually reading Superboy because he happens to like that particular character, will not want to spend $24 just to "get the rest of the story" (a casual reader of Superboy may do it, feeling forced, but he won't want to do it, and he will probably resent being forced to). The collector, however, will scarf down anything with the "H'el on Earth" logo because he just wants to "have every issue of it," regardless of cost or quality.
Comic-book companies: an endangered speciesIn nature, any species that fails to produce enough offspring to repopulate itself will eventually go extinct. We refer to species that are producing too few offspring as "endangered." I believe that the same can be said for the comic-book industry at this point. We've seen that there are two types of comic fans -- the reader and the collector. We've seen how the industry can make money from both, and we've seen how they are targeting exclusively the collectors now. And the industry is limping along for now, because at the moment, there are enough collectors currently in the population to sustain things.
But we have also seen that the collectors do not spontaneously generate. Rather, collectors are sort of like the butterfly stage of an organism for which the reader is the caterpillar. That is, collectors come from readers -- they are readers after the readers have matured. Readers are the "new recruits" of the population. Without them, the population will age, and eventually die out, just like without cheetah cubs, a cheetah population would go extinct. Readers are the pipeline from which collectors are derived, and the by refusing to cater to readers even a little bit -- by focusing all their attention on the collector-butterflies -- the comic-book companies have shut down their recruiting pipeline.
Things are limping along all right for now because there are so many life-long collectors (like me) in the population. We got hooked when the companies were still writing for casual readers, and then we became serious readers, and then casual collectors, and then serious collectors. And many of us will (God willing) be around for many decades. But the clock is ticking. No new recruits are coming into the population, and little by little, the collectors are leaving the population. Some of us get married and have families. Some of us lose our jobs. Some lose interest in comic-books (I did, for 13 years). Eventually some will sadly pass on from this life. In decades past, these departures from the collector population were replaced by maturing readers. But without readers, there's no one left to do the maturing.
I think this, then, is the heart of the problem. By focusing on the mature/collector population while throwing the juvenile/reader population under the bus, the comic-book companies have sown the seeds of their own destruction. Their circulation is down, ultimately, because they have focused so completely on targeting the collector population that they have failed, for decades now, to recruit young readers, and there just aren't that many collectors out there -- the readers have always outnumbered collectors by at least 10 to 1. There probably still are (or could be) 810,000 Superman fans out there, but only 50,000 are collectors. The rest are readers, and DC refuses to cater to them, so those 760,000 people just... don't buy any comics at all. That also means they are not becoming life-long fans of comics, and thus, not becoming collectors. The next generation of comic-book collectors, which should be coming from today's readers, instead does not exist.
It's hard to see how the companies recover from this, unless they dramatically change their ways. Unless they stop targeting collectors with high-priced, crossover-laden, "teen+" rated, overhyped collector-bait, and start targeting casual readers with less expensive, less continuity-heavy, family-friendly, fun stories again, I think DC, Marvel, and all the rest may very well be like a critically endangered species.
And that's sad, since I have a four-year old nephew who I know, once he can read, would love to read about Spider-Man and Batman. He's a perfect candidate to become a reader now, and a life-long fan and collector later (with his uncle's guidance of course). But that can never happen, since there's no way for me to get him started using today's comics. So instead, he will turn to TV and video games, and by the time he is "old enough" to collect those teen+ comics, he'll be so busy dating girls and learning how to drive that it will be too late to get him into comics.
One can only hope that the comic-book companies will wake up and see what is happening. But based on how mis-managed they have been over the last few decades, it's hard to believe they ever will.