Here’s a couple of snapshots of a typical British supermarket display of teen and young children’s magazines taken yesterday, which I occasionally post for discussion and dissection on my Facebook Comic Con page as we ponder the state of our native comics industry. Here, I’ll try and set out some of the issues facing publishers as they try and sell their comics – and why I think the way comics are distributed to the majority of the population are stacked against creators large and small.
Aside from the occasional rogue magazine from another section, Sainsbury’s Lancaster run a fairly tight ship in terms of keeping their comics section tidy, and while the supermarket doesn’t stock any teen-oriented titles such as 2000AD or Panini’s superhero comics (apart from Doctor Who Magazine, racked with SFX and film magazines), what it does sell is pretty indicative of what’s available to buy in the UK. (They also stock Private Eye).
Many supermarkets – which command some 40 per cent of all newspaper and magazine sales in the UK – have the space to give comics a good amount of space, enabling every title its own section, which helps boost sales. Given that Britain’s main dedicated “news vendor” WH Smiths Unique Selling Point was once its newspapers, magazines and books – but in recent years has chosen to give over more and more space to other product lines – comics don’t fare as well in their Lancaster branch, but at least they do sell “teen” titles, shelved with film and other “specialist interest” magazines.
As regular readers of downthetubes know, most young children’s titles today are more feature led than strip-focused, but many titles do include comic strip, even if that comic strip has been originated elsewhere, mainly the US. As far as most buyers are concerned of course, that comic strip is new to them, so while it matters to British comic creators who for the most part don’t get a look on at drawing it, it does at least mean potential comic strip readers are, potentially, being “exposed” to the form.
That’s a small consolation to comics fans, even if it does mean a mainstream audience rarely gets to see some of the fun comics British creators are coming up with – unless, in terms of “more comic pages than feature pages” titles, they’re buying The Beano or Doctor Who Adventures, or shopping in supermarket Waitrose, where you can buy The Phoenix, or, as noted above, a decent-sized WH Smiths that sells more teen market titles.
(I’m aware there is originated comic strip in titles like the best-selling TOXIC and Mega, but those are both titles that fall into the majority format – the “more feature pages than comics” category).
On the down side, in my view, supermarkets past insistence that “comic” titles come with a free gift, necessitating they be bagged to avoid theft, simply turns comics into product rather than discoverable reading, their purchase dependent not on content but brand and gift, the latter driving up the price of comics way beyond “pocket money” prices comics were once sold at. This makes them parent purchases rather than something a child could buy off their own bat, as many of us did as we grew up, up until the mid 1990s.
(Comics used to sell for the price of a chocolate bar, which would mean that ideally, you’d expect a comic to be on sale for less than a pound, but production costs have risen massively since the 1970s, when the end of “cheap oil” impacted on many entertainment sectors).
The “mag in a bag” approach may be a win for the supermarket, which is earning more per magazine and the space it takes up on the rack than if a title was cheaper, but it’s bad for the comics industry in general, because you make comics less affordable to a wider audience. Sadly, they’ve become brand dependent and less of the “impulse buy” that they once were because in the past, the potential reader liked what they saw of the comic, not the bag it now comes in.
As a publisher, in the now increasingly distant past you had to have at least something in your comic that excited the reader – whether that title was, for example, The Beano, Sparky, Lion, Eagle, Girl, Jinty, Bunty, Beezer, Valiant, Battle, The Real Ghostbusters, Warlord, Transformers, 2000AD, Action or Whizzer and Chips.
It must be hugely dispiriting for many editorial staff to be aware that, despite their best efforts editorially, the success of their hard work is more dependent on a strong brand (usually licensed), its “free” gift and surrounding bag design.
The costs of that free gift, and attendant packaging inevitably impact on what content you can afford – and with originated comic strip being expensive to produce compared with a feature page, that’s the first thing that gets cut.
(It was always thus, of course, but when comics sold more copies you could at least afford to originate more as well as make good use of reprint material, a practice successfully employed by Marvel UK for over two decades).
And let’s not, for this post, get started on the cost of getting your comic onto the news stand if it’s a new launch, which can cost thousands – and then sales become dependent not only on awareness of your “brand” (or the brand you’ve licensed) and on whether or not your comic is racked in the right place. (An issue that has lost so much hair for Editorial Directors in their dealings with WH Smiths down the years, it beggars belief).
So this weekend, it was a positive joy to see that a child picked up The Beano, one of the few unbagged comics and certainly one of the cheapest available on the mainstream British news stand as a result, read it, and got Mum to buy it!
Result! In your face, mag in a bag publishers…