Buster Holiday Fun Special 1969

Creating Comics: Are There Better Ways to Reach Your Readers Than Through WHSmith?

Buster Holiday Fun Special 1969
Buster Holiday Fun Special 1969
I’m throwing this out there for discussion, because my article suggesting a Buster comic revival has stirred up some interesting comment yesterday. A lot of people, for example, suggested “Summer Specials” as an alternative to a new regular comic.

The problem with the reviving the traditional “comic specials” today is that, as I understand it, the newsagents distributors charge just as much to “launch” that single edition into their shops as they would an ongoing comic. As I mentioned yesterday, those distribution charges, on top of editorial and print costs, can understandably deter anyone from experimentation.

That’s in part why, although traditionally these specials had be a much longer “shelf life” than a regular issue, those you do see, I suspect, are expensive in comparison with regular issues. (Although those “Holiday Specials” always were more expensive than regular comics, simply because they had more pages). You need an ongoing title to make your “special” part of its run and not incur that extra “launch” cost as if it was an entirely new publication. That’s perhaps how 2000AD is able to afford publishing its annual Summer Specials.

Which leads me on to a general criticism of the way news stand distribution, dominated by WHSmith, has become so stacked against innovation and experiment in the UK, unless you’re a publisher with deep pockets… a system that certainly doesn’t help any wished for “comics revival”.

For those of you unaware of the ins and outs of modern magazine and comic distribution to the news trade in the UK (and I freely admit that I don’t understand every aspect), perhaps the best comparison I can give you is one my brother mentioned a couple of weeks ago, that hadn’t occurred to me before.

It’s the way some UK brewery companies tie down landlords in the pubs they own with demands and restrictions over how much beer they can order, what they should be doing and charging through the nose for a dubious “service”… And then those same breweries go off on one when the landlords can’t fulfil all those demands, ultimately leading to pub closures. Then blame anybody but themselves for the decline in the pub trade.

There is no point even stocking a weekly comic like 2000AD if WHSmith is not prepared to display it properly. Before and after, Lancaster store - can you spot tge Galaxy's Greatest Comic in the first picture?
There is no point even stocking a weekly comic like 2000AD if WHSmith is not prepared to display it properly. Before and after, Lancaster store – can you spot tge Galaxy’s Greatest Comic in the first picture?
These restrictive practices are exactly the same kind of things publishers face when it comes to new launches into newsagents, especially the charges for getting your new title onto news stands, which run into the thousands, costs additional to your editorial and print budget, as I mentioned in passing in my Buster revival item.

To be honest, it’s no wonder no-one wants to launch new magazines or comics that aren’t derivative of what’s already out there. (And why I’ve been supportive where possible of those that buck that trend, such as The Phoenix, which has incrementally increased its distribution points as it can afford them, finally going news stand with Issue 200). The amount of your cover price distributors want for selling your comic is mind boggling alone.

The odds of success are so stacked against them – in direct contrast to the way comics are supported in, for example, France – there’s little reason to try to do anything new or resurrect a once popular form.

So – what ways do our readers think publishers could get comics “out there”, avoiding the traditional news stand route?

There is hope in the digital arena of course – Moose Kid Comics, devised by Jamie Smart is offered for free online, but in order to be a success as more than a great idea and a platform for some marvellous examples of many great creators work, how could it generate an income? David Lloyd has worked tirelessly to promote Aces Weekly as a digital comic – and both projects deserve our support.

Phoenix 200 CoverBut are there other ways aspiring print publishers can circumvent the restrictions and costs of news stand distribution to gain a level of readership that would put a project in profit? Is the subscription-based launch – used by The Phoenix and The DFC before it – workable for every new launch?

One thing I am painfully aware of is that, from the distributors side, there is simply no shortage of publications vying for news stand space. If one fails, there are ten more that can take its place, even today in an era of declining print sales. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think distributors or newsagents chains should take publishers for granted. They are all looking at ways to reach readers – and there are, increasingly, other ways to do just that…

Let us know what you think below…

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John works as a comics editor, writer, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing for over 30 years, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

One thought on “Creating Comics: Are There Better Ways to Reach Your Readers Than Through WHSmith?

  1. I’ve often thought that comics for young kids should be sold in places where those kids actually go. The days of children rushing up to their newsagents, clutching their pocket money, are long gone. Selling comics in supermarkets gets the attention of parents, but it’s hardly a place that kids are enthused about visiting. WH Smith usually put any comic for the over fives well out of reach of their target audience, and again, Smiths isn’t a place where kids go now.

    Perhaps toy shops could be encouraged to stock comics? Or game stores? I’d also suggest fast food outlets might sponsor a comic, but from personal experience doing a Ronald McDonald comic, the stories had to be all about the clown and approved by so many people it sucked the humour out of it.

    One major difference between 40 years ago and now of course is that parents don’t let kids go shopping on their own, so they never discover comics for themselves. While parential concern is understandable (albeit perhaps a bit paranoid at times), it does mean that the way kids find out about comics is very restricted now and many would never even see a comic throughout their childhood.

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