What Factors Limit the Growth in Comic Readers?

gamalhennessy Community • Jun 8, 2020

If you want more people to read your comic, you need to attract more new readers to comics.

This is not a simple challenge. The bad news is that the comic book industry faces several substantial barriers to growth that you’ll have to consider and overcome if you want to avoid fighting for scraps. The good news is that comics has a substantial amount of growth potential, so if you can develop marketing that expands beyond the current comic book market, you can succeed while your competition struggles.

As an entertainment medium, comics have six major factors that make it difficult to expand the market:

1. Barriers to Entry: Comics have inherent cultural roadblocks that discouraging the uninitiated from reading them. If you have spent years immersed in the subculture, walking into a shop or scanning titles online might be second nature to you, but there are fundamental questions facing a new reader, including:

o Who are the best creators?
o What types of comics are available besides superhero comics?
o Where can I buy comics?
o When are comics released?
o Why should I read comics instead of watching comic content on TV?
o How do you even read a comic book page?

If you don’t take the time to reduce or remove these barriers, you’ll lose your potential reader.

2. Competition from other media: Your ideal reader potentially consumes stories from several different sources, including:

o Books
o Film
o Social Media
o Television (and other forms of streaming media)
o Video Games

In addition to the threat of unique narratives coming from these distribution channels, the growth of comic-related media could theoretically cannibalize readers who might otherwise consider spending time and money on comics.

3. Higher prices for comic consumption: Your ideal reader can arguably get more entertainment value for a lower cost by choosing other forms of media over comics because economies of scale drive down the cost of a mass-market product.

Let’s think about the ideal reader who might be interested in an urban crime superhero story like Daredevil. A premium subscription to Netflix costs $13. With that monthly payment, your ideal reader can currently get thirty-six episodes of Daredevil, plus dozens of hours of related Marvel Netflix shows, plus hundreds of hours comic-related entertainment, as well as thousands of hours of additional viewing options. By contrast, that same $13 will get your ideal reader 3 single issues of the current Daredevil 22-page comic.

It can be argued that the stories and experiences in each of my examples aren’t the same and can’t be used as a meaningful comparison. You might also think that your story is too unique to be subject to market cannibalization from Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt, but keep in mind that narratives don’t have to be identical to face competition from other media. And even if your story isn’t a superhero epic, you probably found competitors to your story in other media that is cheaper than your average comic.

4. Isolated Distribution: The distribution of content in the comic book industry is a topic that deserves in-depth analysis, but an overview of the history of getting comics into the hands of readers will help you understand the context for your book.

In the early days, multiple retail outlets carried comics. Newsstands, candy stores, drug stores, and book stores all had metal spinner racks stuffed with books from various major publishers. The fairly low price per book (for years a single issue comic cost less than twenty-five cents) and the ubiquitous availability of comics made it easy to reach everyone.

In the 80’s, shops dedicated to comics started becoming a dominant distribution channel for the industry. By the 90’s, there were comic shops in every major city in every state of the country. The combination of newsstand distribution and comic shops created a dynamic similar to a gateway drug scenario. A person could stumble onto comics at a newsstand, graduate to their local comic shop and become a lifelong comic book collector. It was a pipeline that led to a significant expansion of the market.

Since then, the pipeline has collapsed for several reasons. First, comic book publishers abandoned the newsstand market to focus almost exclusively on the comic shops. What little newsstand distribution remained became irrelevant when high-speed internet made news available on-demand online, shutting many newsstands down. The comic shop industry suffered from a combination of speculation, overdependence on specific publishers, and an insular culture that created unnecessary barriers to entry. The collapse of this pipeline, combined with the other challenges, conspired to make comics harder to buy than they had been in the past.

Keep in mind, other channels of distribution exist that make it easier to access comics than before. Bookstore, library, and digital distribution like Comixology give potential readers to painless ways to get comics. Up to twenty percent of new readers now discover comics online, and two-thirds of those readers go on to patronize comic shops, but the pipeline from stumbling on to a comic to becoming a regular reader isn’t as universal as it had been in the past.

4. Perception Stigma: Unlike movies, television, and books, comics suffer from the inaccurate historical image of being a medium primarily for children or losers. Although the success of comic book related media has reduced this falsehood in recent years, the narrow image of comics is a barrier to growth.

This issue has its origins in the religious and anti-communism movements of the 1950s . Before that period, comics had been popular with children and adults throughout the history of the medium, with specific titles published for everyone from toddlers to soldiers on the frontlines of World War II. But in 1954, a psychiatrist named Dr. Henry Wertham published a book titled Seduction of the Innocent. The premise of this work accused comic books of everything from criminality to homosexuality . Wertham’s work sparked public backlash to the point that Congress held hearings on the dangers of comics to American morality. In response to this public relations disaster, the comic book industry imposed a code of conduct on itself and developed an organization called the Comics Code Authority to review the content of every published comic from the publishers who signed onto this code.

The Code stunted the growth of comics as a creative medium by forcing every book to be acceptable and appropriate for a child to read. Imagine the creative state of movies, television, theater, and novels today if every story had to be designed for a ten-year-old to see. Imagine how hard it would be to convince adults to engage with any of these media if the content didn’t evolve with their growing mental and emotional sophistication. This is the situation the comics industry found itself in after Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code. Although Wertham’s work was eventually discredited, the damage was already done. Comic books became perceived as a medium for children, unworthy of attention from any other group.

Eventually, the comic book industry moved away from and rejected Books like The Dark Knight Returns, imprints like Vertigo and Marvel Knights, and Wildstorm sought to appeal to older readers with darker themes and more adult content. While this did act as a counterbalance to some degree, the overemphasis on sexism in the female portrayals and gratuitous violence created a negative backlash of its own .

Today, there is a mainstream disconnect between comic book stories and comic books themselves. While comics are the source of successful media franchises across the board, that hasn’t translated into an explosion of comic book sales. The popularity of the stories isn’t surprising. Mike Marts, editor of AfterShock Comics articulated this point well: “There’s something classic about comic stories that resonate with people. What matters is the type of journeys these characters take and that’s never going to go away, so I don’t think there is going to be any significant drop off of fantastic movies and TV shows made based on comic books.”

But the divide between the success of comic content presents a confusing challenge. It is as if millions of people decided that they loved wine, but didn’t like grapes. The fact that the stories resonate outside the medium suggest that the problem isn’t with comic book stories, but the way people see comic books.

6. Established Patterns: Most of America does not currently read comics on a regular basis. The people who do read comics already have their favorites. In addition, most of America is used to having potential entertainment pushed at them in a dozen different directions. They don’t have to go and hunt for it. They don’t have to order most of their entertainment in advance and then show up to a specific place on Wednesday to get it. When you ask people to change their behavior to consume your story both in terms of buying and consuming, you make it easier to just avoid your work completely and stick to their established pattern. 

Now that we have an idea of the challenges, later this week I'll look at where you can find new readers for your comic.

Have fun