Disposable is Not a Dirty Word

& Comixology, Ranty.

How to widen the comic market?

As a new fledged comic creator it is in my interest to widen my audience, but is also in my interest to widen the audience for comics as a whole. Over the next few weeks I’m going to engage in some thought experiments on how this might be achieved.

Theory one – Digital is the new Pulp and Disposable is not a dirty word.

Context: Pulps, Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels were printed on cheap paper stock, achieving cover prices almost a third of the ‘slicks’ and ‘glossies’ on the market.  Times were hard, and people didn’t have a lot of disposable income to spend on entertainment (sound familiar?).

Their low production prices lead to a diversity of content. The costs of production were so much lower, the quantities so much higher that the risks became worth taking. Sports sat alongside Romance and Soft-Porn pulps, and they shared the shelves with Crime, Mystery and the Superheroes of their day – Doc Savage and The Shadow.

This diversity in content connected with a diverse audience of young and old, male and female. Whether it was the chicken or the egg first is beyond my skills and scope, but pulp fiction was indisputably popular with a wide range of the public.

“Pulp fiction… could sell up to a million copies per issue”

Just how popular? Pulp fiction was present and successful in both The Americas and Europe, and at their peak in the 1920s and 30s they could sell up to a million copies per issue (remember that these issues would often come out monthly).

With this much content you might think that the content was like the paper stock, quickly churned out in a factory chiefly to meet demand – at its worst anti-art, at its best simply craft. Again, it is hard to tell, and perhaps pointless to try. More interesting is to consider that this ‘disposable medium’ created a large demand for creative content and what effect this had on writers and illustrators.

Pulp writing didn’t pay much, but it did pay, and importantly it was paying for creative fiction, not articles or ad copy where a lot of writers, then and now, earn their living. It rewarded fast turnover and quick thinking. It was a big pool of talent, and fish of all sizes lived there.

“It was a big pool of talent, and fish of all sizes lived there”

Most of us know that Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Raymond Chandler wrote for the pulps, but so did William S Burroughs, Joseph Conrad and my one of my favourite novelists Elmore Leonard (RIP).  Heck, even illustration superdude NC Wyeth painted covers for pulps.

Remember my theory about cost vs. risk? Imagine for a moment that this worked on consumers as well, that perhaps we take risks on the content we consume (whether trying new genres, new characters, new creators or new publishers) if the risk of doing so is financially small. Doesn’t seem so crazy, does it?

When creative content is cheap it becomes a consumable, and people consume more. That’s just human nature, for good or for ill.

“When creative content is cheap it becomes a consumable, and people consume more”

I read more novels now than I ever did because of and my kindle. And I read more new stuff than I ever did because self-published and independent novelists price it to be consumed at $0.99 to $2.99. Even today that’s disposable income.

Now while I believe that we are more careful with our spending money than we were 10 years ago, I don’t believe we were knocking down the door at Amazon asking for $2.99 ebooks. I think Amazon created a platform with low distribution costs and high creator royalties (up to 70%) and opened it up to the world. Independents came, experimented and then settled on a low-priced business model to attract readers, and compete against the ‘glossies’ of their market: Big Publishers. In other words, demand didn’t create supply – supply created demand.

Digital Comics are halfway there. Tablets and mobile devices give us a newsstand in every hand, digital delivery gives us limitless and scalable sales, and we can sell work cheaper than ever before. Using Jim Zub’s breakdowns (Print and Digital profit breakdowns), going digital takes the combined creator/publisher profit from 11% to 35% meaning that creators/publisher make the same profit from a $0.99 e-comic as they do from $2.99 print comic.

Comics are expensive to make, but they should be cheap to buy, and they should sure as hell have more readers than they do now. I won’t pay $3.99 for a digital comic, I just won’t, regardless of the reasons for that price-point. Not when there are great stories available for half, or even a quarter of that price. If that makes comics like mine a ‘pulp’ comic, so be it, keep your glossy, I’ll be over in the cheap seats with a come-hither look.

“we can take bigger risks”

Creators have free distribution via places like Comixology Submit or Drive Through Comics, and we can offer lower prices than big publishers as there are less fingers in our pies. In other words we can take bigger risks.

I asked host of both the Paperkeg and Comixolgist comic podcasts Matt Kolowski (aka @slim) for his personal Top 5 picks from Comixology Submit that take these risks to great results. They are

The Bunker ($1.99)
Sunrise  ($1.99)
Nathan Sorry ($2.99)
Ink & Thunder (0.99c)
She Died In Terrebonne  ($1.99)

Now, I don’t think independent creators, and comics in general, are reaping the rewards of those risks yet, and I believe there’s more work to do by Comic blogs, news sites and podcasts to alert readers to this burgeoning movement.

With enough support from digital outlets and readers, and an acceptance that Disposable is not a dirty word, perhaps we can restore the forgotten genres and readership of comics, and attain something like the Manga method via digital means.

“disposable is not a dirty word”

Love to hear your thoughts on all this, and look out for my follow up pieces where I ask Where is our Amanda Hocking (out now), and address Webcomics (next week).


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