Growing out of the magazine business model, part 876534

The latest meme is that Vertigo and (especially) Wildstorm are losing single-issue sales, and therefore in danger.

First of all, nobody knows anything about the numbers except the publishers, so this is a ridiculous discussion to be having.

Secondly — confessing that I don’t know anything about the numbers — I’m pretty sure that when it comes to stories that real humans might read,* single issue sales are a fraction of the story. Quick, which has sold more: Sandman #21 or Season of Mists? Bone #10 or The Great Cow Race? Black Hole #6 or Black Hole? All the Year Round for 4/30/1859 or A Tale of Two Cities? Look, guys, a paperback edition is not “a cheap and easy way for latecomers to catch up with what they’ve missed.” (1991 is <— that way.) It’s a book. It’s the only thing libraries will stock, it’s the only thing bookstores will sell, it’s the only thing NYRB will review, it’s the only thing most people in the world are interested in reading.** The book’s the thing.

Related point: a purchase of a book in a given format is not an ideological declaration of allegiance.*** For years I’ve been hearing “buy the book in X format or you’re a traitor.” “Our team is losing! Buy single issues of She-Hulk or there may never be a collection!” “CIVIL WAR: I’m with Waiting-for-the-Trade Man.” You guys read too many comic books! There are no teams. Consume the media you like, in the way that makes sense to you, and the market will recalibrate itself to suit the consumption trends that emerge.

*i.e. stories in which Green Lantern does not appear and the female characters do not habitually stand such that you can see all their erogenous zones simultaneously.
**Excluding digital and disposable formats.
***With apologies to my lit theory prof.

Now then.

As for this question of profitability. Why doesn’t Vertigo cancel its low-selling books? Profitability is a really complicated concept, and I imagine the mechanisms behind a title’s cancellation are considerably more complex than some are implying.

In every area of publishing, some products are (strictly speaking) profitable and others are (strictly speaking) not — it’s a fact of life. In fact, MOST books are unprofitable. Every publisher uses the revenue from the high-performing products to subsidize the loss from the low-performing products. Additionally, it may take a product many months or years to make back the investment that produced it — particularly at a company which pays high page rates and/or advances. If every publisher canceled a title the instant it dipped below the strict “profitability” line, almost none of them would last long enough to make real money, and the publisher would go bankrupt.

There are a dozen reasons why a strictly “unprofitable” title might be continued:

  • expected revenue from future formats
  • contractual obligations to the creators (I believe Rushkoff was promised at least one TPB when he signed Testament, and I suspect this is standard)
  • public relations and other intangible/indirect profits (could DC really just cease production of kids’ comics? could Vertigo really cancel 80% of its line? what would people think?)
  • editorial preference/indulgence
  • contractual obligations from a movie option (GOT NO LEGS BOY must remain in publication because they might make a GOT NO LEGS BOY movie)
  • etc.

With the first bullet point being the most significant, in most cases.

And for that matter, a low-selling book may have considerably lower production costs than a higher-selling book. So it may not be nearly as unprofitable as it looks.

1 Response to “Growing out of the magazine business model, part 876534”


  1. 1 Brendan October 26, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Hey, Leigh!

    I generally don’t comment on the memes going around on my own blog; I guess that’s what other people’s blogs are for.

    I generally agree with your comments, expecially the notion that we don’t and can’t have an obligation to buy only specific formats. It’s the companiy that publishes Testament’s job to keep Testament profitable, not mine. Furthermore, people’s reasons for reading work in a specific format are complicated and *gasp* inconsistent. I generally buy everything that I read in trade format. It’s more convenient, more attractive, fits on my shelf better and is a permanent format. However, I buy (for instance) everything Grant Morrison writes in single format. I simply can’t wait for the trade (though, I’ll usually buy that as well when it comes out and try to make up the cost selling the singles on eBay or give them away). We buy the format that suits us and that is our prerogative.

    That said, I think the singles vs. trades turn that this conversation has taken (and it did so well before your post) is a tangent, which you begin to correct toward the end of your thoughts. The problem is not that Vertigo singles are doing poorly. I don’t have numbers to hand, but many Vertigo series now considered successful must have had similarly poor singles sales (hell, look at a genuine hit like Y: The Last Man – it’s doing better in singles than some of the recent Vertigo cancelations, but those are still very low numbers by mainline DC and Marvel standards). Seems to me that where this began was the feeling that these current series are failing overall, which is to say that even with the trades–American Virgin has had two and a third solicited, Testament either has two or has a second solicited–they’re not selling whatever it is DC feels they need to sell. The problem seems not to be these series’ singles sales, but their disappointing sales overall, and that was what was originally under discussion.

    Occasional Superheroine had some pretty good thoughts on the subject on Oct. 22nd (http://occasionalsuperheroine.blogspot.com/2007/10/eight-reasons-why-vertigo-comics-arent.html), which were similar to a conversation you and I had some time ago, about Vertigo’s problem maybe stemming from its loss of a brand identity. Part of me wants to cheer Vertigo being far more diverse than it was ten years ago, but I also see that the Vertigo brand isn’t as clear as it used to be, which makes people less confident about picking up a new Vertigo offering than they used to be (She also suggests that Vertigo should pursue a more Top Shelf-like publishing strategy in the sense of going after indy talent and focusing on OGNs).

    I tend to agree with her, though I do wonder exactly where something like American Virgin (which I have read and enjoyed–it started strong, dipped early on, but has been great since about the one-year mark) would find a home if not at Vertigo–maybe Image? Personally, I think there should be a market for serialized stories in just-left-of-mainstream areas. Some series do take awhile to get off their feet–would they have made it the distance if they had to go the OGN route? On the other hand, I don’t care for the impulse to make everything a long-term project. As far as I’m concerned, Vertigo’s greatest success of the last few years is The Losers, which was meant to run about 30 issues and did, spawing five well-selling trades that comprise a complete story that doesn’t require commitement to a dozen books or more. I would love to see more of that (it’s like the difference between American TV and British TV).

    Lastly, I wonder if a big part of this is publicity (this would be more your field than mine). DC’s marketing muscle has really seemed to be behind the big DCU events for the last couple years. Between this and most new money going to Minx’s promotion (hardly a bad use for it), how much is this squeezing out the marketing budget for other imprints? Ideally, more mainstream fair like Vertigo would be DC’s growth business and the imprint serving the hardcore fandom would either be a niche part of the business or the dwindling part, but the opposite seems to be true. The introduction of Minx (and to some extent Zuda) is promising, though. As much as the last batch of Vertigo books is failing, DC clearly agrees with you that it is worth using best-selling stuff like JLA and All Star Batman to subsidize things like Vertigo, where there has been no indication of turning the lights off and closing the doors, in anticiation of another series like Sandman with that fabled long tail.


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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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