Beginning of the
Downward Spiral in New Comics Sales

In last week's column, I wrote about how, in my opinion, DC's 1992 "Death of Superman" promotion substantially contributed to the beginning of the downward spiral in new comics sales that is being felt by the world of comics to this day. I most certainly do not think that that single misleading promotion was the only cause of the 1993 collapse of new comics sales, but I do think that the negative backlash from the general public was far more severe than anyone at DC anticipated.

As the new comics market began to disintegrate in 1993 and 1994, all the publishers began scrambling for new gimmicks to boost up their lagging sales. Marvel, in particular, put out a slew of new titles, and used every possible excuse to boost the cover prices of individual issues within existing titles. Rather than improve overall comics sales numbers, these shortsighted marketing schemes simply alienated the comics fan base even further. As the cost of collecting all of the comics from a given publisher became increasingly expensive, and the comics creative talent pool was spread over a greater and greater number of titles, a fan revolt ultimately derailed the entire industry.

In previous installments of TFTDB (viewable on the website), I've written at length about the enormous damage done to the comics industry by financier Ron Perelman during his ownership of Marvel. The mid-1990's were a particularly damaging time for the Perelman team, as they desperately scrambled to regain their lost sales momentum. Among the changes Marvel forced upon the industry during this period was a disastrous experiment in self-distribution. This came about, in my opinion, because the Perelman executives running Marvel simply could not admit to their bosses that they had screwed up the industry with incessant cover price increases, and mediocre products. As an alternative to their own failures they concocted the ludicrous theory that their comics would be selling just fine, if it were not for the incompetence, and a perceived antipathy, of the remaining Direct Market Distributors. This became the primary justification for Marvel purchasing one of those distributors, Heroes World, and making Heroes World the sole distributor for Marvel Comics.

I happened to be at the Marvel offices the day that a lower level Marvel staff member accidentally faxed a notification to all the remaining Direct Market distributors that they would no longer be receiving Marvel shipments. I had met with Marvel President Terry Stewart the day before the announcement, taking one last shot at dissuading him from abandoning the Direct Market distributors. I pointed out to him that Heroes World was a very small company that did not have the infrastructure, or the managerial experience, to handle the number of comics Marvel shipped each month. Terry responded to my concerns by saying in effect "Ivan (Ivan Snyder -President of Heroes World) has assured me that they can handle the volume, and I am putting my faith in him..." In retrospect, I think it would be fair to say that there have not been many mistakes of that magnitude made in the entire history of comics.

At the time that Marvel abandoned distributing through the Direct Market distributors, there were about ten remaining in business. While the competitive disadvantages facing smaller comics distributors that I outlined in earlier installments of this series had halved the number of distributors in business in 1980, several smaller comics distributors had managed to hang on by servicing niche markets. The preponderance of the business was in the hands of two companies, however, Diamond Comic Distributors, and Capital City Distributing. As a reasonable guestimate, at the time that Marvel switched over to self-distribution Diamond controlled about 45% of the distribution of new comics, while Capital City had a 40% market share. The remaining 15% was split between eight (?) small distributors, including Heroes World. This long-standing world was about to be destroyed, however, and it is from the ruins of that apocalypse that our present comics distribution system ultimately evolved.

To be continued...

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