Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Falling Circulations

The always-excellent blog Bear Alley by comics expert / writer Steve Holland today features an item on the current circulation figures of British comics. The results make for depressing reading, with practically every title having a drop in sales. The Dandy, revamped as Dandy Xtreme last year in an attempt to ward off the decline, is now down 5,000 copies to 23,869. Even the high sellers Simpsons Comics and Doctor Who Adventures are down, with the latter suffering a massive drop from 154,989 to 93,791 in the last six months.

What are the causes for this continued decline in comics and magazine sales? Falling levels of literacy? The recession? Boredom? High cover prices? Or perhaps our climate of fear, where kids are no longer being allowed to go out and buy comics on their own, is responsible?

All valid reasons perhaps. Comics are considerably different to how they were 40 years ago, - and that's to be expected. British comics have always evolved with the times. Perhaps it's time they evolved again?

The current mixture of strips and lightweight articles / activities has been around for several years now. Perhaps this generation wants something new? Perhaps a generation in tune with soaps and reality shows wants more depth to the characters? More excitement and unpredictability to the stories? Perhaps they're bored with bagged free gifts and posters?

However, a comic can have as many revamps as it chooses, but if the kids can't see the finished product it's not going to attract them. Comics are gaudier, glossier, and bulkier (with gifts) than ever before, but when crammed into the shelf display of supermarkets and newsagents it's hard for individual titles to stand out. The displays often soon become untidy, with comics sprawling in all directions and even spilling onto the floor. Unless one is looking for a specific title it's very difficult for a comic to uniquely grab the attention of a passing customer. How is a child expected to discover The Beano or Toxic for the first time when comics are rammed into displays that are so overwhelming and unkempt? As retail giants charge a premium for front-of-shelf displays most titles are stuck at the back, in darkness in some cases! (See photo.)



(Interestingly, Viz, and 2000AD, which are displayed on other shelves, free from the clutter of the children's section, have stable circulations. However that could simply be because their readers are older and more inclined to buy out of habit.)

The DFC has made moves in a direction of a story-led comic, and is bypassing the retail trade by being subscription-only, but it's unlikely its sales are anything to shout about just yet. However, if it does build into a big success perhaps more established titles may follow the subscription-only route? The current downward circulation trend would suggest they may have nothing to lose by trying.

27 comments:

Tom Daylight said...

Are these the comics and magazines that are actually sold, or just the ones that are circulated (most of which seem to end up unsold on shelves like that)?

Richard Starkings said...

By Climate of Fear, do you mean knife crime?

R!

dennis the menace said...

lew i agree its a disgrace i wish we could show kids what comics really are. how much fun they can be should start a campaing save the british comic

matthew_in_ham said...

I fully agree with your comment about the way that children's comics are displayed. The other periodicals are organized by topic and are presented neatly but anything with a "children's" tag is just thrown into the same space so the Marvel/DC reprints find themselves next to comics for very young girls.

Lew Stringer said...

I understand those are circulation figures, so actual sales are even lower unfortunately.

Lew Stringer said...

Hi Rich, Knife crime is the latest thing the media here are panicking about but generally parents are afraid their kids will be abducted / bullied / whatever. It's very rare to see kids going to shops on their own now as we would when we were young.

Steven Henderson said...

Do you think that the market could be over saturated? Too much choice perhaps? In the 90's when I was at the age that comics are aimed at I can only remember The Beano and Dandy on the shelves now when I go into WHsmiths I have to dig through a pile of glossy bags and free toys before I find my Beano! Is this trend similar to the one in the mid 70's when IPC released a shedload of kids mags? Is history repeating itself or is my history a bit iffy?

Lew Stringer said...

There's about the same amount of comics out there as there has been for decades. The problem is free gifts used to be a rare treat, but now they're part of the bagged package so it makes shelving difficult with such bulky products. Also, the shelving system is different now that retail giants charge thousands for positioning. It's in their interests to have shelf designs that have a pecking order, as an incentive to make publishers pay more, but sadly it means some titles are hidden at the back.

The solution is to go back to the days of sporadic free gifts, no bags, less bulk, - and equal prominence for all titles. Unfortunately that doesn't seem likely.

Dave Whitwell said...

Lew, I found your latest article very interesting. I've long thought that British comics have somehow evolved into miniature 'Toys R Us' catalogues, giving priority to the advertising of computer games/action figures etc, while relegating the few(and often poorly drawn)comic strips to second fiddle.This aspect,coupled with the actual comic cover being obscured behind bagged toys has also prevented potential readers taking a look inside. The current crop of comics is primarily nursery age, with just 3 or 4 'proper' comics still on sale - and even these are targeted at a young audience. If I were a 12 year old boy now I would be very embarrassed at seeking out something to read amongst the piles of bagged nursery comics. Comics URGENTLY need to evolve away from free gifts/bags/articles on toys/games. You are right,today's more sophisticated kids require exciting and challenging stories to read. The 'TV soap' aspect is particularly missing from comics. The future?:I think that a smaller (American sized?) comic format, with many more pagesof comics(some black on white) would allow more complex stories to be developed, which would interest older kids(12+yrs)..and would also be hopefully less expensive(without some colour and those obligatory free gifts). DFC is a big step in the right direction. The kids today know what they want to read, but there is little being published for them.With luck things might change before the plug is pulled on all comic publications.

John Freeman said...

Your suggestion of shelf overcrowding is an interesting one Lew, although it's hard to test as we don't know what the sales figures are for most of the comics that aren't crammed in with all those plastic bags and free gifts, as 2000AD, Panini's Marvel reprints and Titan's DC Comics titles aren't ABC rated. My guess though is that given the overall decline in print magazine sales in other sectors, reported in The Guardian on Monday, they are down too.

It's my understanding that some titles have recovered since these ABCs were compiled, although overall sales are, as in other sectors, well down.

I think I tend to agree with Steve Holland's main suggestion for sales decline and that licensing is an issue -- and, perhaps, titles like Doctor Who Adventures are suffering from overkill on the shelves -- you've got Doctor Who Magazine, Torchwood, Battles in Time and as I've mentioned on my blog, there's talk of a Doctor Who DVD Files in the offing from Fabbri. That's a bubble that was bound to burst.

The danger for comics of course is that there's no chance a licensed title can turn itself into a 'brand' like the lad magazines have done such as Nuts or Zoo, and exploit their potential audience online or on TV. The Beano has done that to some extent but not many other titles have.

I don't think this is totally bad news for British comics creators because there are so many other outlets for them to create comics now -- on the web, on mobile, as graphic novels. The problem is ensuring that these new media opportunities also deliver the means for those creators to make money from the markets opened up, and that's a major challenge, I think.

Norman Boyd said...

I'll tell you how messy those displays are... nobody I know wants to even TRY looking for a comic in that mess. I would love to think there might b a reversal to clean looking comics with NO free gifts, but as I get older, I begin to see that this may be my wishful thinking!

Darren said...

I always read the beano but since i'm 13i didn't know what the ones from years ago where like but for my birthday my Mum and dad bought me the first Beano and a bundle of 60s comics and I really liked them.I don't like free gifts in the beano i think its every 2 weeks and it means that people only buy it for the gift and now I know why the Beano is lumped at the back of the Store also this is annoying as my mum nd think its sold out when it's really behind a load of comics

Lew Stringer said...

I'm not entirely convinced that today's kids are more sophisticated Dave. I don't see any evidence of that as today's product is a result of kids having a *shorter* attention span, hence adventure serials being dropped.

However I do feel the format of comics needs to change and involve the readers more. Keep the slapstick but have a few ongoing sub-plots too.

All irrelevant unfortunately, if the comics can't stand out on those cramped shelves.

Lew Stringer said...

I see your point John. I think most of us would be happy to switch to web based comics tomorrow if we could earn the same money as in print media. Does anyone earn a living from drawing comics online?

George said...

Rather than too much choice I'd say there's too little choice. Or perhaps I should say too little variety?

As Steve says in his blog there's a huge pre-school presence on the shelves but that, by its very nature, is transitory. The children grow out of that phase very quickly, and the trends in children's programming (which most comics appear tied in to) turn over quite rapidly - who talks about Teletubbies now? Where are the comics at the next level for them to move on to?

I have two god children, both girls, one 9 years old, the other just 6. They both love to read so when I visit them I like to take them a comic as a gift. Once I exclude the nursery ones (if I can get them and their cheap plastic toys out of the way) what are my options? Thank god for The Beano - if that's out of stock I really struggle. There's Classics from the Comics but, unfortunately, children today are used to things being in full colour and baulk at black and white (the same appears to go for TV these days). Other than the Beano/Dandy picture libraries, that's it. Unfortunately The Dandy has moved itself away from the 'young girl' market and, rightly or wrongly, superhero comics are (mostly) aimed at a much older age group.

If children are no longer able to buy comics for themselves then their parents (or godparents...) are the gateway to getting access. If that's going to be successful then comics have to be better value for money than they are now. With the honourable exception of The Beano most of them are really, really poor value. If there's a comic strip it'll be four panels a page; if there's an article it'll have the depth of skin. If you flick through them in the store you can see they'll barely hold a child's attention for ten minutes. The adult who holds the purse strings is going to put the comic back on the shelf.

I don't think these figure are the sign of a genuine fall in literacy, any more than the fall in sales of "Lads' Mags" indicates that young men are getting more literate. I fear the UK comics industry has painted itself in to a corner and now only knows how to licence a programme and/or toy and then sell that with as little investment as possible. Once the target audience dries up (or moves on) then the business finds itself with plummeting sales with out having the necessary experience on how to turn that around.

Incidentally, the older god-daughter gets, and loves, National Geographic for Kids. Not a comic in it I'm afraid but it engages her in a way that the British comics market has singularly failed to.

George

Lew Stringer said...

I agree with most of what you say there George. However I'm not sure which comics only have four panels a page but we always ensure that the strips in Toxic have around 9 or 10 panels a page (like The Beano). Although Toxic is boy's mag so I appreciate you wouldn't consider it for your god-daughters.

By the way; have you tried them with Manga? (Very popular with girls.) Or The DFC?

George said...

Hi Lew,

All I'm really doing is railing against the failings of the British comics industry, or at least my perception of the same.

Comics as a medium does offer a lot more choice for me, though usually more as a Birthday or Christmas gift. The oldest, who in common with a huge percentage of Children loves Harry Potter and The Famous Five, gets Tintin; the youngest, who enjoys the Beano, gets Asterix.

Manga is great, Female friendly, and means that for the first time in years I see young women/girls going in to comic shops alone (not looking bored while their boyfriend buys that week's pile).

The problem with buying Manga for god children is that... well, as they're not my children I tend to be a bit more conservative in my approach than I perhaps would otherwise be. I'm trying to please myself, the children and, just as importantly, their parents. The parents are non-comic readers and there's a problem with manga. To the uninitiated it does tend to look a bit, how can I put this? Pervy! However, if I find a good adventure story in manga form that'll certainly be on my list. Manga is, incidentally, excellent value.

The DFC? I get that for myself and I have to say I don't think they've got the formula quite right yet. There's manga pacing, but in 5 page chunks.

And for my next trick I'll sort out the NHS...

George

Lew Stringer said...

I understand your reticence about buying them Manga George. I agree with your comment about The DFC too. Far too few writers know how to pace a comic serial in short chunks, and it also seems they're also too influenced by low budget tv shows as much of the action happens "off camera".

Tom Daylight said...

You need to set Sonic the Comic on them, Lew. :) Always got five-page story pacing right there...

Anonymous said...

I agree with the point on the shelves - trying to find Transformers is always a pain in the arse, involving searching through teetering piles of bulky bags. 2000AD, by comparison, just involves scanning the shelf for the logo.

Without proper shelving, everything gets lost; you can barely even _see_ the cover, making attractive cover art nearly pointless.

Re web-based comics: some creators do indeed make a living from it, though I'm not sure how many. I do know Pete Abrams of Sluggy Freelance makes a living from his, due to trade paperback collections, merchandise, and fans paying to see extra background material.

- Charles RB

Conor B said...

Do these include online subscriptions? Because the Beano's must be high now with that 70 for £70 hype last month. It's no. 1 on the DCT Subscriptions chart.

Lew Stringer said...

Good question Conor. I assume it must include subscriptions but I couldn't say for sure. Anyone out there know?

Phill said...

Over the last few weeks we've failed to find our daughter's favourite (the Beano) amongst that pile of rubbish captured so perfectly on this page. The comic market is flooded with TV licensed material - could you imagine trying to start a new original comic brand today? How the hell would you get noticed without being deliberately controversial?

Lew Stringer said...

I think there'll have to come a point when publishers sit down with retailers and sort this out. Admittedly comics don't make a lot of money for retail giants so perhaps they're unlikely to change anything without even MORE incentive (ie: money).

I've often wondered if comic publishers have tried getting comics into places where kids actually go these days, such as video game shops? Or if there's a way to present cheap pocket sized comics as "impulse purchases" next to the till by the sweets?

Anonymous said...

Lew,

Australian childrens magazines (mostly a mix of small articles and licenced comics). Typically they are digest-sized and come bagged with free gifts. They are normally sold through supermarkets and placed on every till next to the chocolate bars/womens magazines (often at child friendly height).

Anonymous said...

Lew,

Australian childrens magazines (mostly a mix of small articles and licenced comics). Typically they are digest-sized and come bagged with free gifts. They are normally sold through supermarkets and placed on every till next to the chocolate bars/womens magazines (often at child friendly height).

Lew Stringer said...

Sounds like Australia have it right. I've often wondered why DC Thomson don't sell their "Fun-Size" Beano & Dandy comics next to the til. (Perhaps retailers expect too much money for such a prime position?)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...