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Why Do Publishers Insist on Releasing Titles That They Know Will Fail?

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A couple of months ago, Marvel began announcing their slate of “All-New, All-Different” titles in the wake of Secret Wars. Much like DC’s “New 52” relaunch in 2011, Marvel’s line-wide pseudo-reboot is expected to bring a massive influx in sales. That said, as interesting as many of the titles appear, of the 47 new titles, it’s hard to imagine a third of them meeting Marvel’s acceptable sales figures. Granted, opinions may vary, but my (conservative) estimate is that 18 titles are, regardless of quality, destined for failure.

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To be fair, this isn’t unique to Marvel; “the New 52” saw cancellation upon cancellation to the point where only 12 of their initial 52 titles are still being published. Likewise, the other publishers also are publishing and cancelling titles at a fast rate, if on a smaller scale than the Big 2. So this raises the question, why do publishers launch what they surely must know will fail?

Obviously, there are many factors which are taken into consideration when a publisher makes a decision on titles, some of which are commercial, some legal, and some personal. For instance, due to the byzantine licensing laws, publishers are often required to either have a character appear in a book or release a specific title at least once in a certain period of time lest they lose the property. Many times publishers also are so moved by a pitch from creator that they will publish it even if they are skeptical of its selling potential. They might also allow creators to produce a pet project as a means of enticing that creator to stick around or as a favor for something else. Finally, a company might put out a title as a means of building buzz before a major media tie-in (look no further than Ant-Man) or launch a title just after a major media tie-in to take advantage of the sudden surge in popularity (hence, the various Guardians of the Galaxy titles). Regardless, even when taking these potential factors into account, there would still far too many titles which are seemingly dead-on-arrival.

It’s also entirely possible that overconfident publishers simply don’t realize that titles will fail. Every company is constantly trying to create the next big comic. As Kamala Khan (2014’s breakout star) proves, it is still possible to launch a popular, original character. What is important to remember about Ms. Marvel is that it arrived at exactly the right time, just as there was a call for greater representation, more fun and diverse characters, and a rapidly growing audience of young women. Believing that you can recapture lightning in a bottle in that exact same manner is not a successful business strategy, and I refuse to believe that publishers are so ignorant of these realities that they would greenlight a comic like Contest of Champions (especially without a strong marketing push) with the belief that it could actually be the next breakout title.

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To bring the conversation back to Marvel (and DC, Image, and IDW, to a smaller extent), there’s a final, more insidious possibility: producing more comics simply as a means of pushing other publishers off the metaphorical newsstand. Anyone reading this may find this hard to believe, but my understanding both anecdotally and from retailers is that the vast majority of comics readers are casual fans (and I can speak from personal experience as this described me for the first 4-5 years after I got back into reading comics). These readers don’t scour the internet for the latest releases; instead, they tend to pick up Big 2 comics and maybe even some properties with media crossover (The Walking Dead, Hellboy, Sin City, etc.), because that’s what they are familiar with. If a casual reader with a bigger budget is looking to expand their pull-list, they’re much more likely to grab an unfamiliar, and even mediocre, Marvel or DC title rather than try something completely foreign to them such as X-O Manowar or Southern Bastards, which is why I remain unconvinced that this strategy is even worth pursuing in the first place.

This is also destructive tactic for the industry as a whole. As retailer Brian Hibbs has mentioned, the overabundance of titles is especially burdensome on the direct market, as it makes the margin of error—the difference between profit and loss for retailers–that much tighter when ordering comics. As a result, retailers tend to be more conservative in their orders, which stems collective growth.

Further, this strategy operates on some suspect reasoning. One is that there are readers actually buying every Marvel (or DC or IDW or Image) title. Anecdotally, I have never heard of this kind of reader, and even if they do actually exist, we can safely assume that they represent a miniscule portion of the comic-reading audience, and thereby aren’t worth consideration. The second is that if Marvel were to publish fewer titles that they would lose readers to other publishers, which we’ve already addressed. In all likelihood, if Marvel were to only publish six Spider-Man titles instead of nine, then the readers for the three cancelled titles would simply start reading, say, Howard the Duck.

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The reason that I’ve continually singled out Marvel is that every other publisher (yes, even DC) has seemingly realized this and begun to cut back on their lines. Being a business owner myself, I understand the notion that you must constantly be looking to expand your business and increase your profits; however, when the pursuit of profit has an adverse effect on the market as a whole, you must reassess your policies, because it’s just as likely that you might hurt yourself in the long-term. Comics readers should have been a greater appreciation of this given how it was only twenty years ago that we saw the comics’ market collapse. While the market appears to be in a healthier place (in terms of stability if not sales) than it was in the ‘90’s, that doesn’t mean that publishers should employ the kinds of strategies that caused a crash in the first place. Granted, it’s quite nice as a reader to have so many options to choose from, but personally I’d much rather have a stronger industry going forward so that all of us can continue to read and enjoy comics without ever worrying about losing our hobby.

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