All In Black and White For A Dime
                                                by Bob Hughes 4/25/91

Originally Published in Amazing Heroes #203

July 1992


        Perhaps more than any decade since, the Thirties were a decade when America needed heroes.  The Great Depression put millions of Americans out of work and seemed like it would never end.  With no television, and even no electricity in many parts of the country, America turned to reading for its entertainment.  Often the reading material of choice was a 9 1/2" by 7 1/2" magazine, approximately 128 pages in length, and printed on the cheapest paper then known to science.  These were the "pulps" (as opposed to the "glossies" like Saturday Evening Post or Life).  For one thin dime, the same price as a Saturday
matinee, you could get a week's reading pleasure, as well as several re-readings, until the cheap animal glue binding disintegrated and the book fell apart.  Pulps usually featured a mixture of long and short stories, usually composed on a single theme, some featuring the same characters from issue to issue.  In others, new characters would re-enact the same old plots. By 1941, the price of these periodicals had gone up to 20 cents.  By 1950, they were up to a quarter.  By 1960, they were gone.  What happened?  Where did the pulps go and what lesson can comics fans learn from their demise?
        According to Jim Steranko there may have been as many as 250 different titles on sale at any one time.  Something for every taste was available.  Every genre was covered, from Firefighters, to Speakeasy Stories, Twice-A-Month Love Book,  Black Book Detective, G-8 and his Battle Aces, Weird Tales, Marvel Tales, Amazing Stories, The Shadow, and Doc Savage.  The majority of pulps were westerns, the direct descendants of Beadle's Dime Novels of the 1850's and 60's, and the earlier "penny dreadfuls" and "shilling shockers" of Victorian England.
        In many ways, pulps fulfilled the same reader desires as comics: cheap, disposable action/adventure or melodrama with black and white characterizations and easy, predictable resolutions.  Some have said that comics replaced the pulps, yet they coexisted for 20 years.  I believe other economic factors doomed the pulp magazines and that those same factors continue to
affect the future of comic books.  These economic factors are what determine what magazines are distributed, and how.

        It can be argued that the fate of the pulps was decided as long ago as 1939.  It was then that Pocket Books released the first American paperback reprint (Lost Horizons, in case you're interested).  Published by Robert de Graff, and half - owned by the prestigious Simon and Shuster publishing house, Pocket Books offered a wide variety of reprints of hard covered books, at a super low 25 cent cover price.  Originally de Graff tried to sell these inexpensive substitutes for "real" books through book stores and through the Sears and Roebuck catalogue company.  However, it was not until 1941, when he signed contracts with the magazine wholesalers to distribute his paperbacks to newsstands across America, that they caught on.
        Prior to this point, writers had two possible outlets for their work: magazines and expensive hardcovers.  Hardcover sales were reserved for "serious" books.  "Popular" fiction died a month or so after publication, when the newsstands returned all unsold magazines to the publishers, or more likely, ripped off the covers, returned those, and threw the magazines away.
        Paperbacks provided a new outlet, not only for the writers, but the readers - complete (not serialized) works at magazine prices.  They also had permanence.  Since paperbacks weren't dated, even those that  newsstands did return could be shipped elsewhere.  A returned magazine was scrap paper. Paperbacks stayed on the racks for months, until they sold out or fell apart, and were often reprinted.  Publishers were able to develop a backlist of proven sellers.  Reprintings of these titles were guaranteed 100% sell-through, and provided the profit cushion the publishers needed to take a chance on new writers.

         By 1950, paperback houses began competing with the hardcover companies for established authors, offering bigger advances and substantial royalties.  Many famous writers left the "prestige" publishing houses because the higher paperback income allowed them to finally quit their day jobs. 
        However, most of the new paperback writers formerly worked for the pulps.  Writers who had never done anything but short stories were now called upon to produce novels.  So many SF writers mined their pulp files for recyclable material that a special name ("the fix up") was created for novels that were in reality groups of short stories strung together with bailing wire.  Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation Trilogy is actually nine disparate short stories.
Robert Heinlein spent a good part of the fifties adding a few thousand words to old short stories and repackaging them as novels.  Virtually everything of any value that had been printed in the pulps was now re-issued to feed the voracious demand of the new paperback market.
        Fittingly, most of the new paperback publishers were also refugees from the pulp wars.  Magazine publishers and distributors, looking for a solution to the magazine return problem, flocked to the new format.  Curtiss Magazines, publishers of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal, formed Bantam Books in 1945.  At the same time that he was proclaiming that "Dell Comics are Good Comics", George Delacorte was making millions off of Grace
Metalious' steamy Peyton Place.  Dell would drop out of comics entirely by the mid 1960's,  devoting all its energies to the lucrative paperback business.
        Fawcett Publications, which in addition to its comic book line fronted by Captain Marvel and his relatives, also published True Confessions and Mechanics Illustrated, became the first paperback publisher to concentrate on original works rather than reprints from hardcovers.    By 1952, they were making so much money from Gold Medal paperbacks that their comic book business began to seem a petty annoyance.  Captain Marvel had made millions for them in the forties, but they'd had to fight continual legal battles with National Comics over alleged copyright infringement.  Fawcett settled out of court and dropped not only the Captain, but their entire comic line of western and TV - related properties.  They saw their future in other markets.
        Other magazine publishers hoped to join the trend.  Martin Goodman, publisher of Eye, Swank, and hordes of crossword puzzle books, as well as sixty to eighty comic books a month, began Lion books in the mid-fifties and cranked out 300 - 400 paperbacks without notable success.  When the Lion Books imprint folded in 1959, he turned back to his comics and began working on a clone of one of his biggest competitor's hottest new series.  If Goodman had had better luck in the book business, there might never have been a Fantastic Four, or any other Marvel Comics.
        By switching to this new format, the former pulp writers and their publishers were able to sidestep

 the impending magazine massacre.  The Fifties were a major disaster for magazines in America; not only pulps and comics, but nationally prestigious weeklies like Colliers and many others folded.  One of the causes for this was the new influx of paperback books.  These paperbacks went into the same space on the newsstands that magazines used to: more paperbacks, fewer magazines.  On top of that, Americans were moving to the suburbs in record numbers and switching their retail shopping habits.  The corner newsstand and neighborhood store began to fade out of existence in favor of the shopping mall.
        The disappearance of the newsstands disrupted the distribution chain and one by one magazine distributors began to fold, dragging down publishers by not paying their bills.  Atlas, Leader, and American News all went under. American had distributed almost 50% of the magazines in the country.  Their collapse in 1957 was the death blow to the pulps, and almost killed the comic book industry also.
        The paperbacks escaped this fate by finding a new mode of distribution, the bookstore.  Between 1960 and 1980, the number of bookstores in America increased from 1400 to 14,000.  Despite television, reading seemed to be more popular than ever.
        Although the pulp writers and publishers were able to adjust to the new market by repackaging their wares, the comic publishers were less successful. The new book stores were not interested in the hassle of handling magazines, particularly such low profit ones as comics.  Unable to break into the new bookstores, comics had to resort to other techniques to survive.  The baby boom and the Batman TV show provided a major boost in reader interest during the Sixties, but that interest had to contend with dwindling retail outlets.  Even when Batman was selling close to a million copies a month, DC still had to print
twice that many to take into account those copies that were thrown away at the end of the month to make room for the next issue.  Smaller publishers couldn't get distributors to even display their titles and so didn't survive.  All through the Sixties and Seventies publishers searched for a way to either: 1) stop seventy percent of their comics from being returned after one month, or 2) print them so cheaply they could afford to throw away two for every one sold.  They tried different sizes and different page counts in order to get more newsstand exposure.  They pushed subscriptions in order to bypass newsstands altogether.
They also tried to find new sales outlets, often bagging two or three comics together and selling them in toy stores.  They pioneered new cheaper (and worse) printing techniques and introduced poorer and poorer grades of paper. 

        Finally, a unique solution was offered from outside the distribution industry.  Phil Seuling, a comic book dealer from New York, made his living selling the very out-of-date comics every one else was throwing away.  He went to DC and said "You sell me your books for 10% less than everyone else and I won't send any back to you, ever."  From this deal blossomed the entire direct sales industry.  Comic books were now sold in specialty shops all across the country, many located in those very shopping malls that had destroyed the newsstands.  Dealers bought their comics outright from the publisher.  The
publisher knew exactly how many he was going to sell before he printed them, and the dealer knew he would eventually sell every copy he bought, with a markup for his trouble on the ones he kept the longest.
        It looked like a good plan but, like any pyramid business, it eventually collapsed on itself.  The unsold comics the publishers couldn't get rid of were still there, only now the retailer was stuck with them.  The theory had been that the dealer would know what his customers wanted and order accordingly. There would generally be just enough supply to meet demand.  But soon the dealers found themselves buried in unsalable-at-any-price comics , caused by an incredible influx of new publishers jumping on the bandwagon of guaranteed sales.  Unable to meet the COD on new shipments, dealers drove publishers into bankruptcy, as the nightmare of the Fifties returned.
        The publishers dream of guaranteed sales vanished as dealers cut back sharply on orders.  Many only ordered as many copies of a title as they could pre-sell to steady customers.  Since dealers could no longer risk stocking titles in depth, those titles that rose in popularity soon were commanding back issue prices 10-50 times higher than cover.  The newly volatile market attracted speculators whose only interest in comics was cornering the market on some item they imagined to be scarce.  Phil Seuling's solution to the distribution problem had turned into a nightmare for publishers, dealers, and readers, all of
whom found themselves in danger of being priced out of the market.
        The problem, as always, was an inability to adjust supply to meet demand.  Either there was too much supply, in which case publishers prospered while stores drowned in unsold merchandise, or there was too little supply, in which case retailers made a fortune on back issue speculators, and publishers went out of business due to low initial sales.
        Creators weren't happy either.  The direct market had brought tremendous changes to the comic business.  No longer just work-for-hire stooges, creators were now paid royalties.  Unfortunately, declining sales made those royalty agreements worthless.
        Now, if you had created the Amazing Gxmppgh!, it might be emotionally satisfying to you to know that Gxmppgh! #1 was making a 1000% profit for speculators all across the country.  But you wouldn't be getting any of that money since the publisher had only been able to pre-sell (and therefore print) a minimum number of copies.  Furthermore, sales on later issues would not necessarily increase because potential new readers wouldn't want to start a story in the middle when they knew they couldn't afford the beginning.  This lack of backstock would be doubly frustrating because the outrageous prices being charged for the book would attract media attention, bringing non-fans into comic shops looking for your title and not finding it.
The media attention lavished on projects like Dark Knight; the new Robin, Superman and the Ninja Turtles created new interest on the part of the general reading public.  Unfortunately, those people only discovered these projects after they were sold out.  The general audience that the industry had to leave behind in order to survive was now looking for its product, only the product was gone.
        The obvious solution to this problem is the same one the magazine publishers hit on in the Fifties.  Paperback reprints.  Publishers have recently figured out that this is an even better deal than direct sales comics.  You can start off with a small print run so you don't lose your shirt choking on returns, find something that sells and then reprint it over and over and over again.  Best of all, because they look like books (and carry the same retail profit that books do) you can finally  break into the book market.  Already there are an uncountable number of such reprint collections available from all major (and some minor) comic publishers.  They range from 48 page graphic "novels" to books which run several hundred pages in length.  They are kept continually in print, allowing publishers to continue to satisfy demand and allowing the rewards for continued popularity to go to the creators through royalties, rather than speculators through outrageous back issue prices.
        Fannish acceptance of such reprints has so far been mixed, probably because the collector's mentality developed by years of functioning in a magazine environment makes them think they have to buy one copy of each new version of the same product.  Once they get out from under this shibboleth, however, they will realize the tremendous economic advantage they gain by moving into the paperback market.  No longer will they be required to buy everything that comes out on the day of release, or risk paying speculators prices.  They can behave like the fans of "real" books, and wait for the reviews,
budget their purchases, and buy only what they can read.  They would be content to know that the other items would still be there, at cover price, when they got around to them.
        The number of pulp magazines still published today can be counted on the fingers of two hands.  The number of paperbacks is beyond comprehension.  Although this transformation took almost thirty years, it may mean that the handwriting is on the wall for those 32 page newsprint pamphlets we've come to know as comics.  I won't miss them.  Will you?

 

Your Comics May Soon Be Worthless

Scheduled for Amazing Heroes #204

Never Published as the magazine was cancelled



        Pay no attention to the above title. I just put it there to attract your attention.  It's an important point I plan to get to later on, but first we have to lay some ground work.  In a previous article, I pointed out many similarities between the transformation of the pulp magazines of yesteryear into the paperback book industry of today and the current situation in comics since the advent of the "graphic novel".  It was my contention that these "graphic novels" could be as significant a quantum leap for comics as the coming of the paperback was for the pulp writers (and readers) of the Thirties and Forties. That article escorted us through developments in these media through the present day.  However, since the pulps have a thirty year head start in being collected in book form, it ought to be possible to extrapolate some interesting predictions for the future of comics from that thirty year history.  Here, in no particular order of probability, are ten such predictions.
        1.  The past will return.  In the drive to produce profitable paperbacks quickly, pulp magazine publishers plumbed their backstock of already finished material.  Virtually every readable SF and mystery story from the Thirties and Forties has been reprinted several times, usually in five year cycles.  The entire history of these genres is constantly made available to each new generation of fans.  So many SF writers mined their pulp files for paperback material that a special name (the "fix-up") had to be created for novels that were in reality groups of short stories strung together with baling wire, including Ted Sturgeon's More Than Human and A. E. van Vogt's Weapon Shops of Isher.  Many more were short stories that had been stretched to novel length by adding a few thousand words.  For comics, the reprinting problem is the exact opposite; the original version is too long.  Think how great it would be to read all those comic book "epics" of the Seventies with the padding stripped out!  Marvel has already issued a "tightened up" version of John Byrne's "Trial of Galactus" series.  Others will surely follow.


        2.  Endless repetition of the same plots will cease.  One of the reasons that pulp heroes like Doc Savage and The Shadow have fared so poorly in paperback is because, basically, when you've read one you've read them all. In the days of newsstand sales, if a specific issue sold well, the only way for a publisher to capitalize on those sales was to print another as much like it as possible.  With the ability to reprint the original, the production of clones is no longer necessary.  This does not mean there will not be sequels.  Sequels are the backbone of the publishing industry.  There will not be anywhere near as many, however, and greater attempts will be made toward originality.  Except for a few licensed properties like Star Trek or Dr. Who, few paperback series have ever run more than 10 volumes, if that.
        3.  The days of the endless meandering serial are over.  Stories will be shorter and have beginnings, middles, and ends.  The endless saga was a necessary innovation designed to force the fan to search out monthly installments in the face of ever dwindling newsstand outlets.  The casual reader who shells out the cost of a book wants a complete story.  Comic book creators, with an eye to lucrative reprint royalties, will more and more concentrate on five-part stories (like those in Legends of the Dark Knight or Spider-Man) these being the ideal length for paperback collection.

 

        4. Collectors and speculators will find something else to do.  The comic book audience is composed of three groups: fans, collectors, and speculators. Fans collect comics because they want to read the stories.  Collectors want a complete set of something they can line up neatly in boxes and index. Speculators want hundreds of copies of each item because they think they're going to be worth something someday.  In a normally functioning marketplace, collectors and speculators form a very tiny part of the buying public.  By creating the direct sales system, publishers unwittingly caused a situation in which collectors and speculators were in danger of becoming the entire market!

        Comics became comics available only to those organized enough to haunt dealers on the right day of every week and resolute enough to make their way through bins of disorganized back issues, in cramped, crowded, collectibles shops.  The fans who simply wanted to read good stories, but had no time for the attendant hassles of collecting, were left out.  By keeping comics in print as long as there is demand for them, publishers will eventually drive speculators out of the market.  Comic books will be freed from the confines of collectors' stores and rejoined to the mainstream book market, albeit in a radically different form.
        It's amazing how much cheaper old pulp magazines are than comics, even though the comics are decades younger.  That's because fans don't need to buy moldy copies of the originals in order to read Asimov's Foundation stories.  They also don't need to put their copies in Mylar snugs.  When they've read them into tatters they just buy new ones.
        Currently, the market is disrupted because collectors are trying to buy one of each variant edition of a particular story.  This is a temporary phenomenon.  By continuing to supply the market with enough copies to meet any demand, publishers will eventually put a stop to this peculiar behavior.  Such a practice is not common in any field except comics.  No one, as far as I know, has attempted to collect one of each printing of The Lord of the Rings, for example.


        5. Comic stores will stop selling back issues.  Stop at your local Waldenbooks some time and look around.  Do you see any boxes of bagged paperbacks priced outrageously higher than cover?  Of course not.  Mainstream bookstores don't sell out-of-print books (except for remainders, which are usually priced way under cover).  Books that have gone out of print did so because they didn't sell.  Why would any bookstore that wanted to remain in business clutter itself up with stuff it couldn't sell?  To be sure, there are bookstores which specialize in used books (under cover price) and rare books (first editions) but these are separate, specialized shops which don't usually deal in new material. 
        Most comic shops began as collectibles stores, specializing in back issues and sort of backed into new material as the direct market expanded.  Eventually, they will have to make a choice as to which business they want to be in.  With
less and less money to be made in back issues that are constantly being reprinted, that are a nightmare to inventory, and that take up an inordinate amount of floor space, the obvious choice is to dump them.  Comic shops that don't realize this stand an enormous chance of being wiped out by their competition, whether it be traditional bookstores, or smarter entrepreneurs who are more adaptable to the evolving needs of the market.  I would not be at all surprised at the emergence of a national chain devoted to comics and similar media properties.  If that happens the "Mom and Pop" shops buried in worthless inventory, are history.

        6. Brand name loyalty will diminish.  It may be hard for younger folk to believe, but bookstores originally arranged titles by publisher and catalogue number.  It was easier for the retailer and distributor to handle that way, simply replacing unsold Bantam (for example) with a new title every month or so.  However, by the mid-Sixties there were too many publishers for retailers to keep track of.  Also, publishers found too that grouping titles by category (all mysteries in one place for example) increased sales across the board, even for unknown writers.  By the Seventies, all bookstores arranged books by genre. 
        Most comic book stores I've been in use one of two methods of arranging their stock, either by publisher, or alphabetically across the board, with the possible exception of the Archies and the adult titles.  Bookstores have traditionally stuck all graphic novels into the humor section, but many are now branching out and actually placing them with the correct genres; Dark Knight Returns with mysteries, and Swamp Thing with the horror titles, for example.  A comic store that sorted and displayed its titles in this manner would definitely increase sales on its non-super-hero books.  Those books currently tend to get lost in the shuffle.  Can you imagine a time when comics are stocked alphabetically by writer and artist?

        7. The day of the "Zombie" will be over.  It will no longer be possible to run down the aisle and grab all the Marvels and DC's without looking at them. Back in the Fifties, uniform cover designs and prominent publisher's logos were prevalent throughout the book industry.  These were dropped in favor of individualized looks that hoped to catch a reader's eye and attract him or her to a particular title out of a hundred or so others.  Similar formats were restricted to works of a single author or series.  The only major exception to this trend was Harlequin's romance line, wherein the publisher strove to make each title look exactly like every other one.  These generic books all featured the same plot and similar characters and instilled high reader loyalty.  However, a similar attempt by Laser Books to reach SF fans was a failure.  Comic publishers may find that it's easier to reach a wider audience by downplaying the brand name approach that has worked so well in the fan market.  Marvel and DC are much less blatant in their use of corporate blurbs on graphic novels than they are on their comics.  The uniform corporate look is sacrificed in favor of individual design.


        8. There will be a greater variety of material available.  Putting comics back in book stores will make them available again to casual readers, who will be able to buy one or two a year and still be able to comprehend the story. Women will again make up  50 % of the market.  It's a fact women read more than men.  One overlooked factor in the dominance of males in comic book fandom is that collectors tend to be almost exclusively male.  Women just don't seem to have the biological urge to put things in numerical order and stuff them into mylar sleeves (probably a difference in their toilet training).  Marvel and DC may not be able to extend their market domination to this new audience. Contrary to popular myth, the "Marvel Zombie" is loyal only to Marvel's super- hero titles.  Marvel and DC have fared no better than any other publisher with off genre material.  Publishers who concentrate on other types of material, like
Disney and Gladstone, will have a much better chance of success, than those which continue to compete head on with the Big Two.
        

9. The magazines will die.  There are only a handful of pulps left.  Their combined sales are less than the sales of Uncanny X-Men.  Why buy a magazine with a piece of a story when the whole thing will be reprinted soon on better paper?  Eventually fans will figure out that it's cheaper and more convenient to skip the original serialization and just buy the paperback.  Instead of trying to buy every comic on the day of release because they're afraid of missing something good, fans will be able to sit back and wait for word of mouth to identify good material and still be able to buy it at cover price.  Facing declining sales for initial serializations, publishers will begin to skip them all together.  The few remaining comics will be devoted to major licensable products and primarily produced by new comers trying to establish themselves in the market.


        10. 95% of everything will still be crud.  This law, first propounded by Ted Sturgeon in the 1960's, is immutable.  Just look down the racks of any book store in America.  Crud usually sells better too. 
 

        All of this article so far has been about what comics publishers can learn from book publishers.  Learning can go both ways, however.  Many book publishers and writers have already adopted marketing techniques pioneered by the comic book industry.  Probably the most obvious of these is the "shared universe" series, in which a number of authors develop characters who share in each other's adventures, a direct spin-off from the Marvel and DC "universes". The most notable of these are the Thieve's World  series, created by Robert Asprin, and George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards  series (which features prose versions of "super heroes").  Following this trend full-circle, we find Wendy and Richard Pini's Elfquest spin-off, Blood of Ten Chiefs, in which SF writers are invited to write prose tales placed in their Elfquest universe.
        Similar to the "shared universe" is the licensed universe, in which the creator of a famous SF novel allows his or her characters and concepts to be licensed to other writers, in effect setting him or herself up as a "shop" (like the comic shops of the Forties and Fifties in which creators would hire people to churn out much more material than they could by themselves).  Isaac Asimov's Robot City comes to mind, as do similar efforts by Anne McCaffery and Larry Niven.  In this manner, new life is breathed into concepts the original creators have grown tired of, while young writers get the chance to make a name for themselves, using established characters as a stepping stone into the market place.  This is similar to the way in which a Frank Miller or an Alan Moore gets to practice on Batman or Swamp Thing before going off to create his own material.
        Now what does all this have to do with the title of this article?  Well, when all those comics you've got stored in plastic bags are once again in print, in editions with better printing and better color, with all the boring and repetitious parts edited out, who do you think is going to want to take them off your hands? Speculators should be horrified.  Collectors should be aghast.  The fan should smile and think of all the new material available at reasonable prices for him or
her to read.  

       Will the above predictions actually come true?  The only other course open to comics is to succumb totally to the collectors' market, producing solely "collector's items".  Marvel and DC would come more and more to resemble the Franklin Mint.  Everything would be sealed, numbered, and "authenticated".  Of course the purchasers of such fake collectibles almost never make a profit.  So either way your collection will soon be worthless.