I work primarily in email marketing these days. When a customer who is new to email sees the kind of engagement and return that a well-executed, targeted email campaign can generate, there are usually two pernicious impulses birthed within them:
- Send email to more people
- Send email more often
As foolproof a plan as that seems on the surface, it’s not tenable. There is a natural churn in the flow of marketing communications – every time you reach out to your customer base, there are going to be some of them who can’t get your messages or just don’t want them – everybody has their own personal threshold for how much is too much in our inboxes*. The bigger a brand is, the more loyal a brand is, the more of it we can tolerate because usually the value we’re getting out of the message balances out with the value the company is getting from our response, whether it’s a sale, liking a page on Facebook, or entering a contest. You can take steps to mitigate unsubscribes or people hitting the Spam button, but it’s generally accepted as a cost of doing business.
In that respect, comics are a similar beast. Excepting a rare few cases, readership for a given comic book trends eternally downward. Bringing in new creators, shaking up the status quo, killing off a major character – these are all things that provide a bump, but often don’t do much to stop the downward trend from continuing.
The more frequently you ask your mailing list for something (attention, money, any other directed action), the higher your churn is going to be – you steepen the angle you’re diving at. Eventually, you’re getting an impractical # of complaints, which will damage your rep, which avalanches into some major concerns. Meanwhile, your ROI is falling. You might be selling more, but you’re getting short term gains at the price of long-term value.
This is also like comics. Which is not something that became readily apparent until Marvel Comics started aggressively overshipping books, releasing more than 12 issues of an typically monthly ongoing book each year.
Take, for example, the new Marvel title Cable and X-Force by Dennis Hopeless and Salvador Larocca. The first issue of the book arrived in stores on December 12, 2012. The second issue came out a week later, on December 19, 2012. Issue #3 hit the racks yesterday (January 9, 2013), only three weeks after the previous one.
Brian Michael Bendis and Stuart Immonen’s All-New X-Men is already on issue #5 after premiering in mid-November. This is not new - Ultimate Spider-Man shipping 18 issues a year when it launched way back in 2000; at the time, it was an outlier, a special case for a book with rampant popularity and mainstream press attention. It had momentum, and if the creative team could keep up, it didn’t make sense to squander that momentum, did it? And when it was a special case, what kind of complaint could you mount against it? But over the last year, it feels like double-shipping has become rampant at Marvel. Indeed, Mark Waid and a veritable army of artists have released 21 issues of Daredevil in a year’s time, not counting crossovers with Spider-Man and the Punisher, and an extra-sized Annual. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men has released 23 issues in the same window, give or take a month.
Is it working for them? It’s probably to early to say, but as David Harper at Multiversity Comics points out, “all five of the Marvel Now! books that double shipped saw huge declines. [between issue #1 and issue #2]” David does point out one good reason why that decline may have happened, but that only softens the immediate drop in readers rather than explaining it away entirely.
Amazing Spider-Man laid the groundwork for this when its editor and a rotating team of creators proved it could ship a 22-page book three times per month (a run spanning from #552 to the recent #700) and have that book be a critical and financial success.
If there are 5 Marvel titles that I read each month that double ship, that’s $40 a month spent on five titles. That’s way too much goddamn money, and once I get that into my skull, the question then has to be, “do I drop this? If not, what do I drop in its place?” and you have to wonder if part of Marvel’s intention in this beyond just short-sighted avarice isn’t a gamble that I’ll drop Flash or Green Lantern or Hellboy or something else from another publisher. Marvel’s traditional response to all this seems to be, “well, you don’t have to buy it,” which is factually true but spiritually false. It has got to be diminishing returns and maybe it’s not diminishing enough to spread the hurt around equally yet, but I imagine that by the time all Marvel books are 17 pages long, ship twice a month at minimum and cost five dollars (probably sometime this summer) there might be a bit of a pang.