World According to Griepp was a monthly column written by ICv2 founder Milton Griepp in Internal Correspondence, ICv2's print predecessor. This is the first such column written for ICv2.
The topic of overprinting and reprinting comics is one of the hottest topics we've covered since we started ICv2 almost two years ago. Marvel COO Bill Jemas has used it to keep his company constantly at the top of retailers' minds, for good and bad. And retailers have railed against his policy in comment after comment in our Talk Back section. The policy that he initiated, to limit overprints of Marvel comics to quantities often insufficient even to cover damages and shortages, and to refuse to reprint even the most in-demand sell-outs, has caused reactions that take on religious overtones. That's in the sense that on both sides they are often on the basis of faith, a deeply held belief in what is right with no room for seeing the other side of the issue. I'm here to argue that there are two sides, and that they both have their place. This may be seen as a view as radical to each side as the others', so it would probably be better to just shut up and let the two sides fight -- it makes great ink and I could stand to the side. But I think it's important to the comic industry, and most importantly to the retailers that use ICv2, to offer an ecumenical view of the issue.
First, full disclosure. I wrote a column in 1997 in which I argued that one way to fix the ailing comic business was not only to stop overprinting, but to occasionally short-print products. The argument I made went as follows:
As distribution has improved, and as publishers have worked hard to get every single sale possible on every product, the true collectable has disappeared--everyone that wants a product is getting it. Comics... have relied for decades on the perception that the product being bought will hold or increase its value over time. That perception has been decimated by almost every product being available at the original retail price or below for extended periods after release. The only way to disrupt the consumers lackadaisical attitude toward collecting is to have some high profile products that are unavailable after release, except at premium prices....Underprinting by even 5%, and refusing to reprint no matter how much kvetching there is would help buttress the entire comic industry. Bite the bullet, lose some sales on a handful of products a year, make collecting exciting again, and the medium will benefit.
In the five years since that was written, I have seen changes in the consumers buying comics, where they buy them, the format they buy them in, and the content they buy. A larger percentage of the business is going to older consumers, who buy comics in bookstores as well as in comic and periodical outlets, who buy them in book formats, and who are buying content that is in a much wider variety of genres than was the case in 1997. Some people view that as a death knell for the industry, because without kids, where will comics be in the future? Others view it as a great opportunity for the comics business, because the audience is broadening and the medium is being seen as literature instead of cheap entertainment.
I have come to the conclusion that there's no one right way to publish and sell comics, and that it's the retailers' job to adapt to the different strategies, emphasize the one that fits his or her business model and demographic target the best, and take advantage of the other to the degree that it's possible to pursue both strategies. It's my guess that both are going to be around for a while, although the proportions may ebb and flow considerably, and to believe that there's only one way is counterproductive. I also think that understanding why both strategies can be successful can lead to better retailing.
Here's how I see the two strategies lining up. Don't get too hung up on the names I've attached to the strategies; collectors certainly read the comics they collect and readers collect comics (and books), but these appellations are used enough by people in the industry to make me loathe to try to find substitutes.
The Collector Model
This is the strategy that Marvel under Jemas is pursuing (see 'Marvel's Bill Jemas 'Tells the Truth about Over-Production''). It's based on doing one printing of periodical comics, printing to order, and letting the chips fall where they may. If there's a lot of unfilled demand an effort is made to get the editorial material out in another format, but there are no reprints. This model seems to fit the younger consumer toward which many Marvels are directed very well. Kids seem to like to collect multiple issues of comics to get a complete story, have more time to pursue the individual issues that it takes to read serial adventures, and enjoy the thrill of the hunt. The price fluctuation that occurs when demand outstrips supply is a convenient way to keep score as to which books are 'hot.' Collecting behavior isn't limited to kids, of course; there are lots of teens and adults that collect as well. But I've heard smart retailers say, and it seems to be true to me, that kids are more likely to be collectors than adults.
The Reader Model
This is the strategy that DC under Publisher Paul Levitz espouses. It's based on overprinting comics to fill additional demand, reprinting (usually in the same format) if demand warrants it, and a greater reliance on the book format as a way to make it more convenient for consumers to get a complete story. The reader model fits the somewhat older consumers that DC targets. Those consumers are too busy to spend time chasing issues they can't find and are more likely to simply skip something that's not immediately available. They'd just as soon sit down and read a complete story in one sitting instead of reading chapters of a serial adventure as they come out. They're less frequent habitu?s of outlets where comics and books are sold, are buying a wider variety of genres, and are more likely to buy comics in book format.
To a limited degree, both companies seem to be looking longingly at the success the other is having with its strategy and adopting some elements for their own. Marvel wants to duplicate DC's success with its book program, and is creating more stories in story arcs and building a backlist of books as rapidly as possible. DC undoubtedly wishes its periodicals sold like Marvels, and recently for the first time altered a reprint significantly (see 'Batman #608 -- Another 30% Wasn't Enough'). But basically, the two strategies line up extremely well with the companies pursuing them, the consumers they target, and the editorial material they produce. Each strategy makes sense in context, and to argue that black should be white misses half of the opportunity.
This is especially true at the retailing tier, where the store can target one demographic (or more generally, psychographic or behavioral) group to a greater degree depending on strategy, location, and other factors. In its simplest form, if the store is targeting younger consumers, it makes sense to emphasize the collector model. If the store is targeting older consumers, it makes sense to emphasize the reader model. And if the store is targeting both, it probably makes sense to nurture both sets of behaviors.
At the macro level, neither model is likely to prevail over the other any time soon. The collapse of the magazine distribution system for comics has made the collector model more difficult to sustain, but not impossible. And while graphic novels are growing as a percentage of the business, it's going to be some time at current rates of change for them to even be the majority, much less the bulk, of the business. So seizing the opportunities represented by both strategies can be a long-term proposition for retailers, and one that will save a lot of angst over which one is correct.