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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Children's newsstand comics: state of the industry 2017

Over on his Down the Tubes website, John Freeman has the latest circulation figures for British newsstand comics and children's magazines. (Or at least the ones that supply their info.) It makes for grim reading, with most titles having suffered sales dips since last year.

Of course, the reasons for the decline are many and varied. It's never as simple as some people think it is. Content is one reason of course (a branded comic will only appeal to fans of that brand for example), then there's price, distribution, and the complex ways of suppliers deciding which shops get what, regardless of what a retailer might prefer.

In my opinion, one major drawback for publishers today is the unkempt way in which their mags are stuffed into shelves. Not always by customers having a browse, but by the actual retail staff. Take a look at the photos here that I took a few months ago. For the most part, the displays are unattractive and very few titles stand out. 
Admittedly, the fact they're bagged with toys doesn't help, but bear in mind it's the retail giants that have insisted on that. The design of the shelves isn't helpful either, but again, that's deliberate. The more a publisher pays the retail giants for stocking a title, the more prominent it's displayed. (In theory anyway, if the shelf-stackers have read the memo and can be bothered to follow it.) So the shelves are designed as to not give every title equal visibility. As for titles that haven't paid the higher fees for display, - they're relegated to the darkness at the back of the shelves. One rule for the rich... and people wonder why new publishers don't launch a comic.

Incredibly, comics and children's magazines are sometimes displayed out of the reach of their target audience! It's the parents they're pitched at, so bang goes the days of a child discovering a comic that catches his/her eye. Yet even if a child did manage to notice a title that seemed interesting, they couldn't browse through it because it's usually bagged. Therefore the plastic gifts become the main attraction. "That cheap water pistol that was with a mag last month broke five minutes after using it. Oh, there's a similar one with a different mag. That'll do." 

How can that build reader loyalty? (Or brand loyalty, as that seems to be the key phrase these days.) 
How's a kid going to notice that Lego Batman comic on the top shelf?
I'm really not sure what the solution is. We have a generation (and their parents) who have grown up expecting UK comics to be based on a brand, and expecting them to be bagged with gifts. Previous generations had developed a habit of going to the newsagent every week to buy their favourite comic and read about their favourite characters. Today's kids haven't developed that habit, and instead have the privilege of lots of other things to distract them at the weekends.

There's also been a change in society's attitudes since the heyday of comics. Years ago, children as young as 8 would venture out on their own or with their mates, and after the Saturday movie matinee at the local ABC cinema they'd spend the rest of their pocket money on stuff they'd discovered for themselves, including comics. Parents put trust in telling their kids not to go off with strangers and to be home by dark and, for the large majority of kids, everyone was relatively safe. This isn't conjecture. Myself and my friends were part of that generation. It's what we did. The freedom of the 1960s.

It's a far murkier world today, and with a fear of drug pushers and perverts preying on their offspring, parents daren't let kids out of their sight. (In fact, if an 8 year old was in town shopping these days on his own I think social services would have firm words with the parents.) Subsequently, that whole culture of kids seeking out comics for themselves has vanished. They're often chosen by the parent now. 

Some things don't change though. The Beano still hangs in there because it's always stood its ground and pretty much remained faithful to its original concept; a comics-focused publication that has encouraged reader loyalty with enduring and familiar characters. As it's been around for so long it's become a recognisable brand in itself. Therefore it sells on its own merits and rarely carries free gifts. 

The Phoenix seems steady, but it relies mainly on subscription and its presence in shops is minimal. (My local Smiths takes two copies, and stuffs them at the back.) However, perhaps its success should be an incentive for more publishers to follow that model, if they can find backers with deep enough pockets to sustain it. 

From my experiences meeting families at conventions I know that children do like comics, even if they haven't developed the habit of buying them regularly. That's why I think graphic novels and specials with a longer shelf life are the most likely way for newsstand / bookshop comics to survive. We can't turn the clock back to the 20th Century heyday of weekly comics, so there's no point yearning for that, but we can move forward with new ideas for the future.

If you have thoughts about this, either post them on John's article at or on my blog below.


PhilEdBoyce said...

You'd think with titles coming and going all the time and not lasting too long, or scraping by with their sales figures, more publishers (and retailers) would look at titles like Beano, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine and The Pheonix and wish to emulate those successes! With Rebellion getting in on the act with the Scream & Misty special of brand new material in the form of a comic to actually read (which is something we KNOW actual kids like, despite what their parents buy them or what the retailers demand) hopefully if it's a success they'll be looking to release more such titles, maybe even some regular ones. Maybe in a few years we'll have seen a change in attitudes and the beginnings of an evolution again on the newsstands. Of course, as we know the UK comics scene is no longer restricted to the newsstands but the answer for those newsstands is right there with the success stories that have been going for so long (or for so many issues despite limited shelf space in the case of The Pheonix), it's not exactly rocket science.

Lew Stringer said...

Thing is, most of the mainstream publishers and staff now are just not geared up to producing a comic. Their experience is in magazines. Plus, comic strips are more expensive to produce than filling the pages with PR material, so it's something of a gamble. It may seem shortsighted but when a branded magazine can be done relatively cheaply and it sells more than those comics you mention, you can see why the accounts dept favours that direction.

The comic strip content of Toxic for example has always been popular, but it'd be expensive to increase it beyond the current four and a quarter pages. Something that's not likely now, given Toxic's recent fall in circulation (not helped by suppliers dropping it from some shops where it was selling, just to encourage the newsagent to try a rival mag.)

John Freeman said...

Good post, Lew; I don't think we should underestimate how polybagging a comic, making a sale reliant on both brand and gift, makes it become a product rather than a publication. Essentially the parent/ child isn't buying a comic or magazine any more, they're buying a toy. There's a distinction between something you read and something you play with.

zhu bajiee said...

Fascinating article Lew. Interesting that Private Eye is the top seller. Obviously, putting everything else aside, it's printed on very cheap paper and is mostly black and white, and costs about £2. I'm guessing the editorial and journalist staff on PE cost quite a bit, but just on materials it must be making profit.

Then the next big seller, Lego Ninjago has a third of the circulation? Bagged collectable toy, glossy, four colour, but no doubt the magazine itself is largely content marketing for the Lego brand, with slim story, costs about £5. That's twice the price of the Eye. I think there's some basic economic factors that publishers aren't addressing, maybe because they are largely being led by retail marketing departments rather than 1st hand consumer research?

My eldest is happy hoovering up stacks of old Beano and collected volumes of The Broons. Low quality production values, great artwork and stories. If a publisher were to get a good quality *comic* (you know, like what you do) but with the production quality of Private Eye near the magic price of 50p an issue, make something profitable that gets sales figures up and attract decent advertising revenue. It would certainly stand out on the shelf, simply by virtue of it's difference. Big flash 'only 50p' running counter to those tiny, hidden-by-the-barcode costs of the toymags. Low barrier to purchase.

Perhaps I am being overly nostalgic, but then isn't that a route to my wallet?

Lew Stringer said...

Production values can be deceptive. For example, VIZ is printed on the same paper as Private Eye but costs £3.50. Obviously, the print run of Viz is far lower than Private Eye now and the unit cost is therefore higher.

A 50p comic would be the dream, but unlikely. With production costs plus the price of distribution, renting shelf space in shops, and retail profit, it couldn't be done. Even if it could, the tiny profit a retailer would make wouldn't make it worth their time. As one newsagent said to me "Why should I give space to comics when I can make more money selling beer?" They won't take the risk.

I seriously think looking towards newsagents is a waste of time in the 21st Century and publishers should focus more on bookshops, conventions, mail order etc.

Lew Stringer said...

Good point, John. As I said on Facebook (where most people seem to be discussing this instead of here or on your blog) Lucky Bag Comic was the first to do this, but it worked because it was unique (and the comic was full of strips). These days, the toy/magazine combo is just swamping the display and, as I said above, kids just buy for the toy.

John Freeman said...

The push for free gifts and polybagging came with the rise of distribution into supermarkets in the 1990s - former editor Gary Russell has mentioned this before, and resisted demands to take Doctor Who Magazine on that route when he was editor.

Supermarkets now command a whopping 40 per cent plus in terms of magazine and newspaper sales . For them, magazines and newspapers were just another thing they wanted to sell and to them they are a "thing", a "brand" and the higher price it is per unit the more they make from cover price.

The polybag and free gift enables a higher price and the comic becomes secondary, part of a "thing" rather than a publication and something to be read in its own right. Some 30 years on, WHSmith would appear to have the same philosophy, so it's no wonder some publishers have all but given up on the news stand when what they make per issue is eaten into by the distributor.

Lew Stringer said...

Thanks John. That sort of inside information is essential for discussions like this.

Scott said...

I have nothing to add but thanks for all taking the time to contribute. All very interesting to an industry outsider.

ParryS said...

Fascinating. I've learnt so much, some of it disconcerting, i.e. supermarket policies.

I have felt depressed when browsing licensed comics now. I see filler (wordsearches, crosswords) and cheap tat such as water pistols or frisbees. And very little content. I understand why - Lew explained why - but it is no less depressing even when I know the reason. Anyone remember that shitty Robin Hood comic (the modern BBC series) which 'helpfully' provided arrows between the panels in the strip? However did we find our way from panel to panel prior to arrows?

I so wish I could set up a little shop that ONLY sold every single UK comic currently being published. I'd love to do that (pipe dream, I know). I can imagine a shop of mine doing that, solely focusing on selling nothing but UK comics - and helping would-be-comics get on board.

*Back to reality*

As posts here show, the comics are a secondary thing to supermarkets. The Co-Op is the most disgraceful supermarket for display (certainly here). They must have hired chimpanzees to stack the magazines, I have never seen such haphazard magazine stacking as in the Co-Op. It's utterly depressing.

It's such a shame there isn't a venue (WHSmith and supermarkets are not the answer) that could give UK comics the care and attention the deserve. Commando is another one that is not given care. I've found them neatly stacked behind rock magazines here. There's no way a customer has browsed those and stacked them *neatly* behind Mojo or Metal Hammer. No, some ignorant employee has done that.

SLOW ROBOT said...

Has anyone ever compared how many different titles are published now compared with previous decades? Obviously it wouldn't be a like-for-like comparrison because the age of the weeklies has long passed (circa 1992 I would think) with a few honourable exceptions but it might be interesting as one measure of industry health.

My hunch is that, between the Panini and Titan reprints and the tsunami of bagged-with-a-gift titles, the sheer number is still pretty high. The print runs might be lower, the contents less comics-centric and longevity much diminished but still a rich diversity.

Unknown said...

I'd be interested to know what you see as a best case scenario for UK comics as an industry, Lew? Assuming you think there's room for improvement?

I was hoping in the early 90s that publishers Com.X would spearhead some kind of renaissance, but great as the product was, I read that financial planning wasn't up to snuff - or perhaps the market for American format titles has remained too overcrowded.

Titan comics seem to be doing well enough to take chances on new titles, though.

Sarah said...

Another issue with the placement of comics is that in supermarkets especially they're almost always displayed next to the vile true life story magazines. On one side of a clear plastic divider there was Peppa Pig and Barbie and and on the other cover stories such as "My hubby drugged me and then filmed himself raping me", "I left teaching to make porn", "Paedo uncle abused me" and "My brother raped me but I still love him."

I complained to Tesco but with what you were saying about the paid placement I can see why nothing was ever done about it. I mean you had the Cbeebies magazine and the very next magazine over - Pick Me Up leading with "Grandpa was a Paedo - I was abused watching Kids' TV." It's frustrating, our newsagent has a far slimmer selection but I don't feel comfortable even taking them to the magazine shelves in Tesco.

Lew Stringer said...

That's an excellent point about inappropriate placement, Sarah, and one I hadn't noticed. (I never look at those "true life" mags but you're right; they're always next to the comics and children's mags.)

Parry, yeah, the Co-Op seem to have a poor selection of comics. My local one still carries The Beano, but the rest are nursery mags I think.

Slow Robot, I think there are probably about the same number of titles being published for children today as there have always been, but sadly very few contain comic strip content. Or, like Panini and Titan, feature reprint. There's clearly a demand for reading matter for kids and it's a shame publishers won't invest in more story content.

CZX, as I said, I think graphic novels are the way forward, which is already happening. I'm hoping that Rebellion might venture into the newsstands with new children's comics but I've heard nothing so far. Hopefully the upcoming Scream and MIsty Special will be all-ages and not confined to the adult reader like Judge Dredd Megazine.

qamar said...

I remember how disappointed I was taking my kids to try and choose comics and having to wade through all that horrible plastic. If kids want toys they can buy far better toys than the tat you get as a giveaway anyway. In the end they never became regular comic readers. I really blame the fact that the comics ended up being more like magazines and somehow felt as if they were always trying to market some thing or other. Strips became just an afterthought.

Lew Stringer said...

That's true, qamar, and the reasons why are explained above. (Not that it means it was the right path for UK comics to take of course.)

It'll be interesting to see how today's comics/magazines will be remembered in 30 years time. I meet people now who have very fond memories of the 1980s comics I worked on, and I never thought things like Transformers, Oink, Sonic, etc would leave such an impression. Will people in 2047 have such passionate memories of today's branded magazines? I won't be around to find out but it's something to ponder.

ParryS said...

Sarah, I hadn't considered that, but it's disconcerting.

When I was a kid, I bought most comics from a corner shop. The likes of ROY OF THE ROVERS and EAGLE were on the bottom shelf. My eyes would only have caught comics. Above them were the likes of WWF MAGAZINE and PRO WRESTLING ILLUSTRATED. Further up would have been those lame adult magazines (I know the pathetic headlines they come up with, I've seen them on the table at work).

It's not right for a child to spot them in the likes of the Co-Op. It's the last thing they need to see and with a bit of planning, it could be avoided.

Lew Stringer said...

Thinking about it, the old spinner racks of the 1960s had American comics at a child's eye level and adult "men's magazines" full of lurid stories at the top of the rack. Those mags are gone now, but it seems the lurid aspect lives on in those gossip mags.

Considering how WH Smiths are keen to put 2000AD and Marvel reprint comics in a different part of the shop to young children's comics, it's ridiculous that they're happy to display those sensationalist mags right next to comics for kids.

ParryS said...

I know the likes of supermarkets (and some publishers) are only interested in short-term bean counting, but I can't imagine many of those titles lasting. Even if a parent buys a title regularly, there are only so many plastic frisbees and stickers (along with other tat) that a child would want before he/she wants to move on?

Surely it'd be better for a comic to build a readership with good characters, stories, etc.

Lew Stringer said...

You'd think so, Parry, but the way publishers see it is that all of those originated comics (with few exceptions) ended up cancelled in the end. Origination is no guarantee of success. Even in the 1970s comics such as Jet, Thunder, Shiver & Shake etc didn't last long. These days, it's even more risky to attempt a new comic (and convince shops to stock it) so they go for the option of relying on brands.

Publishers are aware that most brands are a fad and might not last beyond 12 months but the alternative is to throw in the towel, which they're not inclined to do. It's not an ideal situation but that's where we are now.

You'd be surprised how long some last though. Toxic has been running for 15 years now.

ParryS said...

It's sad.

I read an interview with Brian M. Clarke, editor of the 80s comic "Masters of the Universe". He seems to give the impression that he knew Masters of the Universe could not last forever - and that the title would have a limited "shelf life", but he, and the publishers Egmont, still went ahead and gave us original stories, features, etc.

I suspect if Masters of the Universe were in comic form today, that mindset would not exist; we'd get 4 pages of strips, pages of crosswords - and a frisbee every second issue.

ParryS said...

P.S. Does anyone known if the Misty special will be out before the end of August? I know someone who would appreciate that - and her birthday is the end of August.

Lew Stringer said...

The Scream and Misty Halloween Special? It'll be out on 18th October.

ParryS said...

Thanks, Lew. Guess I'll make it a Xmas present for someone!

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