On change, the DCnU and Star Wars Galaxies … Part 3
In Part 3 of this series, we looked at relative interest in the DCnU from current customers, briefly examined the short timeline DC had to build interest in the DCnU among potential readers, and the inherent challenges of doing so in diffused media (TV, Web, print, etc.), along with identifying DC’s target market and a brief discussion of how DC leadership is alienating existing customers with comments about increased gender inequity among creators and characters in books, whether perceived or real.
This time around, we’re going to examine some simple things DC could have done to attract new readers without alienating existing readers.
The first idea comes from Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter and a list of things he would do to improve comics. Point 13 is brilliant in its simplicity: “Establish A Number Of ‘Safety Titles’ At The Mainstream Comics Publishers.”
Spurgeon writes, “I would force Marvel, DC and any other applicable company to guarantee that their most popular characters would always have a monthly or bi-monthly title that had their name on it and nothing else, and that these comics could be enjoyed without buying anything not with that name on it to supplement their enjoyment.”
Think about that. “Thor” would be “Thor.” You wouldn’t need to read “Fear Itself” to enjoy it. “Captain America” is “Captain America,” and “Iron Man” is “Iron Man” - no “Civil War” necessary. No continuity-heavy stories - you only have to know that Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who is also Iron Man. Steve Rogers is a patriot who serves his country as Captain America. And any half-competent comics writer can write a quick blurb like comics used to have so that anyone could pick up any issue of any comic and know exactly what was going on. They don’t all have to be literary classics like the Avengers intro, but they do need to be there.
Considering this post is about DC and the DCnU, that should be true for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and so on. Every single major character should have its own safety title. There doesn’t need to be a safety title for every character possible - just the most widely-read ones. The ones who have movies in the theater. The most well-known ones.
I’d go further. I’d make those safety titles suitable for all ages, genders, identities, etc. No sexism or homophobia. No prejudice. No jokes about someone’s religion or weight or gender preference. Just good stories with action and well-developed characters. If a kid wants to read about Superman or Batman, here’s “Superman.” Here’s “Batman.” Here are comics that any comic retailer, convenience store clerk, librarian, parent, relative or friend can hand to any kid without worrying about graphic violence (present in many current “Green Lantern” comics, just as one example, and entirely unsuitable for young children whose parents probably buy the books thinking that it’s a comic and it can’t be that bad because the movie isn’t rated R) or inappropriate amounts of sexual content. Here’s Batman punching The Joker. Here’s Superman bringing Lex Luthor - and his 40 cakes - to justice.
This would accomplish a number of things - it would allow and possibly encourage creators working on these titles to indulge their canonic fantasies about Silver Age heroes - instead of racially regressive politics affecting the main universe and preventing progress which should be occurring but isn’t due to creators spending time bringing characters like Hal Jordan and Barry Allen back, the safety titles could feature those iconic characters in stories since there’s limited continuity - Jay Garrick, Barry Allen and Wally West could run side by side in them. New Flashes could be created, as long as it’s The Flash.
And it’s possible to write titles in such a way that they can appeal to adults at the same time. Atomic Robo does this every month, and its creators have publicly pledged not to insult their readers’ intelligence (although I’m paraphrasing quite a bit - still, each bullet at that link is a great promise to readers). Creators like Roger Langridge, Colleen Coover and Lucy Knisley would be perfect for these safety comics, whether creating main stories or back-up stories or one-page stories, and would help develop talent and broaden both the audience for these books as well as the creator base DC has available.
The second idea is that these safety titles should also be available digitally for $.99. At one point, I was an early adopter of technology, until I realized that I wanted the market to settle a bit and was content buying products once the platform or medium had stabilized and industry leaders and best practices had been established. I no longer wanted to make snap decisions about VHS or Beta for ridiculous amounts of money - I wanted a product that would be around for a lengthy period of time. I was tired of gambling on technology and somewhat frequently betting on the losing horse, meaning I was stuck with a product made by a company that no longer existed which used a format that was no longer available. And honestly, being on the bleeding edge often meant getting what amounted to prototypes - I wanted to get products that actually worked.
I say this because, despite adoption rates, digital content - whether music, video or printed materials - still hasn’t settled down. Law, for example, has not caught up with industry practices and what law does exist (such as the DMCA) contravenes existing and long-held protections for consumers under Fair Use provisions acknowledged in traditional media.
As one example, people who circumvent DRM to ensure that their content is usable on whatever platform they desire are technically violating U.S. law. While other countries may have similar restrictions, harsher restrictions or none at all, I can only speak about U.S. law since that’s what I’m familiar with. While some early adopters rush to convert content catalogues to a new format, this is inherently dangerous, particularly when moving into digital content forms.
As one hypothetical example, if Comixology went out of business tomorrow, what would happen to people’s comic collections obtained through or from that service? Would they still be viewable and accessible? Would users be able to transfer them to other devices if the DRM servers were gone? Would users lose that content entirely? And what about existing and reported problems like publishers locking content or providers remotely removing content from devices (Yes, I’ve been told that Amazon took steps to make sure that never happened again … except it did, and Amazon again removed content that people purchased from their Kindles)?
This is why digital content is inherently risky until the law catches up with it and extends existing and long-held protections for print media to digital media. In the meantime, content providers want to make use of the platform and people want to buy that content, but the key is recognizing that inherent risk in pricing. In short, digital comics should be no more than $.99. Not $1, or $1.99, but $.99.
When we buy an actual comic, it can’t be easily taken away from us - not legally, at any rate. We have physical possession of it, which means that someone must physically remove it. A server error won’t keep us from reading it, nor will a network outage or some other technical glitch, nor does anyone else have control over how we read it or whether we can read it at all. As such, a physical comic deserves to be priced higher than a digital comic, but the market has already shown unwillingness to pay more than $2.99 (Marvel’s pricing aside). Since physical comics carry production costs in addition to paying creators, they need to recoup costs.
But converting them to digital? That’s gravy. The comic already exists. It’s already been scanned. Converting it to a file for use on devices is cake. And at $.99, people are far more inclined to try it because it is quite literally change. At $2.99? That’s a drink at a coffee shop.
Plus, lower price points support people who want to take a chance on something. DC has experimented with this idea by reprinting first issues for $1 as part of its initiative to create new comics readers after the “Watchmen” movie. A number of Vertigo titles launched with $1 first issues. Image is making a habit of launching some series, both minis and on-goings, with a $1 first issue, as well as $1 reprints of key first issues to encourage potential new readers to take a chance.
At $3, publishers ask someone to decide between coffee, a gallon of gas, a burrito or burger from a fast food restaurant, an energy drink or a comic, among other products. At $1? That’s less than the cost of a candy bar at many convenience stores, and there’s no overhead or production costs that weren’t covered by the initial print run, especially if it’s a digital comic. If people get hooked on it, that $.99 is money in the bank, over and over. It may turn into someone buying the actual physical issue. And buying the actual physical issue, as I can attest from personal experience, frequently turns into someone who starts buying comics.
It isn’t that hard, even if it is uncomfortably similar to how my parents used to warn me that drug dealers operated. In point of fact, Brandon Schatz wrote an interesting article about that very subject over at Comics! The Blog which is well worth reading. DC could learn a thing or two from it.
The third idea, stated as simply as I can, is that DC needs to make sure that the right people are talking. As I write this, some number of people are frustrated by the conduct and comments of DC leadership at Comic Con. And they are rightfully frustrated, if the accounts of how they were treated are true (and there are too many substantially similar reports from too many sources for these accounts to be false). DC is, in effect, insulting and offending existing customers while in the process of trying to gain new ones.
I’m going out on a limb here - pissing off existing customers while trying to create new ones is not a sound business strategy. In fact, it is all too easy to chase away existing business without any new customers materializing, leaving an organization in worse shape than it was before (which, bringing this back to the original idea, is effectively what happened with Star Wars Galaxies, which recently announced that its servers will be shutting down - the old customers left, the new ones didn’t show up and the business shot itself in the head in its marketing game of Russian Roulette). It is hard to think of an industry in which it is a sound business strategy to alienate existing customers in any way, for any reason.
And yet this is the effect of what DC is doing. Why would women want to consume media from a producer which not only doesn’t seem to hire women but doesn’t seem to understand why it should and why it’s wrong not to do so? Why should disabled people want to consume media from a producer when the producer effectively eliminates one of the two most visibly disabled characters in comics? Why would people of color want to consume media from a producer which seems to think diversity means adding a white woman to a team consisting largely of white men?
Furthermore, that’s just how DC has treated existing customers. The outreach to potential new customers largely consists of giving this story to that tabloid or this other newspaper. An article appearing in one place for one time does not build brand awareness. Again, conventional marketing wisdom is that a message must be seen at least seven times before people even remember it, much less have any interest.
DC needed to put a talented marketing and PR person on this task. Instead, DC allowed some dudes who don’t understand why they should hire women to travel around and talk to the same people who already sell their comics at the same comic shops that already sell them. As I mentioned in the previous post on this subject, there is no definition of new customers which can include existing customers. As a result, DC gets reports of Dan DiDio asking customers which women he should have hired, instead of a professional saying that DC is committed both to diversity in its content and its creative teams, and that talented female creators are working on titles which will be announced in coming months, even if DiDio’s response is more honest and accurate.
In allowing its executives to speak to customers without coaching or a skilled communications professional present for damage control, DC has created a perception problem in its new line - that it openly and willfully excludes women, that the company doesn’t really want women as customers, that DC comics are only for 18-to-34-year-old white men, and so forth.
That’s a bad message to have in the open, especially when social networks allow such things to rapidly build steam and gain attention, and especially when a company is trying to launch what amounts to a new product and market that product to potential customers in the next two months. When news sites like io9 post articles about DC’s fan outreach with titles like “How Batgirl Took On DC Comics: The Anatomy Of a PR Crisis,” that’s not good word of mouth. The old adage that any press is good press isn’t true if the press focuses on the behavior of executives and not on the product being sold.
While it’s too late to undo the damage that DC’s executives have done by speaking off the cuff, it is not too late to put a communications professional on damage control, spin, clarification and trying to tidy up the mess. And it is never too late to hire someone whose only job is communicating these changes so that highly-placed representatives don’t give people the wrong impression of DC … or, both more sadly and more accurately, the correct one.
Now, since I wrote those paragraphs a few days ago (and keep in mind that this series of posts has been in progress for a while), DC has issued a press release which effectively says that more women will be working on upcoming projects, as opposed to the overwhelmingly male composition of writers, pencillers and cover artists which have been announced. I sincerely hope that’s true, but I will be buying significantly fewer DC comics until that shakes out in the next few months.
With these notes about what DC could have done to get new readers without annoying existing fans completed, it’s time for what I suspect will be the last post on this subject, and is usually one of the most important parts of any project lifecycle - the lessons learned. Unlike most of the corporate lessons learned sessions I’ve been part of, this won’t be trying to identify lessons which try to make the project team look good, regardless of whether the project was successful or an unmitigated disaster which warranted releasing at least one Kraken.