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Nothing heroic about same old, same old

POSTED October 4, 2011 7:41 p.m.

If your business was failing, would you keep doing the same thing, or would you try something new?

Or would you even know what doing something new would look like, having spent so long mired in an unworkable business model?

Just recently, DC Comics was forced to answer those questions, opting to fight falling sales with a “new” tactic which, sadly, ends up being more of the same old thing.

For years, comic book sales have been slumping. The problem clearly hasn’t been the public’s disdain of superheroes – given the countless big-budget box office hits – but instead some problem endemic to the format of printed monthly books.

The format, for the non-comic book readers in the audience, consists of a monthly, 20-page comic book which continues an ongoing story about some given superhero – think Batman’s quest to catch the Joker. Over the course of three or four months the story arc wraps up, leading to the hero’s next adventure.

But each arc builds on the past, resulting in oftentimes convoluted back stories. DC Comics identified this as the single largest issue keeping new readers from buying comics.

So, through the month of September, DC Comics launched or re-launched 52 new monthly comic books. The move effectively rebooted the entire DC Universe, introduced tens of new books and heroes, and placed familiar superheroes in new getups and situations.

So far, the sales have been outstanding. Several books sold more than 200,000 copies in the first week, and scores more sold above 100,000 – large numbers for the industry.

But one question remains on the lips of industry observers – are those numbers sustainable?

The answer, in short, is no. Quite simply, DC Comics has failed to address the true problem facing its business.

The monthly model has its reasons – physically, artists and writers cannot produce much more than 20 pages per month – but is frankly past its prime.

The attention span of Americans today simply doesn’t fit with a monthly business model. Roughly 15 minutes of story isn’t enough to hook readers into coming back a month later for another tiny bite of story.

This reboot was a chance for DC Comics to truly try something new. The company could have pre-produced content allowing for, say, 12-week “seasons” of a given comic book. They could have launched a weekly magazine, which would serialize comic books to a locked-in audience.

There’s a business strategy called the Blue Ocean Strategy. It advocates that businesses avoid competing head-to-head for known customers in an existing industry. By instead creating a new market space, the theory suggests, businesses can appeal to a whole new audience of potential consumers.

It’s a strategy that Nintendo put to great use with its Nintendo Wii, which introduced motion controls and sold millions to those who might not ordinarily buy “complicated” video games. After that success, few people remember the boondoggle of a console which was the Wii’s predecessor, the Nintendo Gamecube.

Still, the worst part of the relaunch is that DC Comics failed to address the one issue they identified as the root cause of slumping sales.

Yes, comic books are oftentimes confusing with their layered stories. But this “reboot” of the universe stopped short of being a true ground-zero reboot, with DC instead opting to pick and choose past events to retain as canon while wiping away others, so as not to alienate existing fans.

If anything, it’s made the universe even more confusing; some past events are referenced by characters different enough to have never experienced them, and other events are waved away as if never occurring.

DC Comics missed the point of this whole endeavor, making only one worthwhile change to its business practices. As part of the relaunch, DC Comics has begun selling comics in iPad, releasing the books on the same date as the books release in stores. It’s a smart move, but in the end it’s just window dressing on an old, tired distribution model.

DC Comics could have done many things, but what they didn’t do was anything new.

To contact Alex Cantatore, update your business strategy to reflect the current day and age, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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