Of iPads and middlemen: 45 years of comics subscription sales data

With Apple’s iPad tablet product launching, much speculation surrounds what, if any, long-lasting impact the product and its like will have on the comic-book industry. Several efforts have been underway for some time to deliver comics electronically, and the addition of the new system has unsurprisingly generated much conversation.
The old issues about hard-copy-versus-virtual-copy are still out there, of course, and while I’ve written about them before, there is one area where Comichron‘s focus on the past may be able to share some insight: subscription sales. One of the core attractions of online delivery for many is distribution — cutting out the trip to obtain the physical product. Subscription sales were the original and only channel for comics consumers looking to cut out that trip — and while any analogy with digital distribution has obvious flaws, we can at least see what consumer behavior has been over the years.
It’s long been conventional wisdom that, contrary to the rest of the magazine industry, postal subscriptions for comics were a small sideline — maybe 5% at most of the business, even in the early days when comics were more widely available at newsstands. Looking at The Comics Chronicles’ gigantic database of Statements of Ownership finds 1,459 statements with specific subscription sales data — and they show that postal subscription sales have always been in the single-digit range, percentage-wise:

The raw data appears here:

Percentage sold through subscription
1963 2.4%
1964 5.6%
1965 0.8%
1966 0.7%
1967 1.3%
1968 0.4%
1969 0.9%
1970 0.4%
1971 0.8%
1972 0.6%
1973 0.5%
1974 0.7%
1975 0.9%
1976 1.0%
1977 1.6%
1978 2.3%
1979 1.8%
1980 2.5%
1981 3.1%
1982 3.8%
1983 4.9%
1984 5.1%
1985 4.5%
1986 5.0%
1987 3.8%
1988 4.1%
1989 3.9%
1990 3.3%
1991 3.7%
1992 2.7%
1993 3.5%
1994 4.2%
1995 4.8%
1996 5.8%
1997 4.2%
1998 4.0%
1999 3.3%
2000 3.6%
2001 4.4%
2002 3.0%
2003 4.4%
2004 4.9%
2005 5.6%
2006 7.5%
2007 3.8%
2008 5.4%
The first few and last few years are in red because there are many fewer data points in those years. In the early days very few titles broke out subscription sales; in more recent years, there have only been a handful of titles reporting data, and not all have been added to the database yet. Only Archie and Marvel among major publishers still report subscription sales via Postal Statements, and not for every title. There are no subscription offerings on a wide variety of titles, including many of the highest-profile ones; and DC has not reported sales since 1988, when it moved away from Second Class subscription sales to First Class, thus relieving it of the legal requirement.
Still, we do see a general increase in the percentage of comics sold by subscriptions, among titles with Second-Class of Periodical-Class permits. One reason is that a publisher that has a postal license to sell subscriptions is more likely to focus on selling them. That seems ridiculously self-evident, but it isn't tautological: There were many publishers a long time ago that had licenses to mail subscriptions simply as a matter of course — but they made no effort to sell them at all. The subscription statements of Gold Key, Charlton, and Harvey shows numbers of subscribers sometimes in the single digits! (Captain Atom, we see here, had 17 and 20 subscribers in 1963 and 1964 respectively.) As time went on, many of these publishers simply stopped offering subscriptions of any kind — meaning the ones left in the business were those more likely to be actually pursuing subscribers. The dabblers are no longer in there, bringing down the average.
To a degree, we might look an increase in the percentage of comics being sold by subscriptions as a statement of how difficult comics are to find in any one era. We see a spike in the late 1970s, as newsstand outlets go away and Marvel and DC work harder to sell subscriptions; that begins to abate in the mid-1980s when comics shops become more numerous and easier to find. The biggest bump — and, I think, once all the numbers are in, the true high-water mark — is in the mid-1990s, when publishers, particularly Marvel, hit direct mail pretty hard. This is the time when Marvel was working a list of millions of names gathered from its offers via Charleston Chew, canned foods, and various other offers; there are titles like Barbie and Barbie Fashion where the number of subscribers is way higher than the norm. Still, while comics subscriptions are a significant portion of sales, they're well behind comics sold through comics shops and the newsstand — and always have been. What does that say about them — especially since, when you think about it, the comics shop model is in large measure a subscription model, in that a large part of retailers' businesses are in comics that are preordered on a monthly basis for customers with pull-and-hold folders? Why didn't those people simply have those comics delivered to the house, when the option was available? As a subscriber to many comics in the 1980s who migrated to become a comics shop customer, the reasons were pretty simple:  1) Speed of delivery. My records of arrival dates from the 1980s (yep, I was keeping them as a kid!) show that the postal copies arrived on the order of two to three weeks after the comics shop received its copies. I don't know the extent to which that delay has changed over the years, but them as now, consumers wanted to get their comics as soon as they came out. 2) Damaged copies. While the Marvel subscription copies that I've seen from the 2000s came polybagged, copies in earlier years were less well protected. Marvel in the 1980s used the "plain brown wrapper" method, which led to scuffed corners and occasional damage from water or misplaced glue. Unlike magazine readers, customers for comics have tended to be relatively more interested in the physical condition of their reading material. 3) Pay-as-you-go versus pay-up front. Comics subscriptions require an up-front payment for the entire year, whereas the vast majority of comics shops charge customers only as the comics come in (and, to occasional retailer distress, only when the customer comes in, increasing the customer's control over payment scheduling). This is a pretty significant advantage. While we can't know what a pay-as-you-go postal model from publishers would look like, there are mail-order comics houses that basically work as comics shops with home delivery. It would be interesting to learn what their scale is versus the traditional postal subscription share of the business.  4) The comics shop experience. In my own experience, my comics subscriptions lapsed the year after the time that I got a car — the mobility necessary to make regular comics-shop runs. (I have a fair stretch of duplicates from that era in my own collection as a result of that overlap period.) The comics shop addressed the first three needs listed above, but also offered additional experiences: exposure to other products, a social community, and additional education about the field. For these reasons, postal comics subscriptions have tended to skew more towards younger readers — they're bought as gifts or in response to targeted direct mail offers, and received by people lacking the independent means to get to the comics shop regularly. That's a generalization, of course, but it seems to fit the data. Magazines may rely on subscribers to survive, but comics readers have always been willing to make the trip to purchase — enough, anyway, to keep the periodical model going for 75 years. Comics subscriptions are, again, not likely to give us a lot of insight into how customers might approach any given digital alternative. Digital downloads certainly address the speed-of-receipt issue, provided releases are timed to comics street dates. They also resolve issues of damaged copies, although any readers regarding virtual versions as acceptable alternatives to printed ones are probably less likely to care, anyway. Pay-as-you-go is also addressed. The lack of the comics shop experience — well, that's another thing, and I imagine it becomes a matter of personal preference, just as the preference for digital or virtual comics is. In the end, I would guess that digital availability becomes an additional, complementary channel, not one that subsumes other parts of the model; as we've seen from the subscription history of comics, multiple distribution methods can coexist as long as they serve different needs.

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