More thoughts on comics industry profits vs. revenue across time

Following my quick analysis yesterday of the 1948 sales figures discovered by Tim Stroup, some have suggested that suggesting the industry is “more profitable” today is too strong. My old colleague from Comics Buyer’s Guide John Diser notes that advertising revenues would certainly have been greater; and Chuck Dixon reminds that publishers owned their own presses — as already noted above, some publishers also owned their own distributors (as in the case of S-M News) and didn’t pay creators squat. Those are all true: the more accurate thing to say is that revenues today, adjusted for inflation, are similar or slightly higher, exclusive of advertising.

However, in my post I was referring — or intending to refer — to profits for the industry, not publishing. Most retailers selling comics in the 1940s bought at horrible discounts — it was a Paul Levitz business magazine interview years ago where he said comics in the old days were loss-leaders for the stores that carried them. Today’s retailers, by contrast, are receiving a much larger percentage of the cover price. And the Direct Market adds another element to the balance sheet: publishers in the 1940s were eating a large chunk of change in returns. If 600 million comics were sold in 1948, well over a billion were printed. The market is dramatically more efficient for the relevant players today. (Vertical integration knocks out some portion of the loss, but even a self-printing, self-distributing publisher would still be shelling out for paper, ink, and transport on the unsold comics.)

So the question of profitability then and now is an interesting one. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of data points, even now. We were regularly able to see Marvel’s publishing profits in its quarterly reports, up until Disney bought it out; it’s part of the overall franchise now. And I’m not sure how you’d begin to find out what real retailer profit margins are today without a lot of interviews. Still, it would be an interesting study for some MBA student out there!

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