Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Stonewalled on Subscriptions

Posted by Don MacPherson on June 26th, 2008

1987 Marvel subscription adRemember those old ads in Marvel and DC titles, right up into the 1990s, in which the publishers offered home-delivery subscriptions of their wares? Some promised bigger discounts the more titles you purchased, and while stock art was often used in designing the ads, sometimes new art was commissioned specifically to promote the subscription services.

I thought it would be interesting to revisit comics subscriptions in a feature examining how it used to work and how it works today. After all, DC Comics and Marvel Comics both still offer subscriptions (at least, that’s what it says in indicia in their periodicals).

Yes, it would have made for an interesting feature, tapping not only into nostalgia but examining how the business of comics publishing has changed in recent years.

Alas, such a story won’t be found on this site.

Jenna Pagliuca, who’s in charge of subscriptions at Marvel, declined to answer questions after a company PR official referred to me to her, and repeated requests for information from or an interview with a subscriptions manager at DC seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The following are the questions I posed to Pagliuca:

* I suspect that subscription levels today as compared in past decades are on the decline, given the more expensive cover prices of comics in the 21st century. How many comics does Marvel move annually by subscription today as compared to, say, the 1970s and 1980s?

* Assuming I’m correct about a decline (maybe I’m not), to what does Marvel attribute the trend? And if my assumption/suspicion is correct, why does Marvel continue to offer subscriptions? Are publishers of periodicals in the U.S. required to offer subscriptions?

* How are subscribed comics shipped to customers? Is this different from years past? Are comics shipped from the New York offices, the distributor level or right from the printer?

* How do international subscriptions factor in, if at all? The information in the indicia in Marvel titles seems to indicate that subscriptions are at least available in Canada? Are readers in other countries able to subscribe as well?

* How does the resurgence of mail-order business thanks to the Internet (eBay, online stores, etc.) impact subscriptions at Marvel?

* Does Marvel envision a point at which physical comics subscriptions will be phased out in favor of its new digital comics subscription service?

I had planned to ask similar questions of a DC subscriptions manager, had I ever heard back from one.

Other mainstream, North American comics publishers such as Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics don’t offer subscriptions. In keeping with the times, they refer those interested to online retailers. I had wondered if Marvel’s and DC’s continued subscription offers were the result of some kind of legal requirement to do so by U.S. laws governing periodicals publishing, but given other publishers’ decision to opt out of the subscription game, it’s a safe assumption that’s not the case.

I’m also left wondering why Marvel and DC don’t run in-house ads promoting subscriptions. I count six pages of house ads in a recent Marvel release, and three pages in a DC super-hero book. Those promote specific titles; why not use the space to promote sales of the entire line?

Marvel offers subscriptions at substantial discounts (up to 39 per cent) on its website. DC offers them online as well. DC’s subscription FAQ doesn’t paint the best picture of its subscription service though. Regarding damaged or missing issues, the publisher advised it’ll replace torn or lost issues provided the issue is still available. The FAQ page advises:

“Typically, issues older than 3 months are difficult for us to replace. Please allow 8-10 weeks for the replacement issue to arrive.”

Eight to 10 weeks? Yikes. Furthermore, DC notes new issues generally arrive two to three weeks after their initial release date — not because of logistics, though. The delay is said to be due to “policy.” So why would I subscribe? DC claims there are advantages to subscriptions:

“There are still two major advantages to subscribing; 1) you realize a substantial savings off the newsstand price and 2) you know there is always a copy with your name on it; no more running to the comic book store before they sell out.”

Marvel’s subscription service, like its subscription website, is much more attractive than DC’s. In addition to better discounts and a more user-friendly site, the publisher promises quicker delivery:

“Marvel Subscriptions strives to deliver copies to subscribers as close to the retail on-sale date as possible. Some subscribers receive their subscription copies before the retail on-sale date. Others receive books on the retail on-sale date or a few days later. From time to time, there may be delays in delivery, and Marvel has no control over delivery once we give books to the United States Postal Service. Please check with your local post office to insure that your mail is not being affected due to an incorrect mailing address or any other postal-related matter.”

There are obviously some delays for more remote locations, notably outside the continental United States, but within days of a release date isn’t a bad goal. The publisher notes that due to the initial processing of a subscription and publishing cycles, it can be six weeks or more before one receives one’s first issue, though.

Of course, I didn’t set out to compare Marvel’s and DC’s subscription services. I just wanted to look at the practice’s past and compare it to its current state. Unfortunately, all I have are questions, with few answers. Now, the story isn’t about the history of comics subscriptions, their present status and what the future holds, but rather why officials with these publishers hide from simple questions. Is their silence indicative of internal confusion or lack of vision for subscriptions? Or is it a symptom of a more systemic problem, of a desire to keep the lid on tight to control any message in the media about them?

There are any number of possible answers. I’m listening if anyone wants to offer some. I’m open-minded, after all; it’s a personal philosophy to which I subscribe.

26 Responses to “Stonewalled on Subscriptions”

  1. Reid Says:

    I had a subscription to a few Marvel titles a while back, and one day, they just stopped coming. No kidding. I emailed them, then called, and they claimed the issues had all been delivered to my address. They had no answers, and didn’t offer any replacements. Two months later, when I still hadn’t received any books, I cancelled.

    A good idea done poorly. Of course, one of my subscriptions was to The Ultimates, so I actually had no idea how many issues I had missed.

  2. Fisk Says:

    I can answer one of your questions. I live in Europe and I have subscribed to 4 Marvel titles for more than 5 years now so it is definitely possible to subscribe outside the US and Canada. You have to pay 12 $ more because you don’t live in the continental USA but it is still cheaper a price than I would be able to buy the comics in my country because Marvel offers some very-very good deals e.g. there was 2 years ago a discount that if you order 2 titles you got 2 for free for another address or now you can get BND Amazing Spidey for 1.37 $ per issue.

    There were some problems when I started my subscription e.g. in my first 2 years 4 comics have been lost but I don’t really know whose fault it was: Marvel’s or the post service’s. Since then I have always received my comics about one week later than the American release date. That’s perfectly satisfying for me for such a price.

    And there have been some serious improvements in the service. When I started it was only possible to extend subscription by mail now it is very easy to do so using marvel.com.

  3. Mark Says:

    Do they still have to break out the mail-order subscription numbers when they do the annual Statement of Ownership in each magazine (required by USPS for second-class mailing rates)? You might be able to glean some current numbers from those if you can find newsstand copies from the spring (I think they may omit the SoO’s from the direct editions).

  4. Randy Lander Says:

    It seems to me that subscriptions in the modern age of comics are something of a throwback, a sort of last resort choice. Even if you got every issue on-time, at a discount, in good condition, without any hiccups, which as anyone who’s ever had a direct subscription can tell you doesn’t happen, there are still disadvantages to subscriptions.

    It limits your selection quite a bit. Neither company sets up subscriptions for limited series, and they probably don’t want to do subscriptions to every ongoing unless they’re sure it’s going to last more than 12 issues (which, let’s face it, is a description that doesn’t fit most new ongoings launched in this market).

    Also, you can’t follow creators. If you’re a Chuck Dixon fan who signed on for a Robin or Batman and the Outsiders subscription, the recent blowout between Dixon and DC would have been even more frustrating, because not only are you going to get a bunch of issues of a comic that probably no longer hold your interest, but it’s way too late to vote with your dollars.

    As for why the companies seem less interested in it? My guess, and as you note, Don, all we can do at this point is guess, is that it’s more hassle than benefit. The biggest advantage direct subscriptions offer, given the massive savings usually offered to make them attractive, is raising circulation to affect advertising prices, and I would guess that the number of comics fans who wish to take advantage of that option isn’t enough to move the needle to any significant degree.

    With online comics shops having the discount/delay side of the equation covered and local comics shops covering the variety/choice aspect, it seems like subscriptions may be a bit of an antiquated notion for comics.

  5. James Sime Says:

    I have a few customers at my shop that also get a title or two from Marvel through subscriptions. One has had a subscription to Amazing Spider-Man for the better part of his life and despite reading other books he buys at the Isotope, he enjoys the tradition of getting his Spideys in the mail. A couple other customers of mine have subscriptions to the various Marvel Adventures line of books for their kids for pretty much the same reasons. Personally, I think folks keeping part of their personal comic experience tradition alive is really cool.

    While some months these subscribers here in San Francisco are seeing their books in their mailboxes a full week ahead of the arrivals in the shops, its not uncommon for them to fall behind by several weeks either. I believe it’s still true that since the increased output on Amazing Spider-Man the books have been arriving the week of, but that I honestly don’t know.

    What I do know is that it’s not particularly unheard of for those subscribers to come into my shop to fill in an issue they’d missed. Which has actually been good for business on more than those particular issues. The whole reason I have that ASM subscriber as a customer is because instead of looking down my nose at him about it or laughing at Marvel’s poor customer service, I told him I thought it was cool he was keeping his life-long tradition alive. He now spends around $40 a week on other titles in my shop, and on occassion gets a Spidey too. We always have a little laugh about it and end up talking Spider-Man issues of our youths.

    One more anecdote, in one case the Marvel Adventures: Iron Man subscriber was mailed Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. instead, which is pretty big mistake considering the subscription is for a seven-year-old. Even though Marvel’s subscription service has nothing to do with my business, instead of charging them to get the right issue I just swapped the kid an Iron Man for an Iron Man, cos that’s the way it ought to be, y’know?

    Anyway, with so little info out there on direct subscriptions in this day and age, I thought you might enjoy my second-hand experience with this program.

  6. Don MacPherson Says:

    Randy wrote:
    With online comics shops having the discount/delay side of the equation covered and local comics shops covering the variety/choice aspect, it seems like subscriptions may be a bit of an antiquated notion for comics.

    I would make the same assumption, but that’s all we have at this point. I thought it would be interesting to examine how that side of the industry has changed.

    I don’t think we can dismiss subscriptions entirely, though. Fisk points out there’s value in them for European customers, and he seems quite pleased with the service. The discounts and deals he describes do seem worthwhile for his situation, and the offers seem to mirror what one sees from the magazine industry. For example, I’ve received huge discounts and free offers from magazines such as Time, Macleans and Entertainment Weekly.

  7. Don MacPherson Says:

    James, thanks for the anecdotes. The nostalgia/emotional factor for subscriptions isn’t one I’d considered, but I can see how tradition would be important for some readers.

    As for your Iron Man swap story, that’s another example of why you’re one of the best respected and most successful retailers in the industry. Kudos.

  8. colin macgregor Says:

    I subscribed to Ultimate X-Men for a number of years (from somewhere around issue 10 up until around issue 75), and I have no major complaints about Marvel’s subscription service. In all that time, only two issues failed to arrive, and both times, replacement copies were shipped to me. On average, the comic arrived 2-3 days before it came out in the local comic shops, and it usually arrived in good condition (it arrives bagged and boarded, which is enough to keep the comic from looking beat-up, unless your mailman decides to fold it in half to fit it in your mailbox).

    One thing Marvel doesn’t really discuss on their subsciption website is that all the specials, crossovers, annuals and one-shots associated with a particular series are not available via subscription. As an example, that would mean that if you had subscribed to Astonishing X-Men, you would have received issues 1-24, but not Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1, which concluded the storylines up to that point. This is what first drew me into comic shops–to pick up specials that I had missed. Now, for simplicity’s sake, I pick up all my comics at my local shop (I now receive a number of titles each week, from a variety of publishers).

    I think that Marvel’s subscription service is great for comic shops, because it appeals to the crowd that might initially be wary of going into comic shops, gets them into comics, and then leads them to their local comic shops by way of annuals and one-shots that don’t come with the subscriptions.

  9. Kevin S. Says:

    Re: Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men up there, I get AXM via subscription (along with the other two main X-Men titles), and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Marvel decided to send it to me– whether it’s because it finished out Whedon’s run or because they felt they needed to make up for the lateness or what, I don’t know.

  10. Perry Beider Says:

    I’ve had 2 or 3 DC subscriptions for a few years now (and just recently upped the number to 5). They do indeed usually arrive 2-3 weeks later than the shops get them. And occasionally an issue never shows up. The good news is that every time I have called about a missing issue, they’ve agreed to extend my subscription for an issue, rather than have me wait forever to get another copy of the missing issue from them.

  11. AirDave817 Says:

    I think it was back in the ’80′s that I had Batman, Justice League and maybe one or two others by subscription. It was short lived because I couldn’t afford to renew. It just seemed easier and much more enjoyable to walk into the comic book shop, browse, talk comics and make my purchase.

    Now THAT’s become cost prohibitive. I’ve found what works for me is DCBS. I realize that’s off-topic, but it could be a competitive factor. I could get my $tuff weekly if I wanted to $pend the money. Monthly work$ be$t for me. My box shows up on my front step regular like clockwork. I can order what I like, title by title, month to month and kick back and wait for it to show up. That includes figures, posters, magazines, whatever.

    That’s how I choose to spend my money.

    I still make a point of stopping into my comic book store, mostly for the conversation.

  12. SanctumSanctorumComix Says:

    I know that Marvel will include subscription solicitations in many of their licensed products (games, toys, some bookstore editions, food products, etc…). You’ll frequently find those ubiquitous “FREE COMICS” offers inside many products based on Marvel properties.

    Usually, the offer will give you a few issues of a title (from a small selection of titles) for free if you take out a discount subscription on a title. The prices are fairly decent and all-in-all the entire exercise SEEMS to be in place to pull in readers who aren’t already buying the comics, but are interested enough in the characters to get the toys or Hulk-spaghetti-o’s.

    A “cross-pollination” of fan-base makes perfect business sense. Especially, as many of these customers are kids who may or may not have access to a comic shoppe (since the spinner-rack has long vanished from the corner pharmacy).

    As for the newer subscription offers, I can honestly say that I’m tempted to get a few titles via that route. The discounts are really enticing. (And this is from a guy who gets his stuff at 30% off already.)

    My only reason for not jumping right on board with it? I went to Marvel’s subscription site and tried to find out HOW the issues are sent out.

    One guy here states that they’re “bagged and boarded”, but that doesn’t really mean anything since I have no idea how THICK the “board” is.

    I had subscribed, on and off, to many titles (from the early 1980s to the early 1990s) and watched the service progress from a comic mailed in a simple brown paper “band” (that only covered the middle third of the comic, and left the edges to be bent and folded – OR to slip out of the band completely and be lost to the winds if it was mishandled – which, luckily for me had never happened, but a few issues DID come folded), to a “bagged” comic (very much resembling the polybags of the 1990s) with a paper thin “board” in it (which is what your address was printed on).

    I haven’t had a mail sub in well over a decade+ and was curious as to how the service is performed in this day and age… but specifics are lacking.

    On a last note; back when I was subscribing, if a special double-sized issue was released, it came right on time, with no extra cost to me (so it was an even BETTER value). Uncanny X-Men #’s 166, 175, 186 were all double-sized and came to me at my original sub cost. I was thrilled (and felt a secret guilty-pleasure like I was getting away with something).

    Double-size issues don’t really happen much anymore (outside of mini-series and specials) so I guess that isn’t a factor anymore.

    But otherwise, I’d imagine that subs are still aimed at the kids who can’t make the trek to a LCS, as a gift idea, OR for the comic reader who only gets a few titles (and with gas nearing $5.00 a gallon in the US, less car trips are a good thing).

    A very good idea for an article though.

    ~P~
    PTOR

  13. Sergio Lopez Says:

    This really rings true for me especially, because I was writing an article on Marvel and DC’s royalty rates for trade collections as well as films (which, you know, I would think are for the most part not that great). My e-mail to Marvel was forwarded to the appropriate department “for consideration,” after which I received a prompt “no comment.” Still haven’t heard from DC. The similar experiences from both companies make me wonder if this isn’t more of a company-wide stance on press.

  14. Tmac Says:

    After looking at Marvel’s site, I am tempted to subscribe to Amazing Spider-Man for one year (36 issues) based on price alone: $1.39 an issue, which is more than half off. If DC did something similar on Trinity, say $26 for the whole run, and promoted it, they’d sell more than a few comics they otherwise wouldn’t.

  15. James Sime Says:

    Don MacPherson said: As for your Iron Man swap story, that’s another example of why you’re one of the best respected and most successful retailers in the industry. Kudos.

    (bows) Thank you for the very kind words, Mister MacPherson.

    Colin Macgregor said: I think that Marvel’s subscription service is great for comic shops, because it appeals to the crowd that might initially be wary of going into comic shops, gets them into comics, and then leads them to their local comic shops by way of annuals and one-shots that don’t come with the subscriptions.

    Oh yes, I couldn’t agree more! Anything that gets more comics into more people’s hands is a good thing for the comic shops.

    Although not everyone is of the same opinion as me on this, I think that even includes the *free* comics that are available online as well (Marvels online comics, illegal bit torrent scans). They get people excited about comics, interested in what’s out there, and many of those folks eventually end up walking in the front door of a comic shop because of it. From there it’s a simple matter of making those new people feel welcome, dazzling them with some new reads they didn’t know about, and making the shopping experience so exciting they can’t wait to return for more!

    But I digress…

  16. Don MacPherson Says:

    Perry wrote:
    I’ve had 2 or 3 DC subscriptions for a few years now (and just recently upped the number to 5). They do indeed usually arrive 2-3 weeks later than the shops get them. And occasionally an issue never shows up. The good news is that every time I have called about a missing issue, they’ve agreed to extend my subscription for an issue, rather than have me wait forever to get another copy of the missing issue from them.

    Was the extra issue/extension offered instead of the missing issue, or in addition to (with the missing issue replaced)?

    I’m surprised but pleased to hear from readers who still subscribe to comics. I wouldn’t have thought it so prevalent, especially among comics enthusiasts who read about the medium online.

  17. Don MacPherson Says:

    PTOR wrote:
    A very good idea for an article though.

    Thanks, PTOR, and thanks for sharing your experiences with subscriptions.

    The initial focus of the piece was to spotlight Marvel’s and DC’s unfortunate silence on the topic, but the comments thread seems like it might end up driving up subscriptions! :)

  18. Don MacPherson Says:

    Sergio wrote:
    The similar experiences from both companies make me wonder if this isn’t more of a company-wide stance on press.

    Sadly, it’s an approach that seems to work. The adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity has some truth to it, as the reaction to the piece seems to have done more to get subscribers to sing the praises of the services.

  19. Matthew E Says:

    I used to subscribe to The Legion. It ended badly, although I eventually made my peace with DC. I wrote about it here:

    http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/2005/11/dc-comics-is-jerk.html
    http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/2006/03/dc-comics-is-still-jerk.html
    http://legionabstract.blogspot.com/2006/03/dc-comics-is-no-longer-jerk.html

    This was, of course, several years ago; maybe it’s different now.

  20. Andrew Davis Says:

    I’ve subscribed to Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog title many a time. There are plenty of ads inside for subscribing to all sorts of Archie titles. Perhaps Archie and other such companies smaller than DC and Marvel might be willing to talk about subscriptions.

  21. fil Says:

    They have Hulk spaghetti-o’s? Dang, now I want them.

  22. papercut fun Says:

    I never subscribed to any books, but in the days before internet, reviewing the subscriptions pages was a fairly decent way to keep on top of what titles were being cancelled. They’d typically be pulled from the subscription list a few months prior to the official announcement which was usually printed in the last or next-to-last issue of the affected title.

  23. Don MacPherson Says:

    Fil wrote:
    They have Hulk spaghetti-o’s? Dang, now I want them.

    The thing with that product is that you can’t use a can opener to open it. You have to smash the can. :)

  24. Happy Subs Guy Says:

    So, I don’t get your point. As a Marvel subscriber, I have gotten interaction with Ms. Pagliuca, who has answered my questions (about converting my titles once they change and about how my Amazing Spider-Man would change when it went to 3x a month) with no problem. You spend the whole article saying how much better Marvel subs are than DC and yet you single out the Marvel employee? That’s pretty jerky.

    Regarding original art because it tickles your nostalgia bone, A) what makes you think you’re the only person to ever have this idea? They probably tried it or can’t do it in this day that artists get paid so much. and B) just because it works for you, doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

    Silly blogger. Just because you have a forum doesn’t mean you’re always right. That’s the sad reality of the Internet.

  25. Don MacPherson Says:

    Happy Subs guy wrote:
    You spend the whole article saying how much better Marvel subs are than DC and yet you single out the Marvel employee? That’s pretty jerky.

    You’ve missed the general point about the article. First of all, while I did mention a Marvel employee specifically, my mention that DC didn’t answer inquiries at all is just as damning as Marvel’s refusal to comment, if not moreso.

    As for the original subscription art comment, I really don’t understand what you’re saying. I just pointed out that they used to commission original art for subscription ads. I’m not criticizing its loss one way or the other.

    The defensiveness on behalf of Marvel seems like an extreme emotional response to a rather benign feature.

  26. Ado Hall Says:

    As an Australian comic book fan, I don’t see any alternative to subscriptions (or at least a subscription base). Sure – I have to pick up mini-series and specials from my local comic book store or as a TPB, but for ongoing series, you’re really just throwing money away if you don’t subscribe. An individual issue works out at around $A3.20 (US$3.00), including delivery charges, by subscription, which contrasts rather starkly with the A$4.95 ($US4.70) I have to fork out for a typical US$2.99 issue at my local comic book store. (It used to be A$5.95 before the dollar fell somewhat.)

    I’ve been fairly happy with DC’s subscription service. I’ve been subscribing to 8 titles or so (plus the weeklies) for over two years now and in that time, only 2 issues have gone missing. One was replaced promptly. Unfortunately I haven’t heard back about a replacement for the cancelled Countdown #0 (which morphed into DC Universe #0). Generally issues reach me 3 weeks after release date, though this varies between 2 and 4 weeks, and is often the latter.

    One drawback is cancelled books. I subscribed to Justice League Unlimited for my 12 year old and when that finished was automatically switched to Super Friends for another 5 issues until my subscription expired. You don’t get the option of money back. You can however request a switch to a different series of similar value, or a credit against a new forthcoming series, which is what I did when JSA was canceled some five months or so before Justice Society of America was launched.