I find it fascinating when heated discussions on comic book message boards dip into statements about how creators/editors are not “listening to the fans” and where those conversations tend to lead to.
I have spoken with creators and editors. I even was an editorial assistant for a summer in college.
Taking emotion out if it, comics are a business and in business data drives decision making.
The truth is, message boards are but one data point that may or may not even be representative of the majority.
What this rule essentially says is that for an online community, 90% of the people represent the audience; a passive group who are in “listen-only” mode. About 9% are “editors” who respond and react to what is presented to them. Only 1% are actually “creators.”
So, while the idea of the Internet was that “everyone now has a voice,” the reality is that only 10% of those people are exercising their ability to be heard.
As an example, according to Heidi MacDonald’s DC Month-To-Month January Sales Charts (The Beat), a second-tier non-Superman/non-Batman DC comic book sells around 25,000 copies per month.
The math puts that at 10% of 25,000 readers. So that’s 2,500 readers (9% “community editors” + 1% “community creators”) having a conversation.
This makes an assumptions that a) there is no overlap and b) everyone in the community participating actually purchased a copy of the comic book (and aren’t just haters spouting venom).
New members into online communities tend to trickle in (versus flood in), so we can assume that few (to any) new voices enter month-to-month.
But even rounding to overcompensate for any growth in the community, that number doesn’t grow too much and we’re still talking about an “echo chamber” of a group essentially speaking to themselves; which tend to be the dynamics of online communities.
They don’t exactly welcome new voices (and often drive them out).
So, even being optimistic and saying that the entire 10% are participating, that leaves 90% of the audience out of the conversation.
It’s not a large enough, or accurate enough, data point for comic book creators creators/editors to get a gauge of how they are doing.
It’s true. This 10% could be representative of the whole. It could.
But it also could not.
For any business to base a decision on such a small sample size is risky and businesses tend to not like to take too many risks.
So, what other data can creators/editors use to gauge their progress?
Well, the numbers that reflect a larger sample size and are more accurate are sales.
Granted, sales are a lagging indicator (sales reflect future orders which one can assume are based on present likes or dislikes of a given title, so if issue 1 is on the stands, retailers are placing orders for issue 3 or 4).
And sales are by no means perfect and not even ideal (especially considering creators/editors don’t know if stores are selling out of titles or stockpiling them and have no way of knowing why a book is selling or not selling just a binary of it is or is not).
Which means that until there are realtime sales numbers (like Nielsen SoundScan for music), there is no way of knowing for sure.
And I should mention that even that has its flaws and even then there will never be a surefire way to know for certain.
But it’s far less risky then basing business decisions on 10% of a total audience.
Message boards are simply not a large enough sample to gather any sort of conclusions for popularity (and/or lack of) for any given title because 90% of the audience (in this example, 22,500 of the readers) are a “silent majority.” They could very well be agreeing with the 10%. They could not be agreeing with the 10%. They could be split. There’s no way to know. The same can be said about letter columns back in the day.
In the 90′s, I talked to an editor at another company and made mention of a letter writer from Europe that we both happened to know about. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that anyone who edited a comic book (or read a comic book letters page) in the 90′s knows who I am talking about.
Anyhow, this guy wrote letters to every comic that was being published. Every comic. And he liked everything. Not the sort of thing you’d base your business on; a guy who likes everything.
So, until the dynamics of the 90-9-1 rule with online communities change, I’m not saying people shouldn’t be active on message boards but I am saying that “voting with your dollars” will yield better results.