Rob Salkowitz on His Book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, and the State of the Comic Convention Industry

Rob Salkowitz is a leading expert on the comic book industry and entertainment in general. Salkowitz regularly writes for Forbes (his profile is here) and ICv2 (you can find these articles here). After learning about Salkowitz’s book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, I was able to interview him to learn more about this manuscript and to discuss his thoughts on the comic convention industry in general.

To find out more about Salkowitz, you can check out his homepage and follow him on twitter @robsalk.

Nicholas Yanes: When did you become a fan of comic books and related media? Additionally, when did you become a fan of comic conventions?

Rob Salkowitz: I’ve been reading comics since I was 4 or 5 and went to my first comic convention in 1976, when I was 9. I attended my first San Diego Comic-Con in 1997 and have been back every year since.

Yanes: In 2012 you published Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment. What was the inspiration for writing this book? Was there any specific misinformation you wanted to address?

Salkowitz: In my “real” professional life as a tech futurist, I’d been looking into the impact of digital media on various aspects of work and society, and had written several previous books on those kinds of topics. For the next book, I wanted to do something in the consumer space, about how people get engaged around content, transmedia storytelling, the commercial impact of digital distribution on media, etc. I realized that the story I was looking for was right under my nose at SDCC, plus I could bring together my personal passion for comics and my professional interest in future trends.

Yanes: Four years after your book was published how do you think the industry has evolved? Did you make any predictions that came true?

Salkowitz: In the book, I outlined four different scenarios for possible futures. Aspects of all of them “came true,” in that we can see elements of consolidation, catering to traditional fan audiences within mainstream publishing, greater emphasis on comics as art and literature, and a wider variety of voices in the field. On the whole, I think we are living in the scenario I wrote about as “Endless Summer,” in that media interest in comics is still driving the business. In that scenario, I forecast the rise of a global circuit of conventions, the increasing exploitation of comic-based properties in different media (I think I suggested that Disney would do Power Man and Iron Fist as a Broadway musical, when in fact they are Netflix series…), and said that Amazon would buy ComiXology. I need to polish my crystal ball a little better next time.

Yanes: Comic conventions have been struggling to deal with the issue of harassment. Which convention do you think has the best anti-harassment policy and what would you like to see conventions do more of to prevent harassment?

Salkowitz: I don’t know the policies of all the conventions around this but I know it has been a huge point of emphasis at the big shows like SDCC and NYCC. I think every event organizer is aware that harassment is unacceptable and that all fans should feel safe and welcome; it’s just a matter of making sure expectations are clear before the event and taking fast action when situations arise.

Yanes: Why do you think comic conventions have increasingly become so popular? Are there simply more fans or do you think people are becoming more open about being fans?

Salkowitz: There are a lot of reasons cons have become popular, but one of the big ones is that there just aren’t that many places in American public life where you can go to celebrate the stuff you love with everyone who shares your enthusiasm, regardless of their ethnic identity, socio-economic class or political ideology. Everything these days is very divided and confrontational. At fan cons, people check that stuff at the door and just have a good time.

Yanes: Whenever I hear of an industry rapidly growing, I immediately begin to see it as a potential bubble that will pop soon. What are some of the economic risks you think the comic convention industry faces?

Salkowitz: I’ve been on the lookout for oversaturation for a while and so far, it’s the dog that hasn’t barked. To me, the biggest risk is that the format of cons that we’ve come to expect, with celebrities, panels and a floor full of collectibles to buy, is becoming unsustainable because of pricing. Fans only have so much money to spend, and if autographs and VIP photos take up 80-90% of their budget, exhibitors won’t make money and won’t come back to the shows. Then organizers won’t be able to afford venues big enough for 100,000 people (what do you fill the space with?), and so won’t have the attendance to afford to have Matt Smith or William Shatner as guests, and so on. But right now, fandom is diverse enough that there’s still room for growth if events target their audiences and exhibitors carefully.

Yanes: On the flipside, comic conventions typically appeal to a specific geographically located consumer base. Will this specific focus on local audience help keep conventions going? Additionally, what are some of the other economic strengths of this industry?

Salkowitz: Geography is one factor for sure. But another is the changing landscape of fandom. Lately, “Walker Stalker” cons based on The Walking Dead have been huge attractions – I doubt they will be this popular indefinitely, though. So what’s next? Could be a media property, could be an area of fandom that’s under-served. One of the biggest growth areas is hobby gaming. I’m told GenCon was a complete madhouse this year – their biggest show ever. Seems like plenty of possibilities for regional and local cons around that. Also manga and anime, which are super-popular with younger fans. My research shows manga/anime fans go to more cons per capita than any other fan subsegment.

Yanes: Disney’s D23 seems to only be growing in size, and seems to be positioned to directly compete against the San Diego Comic-Con. What do you think D23’s growth means for SDCC?

Salkowitz: SDCC is a thing unto itself; it’s like it has its own gravity and atmosphere right now. Maybe a Disney event will skim off some of the fans, especially if it’s held the same weekend right up the road, but my instinct is that the audiences are distinct enough that it won’t really matter one way or another.

Yanes: On this topic, do you see NBCUniversal deciding to create its own comic con for its properties and holding it at the Universal theme parks?

Salkowitz: This is part of the overall consolidation and transmediation of comic properties by corporate media that I talked about in the book. I would be entirely unsurprised if they did that, although again, I’m not sure how much it would do for them.

Yanes: Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture is the go to book for understanding comic book conventions. What other books and projects are you working on that people need to keep an eye out for?

Salkowitz: I recently contributed a chapter to an academic anthology of writing about comics culture, where I did some original research on Comic-Con and its fans. I have no idea when that will be out, though. If you’re interested in following my work, I write regularly at Forbes and ICv2.

Again, to find out more about Salkowitz, you can check out his homepage and follow him on twitter @robsalk.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on twitter @Sequart and on facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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