On the eve of last week's New York Comic-Con and Anime Festival, comics and pop culture trade news Web site ICv2 released dispiriting numbers on graphic novels for the first half of 2010. While sales for periodical comics are up about 1% for the first half of 2010, graphic novel sales are down by more than 20%. These figures were delivered as part of the first ICv2 Digital and Comics Conference, organized to examine the impact of digital delivery on the comics industry. Sales of manga (Japanese graphic novels) continue to decline, slipping by 9% for the first half of the year, and are projected to slip by 20% by the end of the year, which would translate to a 50% drop in sales over the past three years.
Despite the overall gloomy forecast for print, ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp had positive numbers for the future of comics in digital form. The market for digital comics has grown from less than $1 million in 2009 to an estimated $6 million–$8 million in 2010, making it the fastest growing segment in comics and graphic novels. Not surprisingly, Griepp noted that this growth comes in tandem with the "declining footprint" of bricks-and-mortar stores—Borders closing 200 branches, Blockbuster closing 1,000—as well as inventory cuts in existing stores. "The energy is in digital," said Griepp.
The launch of the iPad—it's the first device that lets consumers read a full comics page easily—is driving the move toward digital reading of comics. A few publishers are finding an audience that likes—even prefers—reading its comics on Android and iPhones devices as well as on portable Playstations, Kindles, and iPads. On the panel "The Medium and the Message—Digital and Creativity," a group of publishers and creators weighed in on a need for publishers to shift focus from a fixation on print so they can serve not just the traditional comics fan but a huge potential market of new comics readers, lured to comics by new devices.
Rantz Hoseley, CEO of Longbox, a startup digital delivery system for comics, said that "digital culture is nonownership culture" and pointed to the move to the digital cloud, where a customer can keep music, books, or blogs, and nothing is downloaded or physically possessed. Also on the panel, Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second Books, Macmillan's graphic novel imprint, spoke of continuing experiments with serializing comics online, specifically with Zahra's Paradise, a fictionalized story about real human rights abuses in Iran that will be eventually released in book format, which has had a social media–like effect on Iranian politics. It's also one of four Web comics First Second is experimenting with that offer the ability to monetize a digital property in advance of print publication. While the comic is free online, its exposure has allowed First Second to sell foreign rights to France, Korea, and Brazil, and First Second recouped its advance three chapters into the story.
On the "Where We Are and Where We're Going" panel, Masaaki Shimizu, general manager of international business strategy at Bitway, a distributor of manga on mobile phones, anticipates that digital publishing will require that publishers customize their content to a specific digital platform's features (i.e., features specific to the iPad, the PsP, etc.) in order to provide the optimum reader experience on that specific device, a sentiment echoed by iVerse CEO Michael Murphy and Comixology CEO David Steinberger, two digital vendors on the panel.
Meanwhile, on the panel "Print vs. Digital," retailers, distributors, and printers made the case that digital does not equate to an "either-or" situation with print. Although comics shop owners are wary of digital delivery, John Riley, the owner of the comics shop and game store Grasshoppers Comics, in Williston Park, N.Y., told attendees, that many retailers are interested in some sort of integrated publishing process that would allow comics shops to offer digital samples or downloadable in-store promotions in collaboration with publishers.
At the close of the conference, Griepp summed up the issues facing publishers and retailers as digital delivery looms: "Some people are afraid of change. Some people are racing it. But we've got to embrace it, not fight it, and expand our business."