Optimism continues to drive the comics and graphic novel business with the news coming out of two events held in conjunction with the New York Comic Con, which opens today at the Javits Center. After several tough years following the demise of Borders, the graphic novel market has rebounded, reporting sales growth of 6% in the third quarter of 2013, according to the annual industry White Paper delivered by ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp at Comics Ahead! The annual ICv2 conference held yesterday at the Javits Center. And at a separate event held at the offices of Comixology, the digital vendor and marketplace touted reaching 200 million downloads this year and announced a digital distribution agreement with Viz Media Europe and Kaze, its French language subsidiary, to make French language manga content available through the Comixology platform.

The annual ICv2 White Paper had more good news reporting periodical comics up 13% in the third quarter. Combined, book format graphic novels (6%) and periodical comics (13%) showed 9% growth overall in the period. In 2012, comics periodicals showed 15% growth in sales while the graphic novel market was down 1%. Total 2012 sales of graphic novels in U.S/Canada was $335 million and for comics periodicals it was $345 million for a total US/Canada comics marketplace of $680 million.

Even the manga market, down 38% in 2012 to $65 million from $105 million in 2011, is growing at better than 6% in the third quarter. “Faster than the overall graphic novel marketplace,” Griepp said. Griepp said digital comics generated $70 million in revenue in 2012 and he estimates an increase of 25% for 2013. “Bigger base, slower growth and more availability of digital comics with the rise of the tablet,” he said. “The question now is can digital take graphic novels to a mass audience?”

“The trends are all in the right direction,” he said. Citing “robust growth,” in the both the comics shop and bookstore marketplace, Griepp pointed to a number of events in 2012 driving sales, he cited the importance of comics shops (“they rock”), DC Comics bestselling New 52 reboot of its superhero universe, Marvel’s bestselling Marvel Now series and its Avengers vs. X-men cross over series. Griepp noted that “the bookstore market has adjusted to the loss of Borders" and he emphasized the continued popularity of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novel series/TV show from Image Comics. “Walking Dead is everywhere, its in comics shops and Bookstores. Volume #1 of Walking Dead continues to sell at high levels showing that the series continues to bring in new readers.”

Griepp also pointed out that indie publisher Image Comics is becoming more important as “a brand that drives sales. Image comics are more important, retailers are setting up Image racks. This is a new event in comics.” Indeed, Griepp said, “Graphic novels are growing again for the first time in a few years despite the loss of hundreds of [Borders] stores. People are finding new places to buy graphic novels.”

At the same time, he said, Amazon picked up market share in the wake of Borders closings. Griepp pointed out the Barnes & Noble settled its dispute with DC Comics (the retailer pulled DC print graphic novels from B&N stores after DC signed an exclusive digital deal with Amazon) in June and easily beat same store comps in 2013. He pointed to movie tie-in titles, said kids media tie-ins like Ninjago and My Little Pony are “doing well,” and that there more graphic novels being offered at mass market retailers like Walmart.

“Overall the comics market is bigger; its attracting new readers and digital and print are growing robustly,” Griepp said. “All the trends are good.”

News and Data From Comixology

The news coming from Comixology was similar and also included announcements of new products and data from a survey of Comixology users, with the added benefit of having a handful of actual Comioxology consumers on hand at the presention to discuss their digital comics reading habits.

CEO David Steinberger ran through recent developments, including the digital platform reaching 200 million downloads—100 million in the past year. “Things seems pretty great for comics right now in terms of growth,” he stated. He noted that the US comics market has been constrained by its inability to take risks, something that digital distribution is helping change. “People want to read comics,” said Steinberger. “We just need to connect the right people to the right books.”

Noting the larger audience for comics in France and Japan, Comixology is expanding its European offerings—the digital vendor opened a French office last year—announcing a manga digital distribution agreement with VIZ Media Europe and its French subsidiary, Kazé. The deal is important because Viz generally handles its own retail sales and also recently announced that its manga will be available via the Amazon Kindle Store for the first time. The deal will make Kazé’s extensive library of French language manga content available in French speaking European countries, with additional manga content from VIZ Media Europe slated to become available down the road. Other new titles available include a wider list of DC graphic novels, and innovative bundling, including a sale on all 115 issues of The Walking Dead for $99.99.

Comixology cofounder John Roberts reviewed the Comixology Submit portal, which allows publishers to upload pdfs for conversion to Comixology’s Guided View process and then sell them through their various portals. “Submit has become a top 20 publisher in revenue for us,” he noted, with over 300 new series available. Comixology’s large existing audience allows what they feel is greater reach. Roberts said that one publisher who offers a DRM-free version version of their comic on their website saw it achieve sales 13 times greater when it was offered on Submit. “It’s a testament to the audience we bring and the better reading experience on small devices.” Submissions have come in from every continent except Antarctica.

The Submit program simply offers a portal for sales, with Comixology taking a 50/50 share of profits, but creators retaining all rights. Books are screened, and occasional guidance is given, such as improving lettering, but the approval process is simply getting two out of three votes from a screening panel. Steinberger said they have no desire to become a content provider at this point. “That's an entirely different business than I'm in,’ he said. “We'd have to raise money and create a new company to make comics.”

Comixology also announced 10 new comics for the Guided View Native comics—a format originally created by Comixology to help read comics on mobile devices that also also can be used to create native digital comics with a variety of cool effects—material which is created specifically for the Guided View platform, including comics from Valiant.

While Comixology doesn’t impose its own standards on material, some products cannot be sold through Apple due to content issues, although they can be purchased via Comixology’s web store and then synced to devices. A new publisher that will be a test of that is Avatar, which just announced an agreement with Comixology. Although the Ohio-based publisher has put out acclaimed works by writers Garth Ennis, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis, much of it is very mature and violent—such as Ennis’s Crossed—and those books will only be available via the web. “While some of their titles are raw and exciting or upsetting depending on how you look at it,” quite a bit of the line will be available via iOS apps, said Steinberger.

On the other side of the content spectrum, Comixology has also signed up Ape Entertainment, which offers a variety of kid-friendly material, include Kung Fu Panda, and gaming titles such as Temple Run, Cut the Rope, and Fruit Ninja.

New CTO Jeff DiBartolomeo, formerly of HBO, made his first appearance for the company, introducing new updates for Android and the upcoming update for iOS 7. Among the improvements, “Fit to Width” which will allow comics to automatically resize when a tablet is turned horizontally.

Comixology Consumer Data and Actual Consumers

Perhaps the most interesting part of the presentation was a survey of reader demographics, however, an area where Comixology has not previously made much information available due to publisher agreements. They surveyed some 16,000 customers and came up with two profiles. One, the current comics reader, is predominantly male—more than 90%—mostly ages 27-36, and suburban. This typical customer has been reading comics for more than 15 years.

However newer readers—defined as those who have joined the service in the last three months—show a rapid move to a more diverse audience, with 20% female readers, aged 17-26, who have been reading comics for less than five years. Many have read comics for the first time digitally. 23% are students.

The survey also identified spending habits. The average customer spends $100 a year on digital comics, but 25% spend more than $400 a year, and one big spender, a sole customer with a large hard drive, spent $63,000 on digital comics.

Platforms were also surveyed; 80% read on a tablet, 44% read on a PC, and 42% on a phone. Steinberger noted that although younger readers don’t necessarily have a PC, students become a larger audience when they get PCs to go to college.

Some key Comixology selling points have great appeal to their customers: 70% of their customers feel that Guided View is a key benefit, while 85% like having their comics organized in one library. Looking at the most recent quarter, 20% of new buyers in Q3 2013 said their first purchase was digital; 64% said they bought in print as well.

To finish off the presentation, five Comixology customers were brought in to answer questions, a racially diverse group of three men and two women who ranged in age from 23 to 40. The men were primarily traditional comics readers who liked digital for the convenience and to save space. The two women were younger—both 23—and had discovered many comics for the first time via Comixology, while also forging relationships with their local comics shops.

Seemingly unprompted, the three veteran comics readers all professed allegiance to Guided View—which makes transitions from panel to panel easier on smaller platforms— saying it made comics much easier to read. Perhaps surprisingly, the newer comics readers liked to look at full pages. It was of course impossible to draw any conclusions from this small sampling, but this group, at least, didn’t feel any worries about what many have expressed as the biggest worry about Comixology: the idea that someday the comics they offer will be obsolete, and the lovingly collected comics libraries will be no more useful than a pile of Betamax tapes. The panel had the belief that technology and the ability to store things in the cloud would win through. “Ya gotta have faith,” as one put it.