The needle might not have ticked significantly upwards from 2012 to 2013 in terms of overall retail sales of both periodical and trade paperback comics and graphic novels, but practically every store that participated in the Publishers Weekly 2013 Annual Comics Retailer Survey reported that sales have remained healthy after last year’s dramatic increase of nearly 15% in sales across all comic book formats.

Publishers Weekly’s Annual Comics Retailer Survey is an informal survey of a small sample of comic book retailers and general bookstores across the United States. This year’s survey queried ten stores total. The sample consisted of three primarily “direct market” comic book stores—stores stocked by Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest comics distributor in North America which generally sells nonreturnable stock at wholesale prices to a network of approximately 2,000 comics retailers—including Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, Ca., Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh, Pa. and Titan Comics in Dallas, Texas. The largest block of survey respondents was made up of four stores that sell comics and graphic novels almost exclusively but rely on distributors other than Diamond for 50% or more of their overall stock. Those stores included Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, N.Y., The Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, Ca., Mission Comics in San Francisco, Ca., and Forbidden Planet in New York City. Three general bookstores that maintain robust graphic novel sections were also included—Powell’s Books in Portland, Or., Quimbys Books in Chicago, Ill., and The Strand Bookstore in New York City.

Graphic Novel/Comics Sales Remain Steady

Nearly every comics retailer Publishers Weekly spoke with reported that sales in 2013 are at least on par with last year’s sales. Only two retailers, both citing separate, unusual circumstances that had an adverse effect on their sales figures, indicated that sales were down slightly from 2012.

“2012 was a very good year for books,” says, Jeff Ayers, general manager of Forbidden Planet in New York City. “People were pretty upbeat and positive about how things were going, it’s more of the same momentum with 2013.” In fact, the majority of retailers surveyed reported that sales are actually up. “The easy answer is that business has been very good,” says Jeremy Schorr, owner of the Dallas, Texas store, Titan Comics. “Sales are solidly up across many levels of the product lines that I carry.”

And while digital comics providers such as Comixology, an online retail marketplace and the dominant distributor of digital comics, have been reluctant to give out exact sales figures—there’s speculation that about 40 million digital comics are downloaded annually—digital comics do not, according to the retailers we spoke to, appear to be negatively impacting print sales. Most report that, if anything, digital comics may actually be driving print sales of both periodical and book format comics. “A lot of our customers use Comixology to compile lists of what ships every week and then come to the store to buy it from us,” says Wayne Wise of Pittsburgh’s Phantom of the Attic. “We have heard from several customers that they tried something digitally then liked it well enough to own a hard copy of it.”

A couple of comics shops mentioned that this year’s Free Comic Book Day gave them a nice sales boost as well. Leef Smith, owner of San Francisco’s Mission Comics reported that the annual promotional event held on the first Saturday in May generated, “about a weeks worth of sales in one day.” Reports about the 2012 Holiday Season were also generally positive. “We had a very healthy 2012 holiday season, up over 2011,” says Carson Moss, graphic novel buyer for The Strand Bookstore in New York City. “We’d invested in quite a bit of stock of Chris Ware’s Building Stories, so when Amazon ran out, and many other physical bookstores, we were able to continue selling it into mid-December. It was a huge boon for us, considering the price point.”

Ware’s Building Stories—named the top best book of 2012 in PW’s annual Best Books of the Year feature—seems to have been the comic book in highest demand book over the 2012 holiday season. However, only those retailers who were fortunate enough to anticipate the $50.00, oversized book’s overwhelming demand were actually able to sell it through Christmas. “I couldn’t get restocked and nobody seemed to have copies,” says Mission Comics’ Leef Smith, “it could’ve done a little bit better even but there was a publishing drought for a good three months. And now that there are copies again a lot of the demand has dried up.”

The blockbuster Success of 'Saga'

While Building Stories appears to have been the breakout book of the 2012 holiday season for both comics retailers and general bookstores, Image’s Saga series by superstar writer, Brian K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples is, without question, the runaway hit of the year in both periodical and collected trade paperback comic book formats.

“We’ve sold countless issues of Saga,” says Ryan Moran, ordering manager of Meltdown Comics, “we might as well be printing them ourselves, we can’t keep them in stock.” Every comics retailer we spoke with who sells single issue periodicals listed Saga among their top three best-sellers in periodical comics and the majority of retailers surveyed listed the first collected trade as their number one selling book format comic.

In marked contrast to Pantheon and Amazon, who greatly underestimated the level of customer demand Building Stories would generate, Image appears to have done everything right with Saga, at least as far as retailers are concerned. “That book keeps growing for us,“ says Tom Adams, co-owner of Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, “(it helped) that they made the first trade paperback collection just (under) $10.00.”

Additionally, the first issue of Saga is available for free at Comixology and Image is currently setting the price for reprints of Issue #1 at $1.00. Leef Smith of Mission Comics keeps the one-dollar reprints right next to his register. “I’m giving that out pretty much every day to new people and it’s bringing them back for the trade,” he says.

Some retailers observed that Saga appears to be accessible to many different type of comics readers, including the coveted new reader that the comics industry has long sought to attract with initiatives such as DC’s s New 52 Line of superhero comics, which rebooted DC’s entire monthly comics line with Issue #1’s in 2011. “It brings in a little bit of new readership,” says Dave Pifer, co-owner of The Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles, “but what’s nice is that it’s one of those books that no matter what current readers are reading—they’re going to read Saga too.”

Image Comics and 'Creator Owned' Branding

While the across the board success of Saga is a remarkable publishing success story in and of itself, what makes the series’ sales splash so notable is the possible sea change it indicates for the comics market as a whole. When asked what their customers were most excited about and what segments of the comics market appeared to be growing the fastest, most retailers pointed to Berkeley, Ca.-based independent comics publisher Image Comics, and so-called “Creator Owned” Comics, or comics that are owned by the artists and are not produced as work-for-hire properties owned by the publisher. Creator Owned comics tend to generally—though not always—be released through independent publishers like Image Comics, while work-for-hire properties generally tend to be offered through big superhero publishers like Marvel and DC.

While several retailers mentioned that they have to keep making more space for children’s comics (with many pointing to the success of Adventure Time—the first collected trade paperback has remained on several of the surveyed store’s bestseller lists since its release) the term “Creator Owned” kept coming up as the category of books readers were most excited about. “Creator Owned books (is) how things are going,” says Forbidden Planet’s Jeff Ayers. “Superheroes have their place, but I think a lot of new readers aren’t going the superhero route. That’s been the case for years but this year more than ever.”

Over on the general bookstore side of the comics market, Gerry Donaghy of Portland’s Powells Books agrees that, “the Image stuff is the stuff that’s off the hook. Our bestselling graphic novel last year was Hark A Vagrant [by Kate Beaton from indie publisher D&Q] and running a close second was various issues of The Walking Dead.” [From Robert Kirkman and Image Comics]

Dave Pifer of The Secret Headquarters went so far as to say, “I’m pretty sure (Image’s) sales have surpassed DC’s at my store,” emphasizing that, “Image titles per issue are above and beyond DC titles, even taking Saga out of the equation—even taking Walking Dead out of the equation—there are so many other Image titles that whomp on the majority of DC stuff.”

Most retailers we spoke with who traffic in single periodical issues confirmed that many mid-list Image titles, such as Nowhere Men, 10 Grand, The Manhattan Projects and Prophet not only had very strong debuts but have continued to be solid sellers throughout their runs with little sign of reader drop off.

Big Two Event Fatigue

While the new Warner Brothers and DC Comics Film, Man of Steel seems to have generated customer excitement around DC’s new ongoing series, Superman Unchained, enthusiasm for the rest of the DC Universe seems to be on the wane. With the exception of the re-booted Batman and JLA series, most retailers reported that there has been a considerable drop off in readership since DC’s successful launch of its New 52 Line in 2011.

“Their sales have slipped pretty much across the board,” says Secret Headquarters’ Dave Pifer, “outside of Batman, there’s not really too much excitement.” Leef Smith of Mission Comics, who is anticipating a bump in sales on backlist titles such as All Star Superman and Earth One, which DC is making available to retailers through a consignment program to promote Man of Steel, concurs. He says that, “(DC) has definitely fallen off in the last year. Largely due to quality falling off.”

But while most retailers’ concerns with DC titles seem to be largely based on editorial quality, a different type of fatigue appears to be settling in over in the Marvel Universe. There, the biggest concern among retailers seems to be that customers are being overloaded with too much of one family of books, like X-Men or The Avengers. “It’s too much for people to handle,” says Meltdown’s Ryan Moran. “Having to order 32 different Spider-man titles really hurts us in the end because we’ll end up with 12 copies of Scarlet Spider or something that we can’t move.”

Moran points out that Marvel’s bi-weekly publishing schedule on some books is “killing sales. If someone’s having to come in every two weeks to buy a Spider-man comic, they’re not going to keep doing it, they’re just going to give up.”

While most retailers PW spoke with said that Marvel’s Marvel NOW Re-launch from last year has had less of a drop off than DC’s New 52, readership for those books has waned as well. A number of retailers reported that Hawkeye, All New X-Men and Superior Spider-man are among their best-selling Marvel NOW titles. Wayne Wise of Pittsburgh’s Phantom in the Attic, says that Hawkeye is, “the most successful new Marvel title for us, even with readers who aren't interested in Marvel.” He speculates that, “for the most part you can just pick it up and read a good story.”

Wise also observes that, “Most of the new customers we see, those who did not grow up reading comics and are just now getting interested in the format simply don't care about superheroes or their history.” Many other retailers echoed his sentiment, suggesting that newer readers, including younger readers and readers new to comics, are moving away from the “Big Two” (Marvel and DC) and towards Image and other “Creator Owned” comics.

Distribution, Stocking and Great Storytelling

While some retailers expressed little to no frustration with their current distribution outlets, the majority of stores queried think that the current distribution model for periodical and book format comics needs to get better and more centralized.

Some of the retailers we spoke with believe Diamond could do a better job. Many books, including 41% of this year’s Eisner Award Nominees, aren’t carried by the distributor. As Meltdown’s Ryan Moran puts it, “That’s why I go through Last Gasp to get a lot of my indie books. Diamond will have four of the Hernandez Brothers [Fantagraphics] books in stock when they (Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez) have like twelve books. So I have to go through Last Gasp to get all twelve books because Diamond doesn’t have them. They don’t have things that we want or need.”

Other retailers, such as Forbidden Planet’s Jeff Ayers, point to a varied distribution model as key to their store’s continued success “If I want discounts for the big boys, I go through Diamond but we have accounts with every single publisher and every single distribution outlet I can think of.”

The books that Diamond or major book distributors such as Baker and Taylor may not carry are being distributed through a myriad supply chain that can be difficult to navigate for retailers who would like to carry more varied inventory. Gerry Donaghy notes that even though Powells Books is one of the largest independent booksellers in the country with a well-trained, well-informed staff, “[paying attention to smaller presses] is something we need to be better about. We need to get better at figuring out a supply chain model and we’re working on it.”

Although books from international comics publishers such as Canada’s Koyama Press and the U.K.’s Nobrow are in high demand with the majority of retailers we queried, retailers say they are often unable to get and keep their books in stock, primarily due to the high cost of shipping internationally. Most said they could sell more of those publishers’ offerings if they could get them.

This fractured distribution network may account for why break out indie successes tend to happen regionally where creators are often interacting directly with local retailers. Cartoonist Ed Piskor is a case in point. He’s selling copies of Wizzywig [a 2012 PW Best Book] in his hometown of Pittsburgh at Phantom of the Attic or there’s Paging Dr. Laura by Nicole George, which has been a big hit at Powell’s Books in Portland where Ms. George resides.

Another surprise indie hit that two different retailers said they can’t keep in stock is the small press book, Copra by New York City cartoonist, Michel Fiffe, which is, interestingly enough, published by Bergen Street Comics’ publishing imprint, a factor that may account for its savvy distribution to comics stores in other cities.

While a well-functioning, centralized distribution for comic books might be evading retailers, as well as publishers, one thing that is not escaping anyone’s notice is that the current market is brimming with quality material. And that, more than anything else, may be what’s bringing readers into stores. As Titan’s Jeremy Schorr puts it, “It has (been) proven over, over and over again that if you publish good stories with decent to superior artwork people are going to come buy ‘em and read ‘em. You almost don’t even have to do anything.”