In contrast to last year’s booming comics marketplace, sales of graphic novels and comics periodicals in the early months of 2014 are down. Nevertheless, retailers contacted for this year’s comics retailers survey report a strong 2013 holiday selling season and several blamed sales declines on bad weather and frigid temperatures.

A number of retailers cited a continuing migration of comics fans to works from indie comics publishers like Image Comics and away from the superhero genre and the Big Two, Marvel and DC. Indeed, much like last year, retailers also cite continued strong sales for series like Saga (in periodicals and book format) as well as impressive sales for such graphic novels as the Fifth Beatle (Dark Horse), Battling Boy (First Second) and Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics).

The popularity of digital comics, once seen as a threat to physical comics shops, continues to grow even among those same retailers, who are now convinced that digital comics act as samplers and bring curious new readers into comics shops and bookstores looking for the latest graphic novels and comics periodicals.

Publishers Weekly’s Annual Comics Retailer Survey is an informal review of a small sample of stores in the North American comics retail market. This year’s survey focused on “destination shops” in large metropolitan areas—the kinds of comics shops that have historically relied on Diamond Comics Distributors for most of their stock. Diamond Comics Distributors, which serves comics shops, commonly referred to as the “Direct Market” in the comics industry, is the largest comics distributor in North America and sells generally nonreturnable stock at wholesale prices to a network of approximately 2,000 comics retailers. While comics shops generally buy wholesale nonreturnable from Diamond, increasingly some shops have also added book market distribution vendors who offer returnable stock.

Half of the respondents—Forbidden Planet in New York City; Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh, Pa.; the Beguiling in Toronto, Canada; Mission Comics in San Francisco’ and L.A.’s Earth-2 Comics, with locations in Sherman Oaks and Northridge, Calif.—have a mix of stock that includes more than 55% DC and Marvel titles in their overall sales. Three of the stores surveyed—Brave New World in Santa Clarita, Calif.; Challengers Comics and Conversation in Chicago, Ill.; and the Secret Headquarters with three locations in Los Angeles—have a variable mix of stock hovering between 40% and 50% Marvel and DC comics titles, with adjustments in ordering that tend to lower that percentage. The remaining three stores—Quimby’s Books in Chicago, Ill.; Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and the Strand Bookstore in New York City—carry less than 35% of Marvel and DC titles as a part of their overall stock.

For the first time, we also solicited input from the leading digital comics retailer, Comixology, which was ranked #5 worldwide in nongaming app revenue for 2013 by the mobile app analysis firm, App Annie. Although the company does not divulge sales breakdowns by publisher, it pointed us to data collected through reader surveys, which helped round out some of the anecdotal evidence we heard from bricks-and-mortar retailers.

Early 2014 Sales, a Mixed Bag

Sales reports released in February by Diamond indicate that sales of periodical comics were nearly flat and that graphic novel sales had taken a dive of almost 15% compared to January 2013. But while the stats sounded alarms bells across the Internet on comics industry blogs and news sites, the retailers Publishers Weekly spoke to offered mixed sales reports for early 2014, pointing to a more complicated picture of the marketplace.

Asked to compare sales so far this year to the same period in 2013, Brave New World, The Secret Headquarters, Bergen Street, The Beguiling and The Strand report sales are up. Sales at Mission Comics, Earth-2, and Forbidden Planet were said to be flat, and Challenger Comics, Phantom of the Attic, and Quimbys report that sales were down. Three retailers reported that sales were down, while another reported making adjustments in ordering and that sales were essentially flat. All four reported that the inclement weather in much of the country this winter was the biggest contributor to lower sales and ordering. Liz Mason of Quimby’s Books perhaps sums it up best: “Winter is already bad for sales after the holidays, but there are days we’ve closed early because of bad conditions.”

The other seven retailers we spoke to reported that sales were either on par with last year’s or up—and in a couple instances, dramatically so. “My January was double digits better than the same time last year,” says Portlyn Freeman, owner of Brave New World, adding that she believes reports on declines were “at the distributor level.” Diamond Comics sales figures report wholesale buys by stores, not sell-through to consumers.

While reporting that sales at his store, Earth-2, have “been quieter” than last year’s but “okay”, storeowner, Carr D’Angelo, echoes Freeman’s observation that declines were not sell-through numbers. Dave Pifer, co-owner of Secret Headquarters, says that compared to last year, his sales are “up a little.” He speculates that “if [stores are] heavy sellers of Marvel, DC, the numbers are down,” and there is some evidence to support the notion that stores that order a lot of Marvel and DC did not get off to a great start this year. In fact, one retailer we spoke with is considering shaving 10% off of its Marvel and DC bottom list orders in an effort to marginally improve profitability. Carson Moss of the Strand notes that at his store “sales are even more lopsided in favor of the non-Big Two,” publishers, indicating that, with the exception of perennial backlist bestsellers like Watchman, Alan Moore’s classic superhero epic, comics from other nonsuperhero publishers are finding more of an audience at general bookstores like the Strand.

Other retailers are equally unimpressed with the sales on certain DC and Marvel series, citing editorial decisions, confusing numbering of the issues, and a glut of titles. Wayne Wise of Phantom of the Attic says, “The new trend at Marvel of relaunching titles with a new #1 issue every time the creative team changes isn’t really working at our store. Marvel has also emblazoned #1 across the top of titles that aren’t actually #1 issues, but simply the first issue of a new story arc. People aren’t fooled by this misdirection.”

W. Dal Bush had similar comments about DC superhero comics sales at Challengers Comics and Conversation, noting, “Very few launches create any enthusiasm, and most titles are shedding readers monthly.” Bush pointed to Scott Snyder’s Batman, as well as works by writer Jeff Lemire and Charles Soule, calling them some “of the few bright spots creatively. I don’t know if we’d be stocking most DC superhero comics.” Portlyn Freeman agrees. She says, “What I’m not selling as much of is the sort of glut of New 52 and Marvel trade books... my readers just can’t support that many titles in trade book [format].”

Rethinking the 'Big Two' Paradigm

In spite of the weather and a shorter holiday shopping season than normal, most of the retailers Publishers Weekly queried had a strong holiday sales season that met their store’s norms, but was unremarkable overall. In a sentiment shared by many other retailers, Dave Pifer says, “It was a big problem for me that there was not a standout book.” While a few books came up as solid holiday sellers across a significant but disparate proportion of our sample—among the titles mentioned are Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree, and The Fifth Beatle by Vivek Tiwary, Andrew C. Robinson, and Kyle Baker—the only true standout was the trade paperback collections of Volumes 1 and 2 of Image’s year-round chart-busting sci-fi/fantasy series, Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples.

Mission Comic’s Leef Smith says, “People are so enthusiastic about Saga that they are giving the soft covers as [gift] books,” leading him to predict that “the hardcover Saga will be a great gift item” when one is finally released. Asked if there was a standout holiday book at Bergen Street Comics, co-owner Tucker Stone says. without hesitation, “Saga,” then quips, “You’re just going to be talking about Saga for the next few years.” As was the case with last year’s survey, Saga has been a bestseller every month in both periodical and graphic novel formats for every single retailer in our survey with the exception of Quimby’s Books.

Most stores also put DC’s Scott Snyder Batman series and Sandman: Overture, a much anticipated addition to the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, in their top three bestselling periodicals by a wide margin, with Marvel’s Ms. Marvel, a recreation of the character as a young Pakistani-American girl, also making a strong showing when it debuted. While Marvel’s Hawkeye, along with core Batman titles, such as Batman: Black Mirror and Batman: Death of the Family, and various trade paperback collections of bestselling the Walking Dead, were consistently among their top-selling graphic novels between late 2013 and early 2014.

Nothing, however, is selling like Saga, which has continued to experience phenomenal growth. “Saga ,Vol. One was our bestselling comic the entire year,” says Moss, at the Strand Bookstore in New York. “Clearly it’s gaining readers as the series continues.” As word of mouth grows for the series with no signs of stopping, retailers are reporting that sales on other Image titles also continue to increase. The Image series Sex Criminals, East of West, and Nowhere Men all seem to be doing well for stores across the board. The Image brand alone seems to be enough to warrant taking a chance on a new comics series release. “Most people [are] giving nearly all of Image’s first issues at least a flip, if not purchasing them,” says the Beguiling’s Chris Butcher. W. Dal Bush went so far as to say that, “for Challengers, it’s really more of a Big Three: Image, Marvel, DC, in that order. I’d say Image contributes about 25% [to the store’s overall sales].”

Most of the retailers we spoke with also reported that they’re seeing customers shifting their dollars away from lower-tier Marvel and DC books to Image and other publishers. “A lot of Marvel and DC titles are really at the bottom end, but Boom!, Image, and IDW have more titles that are more competitive with the top tier Marvel and DC,” says Carr D’Angelo. “We’re still selling a lot of comics because the money pool is the same, but maybe [customers are] taking a look and thinking, I don’t really need this C Level title but gosh, Sex Criminals looks awesome and I’m going to buy that instead.” Many other stores did, indeed, report that IDW’s Locke and Key is still a consistent big seller and Boom!’s Adventure Time, graphic novel trade book collections of the hit animated kids’ series, remains high on their sales charts.

More Comics For General Readers

Retailers queried by PW believe a market shift is taking place, a shift away from the superhero genre that’s long dominated the North American comics marketplace. “It’s a paradigm that’s on the way out,” according to Tucker Stone. Retailers told PW that one of their biggest problems is deciding what and how much to stock. Chris Butcher says that one of the Beguiling’s biggest concerns is “staying on top of the avalanche of product coming our way. There are so many comics, new series, books, manga, graphic novels, so much stuff, that choosing what and how to stock, and in what quantity, has become increasingly difficult.”

Retailers are also seeing a need to adjust their ordering to accommodate some of the new groups they see coming into their stores. While many stores report that their children’s comics sections continue to grow, the demographic that seems to be growing the fastest is young women, aged 17–33. Image titles like The Walking Dead, Saga, and Pretty Deadly have gotten their attention, but Wayne Wise reports that at Phantom of the Attic there are “a lot of young women who are really invested in Marvel and DC titles, as well as the Indies. New titles aimed at this group are an important part of this. Books like Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Young Avengers have been particularly successful.” Data from a reader survey by digital comics vendor Comixology supports what retailers are seeing. Chip Mosher, Comixology’s v-p, communications and marketing, confirmed that 20% of its new customers in the third quarter of 2013 were females ages 17–26.

Leef Smith thinks that one of the things bringing these women, along with their new male customer counterparts, into stores is the growth of mainstream press coverage as opposed to comics industry coverage. “When there’s tons of articles about Saga or Ms. Marvel, I do see it bringing in customers. I just had a customer come in who said, ‘yeah, 90% of my comics news I get from your Facebook feed,’ that tells me most customers are not paying attention to the comics press at all. They don’t have the time or the interest. They just want to go to the comics shop and pick up their books. The broader audience that’s excited about Saga or Ms. Marvel is so much bigger [than the conventional comics market]. I don’t think publishers completely grasp that.”

Other retailers we spoke with agree that they would like to see better promotion and marketing resources from publishers. “They have more advertising and marketing power than we do,” says Earth-2 Comics’ D’Angelo. “I think they need to do a certain amount of outreach.” Dave Pifer thinks the problem of resources goes beyond just marketing outreach. “I would like the Big Guys, that actually have a budget, to hire talented people and have them do the job that they’re talented at doing versus forcing them to do multiple people’s jobs,” he says.

Comixology and Amazon

Digital distribution of comics, once perceived as a grave threat to their businesses, is one area that retailers no longer perceive to be a problem. There is now little doubt that sales of digital comics add to print sales. “Digital still seems to feed the yen for comics,” says Forbidden Planet’s Jeff Ayers. “I still get tons of customers who read Saga, hell, almost any title, digitally, then came to the shop to pick up the trade collection. I think any major comics publishers who’s even contemplating a push to digital at the expense of print are doing themselves a disservice. There’s a happy medium right now.” Again, Comixology’s Chip Mosher offers customer survey data to back this up. “We bring a ton of new customers into the comic and graphic novel buying ecosystem,” he says. “During Q3 of last year, 20% of our new customers were completely new to comics, with their first experience of the medium on Comixology. Of that, 64% later went on to buy comics in print.”

Amazon, also a digital book retailing powerhouse, is a different story. Some of the retailers we spoke with suspect that the discounts publishers are forced to take in order to distribute through Amazon are causing them to price trade paperback and graphic novels too high on the brick and mortar end. “The pricing on books continues to go up, and I don’t see a ceiling on that,” says Bergen Street’s Tucker Stone. “It does seem more and more like graphic novels that a few years ago were priced at $15.99 are now going into that $22.99 area—and the quality [of the physical book] is not improving.”

Retailers are also concerned that Diamond, as currently structured, is simply unable to match the rapid turnaround time that Amazon is able to provide for its customers. “I feel like Amazon is simply doing it better,” says Portlyn Freeman. “It affects my sales in that I cringe when I have to tell someone that it may take two to three weeks when you order with me because I can’t do any better, when they can go to Amazon and get it in two days.”

The Community Experience

At the end of the day, the retailers we spoke with don’t see themselves as competing with Amazon. “It is what it is,” says Dave Pifer. “They’re not even in the same game at all.” Retailers see themselves as doing something entirely different. “The people we see want to pick up and hold a book, and flip through it, before they purchase it, says Challenger’s W. Dal Bush. Leef Smith of Mission Comics knows he’s “not going to match anyone on price” and he’s not trying to. “I’m selling an experience in a community. If people are looking for the cheapest price, they’re going to go someplace else. But if they want to have a community and be able to browse things before buying them or just like that ritual of coming into the store, they’ll do that.”

While 2014 may have gotten off to a rough start for some retailers, there seems to be a general feeling that it’s an exciting time to be in the comics retailing business. “Right now, you’re not going to do any better [than being ] at a place that sells graphic novels and comics, especially to children,” says Tucker Stone. “There is so much to be gained from that. It’s an amazing experience.” As book and comics publishing continues to change at a rapid pace, by catering to a specific kind of customer or simply by becoming an integral part of the fabric of the local community, comics retailers are surviving and thriving—and providing a valuable look at where the future of American comics and graphic novel publishing and retailing may be heading.

the co-editor of The Big Feminist BUT (Alternative Comics) and She can be found on Twitter at @shannonsplanet