At its annual Diamond Retailer Summit, which took place last week in Baltimore, Md., Diamond Comics Distributors shared what might seem like good news for the comics industry: its sales are up 8.28% YTD over last year. But the stats come at a moment when the industry is going through some growing pains, and publishers are scrambling to make various market adjustments.
Diamond shared the figures, which show that graphic novels are up 6.4%, while periodical comics are up 11.4%, at a breakfast event on Friday. While encouraging, the stats mark a decline from 2013, when growth was at a torrid 29% pace. One undisputed bright spot, though, was the fact that the number of comics shops is up 3.6%, one of the biggest gains in several years. Merchandise sales increased by 6%.
Despite Diamond's solid figures at the Summit--the event drew 25 publishers and some 450 attendees, representing 250 stores--many publishers are dealing with a host of issues. Some have been in response to retailer complaints about complex marketing gimmicks and late shipments. And recent layoffs at Archie Comics, as well as tepid sales following DC Entertainment's recent superhero relaunch, suggest a general softening of the market.
At an industry panel on Thursday featuring representatives from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW and Image—the five largest comics publishers—variant editions was the big topic of debate. Many publishers produce variant editions, commissioning popular artists to create multiple covers for a single issue, but the ordering process for retailers can be cumbersome. (Retailers can sometimes obtain variants by ordering them separately. However, in certain situations, they are only available as an incentive to order multiple copies of a less desirable title.) The resulting complexity of ordering has drawn increasing criticism from comics specialty retailers. Marvel’s Star Wars #1 had more than 100 variant covers, making it an extreme example of the problems surrounding variant editions.
Image’s director of retail sales Corey Murphy drew applause at the panel when she referred to an earlier announcement that Image would no longer be offering single issue retailer exclusive variants. Marvel senior v-p of sales and marketing, David Gabriel, also hedged on variants, saying his company will make it's much-hyped promotion involving hip-hop themed covers--the covers are based on famous hip hop albums--simpler to order. “We realize we made it too complicated,” he said, noting that order thresholds will be lowered 15-20%.
At a later presentation, Boom! Studios announced a more drastic change; it will be cutting its title output next year by 15%. Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing, told PW that the move will allow the publisher to concentrate more on each release.
At other companies, concerns over sales were discussed privately. Archie Publishing recently laid off a handful of staffers, and DC Entertainment has been in retrenchment mode following low sales for its “DC You” relaunch. DC hopes to bounce back this fall with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, by Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson. It’s the third in a trilogy of tales by Miller, whose superhero epic, The Dark Knight, is one of the bestselling and most influential comics of all time.
Other publishers, however, are doubling down. Valiant announced that its Book of Death event had sold over 200,000 copies of the various tie-in series. Action Lab, which publishes a variety of titles from the all-ages kids' series Princeless, said its sales have grown over 6,000% in five years; it announced the introduction of an age-appropriate ratings system, similar to the one that manga publishers have long used.
Several retailers who spoke to PW said September sales are down, and late shipping on some key Marvel titles has been a problem. DC’s soft relaunch also hurt sales, although the publisher is working to shore up the line, including an ambitious publishing slate for its Vertigo imprint this fall.
The consensus is that comics sales growth has slowed after a few years of double digit gains. Although the comics industry has had some spectacular implosions in the past—notably a crash in the ‘90s following a similar pattern of relying on variants—most Summit attendees seemed to think that everyone is keeping a more watchful eye on promotions, and that this will be enough to weather the bump.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article it was stated that Image would no longer be putting out variant covers. That is not correct; Murphy's statement referred to an earlier announcement regarding variant covers for individual retailers. The statement, which was released earlier in 2015, is as follows:
"After much internal deliberation, Image Comics will no longer be offering single issue retailer exclusive variants. While the intent of this program was to offer our retailer partners the opportunity to have exclusive content in order to build strong continued series sales at their stores, data accumulated over the last year suggests these variants only serve to further feed the speculation market, artificially inflating first issue sales, and thereby doing little to positively affect a series’ longterm health.
With those findings in mind, Image Comics will now be offering retailer exclusive covers for trade paperbacks and hard covers. Requests must be submitted by the deadline of initial orders for the Previews that the trade paperback is solicited in. The minimum order threshold will be determined on a title by title basis. Retailers will also have the opportunity to place additional orders of their retailer exclusive trade paperback or hard cover every time it returns to press for an additional printing.
We understand that many of you who have participated in these single issue retailer exclusive variants may be disappointed with this decision, but we must act based on what we feel is in the best interest of our creators, their series, and the growth of the marketplace."