Ten years ago there were no e-books or iPads, New York Comic Con had a clumsy first year catering to a clamoring audience of 20,000 fans, no one had ever heard of DRM and the comics and graphic novel market was estimated to be about $245 million.
Today the comics market is pegged at $935 million (according to trade news site ICv2), New York Comic Con attendance was more than 150,000 and the category is one of the fastest growing segments in the book trade. To mark this exciting decade in comics and graphic novel publishing, we’ve brought together adult and kids’ comics publishers, a manga publisher, a distributor, a retailer, and a librarian, to reflect on the last decade and to peer into the future of graphic novel publishing.
The publishing professionals included in this survey are Leyla Aker, v-p, publishing at Viz Media; Charles Brownstein, executive director of The Comic book Legal Defense Fund; Christopher Butcher, manager of the Toronto comics retailer, The Beguiling, and cofounder of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival; Kuo-Yu Liang, v-p, sales & marketing Diamond Book Distributors; Terry Nantier, president, publisher and founder of NBM Publishing and Papercutz; David Saylor, v-p, creative director, Scholastic, and founder and editorial director of Graphix, Scholastic’s graphic novel imprint; and Eva Volin, supervising children's librarian at the Alameda Free Library, in Ca.
What is the biggest change in the comics industry in the last 10 years?
Aker: The growth of the manga market in North America! Just kidding, partially. The full answer is the expansion in audience reach and content diversity. Moreover, this has been made possible only by the increasing diversity of comics creators and publishers, many of whom are striving to bring a wider range of voices to the field. It’s unfair to call out specific examples, but when you look at the mass hits that Image has produced and at what Scholastic has done with Raina Telgemeier’s and Kazu Kibuishi’s books, and then [look] on the other end at the amazing works continually being spawned by micro-presses, crowdfunders, and webcomic creators, it’s hard not to get excited about the future.
Brownstein: A larger degree of integration within the established entertainment economy. Whether this is Marvel being absorbed by Disney, DC becoming a more significant part of WB, or the success of independent properties like Walking Dead, and Fun Home, comics are now a meaningful aspect of the entertainment business to a degree that was not the case a decade ago and unthinkable two decades ago.
Butcher: I think the biggest change the industry has seen in the last decade has been the wider embrace of a diverse set of readers, particularly young women. Manga really kicked open the door for young people to start reading comics again throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, and in the past five years that has borne incredible fruit as new generations of readers have entered the industry, and some of those readers have begun to emerge as the next generation of authors.
Liang: Graphic novels are now firmly established in the book market worldwide in every genre: superhero, creator-owned, kids, middle-grade, young adult, webcomic, media tie-ins...etc. While the overall book business is flat, most retailers are reporting comics/graphic novels and related merchandise as one of the few segments growing.
Nantier: The renaissance of children's comics [produced] in the graphic novel form. Papercutz also celebrates its tenth anniversary. When we first started, we helped to create a whole new market in children's books and didn't have much attention on the part of comics shop market. That has changed mightily. Children's graphic novels continue to grow heartily everywhere, and better comics stores have embraced them for encouraging a whole new set of customers not as tied to [traditional] Wednesday new comics days. The press has been supportive and most remarkably librarians have emerged as devout champions, seeing how graphic novels encourage children to read.
Saylor: The breadth and wealth of comics for children has grown dramatically over the past 10 years. There are now so many wonderful, book length graphic novels for kids that cover a wide range of subjects and experiences.
Volin: The overwhelming acceptance of graphic novels as a format worth pursuing, both as a creator and as a publisher, is the biggest change I’ve seen over the past ten years. Back in 2002 when ALA held its first graphic novel preconference, there were only a handful of comics publishers and almost no mainstream publishers even considering putting out graphic novels. Now you’re hard pressed to find a major publisher that hasn’t managed to insert sequential art in some form or other into its catalog
What has changed the most in your own business model in the last 10 years?
Aker: That’s a gimme: the rise of digital. We halted print production of our magazines, transitioned Weekly Shonen Jump to digital-only format, and quickly built a digital graphic novel publishing program through our own apps and websites, as well as through retail partners like Apple, Amazon/Comixology, Barnes & Noble, Google, etc. Our print books are still very much our main focus, but digital has added a fresh and welcome new dimension to our business.
Brownstein: The tremendous increase in the number of conventions [that we must attend for fundraising and First Amendment education] has led to both challenges and opportunities. Humble Bundle [the DRM-free content promotional site that donates to charities like CBLDF] has completely changed certain aspects of how charitable organizations work.
Butcher: I'd say that in the main endeavors I've been lucky enough to be a part of, with comics retailer The Beguiling and The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, our business model hasn't changed significantly in the last decade, as we had the foresight to invest early in the biggest growth areas of the industry. As early proponents of the graphic novel format, of comics for kids and young readers, for women, of manga and its authors especially, we've been there. Our biggest changes are operational, as we have worked to accommodate the growth in sales and interest in the material we champion.
Liang: Adapting to the rising market share of Amazon, the loss of Borders and other mall stores, and meeting the needs and demands from retailers worldwide, from the point of view of making the business model and supply chain logistics work for everyone.
Nantier: For [the kids’ comics imprint] Papercutz, a wider mix of titles from big licenses to all new series created by leading children's book authors. For NBM, which publishes adult trade titles, indie comics have undergone a sea change in acceptance and active seeking out of more artistic sophisticated work with much less price resistance. This has resulted in much thicker and very handsome graphic novel productions. This includes increasing improvement in [U.S. consumer] acceptance of European comics and of world comics in general.
Saylor: Our business has grown significantly, basically from our being a start-up imprint in 2005, to a thriving and ambitious imprint 10 years later.
Volin: Back in 2005, there were a few librarians who had purchased books by the Hernandez brothers [Love & Rockets] or Frank Miller [Dark Knight Returns, Sin City] for their adult collections, or Jeff Smith’s Bone series for their children’s collection, but most graphic novels purchased for libraries defaulted to the teen section. Ten years later we have graphic novel collections in our adult, teen, and children’s sections, each carefully curated for the different maturity levels of our readers. Our collections contain thousands of titles and graphic novels are consistently one of the highest circulating collections in all three departments. As a result of the success of the collections and the broad range of titles now available to choose from, we find ourselves being much more selective—no longer buying everything that comes along in order to satisfy demand. To have this luxury of choice is something I only dreamed of back then.
How has the rise of graphic novels, specifically, impacted the industry and your business?
Aker: The situation with manga has been quite different than that with the comic periodical (floppy)/trade paperback model. Except in the beginning stages of the field, when early entrants (Raijin, VIZ, Mixx) were emulating Western floppies to a limited degree, manga has almost exclusively been published in the graphic novel [book] format. The rise of graphic novels was integrally tied to the rise of manga: it’s a chicken-and-egg question of whether the manga boom of the 2000s increased market receptivity to graphic novels, or whether the market was already primed for the change and manga publishers were simply riding that wave. Probably a bit of both.
Brownstein: Comics are ubiquitous now in a way that creates a new opportunity to engage with broader audiences. That ubiquity has led to more awareness, more censorship, and more conversation in a much broader range of channels about the medium and its suitability for a variety of audiences.
Butcher: Speaking specifically to TCAF here, the rise of graphic novels has definitely affected how authors and publishers participate in our festival, and how we interact with them. We have a number of publishers who now time their spring graphic novel releases around the Festival dates, and we work farther and father in advance to program guests and authors around their major releases. In fact, it's very difficult to exhibit at TCAF without a “major” new work. It's tough. We do try to consider what “major” means in the context of each author's career, but the hunger for book-format longer works does make it harder for younger artists producing short works to get the kind of attention they might deserve. We've had to pay a lot closer attention to these sorts of artists to make sure they don't fall through the cracks.
Liang: My company is 100% dedicated to selling graphic novels and related merchandise, so we have grown as the industry has grown, and we continue to invest to meet the growth. For example, we just announced an expansion to our warehouse, after expanding it a few years ago.
Nantier: NBM and little sister imprint Papercutz (I say this with some irony as Papercutz has surpassed NBM) have both always been graphic novel-centric, NBM going back to the late seventies. While we've published comic books on occasion, we've always seen graphic novels as central to the future for comics. Clearly the last ten years has seen the continued rise and acceptance of graphic novels where they have become the main source of revenues in comics. We're now all in the book business and not so much in the periodicals one.
Saylor: The popularity of graphic novels for children has helped grow the children's book market in significant ways that wasn't apparent 10 years ago. There's now a business model and market for graphic novels for kids, which is a major development in children's books.
Volin: People say that with Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and Batchelder honors all going to graphic novels this year, that there has been a sea change in the way sequential art is viewed in libraries. To a limited extent that’s true. What I think has actually happened is that librarians now respect comics as art and as literature. Committees are interpreting award criteria in ways that embrace rather than exclude the format. I think it’s evolution. In the past ten years, graphic novels have found a level of respect among librarians that is gratifying. Graphic novels are now widely recognized as being wonderful tools for both reluctant and advanced readers. It’s acknowledged that readers don’t necessarily “grow out of” the format simply because they are now out of high school. It’s acknowledged that graphic novels matter.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge your business will face in the next five years?
Aker: Competing for consumers’ attention amidst the seemingly ever-increasing deluge of entertainment options in all their various new forms: not just other comics and books, but TV shows, movies, web serials, games, social media, and so on, most of it available at a single click or tap. Also, for manga specifically, the ongoing challenge is online piracy, which has had a negative impact on sales to an outsized degree compared with Western comics. In both cases, it’s incumbent on us as a publisher to make graphic novels so good that people will want to spend their free time with them, and to offer them on terms attractive enough that people will want to purchase them through legitimate sources and support the creators.
Brownstein: Fundraising is always challenging, tied as it is to macroeconomics and urgent need before you get into the unique messages of the organization doing the fundraising. All charities, including ours, face the challenge of maintaining and growing our donor bases in an increasingly crowded environment of fundraising appeals and need.
Butcher: I honestly think that customer education is the next step for all of us. Letting customers know that their purchasing habits have very strong effects on the industry, and that how they choose to support an author or work, approaches being as important as supporting that author or work. Buying from Amazon versus indie retailers and what that means for authors/pubs, supporting publishers who underpay (or don't pay) artists, all of it. I think there's tremendous purchasing power in this nearly billion-dollar-a-year market, and the fight to move that power in the direction of addressing some of comics' systematic imbalances should be what's at the heart of the next five years.
Liang: I think the biggest challenge is to how can we double or triple the size of sales. If you look at the top-selling graphic novels today, they’re sales are still dwarfed by mainstream bestsellers such as Divergent or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Can we take graphic novels to the next level?
Nantier: The mass of graphic novels being published! Papercutz needs to continue to hone its image as a leading graphic novel publisher for kids. Graphic novels can be habit-forming for life. NBM will focus on its strengths: publishing top fiction in comics, whether American or European, but also expanding our line of nonfiction graphic novels as comics can instruct and enlighten just as well as any medium.
Saylor: The biggest challenge will be continuing to cultivate and publish strong talent in an increasingly competitive and crowded market. Success brings more challenges, not only building on success but keeping the market vital and interesting in the years to come.
Volin: The biggest challenge in the next five years may be keeping up with what’s out there. I don’t believe graphic novels are a trend; I believe this is how the industry will be going forward. There’s no such thing as an embarrassment of riches. The only embarrassing thing will be if we don’t make the most of what we’ll be given.