Even as comics and graphic novel sales hit just over $1 billion for 2015, the industry is facing a possible disruption as sales channels evolve and more specialty retailers in other fields consider selling comics. That was the observation of Milton Griepp, ICv2 CEO and industry analyst, who presented his annual White Paper on the comics market at the annual ICv2 conference on the first day of the New York Comic Con at Javits Center.
Despite the concerns over future sales patterns, at a breakfast presentation Diamond Comics Distributors announced that their overall combined comics/graphic novel sales had finally gone positive for the year, up .48% with more growth forecast. Graphic novels are up 1.15% in dollars but down 0.82% in units so far in 2016. Comics periodical sales are up 3.32% in dollars for the year through September and up 1.59% in units. Diamond’s customer count – the number of retail stores they service – is up 3.6% for the year.
At the ICv2 “Insider” conference later in the day, Griepp drew on his 40 years in the business to identify four previous disruptions: the advent of the direct sales market (comics shops) in the 1970s; the turn to online sales in the 1990s; the rise of bookstore graphic novel sales led by manga in the late 1990s; and the rise of digital comics sales in the last decade.
All of these disruptions arose from new retail opportunities appearing as market challenges forced the comics industry to change. Griepp speculated that a potential fifth disruption could develop out of the growing audiences for comics that are demanding a more diverse product and format (graphic novels), as opposed to the traditional superhero periodicals that have long kept the industry afloat.
Griepp urged comics shops owners to look at “changed cycles and the growth of interest in backlists” as book format graphic novels keep content available on a perpetual basis.
“I do believe there is huge opportunity in comics stores, but [the traditional] way of thinking [based on] monthly cycles has to change somewhat,” Griepp said.
He also expressed concerns about the rise in popularity of variant covers—an incentive-driven publisher strategy offering multiple covers on a specific issue if the retailer orders a certain number of copies. It is an attractive policy to comics collectors and superhero periodical publishers, but it has also been criticized as a sales gimmick that can lead to market gluts. Griepp cited a statement from Marvel publisher Dan Buckley several years ago that estimated that 10%-20% of Marvel’s sales were based on variant covers.
Griepp also discussed the change in the retail environment, as Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million enlarge their comics and graphic novel sections. Indeed, he said, troubled specialty retailers such as Gamestop are also looking to offer new kinds of content, especially comics. Mass market retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target have also experimented with more comics sales, with unknown results.
“And of course there’s the elephant in the room, Amazon,” Griepp said. He called Amazon “an implacable force” and estimated that the online retailer has sold more graphic novels (and hardcover graphic novels at that) than Barnes & Noble.
The overall picture was one of shifting demographics that will necessitate new retail strategies. Asked about the bankruptcy of Hastings Entertainment, he said,“Hastings had huge stores and didn’t retreat from failing categories fast enough,” he said.
Rob Salkowitz, a business and pop culture analyst and author of The Business of Comic Con, presented research into convention demographics and attendees. Pop culture events (comic cons, anime shows, gaming shows and so on) are still growing worldwide, and had an overall economic impact of $4.32 billion in 2013.
Salkowitz also reviewed data analysis from 180,000 social media accounts that follow the twitter feeds of San Diego Comic-Con and New York Comic Con, attendees that identified their primary interests at each show. According to Salkowitz “SDCC and NYCC are not competitors, as they are going for completely different audiences.”
According to Salkowitz, San Diego attendees are more interested in the show as a whole, much like events such as SXSW, while at New York they tend to be passionate fans of specific content areas. He estimated that 35% of the NYCC fanbase identifies with gaming as their main interest; and only 6% of NYCC attendees are primarily comics fans. This last statistic drew an audible gasp from the comics-focused professional audience at the ICv2 event, especially given the scores of publishers and creators busy signing and selling comics on the show floor just outside the room.
The conference ended with a passionate speech on attracting new readers by Karen Berger, former executive editor of DC’s nonsuperhero Vertigo imprint, who recently returned to comics as a freelance editor. Berger was also critical of variant covers. Calling the situation “surreal,” she pointed to a variant cover offer for Marvel’s Venom #1 which had a 1-in-1000 variant cover incentive offer– meaning retailers must order 1000 copies of the regular issue to get one copy of the sought-after variant.
In a presentation called, “Expanding Comics Readership Further,” Berger focused on increasing the diversity in comics material. She called on comics publishers to offer a greater variety of genres to attract new readers who are likely not interested solely in superheroes.
“We still need to bring in more new readers. When you look at BookScan data it shows the range of some of the great material that’s being published today. But I feel a lot of the stronger material is being overlooked because of the variant [cover] strategy Marvel and DC have indulged in for the last several years. And it’s just getting worse.”