It’s a confusing time right now in the broad comics and graphic novels marketplace. Last year saw big accolades and big sales for Rep. John Lewis’s bestselling March trilogy (Top Shelf), the first comics title to win a National Book Award and four ALA literary prizes. But 2017 opened to a disappointing announcement that the New York Times will discontinue its graphic novel and manga bestseller lists.
Still, NPD BookScan, which tracks print sales across about 85% of the book trade, reports that graphic novel sales in 2016 increased by 12% over the previous year. In fact, comics is one of only a few categories in adult fiction in which print sales were up.
Meanwhile, rumors have been circulating among retailers since the end of 2016 that sales in the direct market (that is, the comics shop market) have been stagnant at best and may be headed for a precipitous downturn in the new year. (The comics shop market is a network of about 2,000 retailers around the country stocked by Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest comics distributor in North America, which generally sells nonreturnable stock at wholesale prices to these stores.)
After taking a year off, PW has revived its annual comics retailer survey, an informal survey of comic book retailers and general bookstores across the U.S. The survey aims to get a better sense of what the market’s actual sell-through numbers are, particularly in the comics shop market, and to solicit feedback directly from working comics retailers.
This year we surveyed five stores: Secret Headquarters in L.A.; Forbidden Planet in New York; Challengers Comics in Chicago; Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore.; and the Strand Bookstore in New York. The first three are comics stores that rely on Diamond Comics Distributors for 25%–80% of their stock; the last two are general trade bookstores with large graphic novel sections.
Election Anxiety Plus Slow Holiday Equals Soft Sales
The three comics shops we contacted, along with Powell’s, reported that sales in fall 2016 were down from the year before. Most of these retailers attributed the drop to the anxiety-producing political climate surrounding the 2016 presidential election.
“I think sales were definitely affected,” says Dave Pifer, co-owner of Secret Headquarters. “They were down; everything was chilled out big time. And I think what’s interesting is that it was kind of across the board.”
Doug Chase, a graphic novel buyer at Powell’s, says that he “saw some nervousness on the part of customers in the months leading up to the presidential election.”
Additionally, retailers say that the holiday buying season seemed to begin later in 2016 than it has in previous years. Some believe that customers’ holiday shopping habits are shifting.
Jeff Ayers, general manager of Forbidden Planet, says the timing of Hanukkah shifted holiday sales later at his store: “Having Hanukkah after Christmas really affects us. Sustained insanity for a month is what we’re looking for, not burning ourselves out at the end of month, and that’s what we did. But I’ll be happy next year when Hanukkah and Christmas are a bit more aligned.”
Patrick Brower, co-owner of Challengers Comics, along with most of the other retailers surveyed, says his store did well during the holidays: “As sales were trending down in the last third of 2016, it was reassuring to have solid holiday sales.” He notes that “the new normal for us is that holiday sales really don’t start until a week and a half before Christmas, as opposed to years ago when everything post-Thanksgiving was strong,” adding, “But this year [the holiday] was very solid.”
Indeed, Carson Moss, book buyer at the Strand says he had a very happy holiday season, noting that “comics were up 13% over the previous December.” Standout books at the Strand for the 2016 holidays included Black Panther, Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Marvel), Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (Image), and Yuge! 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump by G.B. Trudeau (Andrews McMeel). Moss adds, “The second volume of Paper Girls, which released in December, has had a terrific start too.” (Paper Girls, Vol. 2, also did well at the Secret Headquarters during the holiday season, according to Pifer).
There was no single must-have gift book for the holiday season at the retailers we surveyed, but there were several graphic novels that were top sellers throughout 2016 and standout holiday gift selections. These bestselling graphic novels include Batman: The Killing Joke (deluxe edition) by Alan Moore and Brian Dolland (DC); Bitch Planet, Vol. 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick (Image); Monstress, Vol. 1 by Marjorie Lui (Image); Paper Girls, Vol. 1; and the first six volumes of the Saga series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (Image).
In direct market comics stores, periodical comics (especially superhero comics) are the cornerstone product, though book collections sell increasingly well. The bestselling periodical comics across the three direct market stores in our survey included various single issues of Saga and Paper Girls; the first four issues of Marvel’s Black Panther (with issues #1 and #2 charting the highest); DC Rebirth #1 by Geoff Johns (DC); and Batman Rebirth #1 by Scott Snyder, Tom King, and Mikel Janin (DC).
But periodical comics are also an embattled format, as the popularity of trade paperback and hardcover releases grow among customers at comic book shops. At the Secret Headquarters, Pifer says that “single-issue monthly books by superhero publishers” are having the biggest drop in sales. Crowder also says that single-issue comic books are taking a dive in sales at Challengers.
Ayers says that sales of single-issue comic books are down at Forbidden Planet as well, but that the store’s biggest drop in sales was in its manga department. “We used to be one of the last bastions of the completist manga store,” he notes. “But [over] the last few years I’m not even giving space to the series that we’re just going to sell one [volume] of.”
Interestingly, manga sales are very strong at both of the general bookstores in our survey. Moss says that at the Strand, “manga showed double-digit growth [in 2016 over 2015].” And Chase says that at Powell’s, “we sell a lot of manga.”
Troubling Times in the Direct Market
Though the direct market retailers we surveyed had a number of operational complaints, specifically on order fulfillment and shipping costs, they were most concerned with cutting corners in order to survive in a market with low profit margins. With that in mind, Pifer says the Secret Headquarters is ordering less from Diamond, complaining of the expense, damages, and the delayed delivery of popular books.
In response to retailers concerns about order fulfillment, Roger Fletcher, v-p, sales and marketing at Diamond, says: “As the number of units we ship each week has increased, we are continuing to make investments in infrastructure to stay ahead of the curve. While we’re not perfect, our company-wide error rate is under 2% for shipments.”
Fletcher also confirmed that the distributor’s sales to direct market stores are basically flat: “Comic book and graphic novel unit sales in 2016 increased 0.3% over 2015.” But flat sales at the direct market sell-in level combined with the drop in single-issue sell-through to consumers points to a larger issue going on in the comics shop market at the moment.
“For the second year in a row the fourth quarter was really terrible,” says Ayers, who also blamed the election and postelection political anxiety—in addition to problems with some superhero product. “First of all, [there is the] crappy political climate—especially in New York City. Our constituency, as they say, is out fightin’ the fight, which is great, and then for our customers who are coming in, the product that’s coming in is absolutely [terrible].”
Joe Field—owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif.; a former board member of ComicsPro, a comics retailers trade association; and cofounder of Free Comic Book Day, the annual national comics promotion—tweeted in early December a warning about the possibility of comic book shop closings. He also tells PW that he blames a soft comics market on the election year. Field says: “There’s been a lot of attention taken away from the market over the last several months. This happened in 2008, it happened in 2012. Starting in 1992, if you look at all the presidential years, most of them—six out of seven of them—were down years for the comics business.”
But most problems and complaints in the direct market—which specializes in, and depends on, sales of superhero comics from the Big Two—can be traced to whether retailers are unhappy or dissatisfied with the current state of comics published by Marvel and DC Entertainment. In recent years, Image Comics has mitigated any declines in Big Two periodical sales. At some stores, such as Chicago’s Challengers Comics, Image is on par with DC in sales of single-issue periodical comics and graphic novels. Brower breaks down sales at the store among the three publishers as follows: Marvel makes up 29%; DC 23%; and Image 23%.
Right now, Marvel periodical sales in the direct market are soft, Image sales don’t seem to be picking up the slack, and comics shop retailers are unhappy. Marvel tends to dominate the direct market in terms of number of units. But retailers are concerned that Marvel seems to be focused on making comics that will tie in to successful Marvel movie franchises, though the tactic doesn’t seem to be helping Marvel sell these comics titles.
Field says that in years past, “I could depend on ordering a Marvel first issue and knowing that I would be able to sell a minimum 35 copies, and if you added a popular character to it and creators, writers, and artists who have followings, you’d add more and more copies to the order to where that 35 could be 100 or 200 copies.” But, he notes, “Marvel has released a number of series over the past few months where we have not hit 10 copies sold of a first issue.”
Comics shop retailers are also concerned about the pricing of Marvel titles, which is comparatively high. Trade paperbacks start at $17.99 and periodical comics start at $4, and retailers say they are seeing readers gravitate to less costly titles.
At Forbidden Planet, Ayers says that in 2016, “in the third and even in the fourth quarter, Marvel came out with a ton of number ones [the first issues in series] that had a very limited audience.” He adds: “Why does everything have to be in a cycle for things in cinema? I’m sick of titles and characters that nobody gives a crap about.”
DC’s Rebirth periodical initiative is a 2016 effort to restore a number of plot and character elements the publisher had removed from many of its popular superhero series. The Rebirth initiative has been very popular and seems to have drawn some superhero readers back into stores, with most retailers reporting very strong sales for Rebirth #1 and other single issues in the line. Although some retailers noted a drop-off in sales after issue two, Forbidden Planet’s Ayers praises DC for making the series returnable, which is unusual for the direct market.
“With the softness we’re seeing on Marvel [and other publishers’] sales,” Field says, “there are fewer people coming to shops and fewer eyeballs for other comics at the same time.”
Kids’ Graphic Novels Grow Everywhere
General bookstores appear to have an easier time than the direct market, with sales spread across a wider range of publishers and particularly strong growth in children’s and YA comics. At the Strand, Moss says that “Marvel and DC make up 12% of sales, while 20% of sales are YA and children’s comics.”
At Powell’s, Chase says sales are “relatively flat compared to last year,” but he adds: “We continue to see amazing growth in all ages and young adult graphic novels. Young adult graphic novel sales have almost doubled over the last two years.” In fact, all the direct market retailers surveyed by PW are as bullish on kids’ and YA comics as they are bearish on Marvel single issues.
Ayers says that every year at Forbidden Planet, “all-ages books keeps growing and I never really see an end in sight.” He adds, “It’s not like I’m giving it more space, I’m just having more sales and that’s a good problem to have.”
According to the retailers surveyed, the comics and graphic novel market finished slightly up in 2016, and they’re waiting to see what will happen in 2017. Direct market retailers are worried about the ongoing drop in single-issue superhero comics sales and are looking for publishers to course correct toward markets and comics that show growth.
Field is preparing to attend the upcoming ComicsPro annual meeting this month in Memphis, Tenn. He says that despite the rumors and uncertainty in the direct market, he’s “still bullish on the market” He adds, “Having been through waves over the course of the last 20-plus years, it’s just another wave and those who are smart enough to be able to ride it will be healthier for doing it.”