American comics and graphic novels (and media based on them) are more popular than ever, but the way these works are purchased is being transformed by a new wave of consumers looking for new material and new places to buy it. Pop culture trade news site ICv2’s Insider Sessions, an annual trade conference organized at New York City’s Javits Center to kickoff New York Comic Con, brought together industry constituents looking to understand a growing and quickly changing comics marketplace.
The program, held on October 5, featured ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp’s annual white paper, a report on the size, trends, and direction of the North American comics and graphic novel marketplace. This year’s program also featured Kristen McLean, NPD BookScan’s executive director of business development, who presented data focused on consumer spending on comics—and particularly on book-format graphic novels—that highlighted who these consumers are and their spending habits.
American comics, especially superhero periodical comics, have been sold primarily through the comics shop market (also known as the direct market) since the 1970s. This distribution system is dominated by Diamond Comics Distributors, and the market consists of about 2,000 stores that buy their inventory wholesale on a nonreturnable basis from Diamond.
However, Griepp pointed out, the growth in popularity of book-format graphic novels and the rapid influx of a new generation of female comics fans over the past decade are beginning to produce a U.S. comics marketplace that looks a lot more like the book trade. “2017 has been a year of rapid change,” he said in his presentation. “The direct market is struggling with flat sales, while other channels are gaining new consumers.”
Sales of graphic novels via the book channel—which includes chains and independent bookstores, online retailers such as Amazon, mass market retailers like Target and even Scholastic book fairs—continue to grow. The direct market, on the other hand, is struggling. Rebounding from the recession years, graphic novels sales via the book trade grew from $250 million in 2011 to $405 million in 2016, according to Griepp. In the direct market (which sells periodicals as well as books) the growth was also significant, with graphic novel sales rising from $140 million in 2011 to $185 million in 2016.
The comics marketplace has become a contest between bookstores and the direct market, Griepp said, as well as “a battle of the formats” between traditional periodical comics and the growing popularity of graphic novels. He noted that comics shops are “struggling to accommodate their legacy consumers while appealing to new readers,” many of whom are either unfamiliar with comics shops, uninterested in traditional comics, or looking for new retail options.
Part of the problem, Griepp explained, is that the comics shop market can be conservative in what it offers consumers. Indeed, the channel can sometimes be hostile—or perceived to be hostile—to new kinds of comics content or even new kinds of fans. A new generation of comics consumers are looking for material that includes works about and by women and LGBTQ people and works aimed at middle grade and teen readers. This is an emerging class of comics consumers—part of a younger indie and manga-influenced generation that isn’t focused solely on superhero comics—that the traditional comics market, which continues generally to cater to an aging straight white male clientele and to focus on stocking periodical-format comics, often struggles to attract.
Griepp argued that these new comics consumers can find what they want a lot easier in the book trade—either from traditional book publishers with newly launched graphic novel imprints or from a new generation of indie comics houses, which are more likely to focus on book-format comics. “Books [graphic novels] offer a complete story, good value, and broad distribution,” he said. This is in sharp contrast with the periodical format focused on serialized “incomplete” stories sold at a comparatively higher price than books.
Buying stock on a nonreturnable basis is another problem for comics shops. The inability of comics shops to return most titles, Griepp said, tends to “limit experimentation” at a time when all pop culture retail channels should be experimenting with new kinds of graphic novel content. Griepp said that, if current trends continue, he projects that the book channel will soon become the primary outlet for comics sales. It would be the first “channel power flip since comics shops took over from newsstands” in the 1980s.
In her presentation, NPD’s McLean called this transition “a channel shift” from the comics shop market to the book channel. This shift in consumer preference, she explained, is being driven by both a “new emerging demographic” that is primarily young and female and the overall revival of print sales in recent years.
The emerging demographic, she said, is aged 18–29 and is driving sales of comics and graphic novels in the book channel, specifically at mass market retail outlets and independent bookstores. “Juvenile is exploding,” she said, pointing out categories such as children’s humor, kid’s graphic novels, tie-in works, and manga, whose buyers are among the most diverse in the pop culture marketplace. Women, she said, “prefer to buy comics at chains, while men [aged 30–54] continue to prefer the local comics shop.”
McLean emphasized the importance of studying comics consumers. NPD BookScan, she said, plans to collect more data from the direct market, principally through the use of consumer surveys and interviews, since most comics shops do not have POS systems that can extract and transmit data.
“How do we bridge the differences in these channels?” she asked. “We need a view of both sides of the comics market. Why are women not connecting with comics shops? What are the emerging alternatives? We have tons of data, but do we know how to read it? We have to facilitate positive retail experiences for these new consumers.”