It’s hardly breaking news that sales at comics shops were down significantly in 2017 compared to 2016. BookScan reported that graphic novel sales fell 5% last year (although they rose 12% in 2016). In addition to declining sales, it was a challenging year in the comics shop market, as a number of beloved comics specialty stores—among them Bonanza Comics in Modesto, Calif.; Villainous Lair in San Diego, Calif.; and Seattle’s Zanadu Comics—closed their doors for good.
Throughout 2017, the comics industry trade publication ICv2 reported a series of precipitous drops in both periodical and graphic novel sales compared to similar periods in the previous year. Last year’s sharp sales decline and a slow start to the new year have created a tense and wary mood among those we spoke with during this year’s informal survey of comics and graphic novel retailers around the country.
We contacted six retail comic book stores that rely on the direct market for at least 20% of their stock: Challengers Comics in Chicago; Forbidden Planet in New York; Laughing Ogre in Columbus, Ohio; Mission Comics in San Francisco; Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh; and Secret Headquarters in L.A. Direct market comics stores in the U.S., of which there are about 2,000, buy mostly nonreturnable product at wholesale prices from Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest North American comics distributor. These stores sell a mix of traditional periodical comic books (often superhero comics) and, increasingly, books or graphic novels. We also included two general trade bookstores that maintain large graphic novel sections: Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore., and Strand Bookstore in New York.
Powell’s was the outlier, reporting a slight uptick in 2017 holiday sales from 2016 and a slightly better start to 2018 than 2017. Although the scale of declines varied from store to store, every other retailer we surveyed reported a slow start to 2018 after a lackluster 2017 holiday season. For example, Gib Bickel of Laughing Ogre said that, in 2017, “we were down just a bit from last year”; Leef Smith of Mission Comics said sales are “down 17%, or about $72,000” and that the store is “just barely hanging on.” (Mission Comics has set up an account with crowdfunding service Patreon to help it get through the downturn.)
As 2018 kicks off, comics sellers face a harsh retail environment overall, bad weather across much of the country, and an increasingly anxious political climate and fractured media landscape—a situation that is distracting readers from comics and graphic novels. In addition, many direct market retailers worry that the industry isn’t adequately serving a comics marketplace that includes a growing number of women, children, LGBTQ people, people of color, and fans uninterested in the traditional superhero comics they have sold in the past.
We turn the floor over to them, the experts, to describe in their own words the factors they think are contributing most to the current comics sales downturn.
Declining Foot Traffic
■ Dave Pifer, co-owner, the Secret Headquarters: There are fewer people venturing into the shop. We’ve talked to a bunch of different store owners, and it seems like it’s kind of across the board.
■ Julie Sharron, staff, the Secret Headquarters: I’ve talked to friends with different kinds of retail stores, not necessarily comics, and it’s the same thing for them this year: people just aren’t coming in; it’s a wider retail thing.
■ Carson Moss, graphic novel buyer, the Strand: We are experiencing a slow start to the year. The weather, as always, is an obvious culprit, although it’s hard to read the frequent articles about the general retail downturn and not grow concerned for our industry.
■ Patrick Brower, co-owner, Challengers: In 2017 our holiday sales period was really only the six days before Christmas, down from 10 days in 2016. People only seem to come in when they get nervous about online holiday shipping.
■ Wayne Wise, staff, Phantom of the Attic: Our daily customer count is way down. We have significantly fewer people coming in. Business and foot traffic seems lower. Is this absence hurting other sales? Probably.
■ Leef Smith, owner, Mission Comics: My sense is that consumers are being more careful about their spending, and shifting spending online. There are a lot of people worried about the future and the economy suddenly tanking. I’ve seen many people trying to save more money, picking up three books and putting back two.
■ Moss: Customers are not spending at the same rate. With so much unrest in the news, it’s natural for people to be more conservative with their finances.
■ Wise: There have always been ups and downs in this business. This one seems to have something deeper at the core, and I think all of us are trying to figure it out. We’ve talked at the store that in some ways it feels like the entire comics retail industry is in the middle of a paradigm change.
“A Content Crash” and the Need for Diversity
■ Brower: The comics industry as a whole is losing customers and not creating enough new ones. The proliferation of comic properties into other media has not translated into people interested in the source material. We need to create new and younger readers.
■ Pifer: I think a content crash is happening now. [Comics writer] Ed Brubaker, for instance, happens to be a great seller for us. His stuff is fantastic, but even he’s away doing TV and film, etc. He really wants to do comics but [the money isn’t there]. At some point, there’s going to be no reason to write comics for anybody, for any publishing company at all whatsoever, and then what are they going to do? How long is it going to take for comics to not really exist as comics at all?
■ Wise: I’ve read a lot of complaints this year about the concept of diversity [encouraging the proliferation of characters, books, and creators that reflect a variety of ethnic backgrounds and social experiences] and how it’s hurting retailers. That just sounds ridiculous to me. Your store should be welcoming to anyone who wants to read comics. Whatever your politics, all of these categories are a growing demographic for our product, and if you don’t want to sell to them somebody else will. Send them to my store—I’ll take the business.
■ Jeff Ayers, general manager, Forbidden Planet: For me, [weak editorial content] is really where [the slump] is at. I have never agreed with [the antidiversity arguments] that retailers are making. We do quite well with titles like America [about a Hispanic superheroine] and Moon Girl [a black preteen superhero series created by Amy Reeder]; that is not what’s bringing down sales. Lady Thor comics sell better than when regular Thor was in Thor. Lady Thor brings in excitement and has a built-in audience anyway.
■ Sharron: Some of the same dudes have been working on the same DC books for 30 years. Maybe shake it up a little. I think Marvel’s done a better job [creating diverse characters] but it’s still like five dudes who write almost every Marvel book. The dudes rotate, and [comics writer] Donny Cates is on a bunch of books and I like him, but you don’t want to read the same shit by the same people over and over.
There’s this African-American girl who shops here regularly, she’s probably like eight or nine now but has been shopping here for a while. I always remember the day she found out that Moon Girl was coming out and she was in here, literally jumping up and down. She said to her mom, “Mom, there’s a superhero who looks like me.” That’s important. That’s how you get a fan for life, right?
Comics Publisher Practices
■ Sharron: There’s just too many [superhero] titles. People get overwhelmed, so it’s hard for customers to get into it. It seems like [superhero comics publishers] can’t figure out what people want. People come into the store and seem really lost. Instead of sales going up when [Marvel and DC] make changes, now customers are looking at it as an opportunity to [not buy anything]. What I would like to see from a superhero comics publisher is 10 main titles, like Batman and Justice League, and just a bunch of miniseries all around, so people can jump in. It’s so much easier to sell books like that.
■ Ayers: There’s a lot of different problems with [superhero comics publishing]. The way that comics are packaged and the price point [are factors in declining sales]. The $4 comics periodicals are very inaccessible to consumers, sometimes, and it’s just hard to attract new customers to single-issue comics. If I take a look at our single-issue wall, I can see a lot of it seeming inaccessible. Nobody ever knows where to start. We do—our staff knows and there are titles that we’re pushing. Stuff like Fence #1 (Boom!) and America (Marvel)—those are titles we can get new readers into. We can sell them to people who don’t normally read single-issue comics.
The more you make comics inaccessible, the more people don’t want to read them. So we’ve moved to titles that don’t have a ton of continuity and backlog. Part of the reason that all the Batman [single issues] on our top-sellers list are doing well—new Batman series such as Metal and White Knight—is that they are miniseries and take place outside of series regular continuity. People can pick up a #1 issue and kind of keep going with that title. DC comics’ Mr. Miracle, for example, was a huge-selling title here. Mr. Miracle #1, if you add up all the printings, is one of the eight top-selling series that DC kept in print. It’s still available [unlike many; superhero publishers don’t always reprint when an issue sells out].
I love Fantagraphics but I think sometimes, in any industry, you aren’t always prepared for your own success. We sold a ton of [Emil Ferris’s literary graphic novel] My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, but if I had had it [in stock] the whole year [which didn’t happen because the book had distribution problems and was delayed]—whoa, I can feel the lost sales.
■ Smith: Discount tiers based on past orders are absolutely a problem. Another predatory Marvel practice, I would add, is the weekly miniseries [like Phoenix Resurrection], which asks retailers to blindly order five weeks of books with hardly any chance to adjust orders according to sales. This asks a retailer to take on high degree of risk based on little more than a character’s “hotness” and a mixed bag of creative talent.
I feel like Marvel may have cannibalized its own print sales with both Marvel Unlimited [Marvel’s online subscription service] and offering a more general audience–friendly experience with their movies and TV shows. Marvel’s short-term cash-focused strategies of yearly relaunches have also burnt out fans, and their predatory “incentives” and gated variants [special covers that are linked to other orders] have burnt out retailers.
■ Bickel, owner, Laughing Ogre: Marvel’s lenticular [hologram] covers were popular, but making stores buy unneeded product to get those covers was pretty destructive to the industry. The content of those books led to no bump in sales after they went back to normal covers.
Bestsellers and Bright Spots
■ Brower: One of my favorite statistics of our ordering for 2017 is that we ordered product from 213 separate vendors/publishers/creators. Diamond Comic Distributors is only one of those.
■ Ayers: I had to stay on my toes a lot in the last year and [stay on top] of market trends and sales. I’m not relying on a single distributor, a single item—a single anything. If things are going to sell and they’re going to sell well, I focus on having more of that and less of something that doesn’t. But that means a lot of juggling between four different distributors to get things and at your best price point.
■ Wise: Diversification of stock can be difficult for a small business with Diamond’s nonreturnable policy. Deciding where to put your money any given month is difficult, and I realize that taking a chance on a graphic novel like My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, a book with $30 cover price for an unknown author, can be tough.
But pay attention to the world outside of the [comics shop] market [which is dominated by books from superhero publishers]. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters made every best-of list last year and was covered in Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, and lots of other noncomics markets. If you don’t have it in stock I guarantee you Barnes & Noble and Amazon will. Don’t order that 17th Deadpool special or nonessential big event [superhero] crossover this month, and put some of that money into something that may attract a new readership.
■ Ayers: My all-ages books [comics aimed at young readers that also attract older readers] have gone back to being a literal gold mine and a creative gold mine too. I’m very happy with last year’s output of kids’ books.
■ Wise: We would much rather put our money into [book trade] middle grade graphic novel series, such as Compass South or Amulet, and build a new readership than invest in a $9.99 issue of Deadpool. Saga [a bestselling science fiction/fantasy series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Stables from Image] continues to be our bestselling series of graphic novels for the third or fourth year now. In general the Image trade paperbacks top the list. They are self-contained series, so people can get into a series and, quite simply, know what to read next. The introductory $9.99 price point doesn’t hurt either.
■ Brower: Regardless of the [negative] perception in the comics media [and among fans], Marvel’s Secret Empire series [in which Captain America turns into a villain] was still our best performer from Marvel [in 2017], with all of the issues landing in our top 100. It’s the rest of Marvel’s output that doesn’t track well for us. For DC, if it’s a Batman comic, it moves—44 of our Top 100 single issues are comics featuring Batman. If you take Brian K. Vaughn out of Image, our Image sales are underwhelming. Fourteen out of 100 were either Saga or Paper Girls, and that’s as many issues as they released in 2017.
■ Pifer: We’re definitely selling more all-ages and younger-age books. If anything has helped shops out it’s that stuff—it’s definitely helped us more than a lot other gimmicks and stunts and big first-issue launches. The Simpsons outsells probably 80% of the other books.
■ Doug Chase, graphic novels buyer, Powell’s: I can see the direct market [stores] facing many challenges, much like independent bookstores did a decade or so ago. I think the stores that attract more all-ages customers will do better. This is a very general statement, though, and every store is going to face different challenges.
■ Moss: Where do books figure in the endless stream of information vying for our attention? We can feel pessimistic about it at times. But the engagement and commitment to books we see from our customers daily indicates there is a long future ahead for our business.
Shannon O’Leary writes regularly on comics and retailing for Publishers Weekly.