Despite a drop in sales in 2017 and store closings, the mood was mostly upbeat at the 2018 Diamond Retailer summit, held April 6-8 in conjunction with the C2E2 pop culture convention in Chicago. Many retailers indicated to PW that they are beginning to see a slight upturn in sales in recent months.
But this comes after a year in which sales were down in every category. According to figures released by Diamond Comics Distributors—which distributes comics and graphic novels to a network of about 2,000 specialty comics shops around the country—periodical comics sales were down 10% in 2017 compared to 2016, graphic novels declined 9% and the number of direct market stores served by Diamond slipped about 1%.
The 1% drop in comics shops serviced by Diamond is the first time the number of stores has declined in several years, noted Chris Powell, Diamond’s v-p of retailer sales. Over the last six months, the comics industry has been rocked by the closing of several long running stores, most notably Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles, which closed its door at the end of March.
Still, the reasons for store closing aren’t always just bad sales, according to several retailers. Some older store owners have decided to move on; at least one retailer closed his physical store after a health issue; others have converted to mail order only. The current period, many attendees noted, seems like the end of a cycle in the comics market, a disruptive trend projected by Milton Griepp, CEO of trade news site ICv2.com, at his annual conference at New York Comic Con two years ago.
Despite the winds of change, Powell said there are positive developments. “With a lot of good publisher [title] announcements, retailers see a solid second half of the year ahead and we actually do have people who are looking at expansion,” he told PW.
Powell also emphasized the launch of Pullbox, a new consumer facing software retailing tool that Diamond will roll out this summer, that is expected to help boost sales. Pullbox will go into beta testing this summer, with an August roll-out expected
Pullbox will integrate retailer websites with Diamond’s own Previews magazine, a monthly periodical that lists all the comics coming from publishers in a given month. Pullbox will allow more spontaneous ordering from consumers. Much the way that people can go to Amazon and preorder just about any product—or just add it to a wishlist to reserve for later purchase—Pullbox will allow potential readers to flag comics and graphic novels of interest to them.
To make Pullbox integration easier, Diamond will roll out an app-based version of Previews this month, which will also be available on the web. “The main goal for this is to tie consumers directly to their retailers,” said Powell. “We believe their average dollars per customer will go up and they’ll get new customers via creators who share the links.”
When Pullbox is fully up and running, a reader who sees a new comic announced can click on a button in the Previews app and go to a local store’s website, where they can put it on their pull list, subscribe to a series, or pre-order it—if the store is set up.
Whether comics stores will be set up to take advantage of the service is not a given. In conversations with PW, retailers offered wildly divergent opinions about Pullbox. Some shops are already using a similar system called Pull-List (it’s operated by Comixology but ended in March) and see increased sales.
Teresa Coatgrove of Packrat Comics in Hilliard, Oh. noted that “We found this system helped increase orders from our existing customers when we used Comixology since every title was at their fingertips.” She’s looking forward to getting Pullbox up and running, noting that her customers miss the functionality of the Comixology service.
Other retailers, however, were suspicious, wary of turning over their customer information directly to Diamond, reflecting a long running fear that the distributor will someday sell direct to consumers.
Jen King, owner of Space Cadets in Houston, Tex. is taking a wait and see attitude. “It looks to be good bones for a working system, with lots of functionality for shops.” But King also said she was worried about the “future possibility of Diamond being purchased by any other entity, that any customer info gathered would then belong to the new owners.” King said, for that reason, she intended to develop her own in-store ordering system.
Powell is aware of these worries but said “When people see the protections we’ve put in place, it will assuage a lot of concerns. I don’t think it makes sense for us to do something that hurts retail stores. When stores close, we suffer.”
Retailers were also concerned about recent deep discounts by Amazon/Comixology on digital comics. Amazon has been running weekly 99¢ sales on Marvel digital graphic novel collections, sometimes in the week of the book's release, a move retailers believe has undercut sales entirely.
Making his first appearance at a retailer event, newly appointed Marvel editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski said he was unaware of why the discounts are being offered. “It’s not fair. But it’s not a Marvel issue. It’s an Amazon policy that we are trying to get to the bottom of," he said.
Cebulski’s answer left many retailers unsatisfied, especially when another retailer pointed out that DC, Image and other publishers aren’t offering the 99¢ sales. However, Amazon is known for this kind of deep discounting with traditional book publishers, so finding a compromise may take a while.
Given the prolonged downtown in sales, retailers agreed that the industry needs a shakeup, perhaps some nebulous new product they hope will bring people into stores. Powell praised retailers who are “open to changing the way they do business or buy stock.” He also praised publishers, including DC Entertainment, for putting more focus on comics for kids and teens, “instead of giving that business up to the book market, which unfortunately, many have done for a long time.”
Summing up the mood of the summit in a keynote speech, Diamond’s owner Steve Geppi, described surviving market crises in the past. “There are little bumps on the road, but they are just different versions of the challenges you have when you are growing. And the industry is growing,” he said.