Over the past five years, the North American graphic novel market has welcomed a wave of new readers and grown from about $805 million in sales in 2012 to more than $1 billion in 2017. At a panel titled “Comics Readers: Who They Are and Where to Find Them,” held during the recent New York Comic Con, a group of comics professionals focused on identifying some of the consumer and cultural trends driving this growth.
The panelists focused on a new generation of comics-loving librarians and comics shop owners, the bookstore market, and the ever-growing popularity of graphic novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Long dominated by the superhero genre, the North American comics market is now offering a wider variety of works thanks to growing numbers of women, girls, people of color, and LGBTQ fans. The panel also examined the growing popularity of translations from the European comics market and a wide range of nonsuperhero material that is now available.
Panelist Terry Nantier is the publisher of NBM, which publishes literary and genre graphic novels, and PaperCutz, a kids’ graphic novel imprint. He founded NBM with a focus on bringing English translations of European comics into the American market and is a pioneer in offering book-format comics in the U.S. Nantier said publishing nonsuperhero comics in the American market was “tough” in his early years but noted that “the market has evolved in what it will accept.” NBM has been able to grow its publishing list by making “careful selections and focusing on attracting book readers rather than the traditional American superhero comics readers,” he added. “We’ve always reached out to book readers, not comics readers alone.”
Nazeli Kyuregyan-Baron, marketing director at Europe Comics, a coalition of 13 European Comics publishers that sells digital comics and brokers rights to foreign publishers, offered data on the growing sales of French comics in the U.S. and the impact of U.S. comics in France. In 2017, the total French comics market had about $575 million in sales (almost entirely in the book format). French publishers work in a variety of genres and styles, and these comics are being licensed for publication in the American market.
Last year, Europe Comics, Kyuregyan-Baron said, saw about a 26% increase in the number of titles licensed to U.S. publishers by it and the French Comics Association, a similar association of nine Franco-Belgian comics publishers, over 2016. She also noted that about 54% of French comics readers are women (“They buy books as gifts for the whole family”).
Although the American comics demographic has historically been dominated by men, everyone on the panel agreed that is changing. Using marketing data scrapped from Facebook, some pop culture analysts have claimed that American women represent 50% of comics fans. But Nantier was skeptical and disputed that figure. “We still see more men comics readers, but female fans are growing quickly and eventually are likely to surpass men,” he said. He noted that in the book market “generally more women buy and read books than men” and pointed out that “we’ve always focused on marketing our comics to girls.”
Other panelists pointed to a number of trends that show an increasing number of women impacting the American comics market. Karen Green, graphic novel librarian at Columbia University, cited the growth and popularity of indie comics festivals such as MoCCA Arts Fest in New York and the Small Press Expo outside Washington, D.C., which focus on nonsuperhero comics and “attract far more women than men.”
Jennifer King, a retailer who owns Space Cadets Collection, a comics shop in Houston, noted that “comics shops used to be scary places for women, but that is changing.”
Panelists also emphasized that self-publishing and crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter have been key in attracting more women creators to comics. Green also pointed out that webcomics, whose sales are not measured by BookScan, are very popular among female comics readers.
But for Nantier, the key factors transforming the American comics market have been the popularity of kids’ graphic novels and the embrace of the category by a new generation of librarians. Indeed, the panel cited the growing popularity of bestselling middle grade comics artist Raina Telgemeier, who will publish two books in 2019: Guts, a new graphic memoir with a first printing of a million copies, and Share Your Smile, a DIY book about comics storytelling that will have an initial printing of 500,000—mammoth figures for any U.S. author, in comics or prose.
“The growth in kids’ graphic novels has been tremendous over the last five years, as well as the growth in the number of new authors and new publishers,” Nantier said. “But what’s heartwarming is that librarians love comics and have become the biggest champions of graphic novels. They love how comics help them get kids excited about reading.”