Although comics and graphic novel sales didn’t drop off as sharply in 2018 as they did in 2017, according to pop culture trade news site ICv2, the past year presented challenges to comics retailers. Some say that they’re in the midst of a transitional period—a sea change in the way comics are sold and distributed—and that, though general bookstores with robust graphic novel sections are faring well, traditional comic book shops must be increasingly vigilant to stay in the black.

PW’s comics retailer survey is an informal and anecdotal report on sales during the past holiday season as well as an examination of likely business trends in the comics marketplace in the coming year. This year we touched base with four comic book stores that rely on the direct market for at least 20%–60% of their stock: Earth 2 in Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Forbidden Planet in New York City; Phantom of the Attic Comics in Pittsburgh; and Secret Headquarters in Los Angeles. There are about 2,000 direct market comics shops in the U.S. that 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 (generally, superhero comics), as well as prose books and graphic novels.

The survey also included three general trade bookstores that maintain large graphic novel sections: Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore.; the Strand Book Store in N.Y.C.; and University Bookstore in Seattle.

Comics retailers head into 2019 as uncertain about the market as they were at the start of 2018. The sharp sales decline of 2017 that precipitated many heartbreaking comics store closings still stings. Combined sales of comics and graphic novels in comics shops in 2018 declined about 1% from 2017, according to ICv2. And a relatively flat start in January, on top of a political climate that continues to create economic uncertainty, are all contributing to a wait-and-see attitude among the retailers contacted by PW.

Two of the general bookstores reported an uptick in sales last year: Powell’s and the Strand. But Doug Chase, graphic novel buyer at Powell’s, captured the overall mood of the bookstores: “We had a very good 2018 and one of our best holiday seasons ever, but we are approaching 2019 with a bit of caution.” Traditional comics shops reported little or negative sales growth in January when compared to January 2018 and were also wary about projecting better sales in the coming year.

Bestselling graphic novel lists for bookstores and comics shops were dominated by volumes one, eight, and nine of Saga, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’s bestselling Image graphic novel series. The lists also featured the Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, an RPG podcast turned wildly popular graphic novel series; Monstress, Vol. 1; volumes one and four of Paper Girls, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther collections.

The industry continued to shift in 2018 due to increased consolidation (the Disney/Marvel powerhouse and the recent AT&T acquisition of Warner Bros., DC’s parent company) and the need to retain traditional comics readers while attracting a new generation of readers with different tastes and buying patterns.

Looking for Holiday Standouts

Dave Pifer, co-owner, Secret Headquarters: The 2018 holiday season was not good. It just started so late—a week and a half or two weeks before Christmas. It used to start the day after Thanksgiving. That’s just what it’s like now. That’s just the new paradigm.

Jeff Ayers, general manager, Forbidden Planet: The holidays were a lifesaver because my November and October were the pits. It brought us back up to where we needed to be. There wasn’t a standout book this year until the end of the year, mostly because we had two sales people who pushed the book. This year it was On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. That’s the thing: having good staff who are passionate about what they’re selling and are not just pushing it on everybody but are getting a feel for what customers seem to like.

Julie Sharron, staff, Secret Headquarters: [Nick Drnaso's] Sabrina from Drawn & Quarterly was definitely one of the holiday standouts. There weren’t very many this year. We made a big point of ordering our favorite stuff for the holidays because it’s easier to hand to people and say, “Here’s the best stuff!”

Wayne Wise, staff, Phantom of the Attic: The holiday season was pretty typical for us. No one title stands out this year, though First Second’s Adventure Zone graphic novel continued to sell briskly at this time. Hand-selling is still our most effective sales tactic. If I’m genuinely excited about a title, and if I am attuned to my customers, I can raise sales significantly.

The Direct Market

Pifer: 2018 sales were worse than 2017 for sure. We ran through some of the numbers and saw that a chunk of where we were down was Marvel and DC specifically, by a not insignificant amount.

Wise: Sales have been down in all categories in the last few years. Single issues have been going down consistently for years, but for the most part sales of trade paperbacks and graphic novels have compensated. But those sales have also slowed of late. We simply don’t have the foot traffic we once did. If you’re only reading trade paperbacks, you don’t need to come in every week to see what came out.

Carr D’Angelo, co-owner, Earth 2: Comics shop inventory used to be set up with “Batman,” “Spider-Man,” and “Other,” but now “Other” is becoming such an important part of the market that you can’t just treat it like an add-on, whether it includes Image books like Saga and Paper Girls, or YA and young reader books like Raina Taglemeier’s books, Dog Man, or Super Hero Girls.

Ayers: Our sales are up on comics, and regular graphic novel market and manga sales were way up this year again. But what we had to do to get there was even more difficult than ever. The cost of comics is way up. I mean, I’m selling more volumes, but a lot of that is my bottom line being padded out by speculation [from those looking to buy certain debut periodical comics for the collectibles market]. There’s a big speculation craze this year. I don’t like to do this, but now I’m having to increase my orders for number one issues to fulfill the demand from speculators. I don’t think it promotes longevity.

Wise: We’re not fans of the variant cover games we have to play. Many of our customers want the variant covers and we just can’t meet the order requirements. Given some of the percentages they require, I don’t know how any store does. [Some publishers offer stores multiple covers by star artists for a given issue if they order a certain number of copies.] The idea that we can sell these variants for extra money drives retailers to order them I suppose, but how many extra copies of the book did you have to order to get them? In most cases the math doesn’t work for us.

Duane Wilkins, graphic novel buyer, University Bookstore: The individual comics issues cost too much. Now the $2.99 issues are almost all gone, phased out for $3.99, and that’s too expensive to expect most customers to collect them regularly or to buy more than a small quantity at a time.

Wise: Expendable income is tighter than it used to be and comic book prices keep going up: $3.99, and more and more often $4.99, is a hefty price for 20 pages worth of material that can be read in 10 or 15 minutes. But having everything in one place [by ordering via Diamond Comics Distributors] is good for us. We can scan the catalogue and see what is new every month from every publisher, and easily check availability on back stock. The downside is the monopoly-like stranglehold Diamond has on the major publishers. We can get trade paperbacks and graphic novels from Ingram or other distributors, but half our sales are still the monthly comics, which we have to buy from Diamond.

Chase: Our relationship with Diamond Comics Distributors has gone through 180 degrees of positive change in the last two years. Since it opened its new warehouse, its quality control and ease of ordering has been more than acceptable. We went from ordering most of the books it distributes from Ingram to the normal mix of wholesaler and distributor.

D’Angelo: We have moved out of the cash-in-a-cigar-box era to where now most retailers have amazing point-of-sale systems, yet direct market publishers are subverting these new tools. Marvel and DC and even IDW are releasing more weekly series that totally throw off the ordering cycle and require us to commit to nearly the whole series before we have seen sales on the first issue.

Ayers: Recently, for the second time in a row, I’ve had extra staff for nothing: out of an order for 54 total boxes I received 20. Less than half my Diamond shipment is here and 90% of my comics and graphic novels aren’t here.

D’Angelo: There’s a lot of uncertainty right now and that creates tension between the publishers and the direct market retailers. Retailers want timely and accurate information to make solid business decisions. Publishers want to maintain their sales numbers in the direct market while they pursue other markets, like putting comics in big box stores or doing exclusive editions of collected editions with online discount sellers. But the information we get tends to be the same hype the consumers get, with every event being earth-shattering and every story arc changing this or that character forever.

Pifer: There’s zero transparency about shipping costs between our store and Diamond. It’s a major problem. We have no real idea how the costs are broken down—why we’re charged what we’re being charged. You either pay it or you don’t get your books.

Wise: We’re ordering pretty close to the bone these days because we really don’t want much of our weekly shipment to become back issues. Trade book collections tend to sell over time, but the lifespan of a of a periodical back issue, not counting the random hot issue, is less than six months for us. After that it’s dead stock.

D’Angelo: The dirty secret is that the publishers succeed when they sell us product we don’t sell. Nobody wants to know sell-through numbers in this business. But publisher use of multiple covers, weekly series, rebooting and renumbering series, and hype instead of actual content info creates an environment where we can’t use our historical sales data accurately.

The Uncertain Future

Wise: In the early 1980s, I think it is safe to say, the advent of the direct market saved the comics industry as we knew it. It was perhaps the single most important change in how the business was done since the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in the late 1950s. I really think that right now the industry is in the middle of a similar, seismic change in the way business is done, but I don’t know exactly what that is. The advent of the direct market was one very specific change that had wide ramifications. It’s not as easy to pinpoint one, or even a dozen, specific factors going into the current changes—so much is happening.

Ayers: Every year it feels like there’s a transitional point. I think retaining the periodical comics customer has been more of a challenge than ever. The periodical customers we have are paramount. I would love to attract new readers, but last year was a hard year for that.

Pifer: It seems like a significant number of comic book shops around the U.S. rely on monthly periodicals in such a way that if their sales continue to tank, it’s probably going to tank a lot of retailers.

D’Angelo: The good news and bad news of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC TV shows is that more people love superheroes than ever before. But that doesn’t mean more people love superhero comics. They get their hero fix from the movies and shows and don’t need the comics. More people saw the Aquaman movie than read Aquaman comic books in 70 years. However, the comics are necessary to provide the fundamental mythology, so we are not seeing the death of comics or comics shops, which so many people predict. But we have to see our place in the food chain, and retailers need to expand their appeal and not be reliant on the weekly periodicals.

Bright Spots

Ayers: Some publishers do things right. Boom! Studios has really been knocking it out of the park with its various retailer incentive programs and getting good creators.

Barry Coe, children’s comics book buyer, the Strand: There was strong growth in children’s trade comics and also manga last year compared to 2017 sales numbers.

Chase: Manga continues to be a huge seller for us. Our inventory turns look great. We took steps last year to increase the visibility and size of graphic novel sections in general, and this has helped our sales grow over previous years.

Sharron: There are smaller publishers right now that really give a shit about comics and try new things—like Silver Sprocket; their stuff does really well here. Catboy has destroyed for us—oh my god! Now they do Jen Woodall books, so they’re easy to get. A ton of their stuff did really well here.

Pifer: We’re happy with all kinds of stuff we sell in the store—especially the stuff we publish. That’s what I tell anyone in comics retailing: make your own stuff. I think the all-ages category has the best price for the amount and quality of the comics offered. Dave Pilkey’s Dog Man is a great example. Brawl of the Wild is one of the biggest selling books on the planet.

Sharron: All-ages books are how you get your future customers. Dog Man, dude! Raina Telegmeier! The all-ages stuff is huge. All-ages periodicals are always the ones that sell out. Those are the ones that have the longest shelf life, because kids don’t care if it’s issue #47 or #48 of Lumberjanes—they’re going to get it because the cover’s cool. I feel like they’re not like the variant-y, collector-y kind of direct market comics collectors. They’re just people who want to read cool-looking books.

Chase: I do think the comic shops that are most interesting in Portland have either adapted to welcome a more diverse and family clientele, or they opened specifically with a mission to welcome such diversity. Comics publishing is changing. In the vanguard of change for kids is the graphic novel format and manga, bypassing the periodical format. Small retailers need to find and attract an energetic customer base of all ages, a diverse base. Offer fresh material. Make room for books. Be a place where your neighborhood and community like to spend time and money.

D’Angelo: I opened our first store in 2003, and it was the beginning of the book collection trend [for direct market shops]. At that time, there were only three books you had to have: Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Maus. That was the graphic novel section. Now 15–16 years later, there is a huge treasure trove of perennial and classic graphic novels that are more than enough to stock a shop. We still have weekly periodicals to sell, but the health of the industry is about those backlist books that we can sell over and over: Fun Home, Long Halloween, Persepolis, and Adrian Tomine’s work, like Shortcomings, and such works as Bone, and Amulet. When you go into a bookstore, it’s a storehouse of classic literature. You know they are going to have Romeo and Juliet and you don’t have to worry about the clerk wondering if they can get it from their distributor. Graphic novels have that foundation now, and comics retailers can offer a store full of proven sellers that satisfy customers.

Shannon O’Leary regularly writes about comics and graphic novel retailing for Publishers Weekly.