So what do we know about the sale of comics and graphic novels in 2018? We know that the graphic novel market in 2018 was dominated by one category: kids'; and that the category was dominated by just one series. But first, let’s talk about comic books. We know it was a good year for comics, as reported by Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest North American comics distributor, who announced that comic book periodical sales were up by 2.0% in dollars sold.
Before we dive in, I want to emphasize here that the numbers announced by Diamond measured dollars, not units. Units are more relevant than dollars because they tell you what people are buying, not just how much the books cost. So let's shift now to units from this point on. When you combine Diamond's unit numbers with those of NPD BookScan, which tracks sales in the general book market, the graphic novel market is up by 11.7%. This is a marked difference from the 1.3% increase seen across all print publishing (not just graphic novels) in the U.S. and it indicates healthy growth for the category.
This double-digit growth is driven largely by a big jump on the juvenile side, which saw a massive 56.2% increase last year. On the adult side, there was a 7.1% drop in sales for adult graphic novels. What we’re learning from this data is that graphic novels aimed at kids and teenagers are dominating the graphic novel market even more than generally assumed.
Why the different results? Comics and graphic novel sales numbers are hard to come by, and the numbers that are available to us often present a biased picture. Most comics retailers and comics professionals use Diamond Comics Distributors sales charts because those are the only resource available to them. But drawing conclusions from that info is a bit like seeing someone’s kitchen and assuming that tells you what the rest of the house looks like.
Diamond Comics records sales in the direct market, a network of about 2,000 comics shops around the country that buy mostly nonreturnable product at wholesale prices from Diamond. These comics shops sell a mix of traditional periodical comic books (generally, superhero comics), as well as prose books and graphic novels.
I also have access to BookScan, which tracks 85% of print sales in the general book marketplace, and to sales numbers for adult and juvenile graphic novels. When you combine figures from BookScan with Diamond’s publicly available figures for comics shops, you start to get a more complete picture of the marketplace, but definitely not the whole picture. For instance, there’s no single source for digital sales, and sales from Scholastic Book Fairs, which are held in thousands of venues every year, are a complete mystery. Scholastic can order anywhere from 1,000 to 200,000 copies of a book for its fairs, and no one knows how many graphic novels they’re actually ordering, though we can assume it’s a lot.
Taking into account the three lists of sales data I’m working with 1) Diamond’s numbers for the direct market, 2) sales of the top 10,000 books in the adult graphic novel category as measured by BookScan, and 3) the complete list of books sold in the juvenile graphic novel category, also from BookScan, we get a more complete picture of the market.
So, why the big jump for kids’ graphic novels? Two words: Dog Man, published by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. It’s important to understand the strength of this property, as Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man held not just the top spot in unit sales, but the complete top-six list. Books like Captain Underpants (Pilkey’s previous series) and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid sometimes get categorized as graphic novels (though they aren’t in my analysis), but Dog Man is unambiguously comics. Graphix also publishes another kids’ graphic novel superstar, Raina Telgemeier (Drama; Smile; Sisters), whose books occupy slots 7-9. So, 2018 was Graphix’s year.
Next up was the usual holder of most units sold, Viz Media. The manga leader continues to control and command the U.S. manga market. Of the top 40 manga sold, all of them were published by Viz. It’s worth noting that the manga category, which often goes underestimated, captured 26% of all graphic novels sold in this country last year.
Marvel overtook DC in both units and dollars in 2018. Marvel, which frequently trails DC in graphic novels sales, made a lot of great moves last year, capitalizing on a very successful Marvel film (Black Panther). DC, on the other hand, didn’t have any breakout movies, shows, or animation in 2018 (the Aquaman movie hit too late in the year to have a big effect), and so saw their unit sales dropped by a massive 34% from 2017. DC’s movie slate seems to be turning a corner, so hopefully this problem won’t continue into 2019.
When you look at revenue from graphic novels, the picture changes a bit. Graphic novels aimed at kids (and that includes most manga) tend to be priced in the $10 to $15 range, while superhero and literary graphic novels can range from $15 to $30 (or more). Here, Marvel is the clear winner thanks to a hugely successful $25 edition of Infinity Gauntlet released to take advantage of Avengers: Infinity War film. Likewise, the $500 Infinity Gauntlet boxed set was one of the top grossers for the company.
DC takes the number two slot thanks largely to several books under the Dark Nights banner, a popular crossover series that brought together multiple DC superheroes, as well as perennial evergreen book titles such as Watchmen, Killing Joke, and Sandman. Reflecting that lower price point, Viz and Graphix take the third and four slots.
But by far the biggest takeaway from the list of the top graphic novels of 2018 is this: The top selling books are almost all aimed at kids or teens.
In the top 50 list by units sold, there are only four titles aimed at adults, and the first of these, Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins (First Second), enters at position 10. There are two books from Marvel (Infinity Gauntlet), one from DC (Action Comics: 80 Years of Superman), one from Image (Saga Vol. 8), and Mari Andrews’ Am I There Yet? (published by Clarkson and Potter). The rest are largely kids’ books and several volumes of Viz’s wildly popular manga series My Hero Academia. When you consider the unknown hundreds of thousands (or more) of sales through Scholastic Book Fairs, it’s clear that children/teen graphic novels are dominating the market in ways not previously understood by most armchair graphic novels sales trackers. (Wait, am I the only one of those?)
The children’s market is only likely to grow in the coming years with the introduction of Gina Gagliano’s imprint, Random House Graphic. Random House Children’s Books has been left on the sidelines of the graphic novel phenomenon for over a decade now, but I expect that to change quickly once Graphic begins to release their first books.
Okay, so those are some of the highlights of 2018. Next time, I’ll talk about the trends for 2019
Dallas Middaugh, an author, editor and publisher, has worked in the manga and anime field for almost 20 years. His company, Nonlinear World, is a pop culture consultancy working with clients in manga and anime on events, publishing, marketing, and industry analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.