The North American comics market continued to weather an ongoing industrywide transformation in 2019. Changing distribution models, outreach to promising new customer demographics, and an increasingly aggressive speculation market for comics periodicals presented challenges that kept retailers on their toes throughout the year.

Even though the holiday buying season has become shorter, general bookstores with large graphic novel sections and the traditional local comics shops included in this survey reported 2019 holiday sales that were on par with those of the 2018 season. Our interviews were conducted prior to news of the spread of the new coronavirus in the U.S., and at that time, the comics retailers surveyed were optimistic about 2020 but were keeping a close eye on tight inventory turns and taking an increasingly curatorial approach to diversifying their stock. We checked back with retailers about their store's situation now.

PW’s annual comics retailer survey is an informal and anecdotal report on sales during the past holiday season as well as an inquiry into likely business trends in the comics and graphic novel marketplace for the coming year. This year, we touched base with four comic book shops that rely on direct market distribution for at least 30%–60% of their stock: Comix Experience in San Francisco; Earth 2 in Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Forbidden Planet in New York City; and Velocity Comics in Richmond, Va. The direct market is a network of about 2,000 independent 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) and prose books and graphic novels—though the mix at these stores is rapidly changing, as this year’s survey demonstrates.

As in previous years, the survey also includes general trade bookstores that maintain large graphic novel sections. This year’s participants were Atomic Books in Baltimore, Md.; Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Ore.; Quimby’s Books in Chicago; and Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

Comics and general bookstore retailers included in this survey were generally optimistic heading into 2020. Every retailer PW spoke with used the term curation—generally meaning a careful and more strategic focus on the inventory they sell—when describing how to stand out in a crowded marketplace and stay in the black in an industry that’s still very much in flux. Direct market comics shops noted that Diamond Comics Distributors, as well as comics publishers such as Marvel and even big trade publishers such as Penguin Random House, have become more responsive to their needs. In addition, comics shops continue to debate the challenges and opportunities around the periodical comics format and, along with general trade bookstores, are embracing the chance to attract new audiences to their stores.

2019 holiday sales, standout titles

Patrick Godfrey, owner, Velocity Comics: 2019 was up almost 10% from 2018, which was shocking and awesome! First Second continues to be a dominant force as creators like Tillie Walden [On a Sunbeam, Are you Listening?] and Jen Wang [The Prince & the Dressmaker, Stargazing] deliver hit after hit. On the superhero side of things, trade paperbacks of Immortal Hulk and Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X hardcovers blew away all contenders.

Doug Chase, graphic novel buyer, Powell’s Books: We had a good holiday season, comparable to the previous year.

Jeff Ayers, general manager, Forbidden Planet: We had a good beginning to 2019, a good summer, and then the holiday was, like, not set up to be good. Hanukkah was the last week and Christmas was the last week, and you can see sales dip for us when that happens.

The Watchmen graphic novel [by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons] absolutely ran away with the whole kit and caboodle. It outsold the next bestseller by a factor of three I think. It was an exceptional TV show, and it did bring about an interest in the original book itself. Umbrella Academy and Infinity Gauntlet were the second and third best. Everything in the top three had a media tie-in. Then, once you get past the top three, you have Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam, Tom King’s Mr. Miracle, and Sean Murphy’s Batman White Knight.

If you put all the printings together, Jonathan Hickman’s House of X would be our #1 [comics periodical] seller for the year. It brought in new and enthusiastic customers. It wasn’t just an event. It seemed to have a focus, it seemed to get people excited, and we just couldn’t get enough of it here. That’s a good success story for periodicals in the store this year.

Steve Salardino, general manager, Skylight Books: The holiday season at our store was up over 2018 in general and in our graphic novel section. Sales were helped by the Chris Ware [Rusty Brown] and Lynda Barry [Making Comics] books, and by young reader books like Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series and Jen Wang’s Stargazing.

Liz Mason, general manager, Quimby’s Books: The 2019 holiday season was okay. We did only a bit more than 2018. We’re finding that, during the holidays, sideline merchandise helps supplement book sales. The best of 2019 bled into 2020. Our holiday season actually ends after the first week of January. Making Comics by Lynda Barry and Rusty Brown by Chris Ware were among our top sellers. Both would be big sellers with us anyway, but it also helped that we did events with the artists.

Early 2020 sales

Godfrey: It’s calmed down a bit for 2020’s first quarter. Periodical sales are driven by that next big thing, and it’s been a little quiet on the cool-new-thing front.

Chase: Our stores are doing remarkably well. Normally the last three weeks of January and all of February is pretty slow, but we’ve been happy with our sales numbers.

Mason: Sales are higher this year, and it’s nice to see. But that doesn’t mean we’re making money. It just means we can pay more of our bills. Everything is so expensive, and I don’t mean just merch. There are so many other expenses that go with running a small business, and it’s not cheap.

Carr D’Angelo, owner, Earth 2: First quarter has definitely been slow. This is when we need exciting product, and a lot of the publishers have been putting out weaker releases.

Brian Hibbs, owner, Comix Experience: January was down substantially, but we’re up over last year where we were in February. It’s too soon to tell for March. I don’t really see a lot of exciting products on the horizon until maybe we get to June. But the other thing that makes me a little nervous is that a significant number of graphic novels are printed in China. I have begun to hear from publishers that they are expecting shipments to be delayed a month or two or maybe more because of the coronavirus.

I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and we run tight operationally and inventorywise, so we know how to adjust when things get lean. I just want Marvel and DC to get their shit together. Here’s a concern: we’ve never had a period, except over the last 18 months or so, where both Marvel and DC are in the doldrums at the same time. Those publishers are in a slow period. That’s never happened, that I can remember, in the history of comics. Usually one of them is on a roll, and right now they’re not.

Salardino: Skylight Books has continued strong into the new year. I think that some long weekends and holidays and our event programming have kept sales strong through the end of February. Time will tell if we start feeling any fallout from the coronavirus or from election-related stress.

Curating the 21st-century comics shop

Chase: From our perspective, comics publishing is constantly changing—but thriving. I would imagine if direct market retailers aren’t able to adapt to changes, more stores would go out of business.

D’Angelo: Filip Sablik, publisher of Boom! Studios, talked about a glut of material in the marketplace at this year’s ComicsPro [a comics retailer conference] and urged retailers to treat our shops like Trader Joe’s: just stock what we think is the best and don’t offer every brand of barbecue sauce. Curate our shops. That’s been a plan for us, and it was smart to compare it to the Trader Joe’s model. Now more than ever, the local comics shop has to embrace the new reality that comics are so much more than superhero periodicals.

Salardino: Indie, small press, and self-published comics are continuing to grow, and we are focusing more and more on finding new and unique offerings. In these cases, it is not one title or series that increases the sales but the combination of a wide variety of weird and wonderful books selling in smaller quantity.

Benn Ray, owner, Atomic Books: We have no interest in trying to be everybody’s everything store. Our point has always been curation.

Godfrey: Upstart indie publishers like Vault, Source Point, Scout, Humanoids’ new periodical imprint... There are way too many new publishers trying to wedge into a finite field. The mantra for 2020 will be quality over quantity. We’re going back to a more tightly curated selection of titles after trying to spread our stock out as widely as possible.

Mason: If everybody is ordering from the same distributor, then nothing will distinguish one store from another. The more diversity one can get in their merchandise then the more diverse the store is going to be, so it’s critical to order from multiple places. Consignment deals with artists is where it’s at: you wait until after it sells to pay the artist or publisher for it. You just have to be willing to do the work on the back end of tracking sales, how much you owe consignors, and how much you’ve already paid them—but it’s worth doing that work to make a truly unique store.

Benn Ray, owner Atomic Books: We order outside of Diamond Comics all the time. We order direct with some publishers, and we use a number of other distributors, too. The discounts generally aren’t better than Diamond, but the payment terms are. But what’s most important is I don’t have to wait one-to-three weeks to reorder something like I have to through Diamond. In today’s next-day delivery environment, making a customer wait two weeks to ship something just isn’t feasible. I need to have restocks for customers within a day or two, and that’s something the direct market just isn’t capable of handling.

Chase: I know a couple of years ago Diamond opened a new warehouse with better quality control. We have seen an improvement in fulfillment and shipping from them since.

Godrey: My main problem with Diamond is the quality of their packing and shipping. They just downgraded the quality of their boxes in a way that does nothing to protect against damages. Overwhelmingly most of our damages occur on the corners of boxes, and the heavier the box, the more likely it is to get damaged on the corner. I think the direct market works but is held together with metaphorical duct tape. My suggested tweaks to their service: better shipping and packing, less chasing of the collector/speculator market by publishers putting out way too many variant covers for the same book, and maybe opening up more titles to returnability.

Ayers: There is a lot of change going on in the classic direct market shop. Maybe not at the fastest pace, but it’s refreshing. Comics publishers are taking a hit on returnability programs just so they can get new material into reader’s hands. It may cost them in the long run, but I think attracting new readers is worth the money. Format is important, especially in a crowded marketplace. There’s only a finite number of customers out there for graphic novels. I’d rather have a similar-size format at a lower price point that might be comfortable to a browser.

Mason: Books over $30 are a problem. A trend we’ve seen with a handful of publishers is to make their books expensive because they know people are buying them at online stores that give deep discounts. It makes us nervous about ordering books over a certain price point for the store, even if it’s a publisher shoppers expect to see here. Some small publishers claim they want to support independent bookstores, but they make their books cost prohibitive to order. Plus, if we do order books priced over $30, people come and “showroom” us—that is, they’ll take pictures of it and order it cheaply elsewhere. It makes us feel more like a museum than a bookstore. I joke that we should invoice the publishers for using us as rental space. Instead we’re paying them to essentially advertise their book and not actually making any sales from it.

D’Angelo: Stores have to choose their stock more carefully because there are fewer “whales” in the marketplace these days—collectors who will buy everything. Either they have lost interest or moved their purchases to online discounters to save money. But it is hard to be what we used to call a full-service shop and offer a sampling of every comics periodical. Nowadays, there are DC and Marvel comics that stores do not risk ordering for the shelf.

I think Batman writer James Tynion’s Punchline character is an interesting case study. It’s probably the most mainstream example of the new speculation culture, where “flippers” are looking for comics that shops sell for the cover price that can be resold for a profit that same day on eBay. It’s a crazy game, and it can interfere with the day-to-day operations of a local comics shop. I love readers and I love collectors, but I don’t love resellers who expect me to be their personal distributor/wholesaler.

Kids’ comics, manga, and periodicals

Ayers: Manga and kids’ graphic novel are showing the biggest growth in sales. Catering to speculators and stores who just want to make a quick buck would be a regression.

Godfrey: Last year we started an account with Ingram that has allowed us to restock manga and independent titles to a much greater degree, which has really paid off for us. Anything by [manga artist] Junji Ito sells well, such as Uzumaki, Shiver, Tomie. We have to constantly reorder his whole catalogue. Manga sales are always driven by anime. When anime gets in front of the faces of potential readers, they come and buy related manga books—it’s wild.

Ayers: And all these people who are reading Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series and the Archie series—we need them to stick around and continue reading comics as they get older. And how is that going to happen? That is the number-one thing every publisher who’s publishing kids’ books needs to figure out. How do you get them to stay? If Marvel moved Ms. Marvel to the digest format size so that kids can get that? It would be phenomenal. Moon Girl and Ms. Marvel should be moved to a digest size that’s a fraction of the price of a Marvel book. Making them $12.99 and putting them in the hands of kids and keeping them around is the number-one priority.

Hibbs: A lot of my peers built their local comics shops based on their love of Marvel and DC superhero comics rather than the medium of comics itself. That’s not a pejorative. Everyone should have exactly the shop they want, but if that’s what your base-level thinking is, it becomes difficult to build something other than that. So, while we’re very nimble being small businesses in the direct market, we’ve been slow to say just how strong children’s graphic novel publishing is right now.

Godfrey: In our shop, the two biggest growth areas we’ve seen over the last few years are in female readership and young readers. There’s so much great product coming out that appeals to those demographics, which hasn’t always been the case.

Mason: Our bestselling periodicals would be zines, not expressly comics—but if we’re limiting it to comics, it would be two titles self-published by Corinne Halbert: Cursed Woman and Demonophobiac. Full disclosure: Corinne also works here. Runner-up would be Satanic Feminism by S. Katz, though it’s less of a comic and more of a manifesto.

Chase: We are enjoying the popularity of manga and of all-ages graphic novels. This feels sustainable, as there is constantly a source of new readers. I don’t know how sustainable superhero stories will be, but they will have their place.

Looking ahead

Godfrey: Luckily, there are so many great comics out these days—something for everybody at a level it’s never been before. It’s just a matter of putting the word out to people that we’re here and we have stuff they want. And it’s way more fun to come and have a human experience with experienced professionals than to follow a website’s algorithm recommendations. Fostering a love of the comics medium in kids often grows them into lifetime fans.

Hibbs: The good thing is that there are more good comics now than ever in the history of the medium. There are more people reading comics, there is genuine excitement among the readership to read diverse material, and there’s so much strong material coming out in a diversity of genres, styles, forms, tastes, and interests, that comics are in a great place. And the explosion of children’s comics today means that a decade from now, comics are going to be even better.

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