Breaking news: the comics industry is not dying

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201306120344 Breaking news: the comics industry is not dying
If there’s one phrase that frosts my scuppers these days it’s variations on the “comics are a dying industry” or “failing medium” or some other rote expression of gloom. This attitude goes back to the historic low self-esteem which many comics industry creators and professionals hold. It’s one of those deeply held beliefs that people like to joke about even as it reveals a deeper insecurity.

But it’s just not true.

In his analysis of the May sales figures, John Jackson Miller drops this little bomb:

As noted on Friday, a greater variety of publishers than usual appears to have contributed to sales this month. There were also some new publishers in the Top 300 comics list for the first time in a while: Black Mask and Storm King.

It’s worth noting that this month’s $45.12 million in comics and graphic novel orders represents an increase of 90% over the $23.7 million ordered for the same month in 2003. I think we can all reasonably agree that inflation has not doubled over the course of ten years, so there has definitely been substantial growth in the market.


I plugged this into an inflation calculator and here’s the result;

What cost $23000000 in 2003 would cost $28566510.50 in 2012.
Also, if you were to buy exactly the same products in 2012 and 2003, they would cost you $23000000 and $18554533.38 respectively.

In very simple terms $45.12 million > $23.7 million.

2003 wasn’t even a shitty year for comics; manga was in the house, and Marvel was at the tail end of its Ultimates-charged renewal.

Now it IS true that comics prices have increased. From Miller’s average cost charts in May-03 the average comics price was $3.09 and the average weighted cost for top 300 comics was $2.77. From May ’12:

The average comic book in the Top 300 cost $3.59; the average comic book retailers ordered cost $3.64. The median and most common price for comics offered was $3.99.


Still, that $45.12 million figure doesn’t even factor in digital sales which are substantial and rising.

Comics are not dying. There are new publishers, new creators, new distribution channels, new social media—new everything.

201306120345 Breaking news: the comics industry is not dying
Now, I understand where the “dying industry” trope comes from—part of it is The Beat’s own monthly sales charts with “standard attrition” and the appearance of declining sales every month. Periodical sales tend to go down every month. I think it’s safe to say that just about every publisher is dealing with this by creating new products and repackaging old ones every month as well. So even if the top books don’t include ten titles selling more than 250,000 every month, sales have been in good shape overall.

In a lot of ways, the “dying industry” is the more recent expression of “New Wertham” anxiety: a continuity-obsessed comics industry with a long memory feared making too many waves for years for fear of inciting a new anti-comics crusade. Without too many people still around who remembered the first Wertham crusade, the new bugaboo for self doubt is the end of newsstands sales and the black and white implosion.

In the 70s, when comics were sold on newsstands. even a title like WEREWOLF BY NIGHT sold about 50,000 copies a month. And in the 80s heyday of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, bizarro black and white comics sold the same amount…heck even artsy books from Fantagraphics sold 30-40,000 copies. So yeah, there was a sales surge that was undone by the distro wars of the 90s Chromium Age, and these events of 20-30 years ago are still recent enough that many a grandpappy will recount them to a young’un around the fire.

Well guess what, 20 years ago we made phone calls from our landlines to invite people over to play bridge and used a paper map to figure out how to get to grandpappy’s house. We stopped by Blockbuster to see what was new on VHS and went to HMV every Tuesday to pick up new CDs.

You can’t use the same metrics. I still hear people saying “If only we could get back in 7-11s and grocery stores we could save comics!” when people don’t even buy FOOD at grocery stores any more. Several publishers have flirted with getting comics back in 7-11s in recent years and nothing happened. Instead we have the internet, the grandpappy of all newsstands.

Along the same lines, ICv2’s monthly charts are out and things looked pretty good. Perhaps the most interesting element being the blockbuster status of the first SAGA collection:

Perhaps the most interesting number among the top graphic novels was 7,552, the number of Saga Vol. 1 that sold in its eighth month.  That’s 65% more than April’s sales, and the most in any month since January.  Saga Vol. 1, being priced at $9.99, has now sold over 53,000 copies to North American comic stores since release last October.  Saga also moved up in the book market in May (see “May BookScan–Top 20 Graphic Novels”).


More
Top 300 Graphic Novels Actual–May 2013
Top 300 Comics Actual–May 2013
AND here’s yet another chart showing why the last 12 months have been so sanguine:

It’s really been an incredible run over the last year, and the first part of 2013 has been gangbusters.  Here are the growth rates from May 2012 through May 2013:

1%          May 2013
14%        April 2013
22%        March 2013
10%        February 2013
27%        January 2013
15%        December 2012
(1%)       November 2012
20%        October 2012
(4%)       September 2012
18%        August 2012
20%        July 2012
11%        June 2012
43%        May 2012


Dying my ass.

That said, the 1% in May 2013 does look puny. The most asked question I get from new cartoonists as “Is this going to last? Is it all a bubble? In five years will it all die again?”

I’m not going to be a fool and say this growth is rock solid and endless. Comics and graphic novels are hot right now, the way manga was a decade ago, and there will be more changes. The Big Two are still the two towers of the comics shop suspension bridge, and it is true that they are slyly slipping in more and more variants and double shipping and other stunts to boost sales. Variants do not represent rock solid growth. Inevitable market correction will take place. Will it be an “implosion?” I asked a few prominent retailers about this at C2E2 and while there were some serious expressions while contemplating the question, the basic answer was “We’re more prepared for it this time.”

Whether you find this reassuring or not depends on whether you think these guys and gals are fooling themselves, whether they’re mammals or dinosaurs. I see a lot more tree shrews than stegosauruses these days, so I hope we have a chance.

To put it another way: the comics industry is not dying at the moment, but rather enjoying marked and exciting growth behind a period of incredible creativity and increased public awareness. The growth will not last forever, because nothing ever does, and in 10 years we’ll all be playing snizzbots on our tiddlewhangers while we grocket with the house robots instead of reading books or downloading DVDs. However, if we all just stay cool and don’t do anything crazy, you’ll still be able to buy some kind of comics on your tiddlewhanger. That much I am certain of.

Comments

  1. Doctor Timebomb says:

    Great article Heidi. Looks like a lot of people who flock to the comments section of this blog will need to find a new dead horse to beat.

  2. jacob lyon goddard says:

    Pfft.
    Next you’re going to tell me they’re not just for kids anymore.

  3. While I agree that comics aren’t dying, I think cherry picking 2013 vs 2003 doesn’t really get you anywhere. The days where a comic might sell 7 million copies (X-Men #1 vol 2) are long long gone and comics are definitely a niche market that has some serious issues. ($43 million in a month is tiny)

    I think the next ten years will see the death of the monthly pamphlet, the disappearance of more comic stores, and the continued rise of the graphic novel and digital. I absolutely see a lot of wonderful quality graphic novels out there but I also know that the Marvel/DC “go to the comic store every Wednesday” type is getting older and not being replaced by kids (due to cost).

  4. Newsstand comics sales are alive and well. Most of Archie’s periodical sales are there, with each digest selling low-six figures (and by “low” I mean less than half a million). Marvel’s kids’ comics magazines sell around 60-70,000 apiece, more for standalone specials. My first comics magazine at Disney (which was also Heidi’s) had an average newsstand circ of 200,000 in 2007 and my last was a one-shot that cleared 100,000 in 2011. Regular 7×10 monthly comics at Disney sold equal amounts in the Direct Market and the newsstand, and when the standard DM attrition occurred, the newsstand sales went UP.

    Comics not being more widely available on newsstands is likely due to publishers not trying, not investing enough capital, or trying with the wrong format/price/distribution equation.

    I think the thrust of the article here is dead-on: comics are widely loved, widely read, one of the most popular reading formats ever invented (still today). Comics are so great that sales will keep increasing no matter how badly we muck it up on the publishing side, and continuing to invest in new markets for them can only help.

  5. @Alex — it’s not cherry-picking to say that current year sales are higher than they were ten years ago. John and Heidi are both pointing out the fact that in recent years the industry has continued to grow, not that it is comping blockbuster sales from 20 years ago.

  6. jaroslav hasek says:

    i think tablets and smart phones + free strips and 8 page comics = “casual” comic reader explosion.

    like how video games broke out of their console based hardcore gamers-only spiral. only hopefully comics will have a better quality product than farmville.

  7. Doctor Timebomb says:

    Doing a ten-year comparison is “cherry picking” now? That’s one big-ass cherry.

  8. @Alex:

    “I think the next ten years will see the death of the monthly pamphlet”

    People said that 10 years ago. And ten years before that. And, while I wasn’t in person, I’ve read the older fanzines and such where they were saying it ten years before that and ten years before THAT.

    “but I also know that the Marvel/DC “go to the comic store every Wednesday” type is getting older and not being replaced by kids (due to cost).”

    You “Know” no such thing. You may “think” it — but as someone who owns a comic book store, I can assure you that you are 100% wrong.

    Your kind of attitude here is pretty much exactly what Heidi is writing about.

    -B

  9. Synsidar says:

    To a great extent, looking at sales figures for the comics market as a whole treats the market as a genre, not as a segmented industry. How useful would it be to look at sales figures for the video game, smart phone, DVD, or book publishing market and draw conclusions?

    Publishers contemplating publishing comics won’t treat the market as a genre. They’ll publish works aimed at particular age groups, with particular page counts, price points, etc. As with books, a publisher’s marketing campaign will determine how well a particular comics work sells.

    Comparing the number of titles issued by publishers over a time period, their sales, price points, (and profitability, ideally) would complicate analysis considerably, but any analysis that treats, say, PAYING FOR IT as being in the same market as a GREEN LANTERN collection or a Diary of a Wimpy Kid release has problems.

    SRS

  10. i’ve been hearing about this “death of the comic book industry”, “the death of paper comics”, and “the death of super hero comics” nonsense since the early to mid 1990’s. what a bunch of hooey. like any other niche industry there is ebb and flow. good times and bad times. the comic book industry was around before us and will be around after we’re all gone. oh, and as far as grocery stores are concerned, i’m not sure where you good folks all shop, but every supermarket i go into or pass by is always packed. also, why would i want someone else picking out my meats and veggies for me, doesn’t seem like a good idea.

  11. Chris Hero says:

    You’re looking at dollar growth and assuming it matches inflation. It doesn’t. Comics have way outpaced inflation. Also, higher dollar sales doesn’t mean higher unit sales. We’re selling about the same or less in units even though the cost of those units have skyrocketed.

  12. Matthew Oliver says:

    Good article, completely agree, but I think there’s something missing which I haven’t seen addressed since the May sales figures came out. Short version, DC are in trouble.

    Long version, DC kicked started the comic boom with the new 52. They advertised everywhere, they got people into comic shops and got people talking about comics, rather than just movies based on comics. Unfortunately when these people got into the comic shops, they realized they wanted well written comics with engaging stories, rather than just superhero tropes. Hence the constant rounds of cancellations and replacements in the DC line. Look at the sales figures for DC comics launched this year. DC and Marvel tend to cancel any ongoing which falls below 15-20,000 orders, now look how many comics DC has below that threshold (excuse the pun). Look at issue 1 sales for The Movement and Green Team, they didn’t even break 30,000. The same thing happened with Vibe and Katana, and they are now deep in cancellation territory after 4 issues. It looks like villains month is an attempt to right the ship, and I have no doubt the collectors will be out in force, and it will be a huge success for the month, but what happens to the titles which are skipping a month, I think they’ll be weakened even further. Give it another 2 years and DC won’t be publishing anything that doesn’t have Batman or Superman in it.

    On the positive side, all those people who were drawn into the comic shops by the New 52 are buying Walking Dead, Saga and a bunch of other creator-owned books, and the ‘long tail’ is getting longer every month, which is great for the industry.

  13. Bill Wiliams says:

    After ten years of predicting the death of comics, are we predicting they die of old age?

  14. Cory!! Strode says:

    Werewolf By Night was selling MUCH better than 50K, since Marvel would cancel books selling less than around 150K in the 70’s.

  15. I used to buy Werewolf At Night at the newsstand. Ironically, that’s where I finally found a copy of L’il Gotham #1 last month, when the LCS had none to offer.
    But I am considered a dinosaur, all for the right reasons. I still go to HMV on Tuesdays to buy CDs. Why? Because I get higher audio resolution from CD than from iTunes. And the CD can be played in my car, on my home DVD player and is transferrable to my iPod. Plus it’s got a lyric sheet, and I can sell the CD when I am done with it. Yup, dinosaur.

  16. Pedro Bouça says:

    By the way, are the April DC sales charts late or did I miss them somehow?

  17. Comics have been “dying” since they were born. A lot of it stems from being mass-media (pop music is also always “dying” as are trashy novels etc), and the rest seems a bit of a hangover from the old class resentments that have haunted the form since its early cartoon days.

    Graphic Novels as a bookselling genre – ie, graphic novels and trade collections – are still on the up. I expect that to continue as it’s not a new trend by any means – it’s been growing for years though the majority of sales are on literary successes, a handful of breakthrough DC/Marvel titles, old Vertigo series (still!) and Batman/Walking Dead.

    Does lack of availability on the monthlies harm their sales though? Fuck yeah. The number of kids I have snapping up the trade collections of Adventure Time and Batman whilst telling me that they’d buy it monthly/weekly if they could… not to mention the hugetastic sales of all the Moshi Monster/Skylander trend books at pocket money prices, plus the great local sales of the wee Commando comics and collections… there’s a whole load of money right there wanting to be spent on favourite superheroes and new adventures without much concern over quality.

    I have students dropping hundreds of pounds on collected editions of DC, Marvel, Image etc – there’s no comic shop for 50 miles (less one dark and dingy place that people say is creeptastic) – but I’d bet dollars to donuts that those same fans would be buying it weekly if they could in town or – le gasp – on Amazon.

    As a bookseller it honestly boggles my mind that comics are so hard to get a hold of. As a pretty knowledgable fan, it’s a pain in the ass even for me to buy what I want monthly o_O

  18. swampy says:

    I’m feeling left out, I only buy food at grocery stores. If people don’t buy FOOD at grocery stores, what do they buy? We have several in our city and the parking lot is almost always packed, unlike our local comic stores.

    However, I’m beginning to notice that most of our LCS are putting limits on the number of copies one can buy (2 per customer/1 on special books). So either the collector segment is growing or the speculators are returning.

  19. Chris Hero, “comics have way outpaced inflation” is a proposition you can test — with the information Heidi already provided you above. The average price of all comic books retailers ordered in May 2003 cost $2.77; according to the BLS inflation calculator (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=2.77&year1=2003&year2=2013) that’s worth the same as $3.50 in May 2013.

    And the average price of all comic books retailers ordered in May 2013 was $3.64. So there’s a 26.3% inflation rate over the decade in the CPI — and a 31.4% inflation rate in monthly comics prices. That is a difference, so your statement is basically true — but it is not by any means a difference that would account for a near-doubling in dollar sales, which is why I called attention to the fact.

    One of the reasons I post so many different calculations each month is for exactly this purpose. Chris, again: “We’re selling about the same or less in units even though the cost of those units have skyrocketed.” The “skyrocketed” part is, as we’ve just explored, not correct, but let’s take the first part. Following the link to my article reveals this statement:

    TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES Versus 10 years ago this month: +22%

    The shops sold 5.69 million copies of the top 300 copies 10 years ago; they sold 6.97 million copies last month. So unit sales of comics are not about the same. That’s not insubstantial growth, in business terms.

    But wait! Coupled with inflation, that only brings the periodical group up 61% in dollars. Where do we get 90%? Obviously, from what’s left. Trade paperbacks (and comics outside the Top 300, but TPBs are the biggest chunk). All trade paperbacks sold by Diamond sold for around $8-9 million in May 2003; this past month, it was at least $17 million. There’s your doubling.

    And let’s not forget that those TPBs are all units, as well as dollars — so in reality, the number of units — comics AND trades — sold is up quite a bit more than 22%. And recall that this is only in the Direct Market: there’s a least a hundred million dollars annually in the mass market in TPB sales that didn’t exist ten years ago.

    One reason I run a slew of comparisons each month is to reality-check myself, to make sure I’m not seeing noise, or cherry-picking. Yes, 2003 wasn’t a spectacular year (though it was a lot better than the years immediately before it). Yes, May 2003 was a four-Wednesday month, versus five this time — and the historic difference between such months averages around 11%. I knew all that — and yet, I believe that 90% is a big enough increase to account for the calendar, inflation, and what was going on in the two markets — and still suggest growth.

    Look, getting past the numbers to the point of Heidi’s column: I sometimes think the early 1990s may have fouled up our definition of growth in the Direct Market. Then, we saw sales figures doubling, the number of stores ballooning, and it was very visual — and ultimately unsustainable. Today, we see about the same number of stores and think things haven’t changed much — but what we can’t see is that the bottom lines of many of those stores is better. There are structural checks in place to prevent a double-digit increase from becoming a triple-digit increase, and it’s netted out to be a healthy thing overall.

    A thought experiment: rerun the DC relaunch and the year that followed with ten-plus distributors offering easy credit, as we had 20 years ago. I think the numbers would be growth even skeptics could recognize — but I also think I’d be very worried, as people were becoming then. As I note in my Flashback column for this month (http://blog.comichron.com/2013/06/may-2013-comics-flashbacks-v-for.html), Milton at ICV2 wrote then: “Overall, it seems inevitable that there is going to be unsold product in the marketplace when the dust settles … Although the market is growing, it is hard to believe it is growing at the rate indicated by these orders.” He was exactly right.

  20. The cancellation threshold at Marvel during WEREWOLF BY NIGHT’s run was probably closer to 100k. DAREDEVIL was down to 125k by the end of WEREWOLF’s run, and the reprint books (which cost Marvel less to produce) were at 100k or lower by that time.

    It’s hard to know: Marvel had a raft of titles out then (including WEREWOLF) for which it never published sales data. I suspect that the ones it didn’t report on sold worse on average than those it did report on. But we do know they were also likely printing three copies to sell one, which gets us into why the newsstand market collapsed back then in the first place.

  21. We’re all dying, sooner or later. HAVE NONE OF YOU SEEN AFTER EARTH?

  22. Synsidar says:

    The cancellation threshold at Marvel during WEREWOLF BY NIGHT’s run was probably closer to 100k. DAREDEVIL was down to 125k by the end of WEREWOLF’s run, and the reprint books (which cost Marvel less to produce) were at 100k or lower by that time.

    Comparing Marvel’s circulation rates in the ’70s to circulation rates now raises a different set of issues, since the nation’s population has increased tremendously since then. Leisure activities have changed since then, the technologies used for leisure have changed–Marvel’s characters haven’t.

    An important issue isn’t whether the comics format is dying, or even whether Marvel is dying, but whether Marvel is doing anything to try to appeal to more segments of the reading population.

    SRS

  23. John Jackson Miller, once again drops the truth so hard it cracks all naysayers. Heidi, good article and good attitude. I wish more folks stepped up to the plate for a unified chorus. Until then, let’s continue to fight the good fight.

  24. This is a great piece and does a great job of making the case for growth. What amazes me is the lack of interest both Marvel and DC have in creating great stuff FOR 12 year old kids who just saw Iron Man, Avengers or the next Super Man movie. No movie related comics…nothing, nada. Here you sell a bazillion dollars in tickets to kids and you FAIL to follow up with a book that ties into the movie!
    McDonald’s has a Happy Meal for a reason, it creates a future customer who will come back as an adult and then as a parent.
    Do all the alt universe, dark crap for adults-that’s fine.
    But when you fail fail fail to do any sort of investing in the future of your brand, you are bound to whimper along and talk the good ol days.

    Here’s another scoop for you Marvel and DC…and any other comics pub interested in a future-schools are now incorporating comics into reading programs. Publish comics like we used to read as little kids and you actually have a decent shot at a long term future. If not, the major traditional houses will take up even more market share and beat your asses gladly at the game you were supposed to be so great at.
    Witness Scholastic, Capstone, Lerner, First Second, TOON Books etc…they keep humming along and growing.

    Time to ask your self some serious questions: Where will we be in ten years? How do we actually reach new audiences? What are we willing to invest to get there?
    Right now, not a single traditional comics publisher has the slightest idea.

  25. Chris Hero says:

    John Jackson Miller,

    A 5% increase over the rate of inflation is pretty freaking high. The fact inflation has so drastically outpaced wages hides the fact that 5% is still pretty high in statistics.

    A 22% increase in unit sales doesn’t match the 31.4% increase in price and conflating the two, as Heidi does above, weakens the argument that comics are having great growth. That disparity shows, well, something’s not right, and you correctly demonstrate the increase is in graphic novel sales. I was wrong about the number of unit sales. As a mathematician, something about the whole picture bothers me. There’s just not enough growth to make me feel like we can start saying things are looking up, especially with the way Marvel and DC are artificially spiking the numbers with gimmicks and returnability stunts.

    I just don’t like the original article because it’s a sloppy analysis where the wrong data is being used to support conclusions. I’m also trying to get out of my math based, engineering job and make a living making comics, so I want to find a sustainable market. I just don’t think the direct market is the way to go.

  26. @Synsidar — I’m pretty sure that every industry you mentioned there collects and analyzes sales data as a whole. More detailed analyses are also useful, but it’s common to ask a broad question like, “How are physical DVDs selling vs. digital downloads?” or “How are overall book sales doing this year compared to last year?” While regular book publishing does reflexively break out sales by Trade, All Other, and Combined, I haven’t seen too many publishing industry think pieces that disregard those numbers in favor of analyzing sales of only, say mysteries, or picture books, or true crime. Not sure what you’re driving at there. I think an overall look at sales of the comics medium is very useful, depending on what question you’re asking.

  27. Another aspect of this that gets overlooked is the relative age and level of experience of the Direct Market now vs. 20 years ago (or even 10 years ago). I think any anecdotal glance at almost any LCS will show you that the DM is getting better at selling comics, and that it’s still a relatively young channel. As retailers (meaning the people who run the stores, not just the stores) go through a few booms and busts and changing trends they will keep getting more and more savvy on how to appeal to and expand their customers.

    Even five years ago, if I told someone I worked in comics they would say, “Oh I love Hagar the Horrible!” Now they usually say, “Oh cool, I was just in Forbidden Planet yesterday.”

  28. Kat Kan says:

    I totally agree with argh – my students would LOVE more Marvel and DC comics that I could allow them to read. Most of the current comics aren’t appropriate for my elementary grade students, which is where the spark of comics attraction starts. The students are very happy, however, with the books produced by all the publishers argh has mentioned.

    And yes, I’m incorporating comics into my library curriculum – not only reading them, but creating them. Just about every student from Kindergarten through 8th grade worked on creating original comic book stories for a school-wide 4th quarter library project.

  29. >>>A 22% increase in unit sales doesn’t match the 31.4% increase in price and conflating the two, as Heidi does above, weakens the argument that comics are having great growth. That disparity shows, well, something’s not right, and you correctly demonstrate the increase is in graphic novel sales.

    OH NOES! Comics sales which are dying are only up 22%! What a shame we have to rely on those two BRAND NEW MULLION DOLLAR CHANNELS GRAPHIC NOVEL SALES AND DIGITAL TO ACCOUNT FOR ADDED GROWTH IN WHAT IS A HEALTHY MARKET.

    Chris Hero, you are just the kind of person I was talking about in this article. I’m not saying that we should all flip our houses and start bathing in virgin donkey milk while sipping Cristal — but we should also show the confidence and investment in what we love to say “We’re doing okay…now what can we do better.”

    Also, to those who bemoan Marvel and DC not targeting the kids markets…I too would like to see the Big Two do more great kids books, but DC has the Cartoon Network turning out a steady stream of well received cartoons, and Disney is spreading the Marvel brands into every tentacle of their world wide licensing program. Marvel Comics and DC Comics do not need to be the leads in reaching this segment, as much as we might like them to be.

  30. jonboy says:

    Marvel and DC have both had multiple ‘all-ages’ titles for the last 20 years. But they don’t sell very well (they usually are ~5-10k) so they usually get cancelled fairly quickly.

    If everyone that complained about DC and Marvel not publishing the ‘all-ages’ titles actually BOUGHT the all-ages titles, then they wouldn’t be getting cancelled all the time.

  31. Bravo, Heidi!
    The question will always be how can we do better.
    And I agree that for now let’s CELEBRATE that we continue to not only survive, but also do it well and better than expected. If this is the *new normal* then this is a good platform to build on. I say proceed with optimism. We might not be popping champagne corks but i’ll gladly buy a round of drinks at the bar.

  32. Dan Ahn says:

    Yeah, I definitely don’t think that the comics industry is on its deathbed. Seven years or so every pundit was saying that LCS’s would be gone by now and that the direct market was a thing of the past. Meanwhile in the last two years have seen a huge comeback in both those quadrants.

    I do think that it’s sort of cherry-picking facts, though, to use the raw profit number as some sort of index of health. The industry brings in almost twice as much money as it did ten years ago, but I know an AWFUL lot of aging fanboys who are spending more money than ever. And that’s not even counting how comics themselves cost more now on average. Clearly the Big Two especially are squeezing their existing fanbase for all its worth. If Marvel tricks more 40-year-old readers to buy three $3.99 event comics a month, and two $4.99 special issues, that’s not a reason to stand up and cheer the health of the industry.

    Furthermore and lastly, some of the examples you use just don’t make any sense. The internet is the “grandpappy” of the newstand? How does that metaphor even work, when the newstand was around for over a century before the internet was invented? And just because the internet is in a sense a bigger “newstand” obviously doesn’t mean that the audience is just going to magically encounter products that they’d like to buy or comics that they’d like to read.

    Similarly, the idea that people don’t even buy food at grocery stores anymore — totally ridiculous and skewed. Don’t be such a techno-utopian. Just because technology can aid us in all of these different ways doesn’t mean that it’s some sort of savior that will magically solve all of our problems and make everything okay again. I’m not saying that getting comics in supermarkets again would be a initiative with strong legs, but clearly getting a general audience to actually encounter real comic books again would be a good thing.

    This is what the pundits of seven years ago were saying: “By 2013 the direct market will be dead, but digital comics will solve everything, and obviously they’ll be on sale for 99 cents each, attracting a fanbase well into the millions worldwide.”

    Nonsense. And these are the same people who assume that no one else shops in the physical world anymore, just because they’re content to order their fruit and vegetables online, sight unseen, through trendy websites.

    There’s a lot of health in this industry, but making blanket statements gets us nowhere. We have to continue to use all avenues will can to further the industry, not pit different factions against each other.

  33. Chris: A 5% differential over the rate of inflation would indeed be “pretty freaking high” — if it were in the year-to-year rate! This is a difference over the course of a decade.

    And in fact, when you look year-to-year, the pain consumers felt appears to have been localized in specific years. The annual inflation rate for comics cover prices during the period was actually less than core inflation in six of the ten years — and there was deflation of 2.7% in 2011, the year of DC’s price fallback. It’s really two years in which there’s a large difference: 2006, when Civil War threw a lot of $3.99 volume into the charts — the “comics inflation rate” then was 5.9% versus 3.2% for the rest of the economy — and 2009, when the major publishers pushed for $3.99 in a year in which the rest of the world was seeing deflation: a 6.6% comics increase versus a 0.4% decrease everywhere else.

    While I by no means discount cover price inflation (though it certainly is nothing like it was in the 1970s), my point is it’s nowhere near sufficient to explain the growth. I’ve seen a lot of people (present company excepted) using inflation to dismiss the fact that more comics are being sold and many more trades are being sold; the reason for my calling it out in my article was that it’s increasingly hard to do so.

    As to getting into comics for a living, I sincerely wish you well with that — and while always and absolutely suggest caution first and foremost, I can say that this is a better-looking market than we’ve seen in a while. As to stability, all we can really do is look at the past trends to see how volatile things are in the sector you’re considering. It helped my decision to get into comics for a living that the trade-paperback market had developed; digital, at least so far, looks like it’s giving the table another leg to stand on. We’ll see…

  34. I’m enjoying a great variety of comics right now and the ability for smaller publishers to put out anything they can put their mind to is astounding. And it’s awesome that sales of comics are experiencing a steady upsurge, but what about the creators of all these comics, are they making any money? Enough to live on? Does the profitability of the comics market reflect on the livelihoods of the people who are making these books? I’m still seeing a lot of creators complain about low wages or none at all.

  35. Ms Beat – I wouldn’t really regard ‘Teen Titans Go!’ as ‘well received’.

    But that’s a different topic altogether.

    ~

    Coat

  36. The Beat says:

    Luckily comics are doing okay because Steven Spielberg says the film industry is about to implode!

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steven-spielberg-predicts-implosion-film-567604

  37. So we’re approaching the day when films are developed in the hopes that they might launch a comic series?

  38. Paul Houston – I’m not an A-list artist, but comics pays my rent. And I’m doing that through Image Comics. Granted I’m not living an extravagant lifestyle, but I got married last year, moved to a big house, and all that jazz.

    Every creator will have a different story for how well (or not) they are doing. The days of looking at page rates from Marvel / DC as the barometer are dwindling. So, there’s no one answer for “enough to live on”. For those who can swing it it works, but one size does not fit all. However, we can say that for just about any creative industry.

  39. Synsidar says:

    Not sure what you’re driving at there. I think an overall look at sales of the comics medium is very useful, depending on what question you’re asking.

    When you compare comics publishers (esp. Marvel and DC) to book publishers, book publishers have imprints with their own editorial identities and target audiences, which are associated with marketing campaigns when books are released. Marvel and DC don’t have marketing campaigns for anything, and very little in the way of imprints. If you recall Ruwan Jayatilleke’s comments on Marvel issues, he and others at Marvel Editorial seemed to think that getting a newspaper to run an article on a “death” issue was a marketing coup. A coup compared to what?

    Diane Nelson might have been selected to head DC Entertainment because of her success at marketing entertainment products and expertise in brand management, but DC Comics has practically nothing in the way of a brand identity beyond “New 52,” which the company is struggling to keep relevant.

    People might think that comics are automatically suited for wide audiences because of the artwork, but even if that was the case, potential buyers still have to be aware of the product and that requires marketing. If Marvel and DC have any hopes of expanding their audiences substantially, they have to produce products besides the monthly comics which can be marketed.

    It might be better, in any discussion about the comics industry generally, to just ignore Marvel and DC and to put all of their statistics in a separate category. Despite their importance to the direct market, they’re practically irrelevant to publishers and readers who buy comics as books and respond to marketing efforts.

    SRS

  40. The LCS are th ones who are buying the majority of the comic books.
    They order multiple copies so they can get that special variant cover to flip on Ebay.
    Also it will be mighty interesting to see what these sales will be around December 2013,as the new DC 52 and Image bubbles have popped!
    Lastly in 10 years the cover price will be about $9.95 for a monthly comic book!
    So keep drinking the kool-aid and be thankful that Hollywood now owns Marvel and DC,as without Warner and Disney controling DC and Marvel we would find the comic book industry on life support.
    respectfully
    “The Amazing Stam”

  41. Maybe, in the interest of publishers who have more of a stake in printed comics than DC & Marvel, Independent publishers might float around a possibility of forming a union. The Union of Independent Comics Publishers (UICP) or some such.

    It’s likely that such talk might lead to some brainstorming and action that could result in expanding and improving distribution and outlet venues, and give more say in how the industry functions, to the businesses who actually need printed comics sales because they don’t make the majority of their profits from IP outsourcing.

    Such a proposal might not be entirely out of the question considering that Dynamite and Dark Horse are able to take a first such step on digital sales.

    Though we all hope the comics industry isn’t dying, I think the more pertinent question is what can be done to help it become more healthy and strong. At least, closer to being as healthy and strong as the popularity of the medium suggests it should be.

    I think this is paramount not only for economic survival but more importantly, for the artistic value and integrity of the comics form. A strong and healthy industry where most of its proponents benefit from its growth and success, would mean that there’d be much more comics produced due to market growth, and more room for seasoned and experienced creators who’d contribute more willingly and with more creative inspiration because they’d be sharing in the success – which would in turn contribute to elevating the art form across the board. The artistic integrity of the medium has most always been a paramount factor in is economic success and growth.

    If Independent Publishers were to begin to promote and advance the idea of the founding of an ICPU, maybe then comics creators might also gain inspiration and begin talking more seriously about organizing a sort of union or guild to better prepare for the wide expansion of the industry all this would be anticipated to help bring.

    The Union of Independent Comics Publishers.

    Has a ring to it, I think.

  42. johnrobiethecat says:

    The proclamations in this article are just symptomatic of the self indulgent logic of the tastemakers and players in this industry, just running the ship into the ground while jacking up the books prices even more for readers showing any kind of interest. Are these really the facts? I mean if this is opinion rant or actual journalism, I’m not sure,

    For print comics, the margins seem really, really low. I think it more than any business can tolerate if your talking independent publisher who want color books with good paper. The cost it takes to make a 24 page pamphlet if your creator owned and what the rate of return for which can come close to $2.99 with all cost involved, maybe even more than that depending on the order. I don’t even know what shipping and marketing involves.Then you have to compete with everything else on the stands. I don’t even think you can it call it a business sometime unless your selling Golden/Silver Age books on ebay. I don’t know how trades do but they are confusing to me, bringing on new readers. I don’t know.

    Then there’s Marvel & DC who keep selling fantasies of the public outside this hardcore superhero base all of sudden being turned on by the movies ( just like they were for Dark Knight and Iron Man?) The $3.99 price point, which materializes and gets upped up sometimes in random fashion. (like Daredevil $2.99 for instance, now $3.99 for no reason) Where does a new reader start if they are curious about a comic? Most big two books have multiple titles on their big draws and no logic to follow. At least with Harry Potter, there’s just 5 or 6 novels to read after you see the movies. With Marvel and DC its just a mess even if you know comics. Thats one advantage independents have is that they can keep things simple. And these movies can’t just keep covering these editorial moves forever. The stories, the amount of comics, the byzantine story plots, its like a mental factory.

    Comic stores are a clever lot but they need a bit more to work with. The patience and wallets of the audience who keeps these things going might not stand being scammed by things like a $5 Superman Unchained book or another Universe battle year after year, Or maybe they will, sometimes this business seems like monetized experiment on addiction.

  43. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    I’ll admit it, I am/was guilty of comics pessimism…that is all.

  44. The Beat says:

    It seems to me reading these replies that the people who read mostly superhero comics think the industry is dying, and those who don’t have a more sanguine outlook.

    Odd.

  45. Giant monkeys and birds, you guys. They’re coming.

  46. TheBeat said: “It seems to me reading these replies that the people who read mostly superhero comics think the industry is dying, and those who don’t have a more sanguine outlook. ”

    — Having been one of the doomsayers over the years (but I got better) I’ve noticed that old school superhero fans sort of WANT the industry to die so that there will be a end to comics such that the comic continuity as they know it will be done. It’s perverse, but a common theme in comments on my blog.

    Also, I think you are right in saying neither Disney or Time Warner are that concerned with comics leading the charge on their IP. That’s a bit like Mattel hoping Monster High bookbags will make girls aware of the dolls.

  47. JC LEBOURDAIS says:

    Well, reading this article and all the comments makes me realise that the real question is once again not addressed. Comparing then-dollars to now-dollars is all nice and rosy. The analysis per unit / per headcount tells a very different story. Considering the evolution of the literacy rate, it’s obvious that less and less people are reading every day. That’s a hard trend. Obviously comics are less impacted because they’re not real books. Saying that the industry is dying is nonsense, since it’s reinventing itself to survive (Trades, digital, …) but the impact on brick and mortar will be felt anyway, especially if you consider that the nasty 90’s tricks (variants, …) are back in full force, but for how long.
    Same for movies by the way, if you do a PU / PH analysis you understand why Spielberg is saying what he is saying.

  48. Joe S. Walker says:

    “I’ve noticed that old school superhero fans sort of WANT the industry to die so that there will be a end to comics such that the comic continuity as they know it will be done.”

    I think that’s a valid point of view. Marvel and DC haven’t died, but nor have they grown or obtained more life; they’ve merely continued, until at last their every moment is a weariness.

  49. Joe S. Walker says:

    P.S. Actually they’re more like the race in Gulliver’s Travels who have immortality but no immunity to aging and thus become ever more feeble and grotesque.

  50. “Marvel and DC have both had multiple ‘all-ages’ titles for the last 20 years. But they don’t sell very well (they usually are ~5-10k) so they usually get cancelled fairly quickly.

    If everyone that complained about DC and Marvel not publishing the ‘all-ages’ titles actually BOUGHT the all-ages titles, then they wouldn’t be getting cancelled all the time.”

    Jonboy – no, people are saying that the kids who want the all-ages titles wouldn’t be able to get them even if DC/Marvel did publish them. Kids comics in newsagents are selling bucketloads, as are collected comics in book shops and cheap books marketed at the same demographic. Of course book publishers are picking up on this and the number of all-ages comics being produced for the book market is steadily growing. It’s just a shame DC and Marvel aren’t looking in the right direction as their pantheon of superheroes would surely do well in that market.

  51. As a long time comic reader who ‘left the fold’ for decades, then returned and tried to reconnect with what I used to love: I don’t buy the regular super hero titles. They have evolved away from being fun escapism. One exception is L’il Gotham, which intriques me.
    In my earlier years, I was always open to all sorts of titles and types of comics (see my post above). Horror, western, war, sci fi, comedy, AND superhero. I bought dozens of titles EACH WEEK.
    These days, I am much more choosy. It seems that $4 for a comic is still more expensive in today’s money than 15 cents (etc) was in earlier decades. So, I am choosy. And usually I do not choose to buy super hero titles. Something about them is not grabbing me anymore.

    Not sure where the growth potential for comics resides. Probably a combo of superhero and non-superhero titles.

    But comics had become a vanity press/cottage indutry level business. Here is what I mean: why can I buy a copy of Vanity Fair or Wired for $7 a month, and it is full of ads, perfect bound, plus dozens of pages of content with excellent production values and shiny gloss paper. Yet a comic issue is $4, has lots of ads, and is 17 pages of content. You could fit 8 or 10 comic stories a month into an issue of Wired.

    Something is not being thought out here. Is it due to quantity of scale?

  52. Shawn Kane says:

    “I think the next ten years will see the death of the monthly pamphlet”

    You mean I won’t be able to see how opening a new credit card account will help my overall credit. Well, if it means no longer getting these things in my mailbox…
    Oh wait you mean monthly COMIC BOOKS. Gotcha. I think you’re wrong though.

  53. I wonder if they had these kinds of discussions about the Pulps and how they would never die.
    Oh, no, that’s right, they transformed.
    Because Doc Savage and The Shadow and The Spider transformed into paperbacks.
    It will never die, nope. Of course, if you don’t have fresh blood, stuff will die. Next time you go into your comic shop how many people there are under the age of 40?
    But, what do I know.
    Oh, and price has nothing to do with anything, because the economy is fine and well and getting better, right?
    But don’t worry, digital will save everything, even though if you own a Nook you can’t buy this, and if you own a Kindle you can’t buy that, and if you buy a digital tablet from Big Lots it doesn’t work at all. But, no, digital will save everything.
    Yep. Everything is fine. Please everyone go about your business and don’t wonder late at night as you stare at the ceiling how long it will be before some young whippersnapper at Disney or Warner will go to his boss and say, “Why are we doing monthly comics when we have a back log almost a century old that we don’t technically have to pay for?”
    Just ignore me and call me names, I know nothing.
    Have a good day.

    By the way, I loved comic books. They are the ones that pushed me out.

  54. In my personal, nonscientific opinion:

    1) libraries in the United States have grown to accept comics (graphic novels) with aggressive buying campaigns. Libraries and comics are a good romance because comics wants more readers and libraries want pop stuff for higher circulation and readers like pictures. It’s magic.

    2) webcomics are a major concern among young artists, providing more free-to-read material for readers on a very easy to access network (the internet)

    3) small, highly adaptable miniature festivals are popping up with greater frequency, allowing fans and readers and artists to convene more often and strengthen the feeling of community.

    Comics are looking good, getting better now.

  55. I understand the basic dynamic that these kinds of stories engender: it’s very personal, because people’s relationship with comics is very personal. If you haven’t been enjoying your favorite titles in years or haven’t been able to keep up with the cost of the hobby, your Right Track/Wrong Track number won’t be moved one whit by discussions by people in the field about how sustainable or successful their current model is or isn’t. And those concerns are by no means irrelevant: a problem for one consumer may be a problem for others, and one the field needs to address.

    All the numbers tell us is how the business is doing even in the face of those concerns. Whether they’re a baseline for how it might do better still — or a precipice to be fallen from — depends on how well the trade either gives disaffected readers what they want, and/or moves to find new customers so those worries won’t matter. I want a hobby where there’s “a comic book for everybody” (as one of CBG’s old mottos put it), so I’m hopeful there’ll be a pursuit of both lapsed and new customers.

  56. “Next time you go into your comic shop how many people there are under the age of 40?”

    I’d say that at least 3/4 of the time I go into my comic book store more than half of the customers are under the age of 40.

    Now, granted, I’m only there about 23 hours a week….

    -B

  57. Torsten Adair says:

    Lost in the hubbub of Man of Steel and Book Expo was this nugget, buried in the announcement of DC’s multipath digital comics:

    Laura Hudson, writing for Wired:
    http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/05/dc-comics-choose-own-adventure

    “Just three years ago, we weren’t in the business of digital publishing at all, or not meaningfully,” said DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson. “Now there are a million downloads a month of DC stories from our digital publishing. It’s not an insignificant business anymore.”

    Using the Top 300 comics list for April 2013, DC sold an estimated 2,024,041 comics in the direct market. So it’s a 2:1 ratio.

    Hmm… most of the non-new-52 superhero titles are being reprinted from digital comics (Smallville, Li’l Gotham, Batman Beyond…)

    Then there are the markets which don’t get reported here:
    bookstores
    libraries
    book fairs

    Bookstores: yes, real estate could shrink, but stores are not going to get rid of the category. There might be genre shifts as tastes and sales change.

    Libraries: Libraries stock books using three criteria:
    Does it meet the needs of the local populace? (This includes popular reading.)
    Is it a good book?
    Does it fit a special collection of the library? (Genealogy, local history, research focus)
    Libraries CURATE. Librarians ADVOCATE. Some (like myself) EVANGELIZE.

    Book fairs. Hey kids! Come to school and buy some books! Scholastic alone runs some 127,000 events a year. That’s $175 million in fundraising for schools. And comics are included in that mix.

    What’s amazing?
    Comics shops are independent specialty bookstores. How many of those do you see in a major city? How many mystery, cooking, art bookstores exist? Yet here we have thousands of comics shops surviving and thriving.

    So, yeah, we get these hard winters, herds are thinned, but the survivors keep procreating.

    Comics are mainstream. Sorry to ruin your fantasy.

  58. “By the way, I loved comic books. They are the ones that pushed me out.”

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. GROW UP, you ridiculous little baby. Comics are not your girlfriend. They’re a wide ranging creative medium/industry, and they are not required to operate on the basis of what does and doesn’t hurt your delicate little fee-fees.

  59. I’m completely positive about the future of comics, but I think where the pressure is that it is a much more fragmented audience and market. It would be interesting to compare the “per capita” proportion of readers to number of titles/companies between 2003 (or earlier) and today. TV has seen the same fragmentation — in the old days, we had three major networks and local stations as the only outlet. Today there are hundreds of channels, and these programs are now available online and on DVDs. For the most part, comics are also becoming more “niche” oriented both in appeal and delivery. This may have an impact on wages for creators.

  60. “Now there are a million downloads a month of DC stories from our digital publishing.”

    This is a useful data point — one we haven’t heard before — but an immediate caveat is in order. Torsten is right that the number of downloads would then be about half the number of Top 300 comics sold by DC in the DM. But before that accidentally morphs in anyone’s mind into “one in three copies of a new comic is sold digitally,” consider that digital figure may include DC’s entire digital backlist, however deep that is. It could instead be that “the rate of ALL digital copies sold is half the unit sales rate of brand new print comics in the DM.” Then, it’s not necessarily that they’re selling one copy of the latest Superman for every copy of the print version, but rather one copy of every Superman issue they stock digitally.

    This is relevant because Diamond only floors copies of physical comic books for a short while after their initial month (and the Top 300 only captures first month releases in most circumstances) — so the periodical list on the print side is a very limited subset of offerings. Units finally gives us apples and apples — and thanks for spotting that line! — but I would expect the 2-to-1 thing is comparing a sack of selected apples versus a barrel of those apples and a whole bunch more.

    Still, if that ratio does track, then you’d expect to have seen 40 million digital comics downloads last year industry-wide. Then it just becomes a matter of figuring out how much digital volume is priced identically with print. I suspect that with specials, package deals, and later issues being discounted, it’s something less than 1:1 — meaning that $75 million figure we heard for last year is well within the ballpark, if possibly at the lower end of the range.

  61. However, I wouldn’t inherently assume that all of those “downloads” are PAID downloads. Far, far from it.

    -B

  62. And I definitely don’t assume that, Brian. If last year’s rumored $75 million figure held for 2013 (and I would guess it would be higher) it would put the average download in the $2 neighborhood or less. I think what we have now is a dollar ceiling now that we can start to discount from; it’ll take a lot of research to know just how deeply to cut.

    And further, we need to know what the difference is between print and digital market shares. If DC has a larger digital market share than its print share, then that 40-million-copy annual figure would go down. If its digital share is smaller, then the annual total goes up.

    So this requires some study by someone who’s looked deeply into digital market shares and prices paid. Still, it’s more than we had — and now Heidi’s post about one of my posts has inspired another post: http://blog.comichron.com/2013/06/digital-comics-40-million-downloads-year.html

  63. (And I see I garbled the line above about Superman. It should read that “We’re not comparing digital sales of the current Superman with print sales of the current Superman — but digital sales of ALL Superman comics put together with print sales of the current issue.”)

  64. John Duesenberry says:

    Fantastic article. Well written and thought out. I was talking to a friend a few years back and I have to say that the TPB volumes have grown substantially as well. I think that the biggest thing that we are going to see is that these wonderful characters are going to be much larger media staples.

  65. i actually made a facebook group page still under construction but i think we all as in comicbook fans need to always support our local comic book stores and make sure they dont become extinct like video stores. Also that new smell is nothing better than holding a comic book in your hands and actually having the sound of crisp pages we cant let the digital age put a end to comics http://www.facebook.com/savecomicbooks

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