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Comics 2012: A case for optimism

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

by John Jackson Miller

With San Diego in the rear-view mirror, I posted some thoughts on the Comichron Twitter feed today that I think bear repeating here.

I have seen some upbeat San Diego conventions (this was one) and some downright gloomy ones; sometimes they capture the spirit of the year and sometimes they don't. The same is true of the monthly and yearly sales reports here on the site: it's usually only in retrospect that you see whether a movement was a blip or something more substantial. Having prematurely called a market rebound in 1998, I've learned my lesson about such things — even with a year of improving numbers for the business, I've tried hard here to present these changes in a multi-year context. There's weather and there's climate, as they say; you still report the weather when it happens — like the July release of Walking Dead #100, reportedly a blockbuster with sales over 300,000 copies — but you try to be more careful when talking about the overall scheme of things.

But I do feel that we can make some general statements at this point, drawing both on the long view and what we've observed recently:

Digital comics sales are increasing, but so are print sales; it does not yet appear that one is coming at the other's expense. At least, so far. The best estimate I've seen of the digital trade for last year was $25 million; print stood at $680 million. That $25 million appears to have doubled each year since 2009; as of the halfway point of 2012, we're looking at a print year that could well be up double-digits, percentage-wise.

It'll take a lot more than a few years to show it, but digital is appearing to develop more as a parallel product — as trade paperbacks did — at least so far. This seems to make logical sense, because as with collected editions, the digital comic offers different perceived benefits from the monthly comic book; each product has its own adherents.

•  Between the Direct Market, the bookstore channel, and the emergence of digital, comics have — almost by accident! — become one of the healthiest parts of the magazine business. Perhaps the healthiest, in fact. And it has to do with both how they're sold — and the nature of the content itself.

I can tell you from many years at a consumer magazine publisher that most magazine publishers would kill to have the vast majority of their of copies pre-sold; the Direct Market has been doing that for years by buying comics non-returnably, and it is why comics shops quickly took most comics sales away from the newsstands in the 1980s and 1990s. And outright purchase is an option for us, because comics are the magazines people keep. Comics are valued as collectibles and as literature in ways other magazines aren't.

And it's the latter part that's made the greatest difference in the last few years, because while periodical comics sales are up slightly since the turn of the century, we have hundreds of millions in graphic novel and collected edition sales — $375 million in North America last year — that simply didn't exist before, because comics are the magazines that are also book chapters. It's hard to put a spine on six months of Newsweek, but comics publishers can almost immediately repurpose new material — even as they mine their libraries. After years of the comics shops taking everything over, about a third of our revenue is coming from outside again — thanks to collected editions.

So. I do try very hard to avoid being Pangloss or Pollyana; for years when I was the editor of Comics Retailer in the 1990s, the rap on me from publishers was that I was overly downbeat (when I really felt like I was just reporting what was going on). I've tried hard not to overreact in the opposite direction, and to take a skeptical eye to both the apparent upticks and downdrafts. There are shifts that appear less than positive, and one can easily imagine ways to construct a similar case for pessimism. Comics unit sales still continue to decline on most titles as their issue numbers increase; periodicals' aggregate improvements have still generally come from the offering of an ever larger number of titles and the constant replacement of gray series with new ones, rather than increases within most series. The single greatest factor influencing comics sales volume is still the number of comics shops, and there are still too many markets under-served (though Diamond announced at San Diego a new push to help open new stores).

But at the same time, it's important to note that the industry is structurally very different than it was when the industry nearly collapsed in the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. Those times, comics publishers and vendors had to innovate to keep the business going; super-hero comics, the Direct Market, and the trade paperback were the tools that led the way out. We have no way of knowing whether the combination of the nonreturnable market, collected editions, and the addition of digital will be enough to shield the industry through another major crisis. But it's possible. And it's also just possible that they already have.

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