Throwing a conference heavy on slides and statistics the morning after NYCC seemed like a daring idea, but the ICv2 Insider Talk provided a nice off ramp for the con – a low-key event that captured in numbers the changing comics industry I’ve been talking about for a while.
In particular, as my colleague Rob Salkowitz perfectly encapsulated it, Surprising New Data Shows Comic Readers Are Leaving Superheroes Behind. Maybe a little bit dramatic, but numbers don’t lie.
I tweeted a number of slides and talking points from the conference, but here’s a recap of some of the key points that show a changing comics industry. I’m going to use the numbers to jump off into my own interpretation, unless otherwise noted.
Overall Comics Sales
ICv2’s Milton Greipp kicked things off with a recap of his annual industry sales chart, prepared in conjunction with Comichron. Although his numbers were from 2018 vs 2017, they showed dramatic changes in the four categories he tracks – kids comics, manga, superhero and “author driven” titles including creator owned brands such as Walking Dead and Saga.
Kids comics showed the biggest jump, up 39% in the book channel and 20% in comics shops. Manga was up 41% in comics shops, while superheroes were down 15% and authors down 10%.
The manga growth is fueled by the streaming anime boom. Later data by NPD/Bookscan’s Kristen McLean showed a clear connection between an anime streaming and a jump in book sales. Kind of a no brainer there, but also something that long presented a challenge for comics shops.
Taken together the rise of kids and manga in comics shops shows not only that retailers are willing to venture into these areas, but that customers are willing to go into comics shops to buy this material. The many, many accounts of comic shops gatekeeping against kids, women and other non-superhero consuming audiences is very well documented, so the fact that the stores that are doing well have evolved to become more inclusive is a huge part of this success story.
Also, money talks. Very simple.
Graphic novels now make up about three quarter of the comics market (in 2009 they were about half), and the sales in the book channel are still rising, while comics shop sales have flattened out quite a bit. As Greipp predicted about a decade ago, comics sales (including both GNs and periodicals) in the book channel have surpassed the comics shop market and continue to grow. In preliminary 2019 data, manga and kids comics continue to grow, authors have shown a little growth and superheroes continue to erode.
The erosion of GN sales in comics shops – down 3.2% for 2019 – is partly a factor of the slide in periodical sales. DC has had fewer hits aside from Batman, and the dominance of their 30+ year old backlist (Watchmen, Killing Joke) shows why they are eager to recapture some of this market with Black Label.
With Walking Dead ending and Saga coming out erratically, the biggest “author driven” franchise is The Adventure Zone, with The Boys, Umbrella Academy and Monstress on the rise. Umbrella Academy and The Boys are obviously being driven by the streaming connection – if that Millarverse stuff ever comes out on Netflix, expect Image to get a bump in sales.
Comichub’s Sell-thru data
Next up, Atom Freeman from Comichub, a POS system for retailers that also functions as a pull list for customers, and offers marketing services for publishers. It’s a wide-ranging piece of software that offers many opportunities. Freeman stressed that this was only a sliver of data – Comichub has around 90 retailers signed up, so it’s just a little data…but it’s also a metric.
We haven’t had sell-thru data for comics shops in a long time – Comics Retailer, the long-ago magazine published by Krause (CBG) had monthly charts and graphs based on reporting, and there are a few bestseller lists based on reporting shops, but this remains the greatest secret in comics.
With Freeman’s permission I’m reproducing the slides as my photos had some heads in the way.
Here’s a comparison of the sell-in – Diamond orders – and sell-thru on graphic novels. As you can see there are only two books that overlap. As noted by Brian Hibbs in a recent column, more and more comics shops are using distributors other than Diamond to order graphic novels, and this chart backs up that idea. It also suggests that some of the slide in GN sales in comics shops – a slide based on sell-in – is made up for by books that are acquired through other distributors. Both charts back up the rise in Kids/YA material is a top seller in the comics shop channel.
The publisher charts are similar – but Image sales are significantly higher – attributed by Freeman to hand-selling and customer demand. Boom’s share is larger but as Freeman noted, Boom did a special promotion for Once and Future via Comichub, which seems to have been a success.
And now the never-before-seen periodical chart. Once again, it’s pretty similar – but the campaign for Boom’s Once and Future was a success, replacing the #2 book – Marvel #1000 – on Diamond’s chart.
So nothing earth shattering here – comics retailers don’t survive by grossly overestimating what their customers will buy – but if more of these kinds of numbers take hold it will present a very different view of what a bestseller is.
NPD/Bookscan’s Kristen McLean then stepped up to deliver her own slideshow of sales charts. McLean showed some of this back at BEA in May to a similar tumult when I tweeted this powerful image:
Me being a little goody two-shoes, I’ve turned that into a chart for you.
That nearly 10% drop in superheroes is notable if you have an industry built entirely around the needs and output of the publishers who put out superheroes – which is really only Marvel and DC at this point although the Valiant-verse is in there trying.
What this chart shows me is the end of the direct sales market paradigm as built by Phil Seuling and perfected by the Paul Levitz/Bob Wayne system at DC. I’m not gonna lie – I often shook my fist at that system but it stood in good stead for those who lived by it, and its going away doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad thing. Nor does it mean doom and gloom for comics.
It just means that as Griepp predicted a few years ago, we’re in the fourth disruption.
I should also note that it’s not clear if Raina Telgemeier’s sales are being counted in the juvenile fiction or NON-FICTION category. Telegeneier tends to do one autobio book followed by a fiction book but it seems like they are all being counted in the fiction category. The huge huge success of Dog Man can’t be underestimated here, either.
A few other notes from McLean:
• NPD is starting to track streaming services. Another black box cracked.
• Anime was the fastest growing content segment on Netflix for a while. My notes don’t include the time frame for this, so it will have to remain vague.
• Both Griepp and McLean mentioned that comics are coming back to mass market – WalMart, Target – with Target getting into it more.
Graphix’ David Saylor speaks on the changing comics industry
Calvin Reid interviewed David Saylor, the Creative Director of Editorial of GRAPHIX, the kine of kids graphic novels that is rocking the charts. The story he told – the rise of Bone and Raina and Amulet, in the face of an industry that was skeptical at first – is kind of the story that I’ve been telling here at The Beat for the last 15 years. So it was nice to hear it as one with a happy ending. Kids like reading comics. Who knew!
Chris Powell from Diamond
Then Griepp interviewed Chris Powell who recently got a new title at Diamond, Chief Relationship Officer. I have to admit when I reported on the announced changes at Diamond, the story seemed to fly under the radar of a lot of people, but this is another HUGE element of the changes happening in the industry. The short version is that Diamond and all of the other businesses owned by Steve Geppi, the founder of Diamond, are now part of Geppi Family Enterprises, a new parent company run by former PepsiCo executive Stan Heidmann. Diamond execs have new roles in GFE as outlined in the link above.
According to Powell, the goal is to “Look for synergies between the different businesses and that gives us a lot more resources to play with as we look at how we build for the next 20 years instead of the last 35.”
I’ve been to a lot of Diamond events and the next 20 years is not necessarily the motivating factor you hear about all the time, so I took this as a sign of Things to Come.
Powell also confirmed that an outside consulting firm has been brought in to look at their systems, and some of the older software that’s being used – I’ve heard Win96 mentioned – will be upgraded.
“I think that’s really important at this stage things that we all have to take a fresh look at how we’re doing the different aspects of the job,” Powell continued, mentioning that how comics shops and Diamond process kids comics and manga is changing as those categories grow. He also mentioned that Diamond will be hiring a new Chief Marketing Officer who is knowledgable about social media where “we can continue to promote comic book stores as a place that’s not all superheroes,” but as a community that includes kids comics and adult comics and more. Powell wants to see comics shops become more of a community center to differentiate them from regular bookstores, but really (my interpretation) this is part of comics shops becoming specialized indie bookstores and not a completely separate beast.
The general tone of all of this was that change is coming, new ideas are coming, and graphic novels are the dominant format. And while we all love periodicals, keeping them viable in the changing landscape will be a challenge. Powell noted that periodicals will be fine for the next 5-10 years but in 15-20…he hope they’ll still be viable. Indie bookstores, libraries…it’s all part of the future.
David Steinberger on digital
The day ended with Rob Salkowitz talking to Comixology’s David Steinberger about the state of digital. You don’t stay an executive at Amazon by dropping tons of bold numbers, but Steinberger did point out the importance of their programs like Originals, Submit and Unlimited to appeal to new audiences. In particular he noted that Originals are available to anyone who has Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited and that is a lot of people. People who come to Amazon to buy a print book join Comixology’s subscription services, and Unlimited – which is kind of the Netflix of comics that we have now – serves as a way for people who don’t want to pay high cover prices to discover periodicals. He also noted that Marvel and DC have vast backstories of continuity that can make jumping in difficult.
While digital growth is mostly flat, it is still an entry point for print comics. “I don’t think we’ve destroyed anything,” Steinberger noted, closing the book on the fears of retailers and the industry at large when digital comics first began.
This is all kind of an aside to the recent talk of Amazon the Evil Empire. I mean, it is an evil empire, but there are lots of comics available to consumers through various means that Amazon promotes – they do use their famed algorithms to help readers find more comics material that they will like, just as they do shoes, and viewed purely as a tool, this could be a valuable one.
And then the day wound down with some networking. Many people had come to the conference ready to go to the airport, and as the day ended goodbyes were said and another NYCC came to a close.
As I mentioned at the top there was nothing gloomy and doomy about any of this – although we have a changing comics industry, more comics are being sold in various formats than at any time since perhaps the pre Wertham days. (Print runs were routinely in six figures then, but I think the penetration of comics did not include a lot of adult readers so it’s hard to compare.)
But when we look back on this day in five years, I think the snapshot of where we are will have changed quite a bit.
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