Two major changes happening in comic books could shape the industry's future - and comic shops will have to adapt to survive
- The "book channel" - which includes chain bookstores and online retailers - is projected to surpass comic shops as the the largest channel for comics sales this year.
- There are two major reasons why this is happening: Graphic novels are growing in popularity primarily through the book channel and children's comics, which are almost exclusively in the graphic-novel format, are now more popular than superhero comics.
- The comic industry has operated for decades on a "direct market" business model, which is more skilled in single-issue comics over the graphic novel format.
- Experts are still hopeful for the future of comic shops, though.
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Comic shops have, for decades, been the main outlet for putting a comic book into the hands of readers, but they are being surpassed.
The "book channel" - which includes chain and independent bookstores, online retailers like Amazon, and the Scholastic Book Fair - is projected to pass comic shops as the largest channel for comic sales in North America this year, industry website ICv2 revealed at a post-New York Comic Con conference last week.
Milton Griepp, the ICv2 CEO, told Business Insider that this change was due to two major shifts in the industry:
- The graphic-novel format is becoming more popular: Graphic novel print sales reached $635 million in 2018 and single-issue (or periodical) print sales were at $360 million. The gap between the two has been widening thanks largely to the book channel. Graphic-novel sales through the channel was at nearly $500 million last year, but at less than $200 million through comic shops.
- New types of content are becoming more popular: Children's comics, which are almost exclusively sold in the graphic-novel format, have surpassed superhero comics this year as the most popular genre, according to ICv2. "Superheroes have dominated the comics business for as long as I've been in it, but there are some amazing things happening with kids content," Griepp said at last week's conference.
The chart below shows how graphic-novel sales have been increasing through the book channel but plateaued at comic shops.
So why aren't people buying children's content and graphic novels at comic shops?
The comic industry has operated since the early 1970s on a "direct market" model, in which a distributor (the main one being Diamond Comic Distributors) sells comics to comic shops on a non-returnable basis. It makes pre-orders essential to the business.
Periodical comics and children's graphic novels are distributed through a vastly different business model and comic shops struggle to balance the two.
"Comic shops have been slow to expand into kids graphic novels," Griepp told Business Insider. "Comic stores and the distribution system are focused on periodical releases but are less skilled on the book side."
More comic stores are experimenting, though, and buying from the book channel through publishers like Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster, according to Griepp. But a big problem is that parents don't shop at comic stores. They're already in book stores and online and comic shops have been slow to catch up.
Furthermore, tastes have just generally been shifting away from the periodical comic format that comic shops specialize in to graphic novels, where readers get a complete story, according to Griepp. He called it "binge consumption."
The streaming era is impacting the comic industry, too
David Steinberger, the CEO of Amazon's digital comics service Comixology, said at last week's conference that consumers are moving toward the binge model generally because it's "inexpensive, convenient, and there's a lot of content."
"I think that's kind of where we're headed [with comics]," he said.
But Steinberger isn't ruling out periodicals just yet, he said. And he contended Comixology could attract new readers. Since Amazon acquired the service in 2014, Comixology has launched an Unlimited subscription program and Comixology Originals, which are exclusive to the service.
Steinberger said he thinks growth in the digital-comic space will help retailers in the print business.
"Retailers were very frightened of us at first," Steinberger said at the conference. "But many of them now say, 'I had someone come in and buy the first 10 volumes of "The Walking Dead" after first trying it on digital.' So they have started to calm down and relax about that. I don't think we've destroyed anything. What we have done is give more opportunities for both established players and new players to come in and reach audiences."
The future of comic shops
Since children's comics are growing in popularity, Griepp is hopeful that a new generation of fans will emerge that could potentially move into comic shops and read more superhero comics. At 5 million copies for its most recent volume, Dav Pilkey's "Dog Man" is the most-circulated graphic novel ever, according to Griepp.
"There's a whole cohort of young readers that are being introduced to this medium and may graduate to other forms of content in the comic format over the course of their lifespans," he said at the conference.
But he firmly believes that "content is king."
"In the past, lags have always been content driven," he told Business Insider. "Superheroes are soft right now, but all it takes is one hit to turn that around. All it takes is one title to catch on and we'll be talking about comic stores growing again."
But the types of content and platforms might not be enough. Gerry Conway, the creator of such comic characters as The Punisher, told Business Insider earlier this year that the comic industry's business model is "totally unsustainable."
"There's going to have to be something that happens that's comparable to what happened in the '70s with the direct-sale market," Conway said. "That resulted in a redefinition of the distribution methodology and the market that you're aiming the books at. Both of those changes came hand-in-hand and resulted in a dramatic difference."
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