While comic book stores were struggling (and in some cases closing) through much of 2011, the other major distribution outlet for comic books and graphic novels also faced a tough time. Book stores became a major outlet in the 2000s, primarily due to the manga explosion that brought a whole new audience back to sequential art in the United States. But with the dominance of Amazon.com and the rise of digital e-readers, book stores were forced to evolve. Unfortunately Borders, the second largest US book store chain and the first to usher in manga to American readers, failed to do so in time and went into bankruptcy this year and caused a ripple effect throughout the comics industry.
For some comics publishers, the effect was minimal, as previous payment issues with Borders caused some to shift their business away from them before the bankruptcy was announced. But others felt it more strongly, such as Los Angeles-based Tokyopop, the second largest manga publisher in the United States. In the beginning of the year, Borders stopped paying its vendors in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. This resulted in orders getting cut, and with Borders being Tokyopop’s largest customer account, income was severely damaged. Layoffs at Tokypop followed. Despite the late-entry hit manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, it couldn’t reverse the damage of a closing Borders, online piracy (and a digital strategy that amounted to too little too late), and the under-performing Priest feature film. By May, Tokyopop was holding a garage sale to empty out their LA offices. With their termination of US publishing, licenses were canceled, leaving a good number of manga series unfinished. It’s difficult to know how many casual readers of those series drifted away from reading manga and comics entirely after their favorite manga simply stopped coming out. In October, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy revealed that he is “continuing to explore any and all opportunities to relaunch the manga publishing operations” but it will require him having to renegotiate contracts with Japanese publishers. In the meantime, Tokyopop remains as a modest web-newsletter about Asian pop culture, in a partnership with GeekChicDaily.
It was clear that another distribution outlet was needed, and fortunately one has been steadily growing over the last two years. Digital comics allow people to read print comics and manga on the web or mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, Kindle and Nook. Companies have been popping up to provide publishers with the service of configuring their comics to the digital landscape and selling them on these devices. The digital distributor ComiXology has pulled ahead as the clear industry leader, with an exclusive partnership with DC Comics and partnerships with almost every other major comics publisher and many smaller ones too. Other prominent digital distributors are Graphicly, with their focus on community-building, and iVerse Media’s Comics+. Some publishers have chosen to build their own in-house digital distribution systems, such as Dark Horse Digital and Viz Manga. Some publishers are even shifting entirely to digital or publishing digitally first, mimicking the successful web-comics model of building an audience to support print releases.
Most significant in 2011 is the near industry-wide move by comics and manga publishers to ramp up their digital output. This was most notable in numerous announcements by publishers to release digital and print versions simultaneously (frequently called “day-and-date”). Prior to this, digital comics were released erratically, sometimes as far out as 6 months after the print version, seriously undermining the ability of digital to be taken as a serious method for consumers to become engaged in specific titles. The brand new Kindle Fire tablet/e-reader, which had huge sales for the holidays, has available an exclusive set of 100 DC Comics graphic novels, along with a free, pre-loaded Comics by ComiXology app.
Before a lot of these digital announcements were made (and when most digital comics were only available through the iPad and iPhone), digital comics were showing significant growth as sales doubled for the first half of 2011. Prior to that, digital comics sales were estimated at $6 to $8 million for 2010. Print sales for the North American comic book industry were estimated at under $420 million for 2010. While still only a fraction of print, digital is still extremely young with immense potential to reach new and lapsed readers.
When no one shows up, you know it’s over. That’s just what happened with Borders this week. The second largest book store chain in North America filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and closed over 200 stores in February. The store then went through the process of looking for a buyer, which was rejected by creditors. So Borders went to auction this past weekend and not a single bid was made. Liquidation is expected to follow, with the remaining 399 stores closing as soon as this Friday. The entire operation will likely be over by September.
While some comic book publishers didn’t have significant distribution at Borders, others are surely feeling this. Like Barnes & Noble, Borders had cultivated a healthy graphic novel and manga section over the last decade. Marvel, DC, VIZ, IDW, Image and more all had prominent placement and now that revenue is lost in an already struggling market and economy. Book market sales simply aren’t what they used to be, and sales from the comic industry’s primary revenue source, comic book stores, continues to slide each month this year.
It’s no surprise then that publishers are feverishly looking at the one growth sector in comics right now, digital. While it’s still a tiny percentage, it’s growing fast and has a huge potential to reach audiences. After all, large portions of the country are nowhere near comic book stores. Comparisons to digital being the new newsstand pop up in nearly every interview publishers give on the topic. And for good reason. Up to the 1980s and even into the early ’90s, most readers first discovered comic books on spinner racks in convenience stores or local newsstands. That distribution method faded away and comic book stores saved comic books from vanishing entirely, but the cost was that you had to know about comic books and their specialty stores to discover comics, which of course is almost impossible. Needless to say, the oxygen has been slowly running out on the sealed tank ever since.
While there is a lot of hope with digital, there is something lost in Borders. What made Borders great might have been a piece of its ultimate commercial failure. Borders was great for browsing. They welcomed people sitting around for hours at a time, reading books they hadn’t purchased. The store itself was designed like you had stepped into someone’s personal library. It allowed for discovery. Amazon.com and digital comics providers like comiXology often (but not always) allow select pages for browsing and discovery, but that’s it. It makes it harder to know if it’s for you and some customers are very reluctant to take that risk and just try something. Or maybe that’s something the digital generation isn’t concerned about.
Of course, the book market isn’t completely gone. There’s still local book stores that carry graphic novels and comic books (surely some do), Barnes & Noble, Chapters (in Canada), and others. Marvel Comics just announced four original graphic novels that are surely aimed at the book store market. Executives at Marvel had previously stated in multiple interviews that it didn’t make financial sense for them to do original graphic novels, instead publishing graphic novels comprised of collections of reprinted comic book issues which allowed them to defer production costs with sales of the comic books. Something has apparently changed in the numbers they’re looking at for them to do an about-face. Last year DC Comics experimented with original graphic novels by releasing Superman: Earth One. by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis. The experiment was so successful that Straczynski abandoned his monthly writing assignments and has been focusing almost entirely on more original graphic novels for DC. Time will tell if the loss of Borders will merely be a blip, or if it’ll be too big of a loss for some publishers to continue.
Last year, comics were arguably holding ground through one of the worst economic downturns this generation has ever seen, but it looks like ground is finally being lost. It became pretty clear from two recent news items: yesterday’s layoffs of 7 employees at Dark Horse Comics, one of the premiere American comic book publishers; and slipping sales for the first quarter of 2011.
By themselves, these two items are worrisome, but when you add in more recent history, it starts to paint a bad picture. Since the new year, the comics & pop culture publication Wizard Magazine folded, Image Comics studio Top Cow Productions faced layoffs, and Borders stores are closing, along with several of their distribution centers, without any promising signs of the book chain making its way out of reorganization. I was talking about the sales stagnation of comics over the past decade just last month. And before the new year, the largest comics distributor Diamond Comics closed their Los Angeles warehouse, and #2 publisher DC Comics had a lengthy process of reorganization and layoffs of over 80 employees, as well as their closing of several imprints. Despite some reports of comics retailers having better sales than in the recent past, there are also just as many, if not more, reports of comic stores closing. I’ve also been seeing anecdotal reports of comics creators being released from their contracts with big time book publishers that were dabbling in graphic novels over the few years. Newspaper comics continue to contract. Web-comics continue to flourish creatively but for most they don’t pay enough as a full-time job. The only growing sector of the industry is digital comics on mobile devices like the iPhone/iPad, Android and the web, but that’s still so young it’s but a fraction of print sales.
So is it time to jump out of your nearest window? Is it time to write off comics as over and done with? It depends what floor you’re on but I say no. In their most pure and basic sense, comics will never go anywhere, just as music will never go anywhere even if the big record companies fold. People will always create in the way that speaks to them the most, and there will always be people who will appreciate and enjoy it.
The real question, then, is whether a comics industry should be written off. Again, I say no. There are signs of the economy recovering, however sluggish. So I think a bounce back is possible, maybe even likely. I’m also optimistic that in these times of retraction, others will step up and bring innovation.
Something like Four Star Studios and their original digital comic Double Feature, which has complete stories in a variety of genres with great bonus features for just $0.99. And these stories are created by experienced comics creators like Tim Seeley and Mike Norton, who have worked for major comics publishers. They have contributed to proven properties like Young Justice (DC Comics), GI Joe, and Voltron; and have created successful comics like Hack/Slash, The Waiting Place and Battlepug. It’s a very safe bet. The first issue is now available. You can download for keepsies as a PDF, or download it for your iPhone, iPad and other things with the letter ‘i’ in front. Is this going to save the industry? No. There’s no single solution. But that proves that the industry has some very creative, clever and industrious people ready to experiment and offer smart alternatives.
It’s not going to be easy but I’m excited to see what comes.
In case you haven’t heard, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy recently, and the first order of business in an attempt to reorganize was to close 200 Borders bookstores (interactive map), with an option to close 75 more at a later date. Subsequently, 28 additional stores were added to the list, scheduled to close in late May. Massive liquidation sales started at 20%-50% off everything in each chosen store, with discounts getting steeper as each week passes. The locations made up at least 30% of Borders’ entire retail presence. Borders.com resumes as normal, and gift cards will be honored. For now, anyway.
Once your local Borders store is gone, where to go for graphic novels, manga and comic books? Fortunately there are an estimated 2400 comic book stores out there to pick up the slack. In fact, comics retailers would love your business. Earth 2 Comics, less than a mile from the Borders closing in Sherman Oaks, California, posted on their store’s Facebook page, “You know we can order any book in print for you, not just comics and [graphic novels]? You may also notice we are expanding our prose section.”
Here is a list of comics and specialty shops near the closing Borders stores, according to the database of ComicShopLocator.com and the power of Google. If I’m missing one within about 5 miles of a closing Borders store or any of the info needs correcting, please post below in the comments or email me and I’ll update it.
(Blatantly stolen and adapted from Edward Champion.)
Click through for the huge list. Read the rest of this entry