While still a fraction of print sales, digital comics continue to grow. (Digital comics being comic books you read on the web and mobile devices like the iPad and Android phones.) Great news, right? I’m a big believer in digital comics. But it’s not so easy to know exactly how much they’re growing or whether everyone’s just really excited about a lot of unsubstantiated press release hype.
Within a week of each other, the largest comic book publishers in North America both claimed that sales of one of their digital comics surpassed their own records for digital sales. In both instances, the record-setting digital comic was released on the same day as its print counterpart was released in comic book stores. DC Comics announced in this interview with Salon the good sales news for Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, the launch title for their ambitious and highly publicized New 52 initiative.
Jim Lee: [B]ased on recent numbers, certainly Justice League No. 1 has surpassed the recent highs in comics sales. [...] It’s also setting records digitally. I can’t give numbers, but on the first day it set a record for us.
Salon: Once you compared the volume of DC’s digital comics sales to dental floss. Is it up to dental tape now?
Jim Lee: It’s too early to say.
Marvel Comics later issued a press release for their announcement regarding Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, where the webbed adventures begin for the half-black/half-Latino Miles Morales.
The trick? Neither publisher actually revealed any concrete sales data.
This has caused a bit of consternation among comics industry watchers, who are trying to understand the actual strength of digital comics and sales of comics in general. As The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon wonderfully puts it, sales figures are usually only hinted at or used for hype by publishers like DC and Marvel, resulting in the “I have a girlfriend in Canada” of sales analysis.
Looking outside of comics, most entertainment companies don’t share honest sales numbers because they consider that proprietary information, but those other industries have something comics doesn’t have – a third party tracking sales through reasonably objective means. Put bluntly, comics needs a Nielsen. The best we have are the sales estimates put together by ICv2, John Jackson Miller’s The Comics Chronicles, and a few others. These are best guess estimates based off charts provided by the largest distributor of comic books, Diamond Comics. But they’re only counting comic book stores in North America. There’s little to no coverage of book stores, no coverage of subscriptions, no sales to libraries and schools, nothing from the UK and other countries, no newsstand sales (meager but still out there), no sales from other outlets like grocery stores. To be sure, North American comic book stores are the dominant sales channel for print comic books. But it’s not the entire picture. What’s more, the sales estimates are determined by using Diamond’s odd index numbering system constructed around everything’s relative sales to that month’s issue of Batman. So if you figure out the sales of Batman in any given month, you can figure out the sales of everything else in that same month. Why Batman of all things? It’s mostly arbitrary but its sales have been historically pretty stable due to the character’s popularity and longevity of the series. On top of all that, the numbers only reflect what comic book stores are ordering. We have almost no idea about sell-through to actual paying customers beyond anecdotal reporting and the assumption that most stores are ordering month-to-month close to what they think they can sell. Needless to say, the accuracy of these estimates has been disputed and called into question. Some say it gives a fairly reasonable picture and is better than nothing, which is true. But numerous comic book creators have gone on record to say that the estimates are wrong when compared to their royalty vouchers and other internal accounting statements.
So we’ve got an entire industry more or less groping in the dark trying to feel out the shape and size of their own business. But it’s the best we’ve got, so numbers are put under the microscope. At least there’s something for print comics. Digital comics have vague statements of modest to booming success. ICv2 estimated earlier this summer that digital comics sales are generating between $6 to $18 million a year, with sales doubling from 2009 to 2010. Archie Comics boasted nearly 2 million downloads back in January. ComiXology, the undisputed largest digital comics provider, trumpeted surpassing 1 million downloads at the end of 2010, and their main Comics app was recently the second grossing iPad app, outselling the popular app for the Angry Birds game. IDW Publishing announced over 1 million downloads of their various digital comics apps back in April. Plenty of similar announcements have been made. It’s great news because it confirms that there are a lot of people interested in comic books. But how many of those downloads generated money. It’s free to download almost all digital comics apps, and there are plenty of free comic books available to download within each app. How many of those millions are paying?
What we do know is that digital comics is one of the biggest growth sectors for comics. The independent comics publisher SLG Publishing recently announced they were switching to digital first distribution. The transition will see the end of print comic books from the publisher. Issues will instead be released only as digital comic books that will eventually be collected and released for the first time in the physical world as print graphic novels. While several publishers have abandoned the single issue comic book format to strictly graphic novels, this is the first significant comics publisher to transition their serialized stories to the digital space. SLG was among the first publishers to embrace digital. They are one of the few that allow full ownership of their digital comics through their Eyemelt store, which sells .pdf, .ePub and .cbz that can be used anywhere. (ComiXology and other digital comics providers are technically leasing you the right to view images of comics files, which can be and have been taken away or locked.) SLG comics are also available on iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, ComiXology, iVerse’s Comics+, Graphicly, and Panelfly.
According to SLG publisher Dan Vado, much of the company’s marketing has not been focused on digital, so their sales there have been promising but not exceptional. In fact, in a surprising break from the above trend, Vado was willing to make public some of the company’s digital comics sales figures.
The best selling downloadable comic we have had is The Griffin #2 at around 200. This is like a 20 year old comic I did for DC Comics.
Most of the other books have struggled to get to triple digits.
How does that one digital comic stack up against the digital sales of Justice League #1 and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1? I’d like to believe there’s a significant difference but who can tell? For whatever it’s worth, Justice League #1 has 318 reviews on ComiXology, while Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 only has 58, at the time I’m writing this. Not everyone that buys and reads a digital comic will submit a review of whether it was a 5-star comic but that seems like a bare minimum at least. Except that anyone can leave a review whether they’ve read the comic or not, as long as they’ve logged in.
As The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald points out in the above link, SLG’s most popular and well known property is probably Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez and that will be released digitally next year. Vado expects that to be their top digital seller very quickly, especially since they will have ramped up their marketing efforts focused on new readers instead of readers that already own the print version. If Vado continues to be as transparent, SLG could be a very interesting case study of a publisher transitioning to digital. And in the process, he could give us a better idea of the actual strength and success of digital.
According to the article, Justice League #1, the flagship title and debut issue of the massive line-wide relaunch of the publisher’s entire superhero universe, has received pre-orders asking for over 200,000 copies. Six other issues from the 52 titles shipping in September have pre-orders over 100,000 copies. That is fantastic news. Monthly comic books haven’t seen those kinds of numbers in years. There are also pending digital sales when the publisher starts releasing online and mobile versions of those same print comics simultaneously in September.
The full quote:
“The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices,” DiDio said. “We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”
Typically people from the major superhero publishers keep things pretty rosy in public interviews and online conversations. You know things must be dire when the talk gets this frank.
Another crucial observation made by DiDio:
“The walk-in, casual fans have gotten away from us,” DiDio observed. “We are down to just the die-hard buyers.”
Bringing back casual fans is the key. It’s a massive key to resuscitating sales. I’m still not completely convinced that what is getting published in September is a big enough break from the publishing and editorial strategy they’ve worked under in the past to bring in a casual readership, but 200,000+ copies is a sign I could be wrong (and I’d love to be wrong on this). Of course, it could be comic stores overestimating interest in their orders. It could only last a month or two. But for now, things are looking very promising.
If only they acted sooner. Over the weekend, a 4-store chain of comic book shops in Arizona abruptly shut down. Stores have been quietly dropping away for a while now, but this was a well-known and well-liked chain praised as a smart retailer. These weren’t the grimy comic store dungeons people avoid like the plague. But the profit margin of running a comic book store is so small that one car through your main store’s front window followed by an economic downturn and lost customers, and five years later you’re done. Atomic Comics was a big account for Diamond Comics, the industry’s primary distributor.
Would DC’s relaunch have saved them? Will it turn sales around across the entire industry? That’s a big job for one publisher, even the industry’s #2 publisher. After all, their material doesn’t cater to everyone. But if other publishers can find a way to join in the hype and fill in the gaps, we could be on to something. Hey, I’m trying to be positive here. It could happen.
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.
Sales numbers for the comic book direct market in the month of February have been released and they’re getting the monthly armchair analysis (notably, at ICv2 and ComiChron). The direct market, if you don’t know, is essentially the comic book stores, specialty shops and book stores serviced by Diamond Comics Distributors.
The big eye-catching headline is that the highest selling comic book for February is the weakest top-seller in 10 years, possibly ever. DC Comics‘ Green Lantern #62 by Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke shipped only an estimated 71,500 copies. For a bit of context, February 2006‘s top seller moved over 140,000 copies. As ComiChron points out, Green Lantern in the 1960s was selling over 200,000 copies a month. Comics have also sold in the millions per month.
So is the end nigh? After January’s poor showing, and now this, there’s certainly plenty of hand-wringing and window jumping. It’s easy to draw that conclusion, but as both sites point out, the entire month’s sales are actually just barely up. That’s due to a modestly better sales through the mid-list and lower selling comics, or the long tail. Without those sales, the industry would indeed be hurting due to a lack of breakout hits and lackluster ordering of the top 100 comics. A dive was also averted due to high priced graphic novels sold in February, such as the Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne deluxe hardcover by Grant Morrison and various artists, with a suggested price of $29.99.
There are lots of factors at play here. DC Comics has rolled back their cover prices to $2.99. The first quarter is traditionally weaker. Diamond started shipping comics on Tuesday for a Wednesday on-sale date, and the transition threw off some orders.
While it seems like comics sale are constantly falling and that this is an all-new low, I think the notable observation made is that comics sales are largely where they were 10 years ago. In this economy, that’s a victory. But then you consider that 10 years ago, comic stores had nowhere near as many resources. These newer resources should theoretically be pulling in customers. Graphic novels and manga in book stores and libraries were just ramping up ten years ago. The first X-Men movie had arrived with much enthusiasm but the huge success of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Batman Begins and a slew of other comic book adaptations were just around the corner. During the decade, web comics would continue to expand and diversify, becoming a (more) accepted form of syndication and distribution. And digital comics on iPhones, iPads, Playstation PSPs, Androids, on the web and elsewhere were beyond most people’s imagination and are now a quickly growing infant. Educators at libraries and schools have embraced comics as literacy tools and are helping their reach increase. This decade has started with a mass awareness and enthusiasm of comics that has never been higher.
And yet for comics stores, it’s like none of the progress from the last 10-15 years has even happened. All of these elements should serve as feeders to comic book stores. A percentage of readers from each of these places would theoretically be curious to more fully dive in to this world, and the comic book store is the best place to go. Or it’s supposed to be. Maybe it isn’t the best place. Or maybe it isn’t the most welcoming place for people coming from those other places. Or maybe we’re losing too many readers from old age or dissatisfaction and the new readers are causing us to break even. If that’s the case, I guess we get credit for stopping the hemorrhaging.
Diamond is trying to tie in the digital element but it’s criticized as inconvenient and counter-intuitive to the instant gratification of the digital world. Why would someone drive to a comic book store to buy a code that they use to download something to their device of choice when they can just do the same thing without driving anywhere either illegally or by waiting a month? Good question. But at least they’re trying. That same experimentation (or, preferably, better experimentation) should be applied to book stores, schools, libraries, movie theaters, TV, and anywhere else someone might discover that comics can be as good a way to be entertained as any other form of entertainment.
Diamond and its network of independent comic stores have a chance to turn the halted hemorrhaging into real growth. While there are a few stores out there that are doing what they can on their own, a series of coordinated efforts is what is needed. And if they don’t do it, one of those feeders will do it instead and become the dominant space in the industry. Comics aren’t going anywhere. It’s how you get them and how they get to you that is changing.
Despite the bustling comics scene here in Los Angeles, it’s not all sunshine and ponies.
Diamond Comic Distributors, by far the biggest and most powerful international distributor of comic books and associated products delivering to comic book stores and specialty shops, is closing its Los Angeles distributor center/warehouse this March. How does this effect us readers? Probably not much, at least directly. That is, as long as your local shop can still get their shipment of new comics. And afford it.
The final shipment from the LA center will be the first week of January. After that, the southern California area (and beyond) will instead be serviced by a Diamond distribution center almost 2,000 miles east, in Olive Branch, Mississippi. In their notice to effected comic shops, Diamond stated, “based on our quality control monitoring of shortages, damages, and overages, the Olive Branch facility consistently scores on par with Los Angeles”. Given the errors and frustrations some local stores have had with Diamond, that’s probably not very comforting. According to Bleeding Cool, this brings the count of Diamond’s warehouse facilities to 4, down from 24 at one time.
The same week the Olive Branch center takes over, Diamond begins it’s new Day-Early Delivery program for all of its customers, where instead of comics arriving to stores Wednesday morning to go on sale that same day, comics will be delivered Tuesday with a street date of the following day. This should help pad out any delivery delays during the transition. However comic shops must pay a fee to be included in the program, which apparently pays for “secret shoppers” to make sure stores are obeying street date rules. So if they don’t pay in, stores will instead receive their boxes of comics early Wednesday morning for a same-day scramble to get comics sorted, counted, displayed and pulled for subscribers.
Another factor is that some stores opt to drive themselves to the distribution center and pick up their orders, instead of paying for UPS to drive comics to their store. With the LA distribution gone, will stores be forced to pay for deliveries? Diamond says no, for now. A pick-up location will be determined for those stores, at no additional charge. While that’s great, I can’t imagine that’s something they’ll keep doing forever. What’s the point of closing a distribution center if you still pay the rent on a pick-up location?
Comic stores often operate on a slim profit margin, especially smaller stores. With shrinking sales, will these new fees force some stores to rethink doing business?
And what of Diamond’s Los Angeles employees? If they’re willing to relocate to Mississippi, some may still have a job. According to ICv2: “Long-time Diamond Regional Manager James Nash will relocate from Los Angeles to Olive Branch. Other staff has been encouraged to apply for positions in Olive Branch after their tenure in Los Angeles ends at the end of March.”