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.
All the news that’s fit to shove through internet tubes. Here’s the world of comic books and graphic novels in LA and beyond over the last week or so, with some commentary:
= Rebranded Eagle Rock comic store Comics vs. Toys gets profiled on how it came into existence. Answer: From the ashes of two neighboring Eagle Rock comic stores Another World Comics and Mini-Melt Too. In a time when stores are closing and people in less populated areas are lucky if they have a store within a 3-hour drive, it’s amazing to think that two stores existed side by side for a year. I shopped at this store for maybe a year when it was still the Meltdown Comics satellite shop Mini-Melt Too, after Another World Comics had already closed, and really appreciated co-owner Ace Aguilera going out of his way to get me the comics I liked, which can skew off the beaten path at times. It’s one of those small but great stores that LA is lucky to have in abundance. Read it: Eagle Rock Patch
= And speaking of stores closing, the LA Weekly looks at the slow death of the Borders in Westwood. The Borders company will give severance pay, but hasn’t told the store employees their last day. Apparently it will be when the store has been picked clean at severely discounted prices. Read it: LA Weekly
= Two 24-year-old Los Angeles men, Farhad Lame and Navid Vatankhahan, each have to pay $750, complete 10 days of community service (picking up trash), and remain on probation for 3 years for selling fraudulent passes to this past summer’s Comic-Con International: San Diego comic book and pop culture convention. They pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in San Diego Superior Court. They had sold a pair of 2-day passes to 2 women for $120 each on Craigslist. The passes ended up being photocopies of exhibitor badges, so naturally the women weren’t allowed in. Both men were arrested on the last day of Comic-Con. Read it: Sign On San Diego
= For you creative types, comics lettering and calligraphy innovators Comicraft, based right here in Los Angeles, had their annual New Year’s Day Sale, and “secretly” extended it through the holiday weekend. Maybe it’s still happening when you visit. See it: ComicBookFonts.com
= Comics Alliance wrapped up their Digital December, a month long look at the state of digital comics with excellent interviews with nearly every major player and articles by David Brothers and Laura Hudson: Read the rest of this entry
At this point, it’s hard to argue against the notion that digital comics are inevitable. They’re the future. The near future. For many, they are already the present thanks to various legally dubious means. Just as the music industry had a difficult transition accepting the reality, so too are comics publishers. Over the last year, North American comics publishers have been taking a casual to slow walk toward maybe actually embracing the way it is now. And even with tepid experimentation, there has been tremendous growth during a tough year for the print side. Manga publishers from both the East and West have been criticized for being even more reluctant, and plenty argue that shrinking sales are due to readers heading to pirating sites that translate and upload manga years ahead of official North American releases.
Fortunately over the last half year, the feet dragging is coming to an end for Los Angeles manga publisher Tokyopop.
First came the legal action. In early June, Tokyopop joined the Japanese Digital Comics Association with over 30 other manga publishers, both in America and in Japan, to fight digital piracy. This bold move was initially met with frustration among readers who read illegally translated and distributed manga, due to a lack of legitimate digital alternatives. But what has followed since has been a strong move to create just that. Read the rest of this entry