In 2013, the headlines were seen month after month on comic book websites and blogs: "record sales," "sales increase over last year," and "best month in years."
While most other types of periodically printed media — particularly magazines and newspapers — are struggling to find readers (or even folding up shop), the monthly sales figures from Diamond Comics Distributors this past year indicate comics aren't struggling at all.
In fact, they appear to be thriving, particularly in 2013.
So what gives?
In a series of articles that focus on the present and future of the comics market, Newsarama is going to ask that question. What has given the comic book market its current boost, and how can the industry make sure it continues?
We start the series by talking to retailers, and we learned some information that most comic book readers might not even realize.
Yes, retailers credit the publishers and audience for much of the positive growth in the comic book market, but there are factors that only retailers have noticed during the last few years.
Among the retailers we surveyed, one of the most cited influences on comic book sales in their stores was the recent technological advances in ordering systems at the retail level.
Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, Calif., said more retailers are today using the "point-of-sale" software that was developed over the last few years by companies like Bitter End Systems and Diamond.
"I think since a good number of retailers have gravitated toward point-of-sale, it's allowing us to see better information, quicker, and be able to respond to what's selling, what's not selling," Field said. "So there may be more cutting and running on some titles because they're not selling at all, but that's money that's now being plowed back into things that do sell. I think that's been a piece of it, that retailers are more tech-savvy, although I think there's a lot of room for more retailers to go to the point-of-sale route."
"More retailers [are] finally embracing a point of sales system, which yes, I do believe helps quite a bit in keeping better tabs on whats selling and what's not," said John Robinson, co-owner of Graham Crackers comic shops, which has nine locations in the Chicago area.
Other retailers pointed toward other ordering-related technological advances, like the improved "final order cut-off" deadline from publishers.
"The biggest changes on the retail end have probably been an increase in retailers using point-of-sale systems and the ability to set orders closer to release date with Final Order Cutoff through Diamond," said Matt Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Okla. "Use of point-of-sale systems and retailers using Final Order Cutoff to set orders lets retailers track more effectively what titles are increasing sales and which are decreasing, allowing them to use their dollars more effectively. "
Mark Waid, who recently had a grand re-opening as co-owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind., said the new location gives his store the opportunity to make customers feel like "they're part of a community." He displays memorabilia and the store has frequent in-store events to encourage readers to feel like they're part of a group.
"Marketing of everything has changed significantly, largely due to social networking," said Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz. "Comic book shops have become bastions of pop culture gatherings and communication. I know that the quarterly charity benefits that I host in my shop bring in a much more diversified segment of the populace these days then they did a decade ago."
Field, currently director of the retailing organization ComicsPRO, said he's seeing more retailers embracing social media. "They're connecting to their fans and creating communities with their fans, probably better than ever before.
"I'll tip my own cap and say Free Comic Book Day is sort of a galvanizing force every year, with 1.2 or 1.3 million showing up for that event last year," said Field, who was behind the establishment of Free Comic Book Day. "But that's sort of like the starting gate for the summer comics season, and when there are events like that, and then Halloween Comic Fest in the fall, there are a lot of things that are available for retailers to create communities in their stores, and I think when that happens, fans hang in there longer and are happier, and are more connected to the success of their local comic shop."
All the retailers we surveyed indicated that comic books are, in the general public, more accepted than they've ever been. And while superhero movies and TV shows may not immediately lead to sales, they act as a positive branding message about comics as a medium.
"We're living in a very 'multi-media' geek society nowadays," said Mike Wellman, co-owner The Comic Bug, in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "The geeks have finally taken over the world and everyone from film fans to video-game players to even sitcom aficianados (who watch Big Bang Theory) want to see where this magical well springs from!"
"The only verifiable increase in sales due to a TV show or movie is The Walking Dead. Full stop," said Adam Casey, manager of Salefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There is, however, an influx of people interested in comics by way of video games such as Arkham Asylum and Injustice. Suddenly people are asking about Deathstroke."
Robinson said there are less people "looking down their nose" at comic books. And Price said that even people who aren't interested in reading them are aware of the characters now.
"And, look… love it or hate it," Field said, "look at Big Bang Theory. It's huge, and it a half-an-hour commercial for geek culture every week on TV, and whether the characters are stereotypes or just so far off the charts that they're not even stereotypes, there's comics talk on national TV every week. And that's just one example. There are any number of things, from some of the antique shows on cable to Comic Book Men with Kevin Smith, and Arrow on CW — any of that stuff.
"There's an awareness out there that some of the best ideas in all media come from comics, and I think that creates something of a magnet to our stores, to find out what's going on with these things."
Retailers also acknowledged that the last couple years have demonstrated what a boon it can be to the industry to have new, fresh content coming from publisher, combined with returnability and one-time shipping — which they said was lacking in previous years.
"Publishers taking chances with increased discounts and returnability on certain launch titles has helped retailers find the ceiling easier on those titles," Price said. "On-time shipping also helps keep cashflow positive. Compelling stories shipping on a regular schedule are key to maintaining strong comics sales."
"We've gone through a major sea change, much like in the mid/late 80's where both of the major publishers (Marvel and DC) have raised the grass and planted new seed in the last two years," Wellman said. "This has led to some grumbling from old time readers, but also much excitement from new blood who has been watching blockbuster super-hero movies for the last decade and just waiting for the perfect 'jumping-on' point.
"This year, there were more returnable books than ever," Wellman added, "which allowed us as retailers to take bigger chances when ordering. This is something that many retailers have been begging publishers for, especially when books are being launched."
Clever marketing also helps, Wellman said, as long as the content keeps readers interested. "The 3D bloodbath of September was very good for us," Wellman said, indicating the special covers released that month. "It gave us the opportunity to demonstrate to our long-term customers that we appreciate them by getting them these hot books at cover price and with the scant leftovers we had, were able to lock in a few new customers. The short print-run is actually a blessing in disguise because we also sold a boatload of the 2D versions and that was all 100 percent returnable. We had our second biggest month in our nearly 10-year history in September 2013 (May 2013 being our actual biggest month!)."
"Putting out a good product is the best thing a publisher can do to grow sales," Casey said.
All the retailers also acknowledged that there are segments of the audience that are changing — including a significant growth in the female market.
Cliff Biggers, owner of Dr. No's Comics & Games SuperStore in Marietta Ga., said retailers have become more attuned to the diverse nature of their clientele. "They've become quite adept at targeted selling — you know, the 'if you liked that, then you might want to take a look at this too' approach of finding books to appeal to readers of all interests. The industry is becoming more sophisticated and aware of the varying interests of their customer base."
Robinson said that, although the female customers in his stores are still the minority, they've more than doubled.
"While the market is still skewed towards young males," Harris said, "there has definitely been a steady and significant increase in female readers and new material that breaks the boundaries of muscle bound guys in tights punching each other is a great change for all readers."
"I would think the clientele has changed the most over the last five years," Casey said. "What used to be a specific niche customer has been balanced out with lapses customers and people trying out comics for the first time."