With the growth of digital comic books and the perception that audiences are "waiting for the trade," it's easy to buy into a doom-and-gloom attitude about the future of print comic books.
But according to the retailers and publishers Newsarama surveyed, as long as the industry corrects some of its current missteps, the best years of the serial format could lie ahead.
As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we talk to retailers and publishers about the future of the direct market, its viability, and what retailers and publishers need to continue doing to keep it on track.
How's the industry now?
Among the people we contacted for this series, 2016 was among their best recent years for sales of print comic books.
"We've seen steady growth in all markets over the last four years," said Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing for BOOM! Studios, citing growth in both digital and book sales. "In the direct market, since 2012, we've outpaced the industry average growth consistently every year and in fact have been the fastest growing top 10 publisher in those years."
"We had our best year ever," echoed Jesse James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Ariz. "We had a double-digit increase in store and triple digit increase online."
Yet some of the issues raised during our discussions concern industry-watchers, particularly the oversaturation of the market, with the number of titles being released at record high levels. Add that concern to the rising number of variants, and both retailers and publishers are aware that the numbers might not tell the whole story.
Randy Stradley, Dark Horse's Vice President of Publishing described the biggest challenge facing the overall industry right now as "the sheer number of comics coming out within a given month" - something, he says, that can affect quality and, in turn, the value of comic books as entertainment.
"All publishers have the responsibility of exercising quality control for all their offerings," Stradley said. "When they put their logo on the front cover, it is a stamp that this is the best they have to offer. I’m not so sure that everyone is toeing this line."
"Also, with limited budgets and limited shelf space, retailers can only afford to order so much within a given month," Stradley explained. "And that hurts all publishers and fans across the board by reducing access to the highly diverse, quality material being published today."
"The Big Two publishers need to be responsible by not flooding the market with titles as a short term money grab," said Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio.
Several retailers also voiced a feeling that some publishers aren't investing their time and energy in the serial format - instead focusing on building franchises, writing for collections or simply beating last year's monthly number.
"The comic book format is still viable, but it does need some real attention from all publishers," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California. "Every publisher in the comics' business takes the periodical part of their business for granted, looking past it to the book market or even further past it to mass media options and those possible and mostly elusive big bucks.
"Periodical comics tend to get the short shrift from publishers, yet in many specialty shops, like mine, sales of periodical comics account for as much as 50% of total sales," Field said. "We regularly see schedules go off the rails. We rarely get creative teams staying on a title for extended runs anymore. I'd like to see more value packed into comic books including less decompressed storylines, more actual things happening in every single issue."
Diversity and Awareness
Quality was repeated again and again as the most important aspect of continued industry success. But retailers and publishers also cited diversity - not only of characters, but even types of genres and titles - as key to maintaining an interested audience and attracting new readers.
"Movies and television shows based on comic books are a dominant fixture of popular culture now, which is giving publishers the foundation they need to keep trying new things," said Dinesh Shamdasani, Valiant Entertainment's CEO/CCO. "This has led to one of the most creatively energized periods in comics in quite some time, and publishers across the board are still actively working to redefine people’s expectations of how good a comic book story can be and what they can look like."
Field agreed that the awareness of comic books is high right now, but he emphasized that the industry can't squander this opportunity to reach a wider audience.
"Comics are literally everywhere now, so the potential to sell them is higher than ever," said Field. "But because comics' content is so diffused across all media, there may be less incentive for casual fans of the movies or Netflix shows to actually seek out the great source material. Sure, the Daredevil Netflix show was great, but no one can convince me it is better than the Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Brian Bendis or Ed Brubaker Daredevil comics that came before it.
"I'm still incredibly bullish on comics and believe we have still barely tapped the potential audience for what we sell," Field said. "With a concerted effort to bolster the periodical comics' format while continuing to grow the market for book format comics, I believe we're poised to rebound in a big way from this recent and temporary malaise."
Field, who is an industry leader and was instrumental in the creation of Free Comic Book Day, said he'd also like to see more advertising of comic books - a possibility in light of the news about DC's plans to advertise in movie theaters.
"Other than some TV ads for DC's 'Rebirth,' we rarely see concerted promotion for comic book sales past the stuff posted on comic news sites," Field said, "and those are directed as much at garnering retailer advance orders as they are about building consumer excitement and actual sell-through."
Retailer and Reader Responsibility
Field also said that if readers love the serial storytelling format, it might help for them to invest in the medium.
"When I hear a fan say 'I love that comic, but I only buy the collected editions,' it irks me to know that attitude can be self-defeating," Field said. "If there are diminishing returns for readers in terms of the value they get from a comic book, the growing inclination is to 'wait for the trade.' The problem with that is retailers and publishers depend on how well the individual issues sell when it comes to determining the viability of trade paperbacks, so titles with little to no sales in comics' form get little to no orders in book form.
"If the thought is that without comics, we'd be getting many more 'original graphic novels,' well, that might be true," he said. "But the chances are those original graphic novels would be much so more expensive since the periodical comics serve to amortize the cost of the collected editions."
Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston Salem, North Carolina, said he understands why today's audiences might want to binge-read their stories (like they tend to do with television now), but he's hoping comic books are so unique that they'll maintain an audience, particularly now that some come out more frequently than each month.
"In a day and age of binge watching, I think that directly correlates to the publishing schedules of books changing from monthly to twice and three times monthly on many titles," Parks said. "And hey, while the reading is good, this is a great thing. People can not wait to get the next chapter of their favorite titles when the storytelling is strong. There will always be people who trade-wait but they are relatively few compared to the number of people who pick their books up every single Wednesday."
Retailers also recognize their own responsibility to respond to their customers' changing needs and market themselves in their communities.
"We know there is no better time to get our brand out there, then 2017," James said. "We will work harder with Diamond and all our publishers to makes sure our customers are being taking care of. We will be there to help inspire and be inspired by each other. We will help each other to the achieve the next level of service. We will continue to find ways to reward our customers for opening up their wallets each week at our store. Our story has just begun and our customers will always be the main topic."
"The more important thing shops need to do during times like this is to interact with your guests," Seymore said. "There are still many titles that are great reads and even more great stories are available in trade paperback form. All industries wax and wane over the course of time.
"I have been involved with the retailer side of the business for over 22 years in varying jobs from shelf stocking up through ownership," Seymore said. "The trick is to not chase bubbles and really, truly dialogue with your guests. When you know their preferences and they trust that your recommendations aren't short term money grabs you will be able to keep them reading solid stories that will not leave them dissatisfied with the industry."
But all of the industry-watchers we surveyed had high hopes for the future of the industry. "I'm not concerned about the future of comic books," Sablik said, summarizing the sentiments of most publishers and retailers we contacted. "There are challenges in different marketplaces and those ebb and flow from year to year. The medium itself is as strong as I've ever seen it. There is a great variety of content, a more diverse pool of creative voices, and some of the smartest people I know working to continue to grow the medium."
"The serial format is the lifeblood of the direct market," said Matthew Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Oklahoma. "People still love serial storytelling, so when that is done well, I see no reason that it couldn’t continue for a very long time. I would like to see more publisher marketing aimed specifically at driving customers to direct-market comic book stores.
"The format of a comic book, to me, is so perfect." Price said. "It’s portable, it’s a beautiful piece of art; a comic fills your field of vision while at the same time moving you through a story in a coherent yet artistic way. While we never know what tomorrow may bring, I certainly hope they are around forever."