Even though direct comic book sales are down so far in 2017, retailers said they're finding a way to survive despite the challenging environment.
And even though sales are slowing, retailers anticipated the slump and are hoping for an upturn soon.
"This is business as usual," said Rachel Roberts, special events coordinator at Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (which just opened a second location). "We stay on our toes, anticipating trends, making sure whatever is being asked for is available."
"After owning a small business for so many years, one trait that is essential is to be nimble," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California. "When a part of the business isn't working, we accentuate the parts that are. We can cut orders to match sales quicker in comics than most any other business dealing with non-returnable merchandise.”
"With the Big Two, I expect DC's 'Rebirth,' with Dark Days and other stories, to remain strong and attractive to a lot of readers," Field continued. "I've been happily surprised by the strength of the Rebirth initiative. With Marvel, I'm confident that after a strong showing for Secret Empire and Generations, the Marvel Legacy one-shot will do for Marvel what Geoff Johns' DC Universe: Rebirth #1 did for DC."
So what is bringing down sales overall? And what is influencing the even larger downturn in graphic novel sales? Roberts said she thinks the sales decrease in collections and graphic novels can be attributed to competition.
"There are a lot of factors but the biggest one I think is … it's hard to beat Amazon," she said. "Almost daily we hear things like, 'Can you match Amazon?' 'I'll just order it on Amazon.' People don't understand that as a small local shop, we can't do the same business that Amazon does. Big Box is slaughtering the market."
According to the shop owners we contacted, sales on periodical comic books from the larger publishers have struggled to retain readers because of the "launching and relaunching" of titles.
"Comics is a business that is helped by inertia, but when series start, stop then start again so frequently, that throws off the inertia of regular schedules and the confidence that readers have in them. In business, consistency is vital," Field said.
"If we walked into a bakery and had a delicious chocolate cupcake one week, we'd come back to it week after week expecting it to taste just as good," Field explained. "Then one week, the bakery didn't have chocolate cupcakes and that dulled our excitement to get them again. If we then went back and they had the cupcakes again, but they tasted like dog food, we'd stop buying that cupcake immediately. That's a tortured analogy, sure, but comics readers want good comics, but they also need consistent delivery and quality with those comics."
Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizona, said his sales haven't dropped overall, but he has noticed that Marvel comics aren't doing as well since the company went through so many recent relaunches.
"The customers are so tired of the huge but predictable cross overs and the incessant relaunches," Harris said.
"Unfortunately we have been seeing a slight downward trend at our shop," said Ryan Seymore, president of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio. "Of the publishers, Marvel is having the biggest drop-off in sales. … The changes that Marvel has made both in content and structure have done incredible damage to their sales number."
But retailers have seen efforts from Marvel and other publishers to improve their approach to the direct market customers.
"When we couple a difficult economy, especially for small business, along with one of our major publishers, Marvel, not running on all cylinders, it just made things worse," Field said. "I'm happy to report it seems the good ship Marvel is course-correcting in a way that may take several months to complete, but is already showing positive signs of turnaround.”
Retailers said they are also concerned about there being too many titles for their stores to effectively support.
"Guests who had been purchasing entire lines - all X-Men or all Avengers - no longer do so," Seymore said. "Personally, I would prefer to sell 100 copies of one Spider-Man title each month than 35 copies each of two monthly Spider-Man titles."
But Roberts said it's not just Marvel that is disappointing fans. Quality is important (and sometimes lacking) at all publishers, especially those who have loyal fans like DC and Marvel.
"Even our most loyal Marvel and DC readers have been complaining about the quality of writing, so I think it's safe to say that it is definitely a factor in the decline," she said. "We have also seen a lot of people dropping Marvel and DC titles but replacing them with indie titles."
But all the retailers we contacted were optimistic about the future of the comic book industry. The attendance on the recent Free Comic Book Day was cited as a positive development.
"Free Comic Book Day coincides with one of my four quarterly charity fundraisers, all four of which generate increased sales, promotion and traffic," Harris said. "I anticipate the summer sales as being steady."
"If Free Comic Book Day is any indicator, sales can rebound and can get close to last year's totals," Seymore said. "Both DC and Image just need to stay the course and their numbers will be fine. The biggest wildcard is Marvel. They have a large fan base and, if they listen to and use the feedback they are receiving, a turnaround is possible."
"I believe we're already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Field added. "The plans I'm seeing from most publishers are encouraging and exciting. I'm hopeful that will lead to a strong second half of 2017. In 2016, we had a very strong first half of the year but a very weak second half. I'm hoping that is reversed when 2017 is finished."