Can we finally admit that the American comic book industry is in its death throes?
Or at least that Marvel Comics, specifically, is in big, big trouble — which spells big trouble for the direct market?
According to comics news site Bleeding Cool, August 2017’s monthly comic book sales took a dive from last August.
August was a five-Wednesday month. Five weeks of new product rather than four. Usually that means the dollars spent on comics and graphic novels for that month is around 20% higher than a four-week month. But August was only up 10% on July, which is not good. And from August 2016, also a five-week month? Down 25% — that’s a whole quarter less spent on comics in the direct market in a comparable timeframe.
So how bad is that going to hurt comics?
To quote The Joker in Suicide Squad, “Really, really BAD.”
This is a game-changing drop; sales have fallen over a cliff. Overall, year on year, that’s almost 7% down on 2016 at the same time. (…) Things are getting worse, not better. 2017 looks like it may be an annus horribilus for the comic book direct market.
Of course if we’re talking market share, Disney-owned Marvel Comics still takes the lead with a 35% dollar share and 39% unit share.
However, you have to dig a little deeper to show that Marvel is only maintaining its market share by pumping out a lot of books… a lot of books that aren’t really selling all that well individually.
Even Comics Beat — a site I’ve found to be very hesitant to call the comic industry’s time of death — has admitted that Marvel is in a pretty dire state right now.
In fact, they even have a nice chart that illustrates Marvel’s predicament perfectly.
According to comics sales analyst Todd Allen, the vast majority of Marvel’s titles are selling under 66,000 copies. And that’s only copies ordered by retailers, not the copies actually being sold to consumers… which is likely lower.
Marvel’s sweet spot appears to be issues getting ordered in at under 20K. That’s an awful lot of comics with minimal to no shelf stocking. If an ongoing comic is selling 40K at Marvel, it’s a hit. Would 40K even have been considered mid-list a couple years ago?
To put it in perspective, Marvel used to cancel comics that sold “only” a few hundred thousand copies in the 1980s.
How times have changed.
Strangely, another comics news site — Comic Book Resources — is reporting that August 2017 was a great month for comics.
Maybe they’re the “half full” kind of people, but either way you look at it the glass doesn’t have as much water in it as it used to.
So where is Disney in all of this?
Oh, I have no doubt they’re watching the comic book direct market circle the drain and will likely step in to do a “course correction.” What that entails could be anything from relocating Marvel Comics to Burbank to keep a closer eye on them, shutting down Marvel as a publisher to focus on movies or something else entirely.
What I do know of Disney is that they won’t allow things to continue as they are. The company hates losing money, and Marvel’s comics publishing arm has been a PR nightmare for years.
With an increased focus on digital media, the company probably doesn’t want to spend many more resources on a dying business model.
Things will change. Disney will intervene. Count on it.
RIP Comic Shops?
The days of the comic book shop are coming to a close, I’m afraid.
Should Marvel cut back on the number of books it publishes (or just drop publishing comics altogether) it would create a domino effect that would surely end in many shops closing their doors. A loss of Marvel would likely mean Diamond Distribution would suffer, and since comics retailers have painted themselves into a corner in which Diamond supplies them with most of their merchandise, what’s bad for Diamond is bad for the neighborhood comic shop.
Those that have diversified into games and pop culture will likely live to fight another day even if the direct market should implode. But the margins are tight on comic books, and retailers have been fighting to stay open even in relatively good years.
But Comics will live on in some form…
The direct market will end. It’s not a matter of if so much as a matter when.
Comic books are not immune to the same factors that hastened the demise of newspapers and print magazines. And for publishers to cater to a niche market in the digital age makes about as much sense as major record labels relying mostly on vinyl and CD sales to survive in the 21st century.
It’s just the natural evolution of physical media into the digital space.
Comics will live on in some form, it just won’t be in overpriced monthly pamphlets you can only buy at increasingly hard-to-find specialty retailers.
Graphic novels and trade paperbacks will be where it’s at for the “dead tree” version of comics, while more and more creators will make and distribute comics digitally.
One thing seems certain: Superheroes are here to stay. Even if Disney pulled the plug on all comics tomorrow, Marvel’s characters will live on in film and video games for decades to come.
So there’s that?