5 Key Takeaways From Publishers Weekly’s Annual Comics Retailer Survey
The big headline on Publishers Weekly’s site when it published the results of its comics retailer survey last month blared that comics sales were down during the early months of 2014, though retailers seem relatively optimistic about it.
What comes after is a sometimes difficult-to-parse snapshot of the world of comics as it looks now. It’s not necessarily a bleak picture, but it’s very clearly one that portrays an industry may not be able to sustain itself as it is now. Change is occurring, and here are some key items from the report that show how, and what might be changing.
1. The landscape is complicated.
Consider these seemingly contradictory data points: Graphic novel sales are down 15 percent and single-issue sales are flat compared to the early months of 2013, but most of the individual retailers PW surveyed (all but three) are reporting growing, or at least steady, sales. And the stores that said their sales were down blamed particularly harsh winters for their drop-offs. (I can vouch for that, considering that two of the stores were in Chicago, where I live, and which had a terrible, awful winter.)
How can both of those seemingly opposing things be true? PW offers the explanation that the drop in graphic novel sales must be at the distributor level rather than at stores. That’s a possibility. The other option could be that the stores PW included in its very small sample of just about a dozen stores just plain aren’t representative of comic shops in general. Almost all of them are well-known shops in major cities.
With those factors in mind, the big takeaway seems to be that taking the temperature of the comics community is an exercise in trying to read a bunch of thermometers at once, and they’re likely showing different figures, measured on different scales.
2. Marvel and DC appear to be losing ground.
Again, this is a matter of cold, hard number versus perceptions. Marvel and DC still had a healthy share of the comics market in February (34 percent and 29 percent of the retail market share, respectively, according to Diamond, which is just a hair below what each had a year prior), but the retailers PW surveyed said the enthusiasm readers once had for Big Two-published superhero comics (with a few key exceptions) has receded in favor of creator-owned titles such as Saga and Locke & Key. Lower-tier Marvel and DC books seem to have suffered as a result.
Once again, this could be nothing more than the result of a flawed sample. Smaller shops tend to stock only books from the Big Two, and often don’t have the luxury of ordering non-superhero books that may or may not find an audience.
That said, retailers tend to do a pretty good job of sticking a finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing. If they believe that readers are shifting away from Marvel and DC superhero comics in favor of what PW calls “general readers” books, there’s a good chance there’s a trend in that direction, however small.
3. Number-one issue gimmicks aren’t working.
Wayne Wise of Phantom in the Attic in Pittsburgh said, quite simply, that people “aren’t fooled by [the] misdirection” of Marvel slapping a big “#1” on an issue that isn’t actually a number-one issue (something the publisher has been trying with its “.Now” issues and others). And even when an issue is a genuine number one, it’s just not generating all that much enthusiasm in readers.
I’ve written quite extensively about the changing meaning of a number-one issue, and this seems to be the proof that continuing to release number-one issues as a sales tactic is showing diminishing returns, quite literally.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to return to old numbering, though. Amazing Spider-Man #701 isn’t going to sell any better than Amazing Spider-Man #1 will, and going back to the old numbering doesn’t do anything but bring back a whole other set of impenetrability problems that mainstream comics have been dealing with for decades.
It’s a matter of divorcing the idea of a number-one issue from being the start of a series, and therefore, a collector’s item. Number one issues are now the starts of new stories, new creative teams, new seasons of comics. They’re an indicator of “Hey, here’s a place you can start,” not, “Buy this issue because one day it’ll be worth $20,000.” No comic you buy in 2014 will be worth $20,000. Get over that impulse.
Publishers need to get over the impulse of selling number-one issues that way, too. Then perhaps new number ones won’t be viewed as sales tactics or gimmicks, they’ll simply become the way things are.
4. The audience is shifting.
You have to dig for it a bit, but this data point from ComiXology is one of the most important in PW’s report: 20 percent of the digital comics retailer’s new customers in the third quarter of 2013 were women ages 17 to 26.
If you want to ignore that, it’s easy to dismiss. That’s only 1/5 of the new readers. But consider how specific of a demographic that is. Then consider what some other recent market research from Facebook says about the gender breakdown of comics readers (in brief, they’re almost half women).
PW’s retailer interviews delve into some explanations for why those numbers are the way they are, but at the heart of it, the why doesn’t matter. What’s important is that women, particularly women in their late teens and early twenties, are interested in comics and want to read them.
Meanwhile, there’s a cultural morass that seems to be actively looking to push those women away from spending their money on comics. Just to name a few recent examples, there was the big blow-up at commentator Janelle Asselin for daring to criticize the cover of the new Teen Titans comic, and there was the t-shirt at Wondercon that so vehemently expressed hatred for “fangirls.”
One has to wonder whether the growth ComiXology saw among young women translated into brick-and-mortar shops, which still have a reputation as being havens for misogyny (though quite a few shops, including the ones PW surveyed, are very friendly shops that treat women with the utmost respect).
This is a trend that will almost certainly continue despite the outcry from a few that view the rise of “fangirls” as an encroachment on their special, secret hobby. Those few need to grow up and come to terms with it being OK for two people of different genders to like the same thing.
5. We need more data.
As I have mentioned several times, the PW survey is a helpful snapshot, but it’s anything but a comprehensive report on the state of comics retail in 2014. I’ve done my best to piece together some of the big points here, but perhaps the biggest point that has emerged as I have dug through the report and analyzed it over the past weeks is that what the industry at large could really use right now, during what seems to be a moment of some big shifts in readership and reader preferences, is more information.
Just how many women are becoming comics fans? What are their hesitations about joining the online comics community or attending conventions? Are readers becoming more interested in creator-owned, non-superhero books than Big Two cape comics? Is there a numbering solution we can all agree on? These are all big questions that someone’s going to have to answer. Knowing what the consensus is, if there even is one, could be a big help.