One of the first people we spotted at New York Comic Con Friday afternoon was Publishers Weekly comics co-editor Calvin Reid, who was having as much trouble finding the room where his panel on “selling good books in a bad economy” was being held as we were. Fortunately, we got it sorted out pretty quickly, and soon enough we learned that the comics industry is facing much the same situation as other book publishers: “Some channels are up, some channels are down,” said Kuo-Yu Liang of Diamond Comics Distributors, summarizing the conclusions of a just-released industry report that showed a 6 percent increase in bookstore sales of graphic novels… but a significant decline in the sales of manga, serialized graphic novels translated from the Japanese (or, increasingly, Korean) or developed by English-language creators inspired by the format. “Some publishers are up, some publishers are down.”
“High-end titles really haven’t dropped so much,” said Tokyopop‘s Stuart Levy, “but the midlist titles have dropped a lot.” Barnes & Noble graphic novel buyer Jim Killen concurred, adding that Batman and Iron Man titles had been hot sellers because of the movies—the latter had actually becaome “an A-list character” as far as sales were concerned.
The problem, Liang suggested, was that over the last decade or so comics publishers had ridden a wave of expansion in the retail chains until they’d reached all the audience they could reach there. “I don’t see any explosive growth coming out of the chain sector in the next few years,” he predicted. Killen expanded on the thought: “Constant growth in any market is not possible,” he warned. “There’s a point where you stop being a growing business and become a mature business… Every title is fighting for shelf space now. Every title has to have a reason for being in the store.”
“What are you going to do to drive the customers to the stores to look for that book?” Killen asked publishers rhetorically. “Your book is as good as its content, but it’s also only as good as your outreach and marketing.” That, he said, is how B&N would make many of its decisions about which titles to stock and how many to carry.
Liang returned to his point about the chains being tapped out—and the need to push into emerging markets. “Graphic novels are a good way for indie bookstores to establish themselves as a community asset,” he argued. Levy agreed, but warned that indies should look past “hot” titles like Watchmen and develop deep niches. But DC Comics marketing VP John Cunningham brought up another reason why graphic novels might become core assets to booksellers: Right now, the problem is just that readers go to the bookstore, and they’re only able to afford one book instead of two, or two instead of three. Once ebooks get to the tipping point where readers begin to download enough books that they start making fewer trips to buy blocks of prose printed on paper altogether, though, stores are going to need something else to bring readers in.
But that’s not all. Graphic novels being a business of low margins and low print runs, “a 10 percent migration to ebooks would grossly affect 60 percent of the market,” Cunningham said. When it comes to online distribution of comics, “piracy isn’t our issue so much as our readership being very edge-oriented… When the color e-reader comes, that’s the shift. We can’t sit around and wait for it… If we’re going to live digitally, we need to figure out how to get people to pay for it.”
Later that afternoon, we planned to drop in on a panel that explored exactly those issues—but the room where comics apps for the iPhone was being talked about was awfully small, and already packed to capacity when we showed up. Fortunately the sci-fi blog io9 grabbed a seat early; their write-up is awfully enthusiastic, even if the site’s commenters aren’t.