Digital Comics

This past weekend I went back home to NYC. Aside from a much-needed refill of city life, the trip was an opportunity to see family and friends, and to attend the NY Comic Con. I was attending the show as a publishing professional — using the opportunity to scout artists for Adamant’s various transmedia efforts — and had a great time. The best part of the trip, from a business standpoint, was ICV2’s Conference on Comics and Digital, held the day before the show opened, which featured a white paper presentation on the state of the comics industry presented by Milton Griepp, followed by three breakout panel discussions with industry figures representing retail, creative and publishing.

The initial presentation gave an overview of 2010 to-date in comics sales (figures which I take with large grains of salt, since ICV2’s numbers are based on interviews and survey responders — so basically the same self-selected data that has always plagued accurate accounting of game industry sales in publications like COMICS & GAMES RETAILER). The take-away from all of this is that (to no one’s surprise) individual issue sales are still dropping (having entered the vicious circle where lower print runs mean higher production costs, leading to higher retail prices, further lowering sales, etc.), and graphic novel sales, which have buoyed the industry for the past few years as the only growth segment (thanks to increased penetration into bookstores), had plummeted as well — by a staggering amount (20% — Approximatly 9% when talking about comic shops, but 30% when discussing bookstores). Griepp put forth the supposition that sales of the Watchmen graphic novel as a movie tie-in last year may have disguised what would’ve otherwise been a drop in graphic novel sales that would’ve made the year-to-year data seem more gradual than the drastic numbers indicated.

Citing that “the energy is digital”, Griepp talked about what appears to be the only growing segment of comic sales: digital, which ICV2 estimated at between 6 and 8 million dollars for 2010 — compared to a top-end of 1 million dollars in 2009. That’s a phenomenal growth by any measurement, and the main reason for the focus of the conference. Griepp posed that this appears to represent the fourth major change in the comics market: The rise of direct sales and the loss of news-stand in the 80s, the speculator bubble and direct market near-collapse in the 90s, the resurgence of graphic novel and trade collection sales via traditional bookstores in the 2000s, and now digital.

Three panel discussions followed, with varying focus — CBR has in-depth coverage of the panels in their write-up here.

There was a lot to take away from these panels. The thoughts that struck me the most strongly at the time:

  • Mark Waid — sure to preface his remarks as the opinion of “Mark Waid, Private Citizen”, rather than “Mark Waid, CCO of BOOM! Studios” — discussing the negative blowback from retailers onto publishers who do digital: “We cannot be held hostage by 2000 stores.”
  • Masaki Shimizu –Director of International Business Strategy for the Japanese mobile comics powerhouse Bitway – said that their most popular titles sell subscriptions giving consumers roughly 20 pages for the equivalent of 25 cents… and that the top-selling titles were moving 10,000 units PER DAY. Now, mind you, Japan is way more accepting of the comics format, and got to mobile comics a while ago (2003 or thereabouts), but still.
  • Multiple panelists — Mark Waid and Ted Adams (CEO of IDW) for example — talking about the fact that despite retailer complaints, print versions of comics released in digital form saw an *increase* in sales, not a decrease. Both cited examples where print sales rose from issue to issue, which almost never happens.
  • Waid again, in “Citizen Waid” mode, positing a future where monthly issues are largely replaced by digital, which are then collected in print as graphic novels and sold via comic shops and bookstores.
  • David Gabriel, Senior VP of Marvel, giving a bullshit answer to questions about Marvel’s digital initiative subscriptions: “We’re not at the point where we can get quick turnaround on digital sales data.” As I said via Twitter at the time: Then you’re doing it wrong. Obvious bullshit, because I could grab my phone and within seconds (depending on the pathetic connection coverage at the Javits center) tell you how many copies of which Adamant titles I had sold THAT HOUR. Come on.
  • From the same panel (the last of the day, weighted heavily towards traditional publishing and retail), the completely unavoidable fact that Diamond Comics Distributors (present in the person of Dave Bowen, the Director of Digital Distribution) is not only dropping the ball on making themselves of use to publishers and retailers in this space, but actively harming them through complete cluelessness and incompetence. Interesting that they have a director of “Digital Distribution” but no real plans in place for it — and also most of what he was saying seemed to indicate that their ‘extensive research’ on the subject involved “talking with some folks” and doing Google searches. Diamond should have been positioned to blow start-ups like Comixology and iVerse out of the water… and yet…..
  • Rapid proliferation of platforms and delivery methods means that there is no current “killer ap” for sales — some publishers reporting strong sales via digital distribution through dedicated title-based apps of their own, while others report good results from being carried by existing “eStore” aps like Comixology. Still others do both, and more, with the idea of casting the net as wide as possible. iOS platforms (iPhone, iPad) are currently the 800lb Gorilla, especially because of the Android store’s insistence on a 24 hour return policy which meant that people were buying comics, reading them, and then returning them for a full refund.
  • Digital publishers are seeing stronger-than-expected sales in areas other than traditional comics niches (superheroes and associated badassery) — especially strong in YA titles.

So, a lot to think about. I had been planning on doing digital comics as part of Adamant’s transmedia efforts (they seemed a natural fit — if it’s entertainment that can be delivered digitally, we should be exploring it), and the information I saw at the conference, as well as the conversations I had at the mixer afterward and throughout the rest of the convention, has convinced me that this is definitely an area where major expansion is going to occur in 2011, and it would behoove any creator to get in as early as possible.

5 Replies to “Digital Comics”

  1. Thanks for the breakdown Gareth – this is fascinating stuff. Personally I’m very interested in the “delivery digitally, collect in TPBs” model, being a trailing-edge technology user who gave up collecting monthly titles a few years ago for space reasons. I doubt I’m the only one.

    One question – what were your impressions of the audience for these panels? Who was there and what was the reception like?

  2. It was packed — so many people that there were folks standing/sitting on the floor, etc. Hard to get much impression of the audience, since the badges don’t feature identifiers — I recognized a few folks here and there, and a few folks identified themselves as well. It was a cross-section: Publishers, creators, librarians, retailers, epublishing folks, print company reps, etc.

    The reception was vibrant — the conference could have filled much more than the 5 hours or so that it occupied. Lots of conversation, lots of questions, etc.

  3. Very informative! Confirms some things I’ve been hearing, and a lot of stuff I hadn’t even thought about. Thanks!

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