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Milton Griepp Weighs In On the Future of Comics Retailing

by  in Comic News Comment
Milton Griepp Weighs In On the Future of Comics Retailing

This year’s ICv2 Conference at New York Comic Con took a more reflective tone than usual, with a shorter parade of sales figures and trend predictions and more of a big-picture look at the industry as a whole. ICv2’s Milton Griepp, who has been observing and measuring the comics market in different ways for decades, presented an overview of the current market and analyzed some factors that could lead to substantial growth—or collapse—in the futue.

The big news of the conference would have been Griepp’s estimate that the value of the comics market has topped $1 billion, except that he and John Jackson Miller released those calculations in July. However, he did have one set of new numbers: Manga sales. He estimated the size of the manga market at $85 million last year, up 13% from the year before. That makes three consecutive years of increased sales. “Last year the biggest new titles were ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ and ‘One-Punch Man’ from Viz, but lots of titles are doing well and overall the market is growing,” he said.

Griepp then turned to the meat of his presentation, a discussion of the history of the comics market that focused on four disruptions in comics retail sales:

  • The decline of the newsstand and the rise of comic shops;
  • The addition of the online retail sales channel (for print comics), which expanded the footprint of comics and allowed an online community to form;
  • The growth of graphic novel sales in chain bookstores and book superstores, which brought the comics medium to more general readers; and
  • The rise of digital comics, which made comics even more widely available and seem to have increased sales in the market as a whole, including print retail.

To predict the next disruption, he looked at a number of stresses and opportunities in the current market.

“The growth of the comic store market appears to me to be capped by genre,” he said, pointing out that the audience for superheroes and the other genres comic shops concentrate on is limited, as is the readership for monthly comics. He advised stores to shift their focus to graphic novels and increase their backlist. “I do believe there is still a huge opportunity in the comic stores,” he said, “but that way of thinking around the monthly cycle of periodical comics and how do I order the next issue has to change somewhat, and you have to focus more on the book business and having a deep backlist and finding different kinds of content.”

On the other hand, he pointed out several unique strengths of the direct market, including the relationships between store owners and customers and the ability to use the stores for entertainment, by hosting signings and other events.

Despite the increase in the market, Griepp sees little likelihood of any sort of national comics chain. “Comics is an extremely tough business,” he said. “The retailers that are successful in this business have amazing skills, they have amazing communication with their customers, they have amazing product knowledge, and to try to duplicate that across a large chain would be extremely difficult. People look at it and just throw up their hands and say ‘How can you do that?'”

A more likely scenario is for pre-existing specialty chains to add comics to their product mix. Chain bookstores are carrying more graphic novels and even periodical comics, GameStop is selling event comics, and Griepp sees comics as a possible addition for other specialty retailers such as Best Buy and the record store FYE. The mass market retailers Wal Mart and Target have both recently tested out graphic novel sections, he added.

Amazon is a formidable force because of its logistics—they have a distribution or shipping center within 20 miles of 44% of the U.S. population, Griepp said, making next-day and even same-day deliveries possible, and thus increasing their competitiveness with brick-and-mortar stores. At the same time, their discounts have paid off with a large share of the market for more expensive graphic novels (over $30).

Griepp saw potential for growth with both digital comics, particularly if they expand from superheroes and offer more formats such as comiXology Unlimited, and webcomics, which are beginning to move from a grassroots phenomenon to consolidation under larger companies.

He countered these growth scenarios with a possible worst-case scenario, however. “That would be if the specialty retail chains, instead of building on their strength of broad audience, complete stories, and broad content follow the comic stores down the rabbit hole of superhero periodical comics,” he said. “If the comic stores fail to adapt their merchandising, their product cycle, to a broader audience and keep chasing collectability, I think that market can shrink in share as a result.”

That would hurt the medium in other ways besides the loss of sales outlets. “One of the best things about the comic store channel is this two-way communication from fan to retailer and from retailer to publisher instead of one way down the supply chain,” he said. “This produces better product, better decisions about what to emphasize and higher sales. If comics stores decline in importance, we lose some of that, and I’m skeptical that big data at least at this stage, can replicate all of the benefits of that, because that two-way communication tells people in power why things are selling and not selling, not just what’s selling.” It’s also important for digital to live up to its full potential, especially as a way for creators to make more money.

“The future of the medium requires the potential of a broad market beyond what periodical superheroes can achieve,” he concluded. “The scale of that market is multiples of where we are now. Both the main world centers of comics, Franco-Belgian comics and manga in Japan, have much higher per capita consumption levels than we have in the U.S. We can do that too, but only if we evolve in a smart way. To me, the best outcome would be if we see all the channels contributing, with comic stores at the center of that growth. But if bad decisions are made over the next few years, that dream may not come to pass.”

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