NYCC: Griepp's White Paper Report Gives Comics Industry a Gold Star

Sales of comics, graphic novels, and digital comics are all growing, and that bodes well for the future.

That's the conclusion Milton Greipp drew in his White Paper, a summary of recent comics and graphic novel sales, which he presented at the ICv2 Conference in the Javits Center on Wednesday, the day before New York Comic Con.

Greipp estimated the total size of the U.S./Canada print comics market in 2012 at $680 million. "[That] took us back to 2009 levels after a couple of years of lower numbers," he said. "We are not quite back to the peaks that happened in 2008, but we are getting close, and the trends are in the right direction, so with digital included, overall the market has been robustly growing."

Sales of graphic novels amounted to $335 million in 2012, while sales of periodical comics were $345 million, meaning dollar sales of comics were higher than graphic novels for the first time since the early 2000s. "I don't know if that trend is going to continue," Greipp said, "but it's a sign of the health of the periodical business and the fact that graphic novels have had some challenges the last couple of years."

Sales of periodical comics were up by 15% in 2012, while graphic novels were down by 1%, for an overall growth rate of 6% for the print market as a whole. In the first three quarters of 2013, comics were up 13% and graphic novels were up 6% for an overall growth rate of 9%. "That's the kind of growth rate that a lot of businesses would kill for."

Greipp attributed the strong showing in 2012 to content: DC's New 52 reboot, Marvel NOW! and the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover brought customers to comic shops. At the same time, "The Walking Dead" gained readers as TV viewers picked up the graphic novels. Greipp notes that the top sellers each month usually include not only the most recent volume of "The Walking Dead" but also the first volume, which means new readers are constantly coming to the series. "That bodes well for the future," he said. "2012 was really a year of discovery, when a lot of people were discovering the 'Walking Dead' graphic novels for the first time."

Griepp also saw some different market features in 2013:

  • Movies and TV are driving sales; comics publishers are doing more movie tie-ins than in the past, and they are also using comics to introduce or reintroduce characters who will appear in upcoming movies, as Marvel has done with "Age of Ultron" and "Guardians of the Galaxy."
  • Crossover events and variant covers are driving sales in comics shops. Greipp pointed out that a newer trend this year is line-wide variants, such as IDW's variant covers featuring their characters as classic cartoon characters. "Variants are a big piece of the business," he said. "They are driving dollars in comics stores."
  • Image Comics has risen in prominence, to the point where people were speculating on #1 issues, thinking they might be the next "Saga" or "Walking Dead." "I think that slowed down a little later in 2013, but there is still a lot of interest in Image as a brand, which I don't think was really the case before." Greipp pointed out that some comic shops are adding a separate rack for Image comics. "Image is emerging as a brand people rely on for certain types of content, and that's driving sales."

Sales of graphic novels are up in 2013 for the first time in a few years. "That's not just 'Walking Dead." There's also other graphic novels that are growing too." Even with a few flat years, he pointed out, graphic novel sales are still four times what they were in the early 2000s. "I think the biggest news from last year is that it's basically unchanged, or a small drop, in a world where hundreds of book superstores have just gone out of business... To me, that's a pretty impressive accomplishment and a sign of the robustness of the business." In the wake of the Borders closure, Greipp said, people who didn't have a bookstore to go to went online, and as a result, Amazon has gained market share.

Greipp's figures showed sales of graphic novels in comic shops were down 5% in 2012 but up 6% in the first three quarters of 2013. Bookstore sales were up 2% in 2012 and up 6% in 2013, so graphic novel sales are now growing at the same rate in both channels. Overall graphic novels are up 6% this year.

Greipp attributed part of that number to a one-time factor: DC's improved relationship with Barnes and Noble. In 2011, DC gave Amazon's Kindle Fire a digital exclusive on its graphic novels. Barnes and Noble protested, removing DC's graphic novels from its brick-and-mortar stores. The dispute was resolved in June 2012, and the graphic novels went back on the shelves, making it easy for DC's bookstore sales this year to surpass last year's numbers.

Other trends identified by Greipp:

  • The content that brought customer to comics stores in 2012, such as Marvel NOW! and the New 52, appeared in graphic novel format in 2013.
  • Marvel and DC movie tie-ins don't top the bookstore charts, but they are "moving the needle"
  • Media tie-ins for children, such as "Ninjago," "Smurfs" and "My Little Pony," are doing well
  • Wal-Mart is carrying more graphic novels and displaying them more prominently, exposing comics to a broader audience than any other retailer could reach
  • Good writing, as found in "Saga" or "Hawkeye," draws in readers
  • Manga is rebounding

While the total number of titles released in 2012 was down 2% from 2011, a few categories were up: The number of children's comics was up 12%, fiction and humor was up 4% and humor was up 2%. Releases were down in every other category.

Manga sales were down in 2012, after several years of decline thanks to a number of factors:

  • The 2011 Borders liquidations, which dumped books on the market, depressing sales in the following year
  • The loss of Borders, which was a major outlet for manga.
  • A slight drop in the number of comics shops
  • The scale of manga hits is not as big as in the past; the older titles are not doing as well, and the new titles don't sell as many copies either
  • The cancellation of the print edition of "Shonen Jump" magazine

"Shonen Jump" was the number one comic in America, Greipp said, selling 125,000 copies a month. The magazine switched over from a print monthly to a digital weekly, but the dollars have not returned.

Greipp sees a much more positive story in 2013, with manga growing faster than the overall market this year. While he couldn't put an exact number on it, he estimated it as between 6% and 10%, painting a quick picture of the manga market:

  • "Sailor Moon" is a top seller
  • "Attack on Titan" is a real new hit
  • Yen Press is growing
  • The "Alice" books from Seven Seas are doing well
  • Viz is expanding into children's books

In terms of trends, he noted that digital availability of manga is accelerating, starting with in-house apps from Viz and Kodansha and now moving to e-book platforms such as Kindle. At the same time, the gap is closing between Japanese and American releases, giving readers less of an incentive to resort to illegal scanlations. The circulation of the digital "Shonen Jump" is still lower than that of the print magazine, but it's growing, and, Greipp said, "They addressed the time issue, which Viz, I think properly, saw as a huge issue that needed to be addressed with their digital offerings."

Turning to digital comics, Greipp estimated digital sales at $70 million in 2012, with a 25% growth rate in 2013. This is still higher than the growth of print, but it has cooled a bit. "We've got a bigger base, so getting big percentage increases is not as easy as it has been the past couple of years," he said.

Greipp sketched out some features of the current digital comics market:

  • E-books are growing in importance, which increases availability -- there are more platforms with more graphic novels on them.
  • Books overall have settled down to a ratio of 20% digital, 80% print -- comics may be headed in that direction as well.
  • On the other hand, the percentage may be higher for digital comics because the print product is available only in comics shops, for the most part, which may have constrained the market.
  • Experimentation continues with different formats, such as motion comics or comics with sound.
  • There is no single place to go to get content, so readers have to go to several different places to buy and store comics; this fragmentation may be damaging to the overall business.
  • Trade book publishers are leaning toward the e-book format, which may lead to different channels, comiXology for comics publishers and e-book platforms for graphic novels.

The key question, Greipp concluded, is whether graphic novels can reach a mass audience through digital channels.

"There are three different types of content," he said, summarizing the overall market. "We have graphic novels, we have comics, we have digital. In 2009, we had almost no digital, we had graphic novels bigger than comics, and total print at about $680 million. Here we are, three years later, the total business is about $750 million. What we see is we had a challenging time in print which is now turning around but at the same time digital is growing, so the last couple of years we have had print and digital growing at the same time which is really a fantastic trend. What this means is 2012 was the biggest the comics market has been since sometime in the 90s.

"Then we have this year, the same trends happening," he continued, "digital and print both growing really robustly, and barring some financial crisis caused by our current political situation, I think that will continue and we will finish the year strong."

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