While the comics market continues to grow, the pace of that growth is slowing a bit, particularly in specialty comic shops (known as the direct market) and digital. Griepp had some theories as to why that is, reasoning that the end of DC's New 52, the unpopularity of the "Convergence" event and post-Convergence titles, and delays in Marvel's "Secret Wars" comics have slowed sales of Big Two comics in comics shops. Meanwhile, two behemoths of recent years, digital comics and "The Walking Dead," appear to have plateaued.
Griepp pointed to Diamond's year-to-date numbers for comics sales in comic shops as evidence of a softening of the market in the third quarter of this year: Diamond reported that year-to-date comic sales were up 13% through June, compared to the same period the year before. In August, that number dropped to 10% as sales grew much more slowly in July and August. Griepp said he expected the September numbers to be "a little soft" as well.
Griepp speculated that the slowdown was largely due to issues with comics from Marvel and DC, the two largest comics publishers. DC launched its "Convergence" event earlier this year, while it was moving its offices from New York to Burbank, California. Retailers reported to Griepp that those titles did not sell as well as they expected. DC's announcement that it would be ending its New 52 branding also affected the sale of graphic novel collections of those titles, Griepp said. As for the post-Convergence titles, he said, "I think they did some admirable things in trying to present a more diverse line, but the books have not been as well received by some of their traditional audience.
"One comment retailers made to us about the Convergence event and the effect of the move is that every jumping on point is also a jumping off point," he explained. "There's an opportunity to attract new consumers as a new series starts, but that's also an opportunity for some consumers to drop off."
Nonetheless, Griepp is confident DC will rebound. "They've got a new 'Dark Knight' series coming out this fall, which I think is going to do really well," he said. "I've been around the business a very long time. Both of the Big Two have high points and lower points, and I have strong faith that their comics will resume selling as well as they have come to expect in the recent past... Right now is just a little soft patch."
As for Marvel, the chief problem has been delays in its big crossover event, "Secret Wars." "Their core title that anchors that, which is called 'Secret Wars,' has been substantially delayed," Griepp said. "That has led to scores of books being delayed over the past few months, beginning in June. With tight editorial continuity, as publishers have in these crossover events, you live by the sword, you die by the sword, which means when things are going great, it pulls everything up, [but] when things are not going as well, it can affect the overall line." These delays in the core titles have led to delays in the side titles, and September was a light month for Marvel releases. In addition, the relaunches of Marvel's regular titles have been affected because some of those storylines are affected by "Secret Wars." "Anticipation is still very high for the 'Secret Wars' series," Griepp said. "I think as the books do come out they will do well, but again, we see the soft parts over the last couple of months."
While these trends don't affect the sales of graphic novels in bookstores, they have had an effect on comics retailers. The drop in traffic, with fewer people coming in to get their new Marvel and DC issues, could affect sales of other titles, Griepp said. On the other hand, the slowdown in Big Two titles could give more prominence to comics from other publishers.
"The biggest part of the comics business is still those monthly titles in comic stores, and those monthly releases from the Big Two are the heart of that, and we are hopeful that those trends will turn around in the next few months," Griepp said.
Griepp pointed to Image as a bright spot in the market, noting that "Saga" and "Sex Criminals" have done very well and that the price point of $9.99 for the first volume of new graphic novel series has brought in new readers. However, their biggest title, "The Walking Dead," seems to have plateaued. "From our perspective, it appears 'The Walking Dead' has peaked, but it has peaked at a very, very high level," he said. The television show is about to enter its sixth season. "The fact that it's plateauing now is not unexpected, and frankly, I expected it to happen some time ago," said Griepp. "It's amazing the title has been growing this strongly and this long."
Graphic novel sales continue to grow, with year-to-date sales through August up 9% overall. Children's graphic novels are the fastest growing category, with sales up 35% compared to last year. Superhero graphic novels, the largest sector of the market, showed 45% growth, manga were up 13%, and creator-driven graphic novels were up 6%.
Griepp attributed much of the growth in the children's sector to one creator: Raina Telgemeier, author of "Smile," "Drama" and "Sisters." "There's a lot of other good things happening from a wide variety of publishers, IDW, Dark Horse, Papercutz, BOOM!, and Abrams, to name a few," Griepp said. "But Raina Telgemeier has become a crossover superstar in ways that we see only rarely, and we now have to put her with with names like Neil Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi, the biggest names that will attract crowds and sell books on their name alone and have broad recognition far outside the comic store market. It's obviously a different audience than the market for a Neil Gaiman book or a Marjane Satrapi book, but the phenomenon is the same: There is a huge superstar among us, and she's having great success with all of her books."
Meanwhile, digital comics sales seem to be leveling out. "We went from hyper growth in previous years to slower growth in 2014, and it seems to be slowing more in 2015," Griepp said. "I have a range of reports from slightly positive to down; I think the overall market is flattish." He cited a number of factors, including the same trends that are affecting print comics, as well as the fact that digital comics are no longer a new medium, so the phenomenon of consumers rebuilding their catalogs in digital media or buying new content for their new tablet has slowed down as well.
On the other hand, the digital comics distributor comiXology announced that the percentage of their new readers who are female has gone up from 20% in 2013 to 30% in 2015, indicating the market is getting broader and offering more entry points to new readers who might not be regular customers of comic stores.
Looking ahead a bit, Griepp is bullish on "Star Wars," as Marvel's core titles and side stories have been selling very well. "I used to think Lucasfilm was a well run company, because it was, but when I see what Disney has been doing with 'Star Wars,' it has really taken it to another level," he said. "It's a very, very impressive rollout for the movie, for the merchandise, for the narrative, and for the other media, including comics. It's going to be the biggest geek culture event for many, many years."