The Comics Are All Right: The Truth is In the Numbers
There’s much been written and buzzed about lately about how the comic book industry is full of doom and gloom, a broken system that needs to be torn down before being corrected. It’s presented as an over simplified problem with blame focused squarely on the main comic distributor Diamond Comics, and as a conspiracy by the big two, Marvel and DC Comics, to squeeze out smaller publishers making it difficult for them to publish. The reality is further from the truth.
The comic industry has issues, don’t get me wrong. From publishers and creators through distribution to stores and fans, everything can be improved, but in reality that will always be the case as marketing, business, technology, and more evolve.
I’m about data and coming up with solutions. I’ve decided to begin a weekly column looking at the reality of the comic market both good and bad, and offering actionable solutions, not just griping.
I thought a good first place to begin would be with the actual numbers and where the industry lands. All of the numbers presented are based on the estimates reported by ComiChron, an excellent website to check out if you’re a data geek. I want to emphasize these are estimates though, something I’ll tackle later on, and begin by saying when numbers, especially the sales numbers, are used as fact, we begin our argument on a weak footing. What I like to think of this as is trends, not hard numbers.
Myth #1: The Industry is Decreasing in Sales
I remember the 90s comics driven by crazy covers (that got crazier as months went on) and driven by shock events. There was quality, but you had to dig for it. I myself began to work in comic shops around 1996 a time I absolutely loved and I had the responsibilities of ordering, estimating what we’d sell, and more. It was tedious then, before computers made things a bit easier. I remember also comic sales dipping as the comic crash caused by numerous factors occurred (a topic for another article).
At its height in 1993, it’s estimated there were $850 million in sales with a bust that continued until roughly 2000 when the industry dropped to $275 million, a drop of 68%. But since 2000, the industry has seen pretty consistent growth with estimated sales of $1.03 billion in 2015 (including digital) and $940 million in just print. That’s almost $100 million more in print than in 1993.
Myth #2: That Increase is Mainly Due to Increased Cover Prices
This one is sort of true. We can see from 1991 that the average cover price of comics has steadily increased.
If comics had followed inflation the average comic which was about $1.78 in 1991 should only be $2.79 in 2015. In reality, things were about $1 higher.
And units did decrease. It’s estimated that 130 million units were sold in 1996 dropping to a low of 66.9 million in 2001. Today, things have improved with 2015 seeing the most units sold since 1997.
Myth #3: All of Those Units are Major Publishers
The above data of units is what is estimated by Diamond. There’s lots of different distribution avenues now for comics and graphic novels that are not reflected in the charts people are all too quick to quote. Raina Telgemeir’s three graphic novels have over 3.5 million copies in print as an example. Add in Kickstarter, webcomics, Etsy, Patreon, selling direct to stores, and more, and all of these numbers quickly fall apart.
But, the argument really is that the direct market and Diamond have been a hindrance for small print comics. Well, the data would beg to differ.
ComiChron estimates the top 300 comic unit sales and the overall comic unit sales, those are represented by the orange and blue lines. The difference between those numbers should be comic sales that aren’t in the top 300, we can call them 301 and up. Using those numbers we see a steady increase in unit sales of those not in the top 300 represented by the gray.
Since 2009, those unit sales have gone from 3.5 million to 8.8 million. That’s over 100% increase. While I can’t verify all of those are indie/small publishers, we can see this sector is growing, and growing steady.
Here’s that little gray line blown up.
During this same time period, the top 300 comics saw a 19.08% increase. The non-300 saw a 150.85% increase. The direct market is working against those books? The numbers beg to differ.
Overall, doom and gloom? I see an industry on the rise after a crash and correction and while it has faults (which will be discussed in future articles), right now it’s showing slow and steady wins the overall race.
In the next article, I’ll discuss the actual distribution of comics and how it’s evolved over recent years.