The Comics Are All Right: The Comic Market is More than Diamond, Marvel and DC

diamond logo featuredWhile the drumbeat has diminished somewhat since I wrote my first entry in this new series of articles, there’s still a sense by some that the comic industry is full of doom and gloom due to a broken system that should be torn down. This “damn the man” attitude posits that the current distribution system is tilted towards the big two publishers and that Diamond Comic Distributors is a monopolistic overlord that works against small and indie publishers. That’s not to say there isn’t issues and room for improvement overall, but things aren’t an out of control dumpster fire as thought, the numbers show that’s the case.

That’s not to say there isn’t issues and room for improvement overall, but things aren’t an out of control dumpster fire as thought, the numbers show that’s the case. this post by Comixtribe outlines the struggles of a small publisher in the current distribution system. And I’ll be addressing issues with distribution as a whole in my next piece.

Shown in my first article, “The Truth is In the Numbers,” we see that the number of comics outside of the top 300 comic unit sales estimated by ComiChron has grown 150.85% since 2009 compared to the top 300’s 19.08%. If the cards were stacked against small print comics that number would most likely be flat, decreasing, and at best within the margin of growth of the top 300 comics. That’s not the case at all and either more series are being sold and/or more comics of those series are being sold. Either way, this dispels a lot of rumors.


But, I’d also thrown out that just focusing only on the estimated sales (which can be off by thousands of issues) through Diamond is short-sighted and just wrong when it comes to the comic market as a whole. There are more avenues than ever before where creators can sell to stores or directly to fans. We’re going to explore that some, but first some history…

Direct Market

I’m not here to give a comprehensive break down of the history of comic distribution, but for those that might not know… In the 1970s and before you could find comics on newsstands, grocery and drug stores, toy stores and more. Growing up I fondly remember heading to the local pharmacy and going through their spinner rack attempting to find the latest exciting issue and realizing I missed one. It was an imperfect system then and with the newsstand sales diminishing, a new system was proposed that would create a system to allow stores to purchase comics “directly” from publishers, thus the direct market and current distribution system was born.

Basically, the way things work today is local comic book shops purchase their goods from a distributor, primarily Diamond Comic Distributors today. The goods are mostly non-returnable and through that comic book stories received greater discounts and the ability to tailor their purchases to their customers giving the rise to pre-ordering.

We’ll skip over the distributor wars and market crash of the 90s, because that doesn’t have an impact on today, but generally that’s one major direct market comic distributor, Diamond. There are about a half-dozen others, but they mainly deal with small press and low print run comics. Today IDW Publishing announced a deal with Penguin Random House Publisher Services as an example. If you want Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Dynamite, BOOM!, etc., and you’re a comic retailer, Diamond is your go to. But, Diamond isn’t even king.

As can be seen here with the 2015 estimates, Book Channel Sales of graphic novels accounts for $350 million compared to comic store’s orders of $185 million. “Book Channel” includes “book chains, independent bookstores, online book retailers, and book fairs.” That $350 million rivals comic book stores’ orders of actual comic books which was estimated at $385 million that same year.

Why do I bring that up? The sales of “Book Channels” aren’t included in the horse race discussion of the top-selling comics and estimates of a month. None of what follows is. We’re making assumptions and coming to conclusions with just one piece of the overall puzzle. This doesn’t even dive into the international market. It’s estimated that the UK alone sells 10% of the US. In a report I’ll release September 15, a Facebook study of “comic fans” found that while the United States has an estimated 37 million fans, Europe has 55 million, and that doesn’t even get into manga.

Discussions from experts on the success and failure of comics tends to fall into not just a “western” mindset, and even then an American-centric one. That’s not only short sighted, but fails to recognize the international impact and consumption of comics on a global scale.

But, the direct market and book channel aren’t even the whole comic market. There’s more avenues for creators to get their comics out to stores and individuals than ever before, all thanks to the power of technology.

Digital Comics

In 2005 DriveThruComics launched. The online retailer calls itself the “first online retailer to specialize in downloadable comics,” which could be very true, and shouldn’t be confused with digital comics in general which have been around since the mid-80s. In 2007 DriveThru was joined by comiXology which quickly turned into the 800 lb gorilla of the digital comic market. But, that date emphasizes that comics have been sold digitally for over a decade at this point. That is joined by the Kindle Store, Google Books, iBooks, MadeFire, Taptastic, Scrollon, publisher apps, and more all selling comics in single issues.

There’s also ComicBlitz, Marvel Unlimited, comiXology Unlimited, Scribd, ComicsFix, and I’m sure I’m missing some when it comes to “all you can read” platforms. There’s new business models we can’t even big to figure out who to measure such as ad-based services like Farrago Comics.

But even then, that’s not all. Digital comics have given way to digital first publishers like MonkeyBrain or Thrillbent and publishers selling directly to consumers like Image Comics. In 2013 comiXology launched comiXology Submit opening up the platform to indie creators with a 50/50 split of the profits.

Then there’s the recent teaming up of publishers with platforms like Humble Bundle (beginning in 2014) and Groupees. Both of which are “pay what you want” services that split the proceeds between the platform, publisher, charity depending on the whim of the purchaser and we know that services has sold 100s of thousands of issues. A recent Dark Horse Bundle saw close to 10,000 bundles sold. That’s roughly 10,000 copies of each issue and trade into the hands of readers.

In July 2014 is reported that Marvel was selling more digitally for Ms. Marvel than they were in print. That month the comic sold 36,041, which some might say was not impressive, but double that and it’s a very different story. Talking to creators, some have said they they see digital sales about 25% of print. Last year it was estimated that single issues in comic stores sold about $385 million while digital was estimated at $90 million, so 25% is not that far off.

But what has me most excited about digital is the willingness to try new models such as Panel Syndicate, a DRM-free digital comics publisher mostly known for the works of Brian K. Vaughan. The sales through that site go 100% directly to the creators. The “pay what you want” service is a relatively new one for comics and Vaughan has revealed that as of 2014 he had sold “well into the six figures” for both issues of his series The Private Eye out at the time in both downloads AND dollars earned. Even divide that six figures 3 ways and we’re talking at least $33,000 for each team member that’s near pure profit. There’s no cut, no advertising, no corporate publisher, that’s straight to the creators what amounts to an experiment.

Even though readers can still pay whatever they want for our DRM-free files (including nothing!), artist Marcos Martin, colorist Muntsa Vicente and I are proud to reveal that The Private Eye is already well into the six figures for both issues downloaded AND dollars earned… and that’s without advertising, corporate backers, Comixology-like distributors, or even a Kickstarter campaign. It’s all because of small contributions from readers around the world, so sincere thanks again for your coverage of our ongoing experiment. – Brian K. Vaughan on Panel Syndicate

There’s 1,026 apps with the keyword “comic book” according to App Annie, though not all are stores. Digital had estimated sales of $90 million (down from an estimated $100 million the year before), that’s surely an underestimate as some of the above have new revenue models that can’t be properly measured currently.

And the proliferation of comics and digital has given way to…


It’s unknown how many webcomics there are. An estimate buts it int he 100s of thousands, but there’s no definitive number. The Webcomic List has about 25,000 regularly updated online comics. What is clear is that since the first webcomic in 1985 this particular comic form has exploded. Webcomics are the evolution of traditional Comic Strips (which still exist and should also be included in the comic market) that are found in newspapers across the world.

Webtoons is a growing popular platform that launched in 2014 and claims 17 million monthly users. According to SimilarWeb has had 21.1 million visits with an impressive 9 minutes visit duration. Site Worth Traffic has it as 114,993 unique visitors a day with 344,978 daily page views. The platform offers daily updates for free, and talking to creators can “pay very well” if they’re an exclusive featured artist (four figures monthly talking to one creator). A Quora post pegs the number at $2,000 a month and additional payment due to views. It has been moving aggressively setting up shop at conventions to find new talent.

They have a business model that’s working for them and the success of webcomics vary as a whole, it provides a new platform by which creators can build their own audience while earning money through Ad Revenue and….


Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Patreon, all are examples of crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is basically a pre-sale page where people pledge dollars to meet a goal, if that goal is met a project succeeds and then is (hopefully) published. According to Kickstarter’s stats they have successfully funded 111,863 projects for almost $2.6 billion.

For comics, Kickstarter reports that there have been 8,378 projects launched for $55.48 million. With a 51.52% sucess rate, 4,235 projects total, $50.77 million has been raised and currently there’s almost another $700,000 from 158 projects currently looking for funding. On average that’s just shy of $12,000 a project. The majority of projects, 2,631 of them, have raised between $1,000 and $9,999. The first comic project I have for Kickstarter raised just $72 in June 2009. That averages out to $7.25 million raised a year. That’s not an insignificant amount.

Patreon is a little different. While it’s still crowdfunding the service has more in common with classic “tip jars” on sites. People give a recurring amount of money and in return may get sneak peeks, newsletters, or other special items. Zach Weinersmith has 3,341 patrons and gets $6,580 per month of comics. Ben Templesmith is listed with 222 patrons and receives $2,410 a month. They’re being funded directly by fans at not an insignificant amount and it all adds up to $10s of thousands of dollars a month if what’s reported is to be believed.


And crowdfunding itself has evolved over the years. While Kickstarter still sticks to the “it’s not a pre-order” mantra in reality it is and many creators are using it to help create their comics that are then distributed by bigger publishers. Smart creators like Jimmy Palmiotti, Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts, Justin Gray, and Frank Tieri, the team behind PaperFilms have launched numerous projects going back to previous backers and building an audience. 44Flood, a publisher composed of Menton Matthews aka Menton 3, Kasra Ghanbari, Ben Templesmith and Nick Idell, have gone a similar route. Publishers like RetroFit are offering their entire year’s catalogs through the platform. Going over the last seven days of projects about 1 in 20 offered a “retailer tier,” but it’s being offered. Crowdfunding has evolved into allowing direct sales to stores and direct digital sales which leads us to….

Direct Sales

Beyond Kickstarter, there’s Etsy, Shopify, Gumroad, directly talking to stores, and more options to get comics, both digital and print, into the hands of fans and on store shelves. On Etsy there’s 7,976 items listed under “Drawings & Illustrations,” and creators like Michel Fiffe offer their comics through the online store. Want the amazing Copra and can’t find it on your store shelves? You’ll need to go to Etsy if you want a physical copy. While it’s unknown how this dark market of comics is, it’s enough to make it worthwhile as an avenue to some creators.

But the existence of direct sales is an important conversation. Talking to publishers numerous variant covers and special issues are worked out directly with stores. These comics aren’t necessarily counted by Diamond, but some are. And this can be a significant amount.

Direct sales also occur to provide content for the explosion of geek boxes. Comic Block, Nerd Block, Blindbox Comics, Comic Bento, Loot Crate, all either primarily offer comics or have included comics in their boxes. Nerd Block and Loot Crate have subscriptions in the 100s of thousands and not all of those comics are reflected in Diamond’s numbers. Titan Comics and major issues from DC Comics haven’t been reflected in reported stats and if those subscription numbers are to be believed, they would put those books’ distribution in the mid-six figures. Add in digital only offerings and we get yet another distribution channel that isn’t tracked in the monthly horse race. These are significant amounts of comics sold that aren’t reported by any site or analyst.

And that finally leads us to…

Libraries and Schools

Raina Telgemeier‘s latest graphic novel Ghosts, which releases this week, has an initial printing of half a million copies. Graphic novel sales topped $535 million last year. Comics are being taken seriously by libraries and schools. Top Shelf‘s award-winning graphic novel March is required reading for numerous schools and Scholastic‘s book fairs and clubs have been a successful resource of getting comics into the hands of kids. IDW Publishing has praised the service and Publisher Ted Adams has described sales as “through the roof.” IDW has been willing to experiment not just with Scholastic, but by including comics in toy packaging, for instance with Hasbro’s line of Transformers.

While numbers aren’t available for how huge this segment is Shannon Maughan for Publishers Weekly has an article about the “state of the graphic novel in schools and libraries” that’s worth reading.

Add on the digital aspect of libraries and it’s even bigger. hoopla digital is a service that allows individuals to borrow digital media from their local library, and that includes comics! Their iPhone app is consistently in the top 20 book apps for the iPhone, top 1,500 for iPad, and top 50 for Android/Google Play.

Libraries and schools is yet another area we don’t have metrics and another blind spot when considering a comics success or failure.

So What is the Comic Market?

All of the above is just a high-level look at the various facets of what I consider the comic market. It’s clear the distribution choices have exploded in recent years putting the power in the hands of creators and publishers. Today one comic could Kickstarted, sold directly to fans on a digital store, distributed through a publisher or comiXology Submit, sold to stores direclty by the creator, and then eventually turned into a webcomic to be monotized further through ad revenue.

The amount of “indie comics” and “small press” comics that are created and sold are massive and probably dwarf mainstream comics. Digital comics are over $90 million a year. Kickstarter alone is over $7 million a year. Patreon is possibly $100,000+ a year. Not to mention schools, libraries, webcomics, and more!

When we talk about the “health” of the comic market, we should be considering all of this and not focusing on one distributor and two publishers. It’s insulting to comic fans, logic, and all of those creators who work their asses off to entertain us.

So what’d I miss? Get wrong? Sound off in the comments below! Up next… rethinking customers and data.

One comment

  • I don’t think it is safe to assume that Diamond numbers on book format material is necessarily all that reflective of Direct Market retailer throughput — for DC and Marvel, DH and Image, sure, but when you start looking at the more traditional “book market” publishers (Random House, or MacmIllan (FirstSecond) or Scholastic, I’m simply not sure how true that is because Diamond is SELDOM the cheapest source because of their 3% reorder penalty and how they charge for shipping. I haven’t bought a copy of FUN HOME or MAUS or SMILE or SISTERS from Diamond in years… and we sell a TON of copies of all of those books.

    There’s no way to know for certain, of course, but I imagine that as in most things, the largest accounts sell most of the product, and the largest accounts are the most likely to be looking for margin however they can best find it — its entirely conceivable that “DM” sales on MAUS et al are being under-reported by half or more.

    I know that when IDW switches to PRH, there goes all of my IDW backlist (and some of the frontlist!) business over to PRH — for 4.5%+ of wholesale you’d be pretty frickin’ stupid to not make that shift.