Can Digital Expand the Audience for Comic Books?

From a fragile network of brick-and-mortar direct market retailers and the often fickle tastes of hardcore, social media-savvy fans, to online piracy and the tantalizing possibilities of the iPad, comic books have been out on the bleeding edge of the digital transition for years.

While some comics publishers have had success expanding beyond the limited (but non-returnable) direct market into mainstream bookstores, ICV2 reports the first half of 2010 saw continued challenges in the once-booming graphic novel market. Manga, which represented 35% of all the graphic novels released in the U.S. in 2009 and accounted for a similar percentage of sales in the category, has been hit especially hard:

Graphic novel sales in the direct market have declined by double digits every month in 2010 so far with the exception of February, when they posted a 1% gain.

Graphic novel sales appear to be down in the bookstores as well with Yen Press’ Twilight graphic novel the only breakout hit.  The other bestselling movie-driven graphic novel in the first half of 2010, Marvel’s Kick-Ass Hardcover posted sales that were less than 10% of what Watchmen achieved during the same period in 2009…

After two years of double digit declines in sales of manga, American manga publishers have formed a coalition with their Japanese counterparts to battle the illegal Internet distribution of unlicensed manga via scanlation sites where translated versions of manga often appear just days after publication in Japan.  The coalition has had some success in shutting down some of the main aggregator sites, though it’s far too early to see if sales will be boosted by making it somewhat more difficult to read manga for free online.

The opportunity to expand comics readership beyond its hardcore base of fans was one of the topics on the agenda at the “Digital Now” panel at this year’s Comic-Con International: San Diego. Moderated by Boom! Studios’ Marketing Director Chip Mosher, with representatives from all of the major digital comics platforms, including David Steinberger (comiXology), Michael Murphey (iVerse), Wade Slitkin (Panelfly) and Micah Baldwin (, the need to grow the overall audience was noted by all.

Bruce Lidl, covering the panel for The Beat, noted two significant obstacles comics publishers share with their traditional book publishing counterparts:

Mosher challenged the panelists to explain how digital comics were going to expand the overall comic book market beyond what his research characterizes as the “300,000 regular weekly shoppers” at the 1800-2000 brick and mortar shops in the U.S.  Here the answers were very similar to a year ago, highlighting the potential benefits of bringing comics to non-traditional readers via technology, and to capitalize on the general pervasiveness of comics IP in the culture generally.  Steinberger claimed that the retailers participating in comiXology’s program had seen sales increases of “20%” but the general feeling was that digital comics were still too new for much comprehensive data to have been collected yet…

The price pressure on digital copies is likely to increase in a downward direction, as we have seen in other industries, including book publishing.  Because of the intensely collectible and visual nature of comics, far greater than CDs or books of course, comics sales are likely to remain far more dependent on physical sales than those other media, while the successful prices of digital comics are, in my opinion, almost assuredly going to decrease consistently over time.  Comics readers may be willing to read comics online, but whether they are actually willing to pay for them in that form, at least in significant numbers, remains very open.

Pam Auditore, covering the panel for Comic Book Resources, notes another potential hitch for digital comics:

The hope is the growing number of hand held devices will grow sales and to continue to perpetuate the popular art form on yet another technological platform.  Keenly aware of this, Mosher said BOOM! Studios was partnering with each of the panelists to so that all of the publisher’s library is available with new items 30 days from initial release date.

Is the opportunity to expand the audience for comics, or for books in general, simply a matter of leveraging multiple distribution channels, physical and digital, or is there something more to be done?

If branding and direct engagement with readers, two things many comics publishers do very well, is truly the holy grail for traditional publishers, does the comics industry offer any lessons, positive or negative, to learn from?

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8 thoughts on “Can Digital Expand the Audience for Comic Books?

  1. …have any of these people ever heard of webcomics, which have been going from strength to strength for over a decade?

    1. Beyond a handful of successful individual efforts (eg: Penny Arcade, Order of the Stick), what revenue-generating webcomics would you offer as good examples for publishers?

    2. There’s a reason that established publishers didn’t flock to webcomics in the way that they are for downloadables — making money from webcomics requires a much longer term investment of time and resources. You’re building a brand (with all that implies) and/or producing enough material to collect into books. We’ve done well with FreakAngels, but I think the reality that there is no obvious short-term path to possible success has deterred many publishers.

      That aside, I actually think we will see webcomics finding new niches as digital downloads gain traction.

    3. Agreed. Most publishers approach webcomics as samplers, with an eye to selling print, but new apps like comiXology offer an intriguing model for monetizing them. I’ve been reading Bayou, originally a free Zuda comic that I’d never heard of until it appeared in the app. $.99/issue is revenue DC wasn’t seeing online.

  2. I’m on a mailing list populated largely by folks in publishing. One of the list members was concerned about digital piracy of comics. The day after a book hit the stands, high quality scans of the pages were available on line for download. He was tracking this, and wanted to know who he could speak to at places like Marvel and DC to help stop it?

    The blunt answer was “No one, because they didn’t *care*.” The real money in comics wasn’t sales of the physical books, it was licensing of the characters for TV, films, and toys. (It’s a good bet Marvel made far more on the licensing for the first Spiderman film than they had for the entire printed run of the comic.)

    So the question is where the real value is. Physical books will continue to be produced, because they probably at least cover their costs and serve as test beds where new concepts and characters can be created that might yield real revenue down the road. But the market for the physical books isn’t likely to expand beyond the numbers stated. The demographics of the market have changed dramatically over the years. Once upon a time, a comic book was something a kid bought with his allowance. These days, the purchaser is far more likely to be an adult and likely a collector who sees a potential increase in value of books that get an audience and become popular.

    What we are beginning to see is transition the other way, from digital to print. An example is Phil and Kaja Foglio’s “Girl Genius” strip. Phil has been a cartoonist for many years, starting with physical books. He transitioned to the web out of necessity to gain the reach he needed to the audience he was trying to reach. Girl Genius is updated three times a week, telling a complex unfolding story. Phil did mention that the web required adjustment in his work as to pacing – it was important that there was “a payoff on every page” to keep the readers amused and engaged. This was not the case with more traditional print efforts.

    But while you can access Girl Genius free, it’s spawned nine magazine size, perfect bound trade paper compilations which are continually reprinted, and a batch of merchandise based on the site and the characters. Phil won the first Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2009 for book 8 of the Girl Genius collections, and has been nominated again for 2010. Getting the Hugo opened other doors for Phil, with several new projects in the works, including an omnibus collection of the first three Girl Genius books Tor wants to publish as the opening entry in a new graphic novel line they’re starting.

    Phil isn’t getting rich just yet, but he is making a decent living with better things to come. As Mark mentioned, webcomics are a long term investment of time and resources, as you are building a brand and brand equity.

    1. re: Spider-Man, while licensing revenue is huge for Marvel, the opportunity wouldn’t be there if they hadn’t established the character and built a fanbase via print. Their best move, though, was to stop licensing and invest in their own production studio, which arguably allowed them to take a chance on second-tier characters like Iron Man while having full control over the story.

      As a side note, I think comics lost an entire generation in the 90s and many publishers today are doing a better job of creating fans earlier, with a far more diverse range of comics and an improving grasp on how to incorporate transmedia. It’s an exciting time!

  3. I got two questions from this….

    “Can Digital Expand the Audience for Comic Books?” – Digital comics have been around for years, but new tablet devices allow for better integration of the reading experience for comics and offer a more natural read for graphic novels. This audience will expand as more people see these for their entertainment value, how they integrate the collector mentality and evangelistic attributes that comics have garnered into a long tail digital experience will be the question.

    “Is the opportunity to expand the audience for comics, or for books in general, simply a matter of leveraging multiple distribution channels, physical and digital, or is there something more to be done?” – Multiple distribution channels is a must, if you’re book isn’t where the Visa or Mastercard is, you’re not going to sell it. A mix of online and onshelf may be costly, but it’s the best scenario. Also, enhancing the digital experience like the new Jeff Buick novel One Child is doing is a great way to leverage digital sales as well as create buzz for the printed book.

    There’s no silver bullet… in anything. But, the more ammo you got, the more successful you’ll be…

    1. I don’t buy into most of the iPad hype, but Tablets offer publishers a great channel to monetize digital comics without compromising their presentation, while arguably increasing the appeal (and value?) of print comics. I’ve discovered a handful of titles via comiXology already that I’d likely never had found otherwise, and there’s a few I’d love to have a TPB for.

      “But, the more ammo you got, the more successful you’ll be…”

      Amen to that! My point there, though, was that it’s not enough. A book can be available everywhere, but if there are no marketing resources behind it — something most comics publishers are notoriously lacking in — you’re depending solely on serendipity, and that’s even tougher in the digital world than it is in the physical.

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