Comics Publishers Recognize Digital Opportunity

If there’s one area of publishing where the “game-changing” hype around the iPad has substance, it’s comic books.

While comics have been in digital formats, legally and otherwise, for years, few would argue that Apple’s sleek tablet is the first platform to offer an optimal digital reading and purchasing experience, from comiXology’s innovative Guided View (TM) Technology that  powers some of the most popular apps (including Marvel and DC), to the potential for expanding the audience beyond its hardcore, superhero-centric base.

Kicking off the 2010 Comics & Digital Conference, on October 7th at NY City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, ICv2’s President, Milton Griepp, set the stage with an overview of the market, and Comics Alliance’s Laura Hudson took better notes than I did:

Sales in the U.S. and Canadian comic book and graphic novel market are down 12% in the first half of 2010, with comic books seeing a small 1% increase while graphic novel sales have dropped 20%. In 2009, the total market was $680 million dollars, with $370 million in graphic novel sales and $310 million in comics. The decline in graphic novel sales was particularly steep in bookstores, which saw a 30% decline in sales, versus a 9% decline in traditional comic book stores…

Griepp suggested that there was a significant decline in graphic novel sales in 2009 as well, but that was masked by what he called “the Watchmen effect,” thanks to the enormous sales of the “Watchmen” graphic novel following the movie that accounting for 50% of bookstore sales in the first half of 2009.

The news was particularly dark for manga, which declined 9% in the first half of 2010, with an estimated 20% overall drop in 2010, making it likely that this will be the third bad year for manga sales in a row. If current trends continue, manga will drop 50% over three years, where we’ve seen the closing of Aurora, Go Comi, Dr. Master, and most recently DC’s CMX line.

It wasn’t all bad news, though, as Griepp noted that kids and YA comics were growing in popularity, highlighting the 350,000 print run for Yen Press’ Twilight:  The Graphic Novel (it sold over 66,000 copies in its first week) and projecting a ten-fold increase for digital comics, from an estimated $500k – $1m in 2010 to $6-8m in 2011.

While few of the panelists throughout the day’s program would give any hard numbers (at least one executive stated afterwards that “we can’t give any numbers because we don’t HAVE the numbers!”), none suggested Griepp’s projections were off-base.

Michael Murphey, iVerse‘s CEO, claimed over 3 million downloads of their various apps to-date, noting kids titles were their best-sellers and that “iOS and PSP have both been very successful platforms.”

David Steinberger, comiXology‘s CEO, was also optimistic, observing that the iPad was only the beginning: “We’re just getting started with devices; there’s huge growth ahead.” comiXology also received credit for its efforts to support brick-and-mortar retailers via pull lists and an in-app locator to “Buy in Print”, in contrast to Diamond Comic Distributors’ complete lack of innovation to connect their brick-and-mortar partners to a digital opportunity. (Disclosure: that was me doing the contrasting during the Q&A!)

Dave Gabriel, Marvel‘s SVP in charge of print and digital sales, seemed to share Steinberger’s optimism, claiming 2 million downloads of their app to-date, and announcing that, “because of what digital comics are doing,” they would be lowering the prices of some newly launched comics in print to $2.99/issue, starting in January.

(In a separate earlier announcement, Griepp noted that Dark Horse would be announcing that their digital comics would be lowered to $1.49/issue. Most Marvel and DC digital comics are $1.99/issue, while indies, including DC’s former Zuda titles, are typically $.99.issue.)

Ted Adams, IDW‘s CEO, offered some ballpark figures and insights on their Star Trek: Countdown mini-series, a four-issue prequel to the hit movie, the digital version of which “sold tens of thousands of each issue on iTunes.” This was back in 2009, pre-iPad, when there were far fewer digital comics available, but those sales “didn’t hurt print sales” as he noted the 4th issue outsold the 3rd in print, a rarity in comics.

Beyond well-known superheroes and licensed properties, Steinberger believes “there’s an opportunity for a lot more genres,” an observation Jim Fallone also made back in April:

To compete, smaller publishers need to begin to experiment with innovation of form. No longer bogged down in the swamps of print production and distribution, comics aren’t limited to distribution via 32-page chunks of story. Instead of monthly issues bought at the local comics shop, they can now be distributed directly to audiences in as little as a panel a day.

Dave Baxter, Robot Comics‘ deputy director, happily offered up some numbers, claiming the independent comic Robot 13 had achieved 200,000 downloads of its free sample, and had converted 5-6% of those to paid downloads at $.99/issue, while the print versions of the comics had sold out. (NOTE: On August 3rd, Robot Comics announced Robot 13 had achieved 100,00 downloads, so either there’s been a massive spike since, Baxter misspoke or my hearing is bad because I tweeted that figure right away. I’ve reached out for clarification and will update this accordingly, but even at 100,000 downloads, it’s an impressive figure for an unknown comic.)

Of course, digital comics aren’t limited to the iPad; webcomics have been around far longer, and the web is an equally compelling platform for publishers to consider.

Mark Siegel, First Second Books‘ editorial director, acknowledged some of the challenges that come with being part of a major publisher (Macmillan) taking baby steps towards digital initiatives, but offered some interesting insight on the success they’ve had with serializing upcoming books online for free.  In one case, Zahra’s Paradise, by the time they’d posted the third chapter, they’d sold the translation rights in enough languages to recoup the advance, and the book won’t even be published until next year.

Generally speaking, while there was a bit of lip service paid to the “print vs. digital” debate, most of the speakers throughout the day believed digital comics represented a significant opportunity to grow the overall audience for comics, and even the lone retailer in the mix, John Riley of Williston Park, NY’s Grasshopper Comics, said he’s had “people coming in to buy trade paperbacks of comics they were exposed to online.”

Towards the end of the day, IDW’s Adams summed up the underlying tone of the conference best:

“My job,” he explained, “is to find audiences for this content any way I can.”

That’s always been every publisher’s job; digital simply represents myriad new opportunities to find those audiences.

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