Can Digital Expand the Audience for Comic Books?
By Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World
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 (Graphic.ly), 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?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is a published poet and writer, and active blogger since 2003. In 1998, he founded and led a thriving poetry slam community in NYC (a little bit louder) that has since evolved into the non-profit literary arts organization, louderARTS. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.