The Future of Comics Retailers Remains Uncertain

In these uncertain times, we find ourselves in a post-pandemic world, grappling with a multitude of challenges. Economic factors, the rise of AI replacements, book bannings, and extreme weather events have all contributed to a sense of unease. The comic industry, which experienced a boom during the pandemic, is now returning to a new normal, whatever that may be. Recently, David Harper of SKTCHD conducted a survey of comics retailers, and the general consensus is quite glum. Sales may not have drastically declined, but the overall experience has become more difficult and exhausting. Many retailers are unsure how they managed to come out of 2022 ahead. While there have been instances of success, it often feels precarious. Uncertainty looms large for retailers, and although they remain hopeful, doubt is creeping in. They continue to weather the storm, driven by their passion for their job, but they can’t shake the feeling of unease. This unease has only intensified over time. It’s not that sales have disappeared altogether, but there is a lack of faith in publishing partners and the material itself, particularly when it comes to single issues. This skepticism is justified, as many of these comics simply aren’t resonating with readers. Furthermore, the job has become more challenging, and profit margins have narrowed. This was more manageable during the prosperous times of 2021 when everything was selling. However, as Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in California points out, when sales return to pre-pandemic levels but costs remain post-pandemic, it creates a detrimental recipe for success. Another issue plaguing the industry is the oversaturation of content. As Bruno Batista of Big Bang Comics in Dublin bluntly puts it, “70% of the publishers could disappear tomorrow, and 90% of the customers wouldn’t even notice.” While there are success stories and some positive growth compared to 2019, it is undeniable that something is amiss. One of the primary concerns voiced by retailers is the need for a new groundbreaking hit like Saga, which has become increasingly challenging to achieve. It’s not a reflection of the talent involved in creating comics; there are incredible creators producing groundbreaking work. However, the market has become saturated, making it harder for anything to stand out. Compounding these challenges is the growing popularity of manga and webtoon-style storytelling among younger audiences. Marvel and DC are aware of this shift and are exploring alternative storytelling styles, and PRH is also adjusting accordingly. However, abandoning the traditional comics audience is not the solution. Despite these obstacles, there are still success stories, such as the Transformers launch at Skybound and the success of Dawn of DC, which has rejuvenated non-Superman and Batman series. However, retailers worry that DC’s upcoming Knight Terrors event may stall that momentum. Additionally, a flood of well-made but interchangeable new series from certain publishers fails to excite fans. Rising prices, exemplified by the $9 Ultimate Invasion, are also a sore point for retailers. So, what can be done, and what lies ahead? These topics are expected to be extensively discussed at the upcoming SDCC, where the absence of major media competition will allow for focused conversations. Some ideas have already been shared on Twitter. Skybound brand manager Morgan Perry suggests that clean metadata, clear communication, and purposeful publishing plans are essential for overall sales growth. Publishers should ensure their comps make sense, use correct Bisacs, include necessary codes, and have finished covers ready for solicitations. Effective communication with retailers and distribution partners is crucial, and actively listening to their feedback is vital. Additionally, a purposeful publishing plan should include creative themes driving collectability and excitement, targeted social and PR rollouts, and active engagement with the creative team before and after launch. It is important for publishers to be aware of market discourse and manage expectations accordingly. Ryan Higgins, a retailer, acknowledges the challenges faced by small press comic creators. While he believes comic shops will bounce back, he cautions that many books are being made for a target audience that may not exist. During tough times, readers tend to stick with established titles such as Batman and Amazing Spider-Man, leaving indie titles and smaller series struggling. However, Higgins remains optimistic, hinting at forthcoming changes in ComicHub that may help address stocking issues. Bon Alimagno, a former executive at Marvel and Amazon, takes a more disruptive stance and suggests that pre-paid pre-orders should become the norm in the comics industry. This would eliminate the need for guesswork and enable retailers to better fulfill customer demands. However, despite this potential solution, the industry continues to face challenges and must adapt to the changing landscape influenced by strikes in the streaming media industry.


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