After a week of digital-only releases from DC and nothing from Marvel, many fans are questioning the future of the comic industry. Diamond Comic Distributors — the largest English-language comics distributor in the world — is on indefinite hiatus due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and now may be the time for publishers to reevaluate the floppy model. It’s becoming clearer by the moment that the standard method of publishing isn’t cutting it anymore. Publishers need to explore new ideas to get books into new readers’ hands, which may mean broadening how they think about comics — and breaking into the book market with graphic novels and trades.
While the market hasn’t changed for major comic companies in a number of years, more non-comics publishers have been publishing their own original graphic novels. Most of these comics are targeted toward bookstore audiences, as publishers like Scholastic and Random House — which both have dedicated graphic novel imprints now — deal directly with bookstores, rather than going through the direct market and Diamond.
According to Bookscan, there was a 25 percent increase in sales of graphic novels for kids between 2015 and 2016. Last year, ICv2’s Milton Greipp reported a 39 percent sales increase for children’s titles in bookstores and a 20 percent increase for them in comic shops in 2017 and 2018. Graphic novel sales take up about three quarters of the market across the board. Graphic novel sales in bookstores rose a whopping 16.1 percent in 2019 alone and graphic novels aimed at kids — particularly the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey and Raina Telgemeier’s books — are becoming so popular that The New York Times reinstated its bestseller list for graphic novels and big box stores are displaying graphic novels in cardboard standees the way they often do DVDs or CDs.
This doesn’t mean comic shops are dying, although many have had to close their doors because of COVID-19. It does mean publishers would do well to shift the focus from working exclusively with Diamond and producing mainly floppies, to producing more trades and original graphic novels. Since these can be distributed through multiple markets, it opens up more potential revenue streams, including bookstores and non-comics online retailers.
With floppies, there is more of a gamble when printing and ordering for shops. Through the direct market, a shop owner has to guess what will sell based on subscriber numbers and speculation; if they order six copies of a new comic and only three sell, for example, they have to absorb the cost of those additional books. Taking gambles on new books is hard and most publishers don’t allow shops to return unsold product. Floppies also have a limited life, though price points keep climbing. Trades and graphic novels, on the other hand, contain either multiple issues or longer stories and sell at a higher price point with better value for reader, shop owner and publisher.
Distributing through multiple avenues has its advantages as well — namely, multiple distributors would help avoid an industry-wide shutdown, such as comics is experiencing right now. Not only would comics be available to wider, more diverse audiences who may shop at bookstores or online, but multiple distributors would allow for more flexibility and less likelihood of a major crash. If one model isn’t working, for the time being, it would be easier to shift more resources into another.
Making trades the industry standard allows new readers to pick up the character they’ve seen in movies and TV without hitting the inaccessibility barrier of floppies. Floppies are expensive, for one and for two, they present only one piece of a whole. Being able to collect an arc or two in one trade gives new readers a full story, but still leaves opportunity to read even more. Unlike the economic, time and storage commitment needed to pick up new floppies every week or month, trades give customers a reason to come back and have confidence they’ll get another complete story arc for a decent price.
Another big barrier in regards to floppies is the numbering — characters are relaunched with frequency and some ongoing series can stretch well past 40 or even 50 issues. Trades provide a clearer indication of where the story begins and ends and it’s often easier and less expensive to purchase past collections than to hunt for back-issue floppies.
Plus, many series don’t find their footing in the floppy market, but do see new life when released as trades and sold to bookstores as well as comic shops. For example, The Unstoppable Wasp and Ice-Man had low sales numbers during their original, monthly runs. When they went to trade, they had a sudden increase in sales — so much that Marvel brought both back for more issues. The trades gave the books a much needed second life that would not have been needed if they were released as trades or graphic novels in the first place. Other publishers, like Image, release certain books as trade-only because the market for them is stronger with collected issues than single floppies.
DC Comics has found new life and a larger audience with its line of original graphic novels written for young adults and kids, which are sold in bookstores as well as comic shops. These titles are aimed at new readers, featuring well-known characters and tailored to younger audiences. One of the most successful titles was Teen Titans: Raven by Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo, which debuted on USA Today, Publishers Weekly and Amazon Bestseller Lists. Not even 24 hours after it was available, it was in the top #25 titles for Amazon. Using its wide array of characters has allowed DC to put these comics into the hands of people who may have never stepped foot into a comic shop. A book like this would not have seen the same success in a floppy model, but sold thousands of copies in days as a complete graphic novel.
Along with the original graphic novels, DC has also been testing the waters for a more affordable and accessible trade model. The publisher has released giant-sized trades at Walmart which feature multiple issues from older series, along with new stories. Each of these books spotlights a character or a theme across 100 pages, with a low price point of $10. Branching out into a chain store creates an even broader net to find new readers and the low price point allows readers a chance to read a plethora of stories without breaking the bank.
Since everything is up in the air, now is the time to shake up the old way of doing things for the comics industry. Focusing on floppies through the direct market and Diamond shouldn’t be the only means of getting comics into readers’ hands. For the comics industry to continue thriving, publishers should consider new distribution models, including a larger focus on producing trades and graphic novels.
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In light of Diamond Comic Distributors' COVID-19 shutdown, it's time to evaluate floppies and whether comics should shift its focus.