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At the ComicsPRO meeting last February, DC co-publisher Jim Lee held up a sheet of paper and a piece of dental floss. The paper, he said, represented revenues from print comics, while the dental floss was revenues from digital comics.
Milton Greipp, publisher of the retail news site ICv2, did more or less the same thing with numbers at the ICv2 Comics, Media, and Digital Conference that kicked off this year’s Comic-Con. In his White Paper on the industry, Griepp estimated that the market for digital comics grew from about $1 million in sales in 2009 to $6 to $8 million in 2010, but the fact that he still had a $2 million error bar shows just how much uncertainty remains. One thing is for certain, though: Griepp expects the market will double this year. He credited the growth in sales of mobile devices such as the iPad and Android tablets (the Sony PSP, one of the early digital comics platforms, seems to be dead in the water; Griepp attributed this to the hacking of Sony).
Looked at in isolation, that number seems impressive, but Griepp also estimated total sales of print comics and graphic novels in 2010 at $635 million, which means that digital sales are about 1% of the print market, a tiny slice indeed.
These numbers are dynamic, however, and print and digital sales are changing in different ways. Digital may be burgeoning, but print is in a slump, with total sales down in 2010 from $680 million the year before. Things have picked up this year, but the picture remains grim for monthly comics: Sales of comics were down 8%, graphic novels were up 3%. Put those together, and the market as a whole is down 2%.
There are two conclusions to be drawn from this. One is that print is not filling the gap, at least not yet; the decline in print sales is far larger than the entire digital market. The strong growth in digital sales, however, suggests that it is a market that has yet to reach its full potential, which may be why publishers are increasingly willing to release comics simultaneously in print and digital format.
The other conclusion is that the direct market is facing a severe challenge. Sales of their core product, single-issue comics, are dropping, and graphic novel sales declined in the direct market as well (this was balanced by an uptick in bookstore sales). Griepp cited a recent CBR poll in which the overwhelming majority of readers said they would continue to buy print comics after DC goes “day and date” as evidence that digital sales are not cannibalizing print sales. It would be interesting to redo that poll a year from now, after the digital comics have been on the market for a while, and see if the answers have changed.
While graphic novels are now the mainstay of the comics business, with about half the total sales and a more positive growth curve, that wasn’t always the case. Griepp noted that sales of graphic novels quintupled from $75 million in 2001 to $395 million in 2008. It is possible that something similar will happen with digital comics; from the looks of things, the publishers seem to be counting on it.