E-books are seen to be contributing to a decline in printed book revenue—but something interesting is happening in the world of comic books. CNBC reports that print comic sales are actually increasing even as digital comic sales are also growing. In fact, judging by the chart the CNBC piece presents, print comic sales started their rise at the same time as digital comics took off.
From 2009 to 2014, digital comic sales rose from $1 million to $100 million. Meanwhile, the print comic market grew from around $700 million in 2009 to $835 million in 2014. Print sales grew even further in 2015, but digital figures for 2015 aren’t yet available. This is a considerable resurgence since comics’ low point in 1997 of $280 to $300 million in sales, after the double-whammy of the Death of Superman and Marvel killing off most comic distributors seriously harmed the industry.
Why is digital apparently not harming print comics? There are a couple of reasons that I can see. First of all, the comic book market never had Amazon decide to undersell its print versions with cheap digital versions. In fact, Amazon wasn’t interested in digital comics at all until it bought Comixology a couple of years back. Print comic prices tended to be lower than e-books anyway, so the digital versions tended to be a lot closer in price.
But I think the real reason is that there just aren’t any very good ways to read comics digitally—on the devices most people have, at least. It’s the same problem a lot of PDF e-books have—comic books come in the 8.5” by 11” form factor, and even the biggest commonly-available tablet screen isn’t large enough to show them at full size. And smartphone screens are even worse.
Reading a textual e-book on a small screen is easy enough, since text reflows and can be resized—but the closest thing you have in digital comics are readers that offer the option to zoom in on one panel at a time. And that’s not always the best way to read comics, as frequently the arrangement of panels on the whole page and their juxtaposition to each other is an important artistic element of the work.
With comics simply not working as well digitally, it’s not surprising that their advent could coincide with a rise in print sales. Someone might buy a digital comic because it’s cheaper or easier to acquire, read enough of it to decide he likes what he sees, and opt to buy it in print for actual reading—much as happened with Baen’s e-books in the early days before most people wanted to read e-books.
Another element is that print comics are collectible, whereas digital comics aren’t—but there hasn’t been as much of a comic book collector market since the Death of Superman affair effectively torpedoed the speculator market in the ‘90s. Furthermore, now that comic books are seen as collectible, they are paradoxically worth a lot less to collect now because everyone’s doing it and so there simply isn’t that same level of rarity anymore.
And finally, it’s also important to remember that both digital and print comic sales have been helped by a strong series of comic book movies and television shows in recent years—most notably Marvel’s movie titles and DC’s shows on the CW. That’s naturally stirred a lot of public interest in comic book stories of any kind.
Of course, $935 million in total revenue is a pittance next to the book publishing industry, which took in $28 billion in revenue in the USA alone in 2014. Still, it’s good to see any publishing market thriving.