comixologyE-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.

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. Some other factors to consider…

    1. Comics are different than prose ebooks in that they contain artwork. If you really love the artwork, and want to really appreciate it, reading it in physical form is a superior way to enjoy it. I do read digital comics, but if I really love the artwork I will buy the physical copy – and it also feeds into my collector mentality which many comic fans have.

    2. Before comics were distributed digitally, the argument was, will this kill comics print sales? Many argued that it will not do that and it would only increase – because MORE people will be exposed to it and want to buy them. I think the latter point has been proven true. Comics fans are exposed to digital content even without Comixology – fans tweet single pages or tumblr-blog them – and there are sites that just rip the whole issue. You might lose sales from people who just read casually – Doctorow’s argument is you would never have those sales anyway.

    3. Comics publishers have found many ways to satisfy the collector mentality to juice up print sales. DC / Marvel do line-wide reboots to restart titles at #1 again. They offer variant covers for all books now and have monthly themes for the variants, like vintage movie posters or a famous artist doing the covers, like Neal Adams or Darwyn Cooke. Now on this point I see some prose book similarities, the book cover / book object as a thing of art. Many young people are tumblr-blogging about their favorites book covers like Six of Crows.

  2. I do think all the comic representation on TV and movies likely has a huge impact on comic sales (and it is not just the CW with DC – but Netflix has also been building a nice collection of Marvel shows). I am not a comic book fan. I have always found them harder to follow – missing details in the artwork that I should pick up on and figuring out which panel comes next has been tough for me – but I do like the rich history and the way the characters have been allowed to evolve over time when I go and research characters and stories that I am introduced to on TV.

    I was a big Constantine fan and when it was cancelled, I obtained a paperback collection of the first Constantine comics to get my Constantine fix. However, because of my difficulties reading the panels in the proper order, when I ordered the second collection, I went digital instead. For me, the ability to have the reader software automatically take me to the proper next pane was a huge advantage. I am sure the traditional comic book fan does not need this assistance, but for someone like me, it is very helpful. But either way, because of the TV show, I contributed to sales of both paper versions and digital versions, which is consistent with the pattern you are seeing, so perhaps I am typical of some of the new comic book growth.

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