Crowded House: A Look at the Packed Comics Market Through the Publishers in the Middle

2020 marks my eleventh year writing about comics, and during that stretch, no time has felt weirder for the comic industry. Please note the phrase I used, though: “weirder.” It wasn’t “worse” or “terrible” or some other phrase. It was “weirder.” That’s an important note, because by all accounts, 2019 was a fairly decent year! The direct market 1 was up 2.02% from 2018, and while we don’t know for sure, most indications are that the book market will be flat at worst and a decent uptick at best. 2 It was, after all, a Double Raina year while Dav Pilkey evolved into a one-man sales machine. So that’s to be expected.

It’s not weird because of sales performance, though. It’s because of a general sense of unease in the air, a nervous energy as the winds of change gather. The comic consumer is evolving, retailers are battening down the hatches, and the publishers at the top are largely behaving like everything is the same as it ever was. There’s an incongruity there; a divergence in vision that creates the appearance of success but the feeling of something different. There are a bevy of contributing factors to this notion, 3 and certainly too many to examine today.

When situations like this are scrutinized, it’s typically focused on the names at the top. For the direct market, we’re talking Marvel, DC and Image, while in the book market it’s houses like Scholastic Graphix, First Second and Viz Media. That’s understandable. These are the drivers of change in the industry, the publishers that form the foundation of success for the medium and, because of that, trigger much of the anxiety within it. We look at them because they 4 are the ones that create the troubled waters we analyze.

But there is a deluge of publishing houses in comics today, as dozens of others compete for market and mind share, with even more coming. What of these other publishers who have to navigate the chop formed in the wake of the big guns? If there’s a feeling of uncertainty at the heart of the comic industry right now, what does that mean for those publishers who are perhaps more susceptible to the ebbs and flows the comic market can go through? And more than that, what are they doing to keep up?

That’s what we’ll be focusing on today, as we go behind the scenes with some of the publishers outside of those at the top, hopefully providing a slightly different perspective on where comics are today and what publishers are doing to negotiate the rather weird present state we find ourselves in.

To provide a varied perspective on where things are and where they’re headed, we’re going to focus on five different publishers today, each of which has a slightly different angle on how they do business. They are:

Oni Press: Founded in 1997, this publisher is best known for titles like Scott Pilgrim and The Sixth Gun. Its biggest splash in 2019 was arguably its much-discussed merger with fellow publisher Lion Forge. 5 Operated on the periphery of the 10 biggest publishers in the direct market in 2019, although much of its focus during the year was on other markets.

BOOM! Studios: Launched in 2005, BOOM! Studios went from a publisher focused on licenses early on to one that’s succeeding with originals and diverse storytelling. One of the rotating houses at the #4 spot in the market, it ended the year strong with releases like Once & Future and Something is Killing the Children scoring big for them and leading to a 4th place finish in November.

Vault Comics: One of the rising stars in the direct market, Vault arrived on the scene in 2016 with a concentration on science fiction and fantasy titles. This manifested itself best in titles like These Savage Shores, Heathen and Test. Has already made a dent in the market, recently making a leap into the top 10 publishers. 6

Ahoy Comics: A 2018 launch, Ahoy Comics is a quirky publisher creatively led by vets Stuart Moore and Tom Peyer. Known for its atypical format, Ahoy publishes comics in a magazine style book with loads of backup materials, including prose pieces and even puzzles.

TKO Studios: A late arrival on the scene in December 2018, TKO is the only publisher I spoke with that doesn’t distribute its books via Diamond Comic Distributors. Instead, they self-distribute binge released titles like Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Sentient and Garth Ennis and Steve Epting’s Sara in three formats (digital, trade, and single issues in box sets) simultaneously.

These five publishers have different histories and focuses – even approaches, especially with Ahoy and TKO’s rather rebellious setups – and naturally, they all have a different view on the way things work today. But for the most part, they have at least one thing in common. Each of them believes there is space in the direct market for smaller publishers, but the enthusiasm connected to that idea largely depended on the lifespan of the publisher answering.

For example, TKO’s co-founder and co-publisher Tze Chun told me that he believes “there will always be room in this industry for well-told stories,” and that a broader mix of offerings “only bolsters the comic book landscape, creatively and commercially.”

Similarly, that publisher’s fellow newcomer in 2018 – Ahoy – has a cheerful view on the whole thing, as their Editor-in-Chief Tom Peyer suggested that they entered the market simply because they saw an opportunity to “make the kinds of comics” they love, claiming to have not even considered the timing or health of the market in the process as they developed.

Vault’s CEO and Publisher Damian Wassel, one of the most genuinely pragmatic people I’ve talked to in comics, 7 believed there is opportunity for smaller houses…depending on your approach. While he was careful to couch his answers with a note that he isn’t a comics historian or an economist with insight into the comics industry, 8 Wassel said “the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

“Yes, there is room for a publisher striving to achieve aesthetic, narrative, or curatorial goals with their catalog, around which they can build a recognizable brand. No, there isn’t room for a publisher simply chasing sales numbers with whatever high-profile book comes to hand,” Wassel shared. “Probably there’s the most room for a publisher who adopts a hybrid approach.”

BOOM!’s President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik and Oni’s Publisher James Lucas Jones both had views cultivated by the span of time they’ve worked in comics. To the seasoned veteran, all this has happened before and all this will happen again. While Sablik admits “it’s a crowded marketplace,” he believes publishers with longevity have an easier time given their pre-existing awareness amongst readers. Meanwhile, Jones said that while they’re happy with the success they’ve seen recently – especially in the book market with Simon & Schuster, who distributes their books to book stores – there are of course downsides to the overstuffed nature of both primary markets.

One of the true comic greats in Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax

“For midsize folks, you’re battling at a disadvantage in both markets,” Jones said. “So it’s trying to figure out ways to make each market work for you.”

He especially noted the stiff competition at the top in the form of Marvel, DC and Image in the direct market and Scholastic Graphix, First Second and the deluge of heavily funded newcomers in the book market, as they can suck a lot of the oxygen out of the room. Jones expanded on that idea, as the difficulties with that level of competition doesn’t simply manifest itself on a comic-by-comic basic. It’s more foundational than that. Even for a nearly 23-year-old publisher like Oni, it can still be a struggle to have their titles ordered at all by comic shops.

“Right now, there’s like 4,000 Diamond accounts, there’s maybe 2,500 legit brick-and-mortar stores and then in terms of full line comic shops, 9 there might be under 1,000 in terms of folks that carry a wide range of our stuff and not just a few titles here and there,” Jones shared.

That’s why it’s key to find an angle for yourself as a smaller publisher. Oni has given “character driven and idiosyncratic” titles a home, publishing a range of comics with a wide breadth of subjects and formats that might speak to audiences outside of your vision of the typical comic shop customer. That’s been important for BOOM! too, Sablik shared.

“It’s always been part of our publishing strategy to publish material that we think speaks to an audience that isn’t already being serviced in the marketplace,” Sablik said, specifically noting how you can see that in the success of their all-ages imprint KaBOOM!, originals like Lumberjanes, and properties like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. These reached hungry all-ages readers ready for something a little different, and they became hits thanks to BOOM!’s supply meeting that audience’s demand. But as the release lists expanded and the market changed, so too did the publisher. 2019 saw BOOM! shift its approach to better match what comic shops were looking for.

Noelle Stevenson’s cover to Lumberjanes Vol. 1

“I feel like the problem isn’t that there’s too many comics or that there’s too many graphic novels,” Sablik shared. “The problem is that there are too many comics and graphic novels that don’t sell well enough for retailers to invest in them.”

“So the struggle for whether you’re talking about an independent bookstore or a comic shop, or even a Barnes & Noble buyer, is they have all of these choices, but there’s an element of risk in that they know that a large portion of these will not bear out for them,” he added. “So part of our shifted strategy this year was looking at the market, acknowledging that we cut back 15% output, 10 and essentially, what that was was, internally, a recommitment and a deeper commitment to, ‘let’s play the hits.’ Let’s do things that we know there is an audience for, that we can identify the audience for, that we believe is going to generate success for our retail partners.

“So that seems to have worked out. This year, we’re up both at Diamond and at Simon. 11 We’ve seen growth in both places at a time where the market is either flat or down at the end of the year, and that’s with putting out less material.”

Wassel shared that Vault made changes as well, but that they were “less in response to the maneuvering of other publishers, and more in service of where we think we have room to tell excellent stories in the genres on which we focus.” That last point is crucial, as it reveals something Vault excels at: doing something different. Too often in comics, everything can feel a little similar, as if they all were cooked in a pot using the same base. But as Wassel told me, Vault is “always looking for books that take risks,” which has manifested itself in a line with some wild books like Money Shot (“A book about space porn that isn’t a porn book”) and Black Stars Above (“A desolate and severe historical cosmic horror tale.”) that have become successes for them.

“Whenever we can achieve this, the book resonates with our fans,” Wassel said.

Amanda Conner’s cover to Second Coming #1

Ahoy’s focus is very much on doing their own thing as well, as Peyer shared that they knew from the start that they were “not going to compete with big companies on their own terms.”

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Peyer said. “It feels right to offer self-contained stories that aren’t interrupted by crossovers. The story’s the thing here, not the larger event. And maybe the big companies have helped us by creating a vacancy there.”

He’s not wrong. Marvel and DC have largely abandoned anything resembling titles free from the constraints of line-wide responsibilities, and that means there is opportunity there. Whether magazine-style releases loaded with bonus features like “short stories, humor pieces, maybe poems, even a puzzle” fills that vacuum is uncertain – Ahoy hasn’t made a huge impact on the direct market to date, with most retailers I spoke to suggesting they’ve had little traction with their titles so far, outside of one shop that adores their books and has had great success hand-selling them – but it’s early in their existence. It can take time to make a dent in any industry. Peyer suggests that they’ve “had success in building audiences month-to-month,” but even he admits there are pain points in the direct market right now.

“The solicitation deadlines can feel inconvenient, and it can be harder to spring surprises on readers when we have to tell them so much, so far in advance. And of course the fact that books are not returnable induces retailers to order in smaller numbers than we’d like,” Peyer said. “But these limitations are industry-wide and the big publishers feel them, too. I guess the hardest thing when you’re not publishing Batman or Spider-Man is simply getting noticed in that huge order catalog.” 12

The answer to the question of “what’s working in the market?” is a rather varied one. For example, TKO has a completely different playbook than everyone else. They don’t have the Diamond structure to rely on, so they have to create their own momentum. That started with a surprise launch in December of 2018, at which point they put on a full court press of reaching readers and retailers via social media and direct contact. At first, their model for retailers was found lacking – I vividly remember the astonishment some shops shared with me after they first looked at TKO’s discounts – but the good news about being new and small is you’re agile. Quickly, TKO switched to an aggressive offer for shops built off a 50% discount and free shipping, as well as the ability to restock inventory – even small orders, as they have no minimums – in “two to five business days,” an unconscionably fast turnaround for a glacial industry.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s cover to Sentient #1

Combine that with its unique formats – TKO releases in single issue box sets, trade paperbacks and digital simultaneously 13 – and the binge release strategy and you have a publisher that was able to create some heat from the jump. Chun believes they’ve been able to sustain that juice with shops, saying they’ve found they earn prime placement in stores even months after a wave drops. That’s not every shop of course. Ones I quizzed about TKO found their release lists to be top heavy in interest – the biggest names naturally generated the most interest, as Garth Ennis and Steve Epting’s Sara and Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Sentient were the big drivers of sales – and that the binge release method led to long stretches of consumers forgetting they existed. But I’ve spoken with other shops who found their methods to be appealing, leading to them evangelizing for the product. So some good and some bad. The model connects with some, and at a minimum, TKO has established a flexibility in approach most of its publishing peers can’t match.

“The biggest thing we learned from our first year was that the comic book industry was ready for new ways of doing things,” Chun told me. “For us, there are things that worked and didn’t work, but we’ve always treated TKO like a startup and a work in progress. One of the things we’ve been most proud of this year is TKO’s ability to make a splash, look at the response, and adjust our model with speed and efficiency.”

Changing up approaches has become a necessity in a time of uncertainty, and it’s not just newcomers who are doing it. Even veteran publishers like Dark Horse are tweaking product mixes. While they’re still focused on comics and have found great success with originals like Black Hammer and licensed properties like Stranger Things, they’ve also profited from newer lines like art books and archives celebrating the world of video games, as Matt O’Keefe covered for The Beat. Oni has expanded its channels as well. Charlie Chu – Oni’s EVP of Creative – saw an opportunity in the games market and pounced, as he and Oni’s VP of Games Steve Ellis have built that channel up into a real place of growth for them, with three games released to date and more to come in 2020. The good thing is it’s not just another revenue generator. It helps amplify existing comic brands, as their games often stem from Oni creator-owned properties. 14

“We just saw an opportunity to bring their narratives and their style to a new space that could also just help grow their projects and grow readership for their titles,” Jones told me. “And so, it’s a little bit about merchandising, it’s a little bit about, I hate to phrase it this way, but growing brands for creators and just providing things that you normally would not think that you’d be able to get in an indie publishing space.”

Meanwhile, BOOM!’s biggest successes in 2019 were focused on its core channel of comics. As Sablik tweeted about recently, the publisher saw the second biggest jump in direct market share year-over-year, 15 much of which stemmed from their successes in original launches 16 this year.

Dan Mora’s cover to Once & Future #1

“We were up 71% 17 year over year on original launches, and I think it comes from being really focused, really concerted in our efforts so that when we come to the fans and to our retail partners, they know whatever we’re launching, whether it’s Once & Future or Something Is Killing The Children, that we’re putting our all behind it,” Sablik said. “The trick is giving that maximum effort every time and having a clear message about who this is for as a project and why it’s going to be successful, but also varying the incentives that we offer retailers, the tools that we give them to maximize their sales.”

Sablik laid out Image Comics’ success from 2012 to 2016 as their playbook, in a way, as we saw Saga, The Wicked + The Divine, Monstress and other major titles launch for them during that stretch. Those waves of titles created momentum and led to Image’s rise to the clear-cut #3 publisher in the direct market. Fans began expecting that whatever they did would be worth checking out, developing a brand identity of quality above all. Sablik felt BOOM! did that in 2019, and it led to the publisher not just garnering support from those that already believed in them, but shops they historically couldn’t connect with.

“With Once & Future, what happened was we broke through to a group of stores that, historically, had not been ordering BOOM! titles,” Sablik said. “I think roughly, we increased our store count by about 50% on average. That’s game changing for a publisher like us, because it means that we have more places we can sell the books, and I think that ultimately has a cumulative effect as you keep going.”

There were two main drivers for that title’s success, beyond its quality. First, an aggressive roll out plan for that series from Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvillain, as the publisher offered full returnability for every issue of the series 18 and an array of other attractive perks for comic shops. That led to buy-in from the usual suspects in retail and, crucially, new ones as well.

Arguably the second driver was speculation, as Once & Future and its sometimes surprisingly low print runs – BOOM! famously went through four printings of the first issue before it even launched 19 – created a whole lot of interest from speculators. There are pluses and minuses to that. The book was a hit, as inventory was eaten up at an incredible rate, and as Sablik shared, “in a crowded market, part of what collectors and speculators do is help direct focus for readers.” He did admit that might be a controversial take, and for good reason. Speculation can be a double-edged sword. One retailer I spoke with said that after a dominant first issue, readers have quickly ghosted the book in their shop. Speculators didn’t come back, and readers were never there to begin with.

What happened in that shop is not a universal situation, of course, and it’s clear there are fans behind this title. I’m one of them. But there were lessons to be learned from both the successes and failures of the Once & Future launch, which Sablik and his team have paid close attention to.

“We certainly learned lessons in terms of how to set those print runs and how to manage the communication (with retailers), and in those rare cases we have to allocate how to handle those allocations and communicate them in a way that is as fair as possible to everybody,” Sablik said. “So I think we certainly learned a lot, and I think if you look at Folklords and Red Mother, as two examples, those books have sold incredibly well and are going through multiple printings, but we’re not having the same kind of pain points in terms of retailers not being able to take care of the customers, or at least not that we’re hearing from our retail partners.

“The reality is, anytime you have that kind of dramatic growth, you’re going to learn things, and you’re going to get better.”

One of Sablik’s main focuses in his job is to make sure BOOM! will always meet the needs of his retail partners, as they don’t just want to serve the speculators, but the readers that sustain the medium as well.

“You want to make sure that the person that’s coming into your store every week is getting the copies of the books that they need, even if you’re also selling to the guy that’s coming by infrequently and kind of only buying the hot books,” Sablik told me.

Cat Farris’ cover to My Boyfriend is a Bear

Finding the Once & Future-type books have been a struggle for Oni, as Jones believes the adult genre is “very saturated” in the direct market, which can make it a slog for genre books. They’ve been careful in how they approach each market. Even the growth of the vaunted young adult and middle grade graphic novel markets has come with a commensurate – or even greater – rise in titles. Due to that, Oni has been focusing on more atypical projects like Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris’ graphic novel My Boyfriend is a Bear, a title that did quite well for them because it was aimed at underserved audiences. And in 2020, their goals are built around making a bigger dent in the direct market with similar audiences, starting with February’s ComicsPRO Annual Meeting.

“I see a lot of my efforts in 2020 directed back at the direct market, working with Devin Funches in our sales and marketing department to really give retailers additional tools to reach new customers,” Jones told me. “I’m not worried about trying to steal market share back from Marvel or DC, that’s just not going to happen.”

“My focus for 2020 is really trying to help comics retailers and independent book stores both grow their graphic novel readership and hit age groups and demographics that they’re not currently appealing to,” he added. “I think the more that we can support them in finding ways to identify and attract new customers is only going to help us and only going to help the industry.”

He views the direct market as an untapped market on the graphic novel side, as currently, the “post-Raina” 20 audience is wildly underserved throughout comics.

“That audience has aged up and providing content to them and keeping them coming into comics is important,” Jones said, before adding, “There’s no reason that audience has to be as captured by bookstores as the previous generation was.”

That’s an important note for all of these publishers. Superheroes are generally not the dominant genre in other storytelling formats, even if they do make billions in the box office and earn absurd amounts of Oscar nominations. Publishers like Oni and the others I spoke to 21 are amongst the best hopes we have at building a lasting connection between the Raina Generation and comics in the future. That’s important, as it’s one of the most essential objectives we have in the industry today.

And it will be a major focus going forward for Oni, as they believe there is real opportunity there if they can provide their retail partners comics that serve those needs and options for a more painless buy-in for everyone. But 2020 will also be about internal structuring for them. Oni controversially merged with its fellow publisher Lion Forge in 2019, a move designed to build a stronger, more sustainable one out of two while giving Oni greater resources to work with. Little has been revealed about how exactly that partnership would manifest itself. Finalizing that is a major focus in the coming year.

“We’re working on that kind of brand alignment for next year. I think a lot of what was in development as Lion Forge properties or Lion Forge titles are now going to be released under just the Oni Press banner,” Jones said. “The plan going forward is that Oni Press is the mothership, so to speak. And the Lion Forge imprint will be doing the Catalyst Prime universe still and stuff that’s originating at one of the sister companies, like Lion Forge Animation.”

It was Jones’ view that Lion Forge had too many imprints – for example, my favorite Lion Forge release is Brenna Thummler’s Sheets, and I couldn’t even name which imprint published it while chatting with Jones 22 – and that they’d be creating a solution by simplifying everything and moving all creator-originated series under the Oni Press banner.

The cover to These Savage Shores Vol. 1, art by Sumit Kumar

Headed in the opposite direction is Vault. They’re tapping into one of the great trends in the world of comics today by rolling out a young readers graphic novel imprint in 2020. 23 This isn’t a response to trends, though; this was part of a larger plan they had from day one, per Wassel.

“We launched with three, five and ten year plans for our business. Moving into the young readers space was always part of our five-year plan,” Wassel said. “The surge of growth in that sector of publishing has just been (potentially) lucky timing for us. We’ve always wanted to tell stories for all kinds of readers and to build a brand that can endure for decades to come.”

While Vault remains committed to the direct market and the single-issue comic format – Wassel points to the letters columns of Vault’s releases as proof of his undying love of comic shops – he said the book market will be a greater focus for the publisher in 2020 as well.

“We have to pay the book market its due share of attention as we move into formats that seem to thrive better there. Whatever success we achieve in the book market will help us bring better books to the direct market, which will help us bring better books to the book market, and so on,” Wassel said. “They’re mutually reinforcing in my mind.”

Unsurprisingly, Vault isn’t alone in that regard. Chun told me to “look out for announcements early this year” in regards to TKO’s expansion into bookstores 24 while BOOM! is always looking at the book market…if it’s what best serves the project. Sablik said they always lean towards the direct market if it makes sense for the project, but it’s always on a case-by-case basis. For example, Gaby Dunn and Claire Roe’s Bury the Lede graphic novel was a noir story, and knowing that noir was not a genre that usually performed in the direct market, they leaned into the book market for that project from a design and marketing standpoint. Even doing that, though, they aimed to make it as viable for their retail partners as possible, making it fully returnable for comic shops.

“It ultimately sold well in both markets,” Sablik told me.

In a market that’s flooded with inventory, much of your success isn’t just built off publishing good comics, but correctly positioning them in the market – or, finding the right formats and price points, speaking to the right people, getting the right press and marketing opportunities, etc. etc. These decisions can make or break even a great comic in a time there’s arguably greater quality across the board than ever. Sometimes that even means considering what your competition is doing. While most publishers I spoke to said Marvel and DC’s actions aren’t important considerations for them, Jones admitted that the Big Two’s moves can lead to tweaks in at least Oni’s release schedules, noting an upcoming title as an example.

“We have a major series announcement that’s going to happen around ComicsPRO and that book is positioned to be a direct market friendly book in a big way,” Jones said. “It’s currently scheduled for June, and if DC or Marvel announces some huge… like if Marvel decides that they’re going to spend June relaunching their entire line, I’m absolutely going to move it because it doesn’t matter what my intention is and what I need out of it, right now.

“I know those retailer dollars are going to be gone.”

He believes there is an opportunity cost when major initiatives at Marvel or DC are concerned. And it’s not just about the success of your own books, but about “respecting your retail partners and trying to make things as easy as you can for them.” Sablik agreed with that sentiment…to a degree. While BOOM!’s schedule is planned out far in advance – he said they’re working on 2021 right now – they will occasionally bump a title if something huge like House of X and Powers of X was launching the same week. But he also believes there can be a positive area of effect if Marvel and DC are performing well at comic shops.

The cover to Something is Killing the Children #1, art by Werther Dell’edera

“The way that Marvel and DC impact a publisher like us is that when they are doing well, meaning that the material that they are publishing is selling well for retailers, retailers have more dollars to spend on publishers other than Marvel and DC,” Sablik said. “When Marvel and DC aren’t performing well for retailers, it creates cash constraints for those retailers, and so that’s the kind of larger way that they impact the marketplace.

“I’m always happiest when they’re both doing well.”

That’s something we saw in 2011 with DC’s New 52 initiative, which certainly had a rising tide lifts all ships type effect on comics. He believes that to a certain degree, the success of Marvel’s event titles this year – both in regards to House of X/Powers of X and Absolute Carnage – helped create an opportunity for their own titles, particularly Once & Future. There can be real gains that come from the success of the giants when you’re a smaller publisher, or costs when they’re struggling.

One other way that publishers can impact each other that some might not think of is related to the creative itself. An increased amount of publishers leads to more competition in attracting pitches and creators. There are more outlets and platforms to release comics than ever, which creates a natural lean towards the demand side of the supply/demand chain. Some of the publishers I spoke to have seen this become increasingly apparent, while others haven’t found it difficult to attract comics to publish, especially for the more narrowly focused lines like Vault and Ahoy. But either way, it’s worth remember that this is ultimately a good thing overall, as more opportunity for creators is a win for both them and readers. Sablik agreed with that sentiment, saying, “I think it’s great and right that creators should have options in terms of where they publish their work and what kind of partner they’re looking for.”

“What’s really amazing about the current landscape is there’s all these different business models and all these different publishing models that creators can look at and potentially choose from,” Sablik said. “So I think it’s healthy.

“It makes all the publishers work harder, and that ultimately is to the benefit of the fans and the creators. It makes us think more intensely about what projects we really believe in.”

When I conceptualized this project, I had a specific view of the way things were. In my mind, there were too many publishers and too many comics, and that must mean that it’d feel the same way for the publishers themselves. That’s the way things are, right? But a different picture came into focus as I spoke with publishers and retailers and others in comics about this subject, and that’s that some of what I thought was true.

But not all of it.

Sure, some of those I spoke to were almost certainly giving me the nice version of the story, a little bit of spin about the way things are. But my research revealed a slightly tweaked ultimate point, a caveat that makes a world of difference. There can be a cost to the amount of publishers and titles on the market, but it’s far a greater one if what you’re publishing has no clear market.

That might be obvious, but it’s a crucial difference. As Wassel noted to me earlier, if you’re just trying to sell comics to sell comics, you’re going to have a tough go at it. You need an angle, something that differentiates you from your peers. And the connective tissue between each of the publishers I spoke to and their greatest successes all derive from finding an underserved market or approach and then going all in with it, whether you’re talking a different perspective on an adult graphic novel like Oni, an aggressive (and inclusive) marketing strategy like BOOM!, a specific and executable vision like Vault, a new format like Ahoy, or a radical new direction like TKO.

That alone isn’t enough, of course. There’s plenty more to do, and many other solutions to find. 25 The publishers I spoke to each face their own obstacles, as does every publisher in the market right now. As Sablik said, it’s a crowded market, and that adds complications to publishing comics. It’s why I’m trepidatious of an effort like AWA Studios, 26 a publisher that feels ripped from the late 90s/early 00s in a way. Axel Alonso has a prolific rolodex and has edited great comics, so there’s potential here. But having read a decent chunk of their initial launch titles in a preview trade from New York Comic Con, I can’t help but feel that their comics are regressive to the point I’m unsure who their audience is. I could be wrong. Maybe there is a substantial audience for comics of that sort, but I’m dubious of its size, 27 meaning I’m equally uncertain of AWA’s potential.

It’s like Sablik mentioned earlier. The real problem is that there are too many comics and graphic novels that simply don’t move for comic shops and bookstores. If everything lit the world on fire, I wouldn’t be writing this article. What he mentioned is the reason every book publisher in the world seemingly is launching an all-ages graphic novel imprint: those comics are selling. Everyone wants a taste. That’s not necessarily the case for every kind of comic being sold at shops.

That’s what makes it such a weird time in comics. We’re in a phase where everyone – publishers, retailers, readers, etc. – are trying to figure out what comics are meant to be today. That can lead to struggles, or at the very least, growing pains. Are they superheroes? Are they Arthurian legends? Are they stories about having a boyfriend that’s a bear? Minis? Ongoings? Graphic novels? The amazing thing is they can be all of those, and any number of other things, while still being a success. The opportunity is out there for everyone, if you can find the right projects and partners and plans.

We’re in a period that rewards clarity of vision and having a plan more than ever if you’re a smaller comics publisher. Being good just isn’t good enough anymore. 28 You have to do more. You have to be more. You have to be different, and then do something about it. That won’t work for everyone, of course. But there’s opportunity there, and a potentially bright future…if we can find the right answers.

Thanks to Chun, Jones, Peyer, Sablik and Wassel for the insight into their worlds.

  1. Meaning comic shops.

  2. Or up 16.1%, as that came out today!

  3. Including the amount of releases it’s taking to accomplish these gains (particularly from Marvel), DC’s plans for the future, price as a factor, the disappearing #2 customer, the growing number of publishers, etc.

  4. And by they, I largely mean Marvel and DC.

  5. More on that later.

  6. In terms of unit share.

  7. I say that with love. It’s not a bad characteristic to have if you’re a CEO!

  8. He admitted that their ignorance of the way things worked may have helped Vault take risks that ultimately worked out for them, and ones they may have avoided if they knew better. Sometimes not being a historian works out!

  9. Meaning shops that order from all publishers, not just Marvel, DC and some other publishers.

  10. Meaning they reduced the size of their line.

  11. That’s Simon & Schuster, whom they distribute trades and graphic novels through in the book market.

  12. Peyer did note there are ways around that too, as they’ve bought large ads in Diamond’s Previews magazine. He believes those helped, and the same goes for other programs they participated in through the distribution giant.

  13. Chun shared that the former two lead the way and sell equally well in the direct market.

  14. Like Scott Pilgrim Miniatures the World or Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game, for example.

  15. And the largest proportionate growth, which is important to note as well.

  16. Meaning non-licensed titles.

  17. In sales.

  18. At least for the issues of the mini-series, I imagine, as it has since expanded into an ongoing.

  19. There were ultimately seven printings.

  20. Or, readers who have read Raina Telgemeier’s comics but have now aged up.

  21. As well as their peers in the book market.

  22. It was the all-ages imprint, Caracal.

  23. It was announced as Myriad, but due to trademark complications, they will be rebranding before launch.

  24. They’re already on Amazon.

  25. Including diversifying your product lines, as Oni and Dark Horse have done.

  26. Or Artists, Writers & Artisans, Bill Jemas and Axel Alonso’s upcoming publishing house.

  27. Laser eyes at you, Comicsgate.

  28. Unless you’re just here for the intellectual property.