2020 comic sales up in a tough year, thanks to graphic novels

Graphic novels in a bookcase

Last updated on January 22nd, 2022

This week, Comichron and ICv2 released their annual joint report on the sales state of the North American comic industry.

For 2020, some good news came in spite of the pandemic. 2020 comic sales rose to $1.28 billion, up 6% from 2019.

2020 comic sales information

Comichron notes they had to alter their analysis criteria a bit due to the multiple industry changes that happened in 2020. Said changes include DC’s switch away from Diamond, Diamond not releasing sales data (and their shutdown), and a few other changes. However, the usual criteria (and caveats) still apply:

  • Information is based on estimated or actual sales figures.
  • Comic shop/direct market figures are based on a sampling of ComicHub point-of-sale reports; figures for book channel vendors are from BookScan.
  • “Book channel vendors” include sales from bookstores (like Barnes and Noble), online retailers like Amazon, and so forth. Library purchases aren’t included.
  • Digital sales are estimated. Subscription services like Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe aren’t included, nor are library based digital services like Hoopla.
  • The “Other Channels” category consists of what’s left of newsstand sales and fundraising channels like Kickstarter. The former at this point is very miniscule… I’d guess it’s mainly Archie’s digests at supermarkets, drug stores, etc.

Below are Comichron’s infographics outlining the major sales information.

Statistics by percentage

Below, I break down the various categories by percentages. Note all of the figures have some rounding.

Sales by channel:

  • Book channels: 50.4%
  • Comic stores: 34.4%
  • Digital download: 12.5%
  • Other channels: 2.7%

Sales by format:

  • Graphic novels: 65.2%
  • Comic books: 22.3%
  • Digital comics: 12.5%

Channel changes (by percentage) from 2019:

  • Book channels: +13.2%
  • Comic stores: -16.2%
  • Digital download: +77.8%
  • Other channels: +40%

Format changes (by percentage) from 2019:

  • Graphic novels: +9.2%
  • Comic books: -19.7%
  • Digital comics: +77.8%

Graphic novels responsible for sales growth (again)

Once again, graphic novels are what’s responsible for the comic industry’s sales growth. The pandemic made it difficult-to-impossible to buy traditional paper comics, as many local comic shops (LCS) were closed or had limited hours. (Not to mention the direct market disruptions.) Thus the double-digit drop in sales of singles.

Graphic novels, being books, means they’re also available through traditional book channels. However, the pandemic also affected local bookstores; I suspect a lot of book channel sales were through Amazon.

A big boost in digital sales

Digital comics saw a big boost in sales over 2019. I assume some of this was from superhero comic fans forced to buy digital singles, instead of paper singles, during the pandemic. It remains to be seen if there’ll be a decline in 2021, now that comic shops have mostly reopened.

Again, these numbers don’t count digital subscription services like Marvel Unlimited; otherwise, I suspect these numbers would be larger. Digital comics are likely similar to home video—subscription streaming services like Netflix dominate that area, not digital video stores like iTunes.

Book channels hold a (very slim) majority of comic sales

For what I’m guessing is the first time in a very long time, book channel comic sales have not only eclipsed the other categories (comic shops, etc.), but they held a slim majority of all sales in 2020 (at 50.4%). I expect 2021 figures to send this share back to a plurality (versus majority), with more comic shops reopening.

“But what about…” (or goalpost moving)

I’ve seen a few tweets on Twitter grumbling about these figures, mostly from people who seem to view direct market, Big Two single-issue paper superhero comics as the only “real” comics. But to refute all of them…

For starters, manga and young adult graphic novels are comics; they’re just not Big Two single-issue superhero books. Pretending they’re not is silly—“Dog Man” and “My Hero Academia” have as much right to be called comics as the Big Two superheroes. As for people who don’t want manga or YA graphic novels included in comic industry sales figures, that’d be as useful an assessment of the comics market as pretending “Fast and the Furious 9” wasn’t released this summer and studying the box office based on what’s left.

As for the idea of “social justice” elements ruining superhero books (and leading to their current sales plight): Big Two books have plenty of problems, but having main characters who aren’t White, male, cisgender, and/or heterosexual isn’t the source of them. Besides, aren’t most superheroes supposed to be fighting for justice?

How well did the Big Two do?

If one’s only concerned about superheroes, there’s always the direct market sales figures Comichron lists on their site, which are the only place DC and Marvel still dominate.

In 2019, DC and Marvel controlled about 75% of the direct market. However, the direct market’s no longer the majority of comic sales; meanwhile, in 2019, the Big Two only held 15% of all book channel sales.

While likely far from perfect, I can take a guess at DC and Marvel’s overall sales. Assuming similar sales percentages held in 2020, assuming DC and Marvel hold a direct market-level similar dominance of digital sales, and applying those to the Comichron/ICv2 figures listed above, we get:

    • Book channels: $645 million x 15% = $96.75 million
    • Comic stores: $440 million x 75% = $330 million
    • Digital download: $160 million x 75% = $120 million
    • Other channels: N/A
    • Total: $546.75 million (or rounding, $547 million)

$547 million would be about 43% of the 2020 comics market. Basically, while DC and Marvel are still big fish in the direct market pond, the majority of comics overall aren’t about characters like Batman or Wolverine anymore. (Or even come in a single-issue comic book format, for that matter.)

Infographics created by Kate Willaert.

“Graphic Novels” by morebyless is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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