The Future of American Comic Books

Many small and mid-sized publishers have come and gone over the years. The comic shop market is a brutal place for newcomers. With only five companies, Marvel, DC Comics, Dark Horse, IDW and Image, dominating over 90% of the playing field, independent books get very little, if any, shelf space in stores. Because all comic books sold in the direct market are non-returnable, most comic shop owners tend to be conservative on their orders, fearing they won't sell all the copies they buy of a particular title. Some retailers won't even carry small press books at all anymore. They'll only stock titles from major publishers featured in the monthly Diamond Previews catalog. Therefore, new publishers have a very hard time reaching comic book consumers and generating enough sales to survive.

For the last 20 years, the competitive environment of the American comic book industry as remained essentially the same. Corporate officers at traditional publishers have grown complacent in a market that is not growing. The industry today isn't geared toward attracting new readers. Somewhere along the way, the major companies decided to focus solely on retaining the loyal older white male customers they already have – comic geeks who fervently buy every monthly issue of their favorite superhero comics such as Spider-Man or Batman. In terms of future growth, that is not a healthy thing overall for the industry. It makes for an insular market that regurgitates the same old formulas year in and year out.

Unable to imagine a different business model and unwilling to invest any significant time or energy promoting anything different from the existing library of established brand name characters, the titans of American comics have essentially left the playing field open for other players to produce original material in other genres outside of the superhero universes.

We are on the brink of a new era in graphic literature. The industry is starting to enter a “third age” of comic books. The old newsstand-only model was the “first age” and the comic shop direct market was the “second age.” No one knows for certain what the exact shape of this “third age” will end up being, but I'm banking on it being the digital web comics age. Distributing comic books as e-books on iTunes, Amazon Kindle and other web media platforms will put them in front of millions of new people who normally never go to comic book stores.

With iPhone-style touchscreen technology on lightweight mobile devices with high-resolution color screens such as the Apple iPad, creators and publishers now have a great new format to deliver premium content at much lower costs than printed books shipped to stores.

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