What Will A Post-Crisis Comic Book Industry Look Like?

With COVID-19 shutting down Diamond Comics Distributors and comic book shops around the world for an indefinite period, the question needs to be asked – What will the comic book industry look like post-crisis? We asked that question to several people around the industry; below are the results.

Matthew Sardo (founder of MFR)

As a former comic book store owner and the founder of Monkeys Fighting Robots, I think this shutdown will devastate the direct market. Owning a comic book shop is not easy, and the profit margin is paper-thin. The stores that survive and the new ones that open will drastically change their business plans for this new economy. The “new-this-week wall” will get very small, as stores will order the bare minimum when it comes to new issues. The trade paperback and graphic novel section of the store should become the driver of sales. Hook a new reader with a trade, and then get them to start a subscription service for new titles. Having employees that can sell books will be a must-have. The stores that have knowledgeable and personable employees will succeed as they should be able to find the perfect graphic novel for any customer.

As shops scramble to make money during the shutdown, I would expect back issue prices to drop. If the crisis lasts more than 90 days, it should become a buyers market for key issues. The discounts are already starting to roll in on eBay.

The trend that will influence new stores the most will be diversifying your income source. A coffee shop or bar that has comic books is a good example. Comic books are the only industry where you need to start another business to support your first business. The retailers that are agile and extremely creative will survive as the industry goes through its next evolution.

Blake Northcott (comic book writer)

Comics aren’t going anywhere. The way we purchase and consume them will inevitably change, but I feel like that transition was already happening before the pandemic. If anything, COVID-19 could just accelerate those changes.

In a post-COVID-19 world, how comic books are sold will still be a combination of monthly issues, graphic novels, digital comics, and crowdfunded projects – though I believe it’s too early to say how that pie will be divided up, or if new options will become available that no one has thought of yet.

Anthony Composto (journalist & consumer)

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything about comics, it’s that the industry as a whole has to do a better job supporting retailers. Many (mostly independent) publishers have stepped up to try and support comic shops these past few weeks, and I expect a lot of these practices will continue in some form post-crisis. The biggest change I think we’ll see is an increase in publishers allowing returns on their books, with some restrictions of course.

Many local comic shops have ramped up their mail-orders during this crisis, and I think mail-order comics will remain prevalent in the aftermath of COVID-19. Consumers will be skittish to return to brick-and-mortar stores for a while even after the health scare is over (and that will go for all industries, not just comics), so online and over-the-phone purchases will see a large increase.

As far as the retailers themselves go, they will be ordering much lighter moving forward, largely because they’ll still be trying to recover financially. I think they’ll also begin innovating new ways to get comics into the hands of their consumers. My local comic shop, A Comic Shop, has been doing weekly online sales and auctions via Facebook Live for a while now, going back before this whole mess started, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see other shops starting to do similar things.

And finally, it’s been my theory for a long time that comics should begin transitioning away from single issues and into more trades/hardcovers/OGNs, and this crisis might be the thing to convince publishers that’s a smart move.

Michael Fromm (comic critic)

The comic book industry will look different after the coronavirus crisis comes to an end. It was already in need of serious change. But this global shutdown could be the wake up call it needs. We are living in an increasingly digital world. Audiences are becoming more and more comfortable watching movies and reading comics right from their smart devices. Self-quarantining has merely reinforced that notion. In conclusion, there will still be a place for the traditional “floppy” book, but it will not be the comic industry’s saving grace. In order for it to survive, every aspect of the medium – its format, content, delivery method, publishing frequency, marketing, and pricing – must be scrutinized and re-calibrated.

Manny Gomez (comic book critic)

I hope that the crisis will create positive change. Perhaps the big publishers will focus on content, scaling down the number of releases and focusing on quality month to month storytelling over things like variant covers and massive crossovers that require a checklist to make sure you don’t miss an issue.”

Roger Riddell (journalist & consumer)

Without a doubt, the Diamond news signals a rough time ahead for local comic shops. While the industry itself is largely able to continue putting out new stories digitally, the local comic shop is a linchpin of the community itself for many readers and collectors. We can sit here and talk about how the industry shouldn’t have allowed Diamond to monopolize distribution over the last several decades, but that’s a moot point right now. It is what it is. I’ve seen some creators suggest on Twitter that the big three (Marvel, DC, and Image) in particular should arrange some kind of digital storefront. Allow readers to buy digital copies now and receive the print versions later when they become available. Can that stem the bleeding and save some of these shops from going under? Maybe. It might be a better option than dumping months of print copies onto their shelves as soon as this ends and expecting consumers to double-dip if the digital versions continue being released as scheduled in the meantime. Regardless of what happens on that front, stores that do have a lot of existing stock in the form of back issues and trades are going to have to get creative with sales and offers to keep that moving as a band-aid until this crisis ends — which is hopefully sooner rather than later.

Sridhar Reddy (publisher)

As a publisher, we naturally worry about the health of our business and the industry from a dollars and cents perspective, and those worries persist even without a global pandemic bearing down upon us. We’re often forced to rethink and adapt to survive in a functioning marketplace, and now that the market has been essentially paralyzed, our urgency to adapt is paramount. One of the big concerns for us as a publisher is not so much distribution but rather the health and welfare of the freelance artists who are the backbone of the industry. During this crisis, it’s become very apparent that so many young artists, writers, colorists, letterers, and designers are saddled with debt from their education, and the basic cost of living is ill-serviced. Many do not have health insurance. The flow of steady and consistent work – especially if they were working on a monthly title – has dried up in the past few months. It’s a pretty bleak scenario, as the work skills that these creators paid a fortune to learn have little demand right now during the shutdown. At Z2, we’re fortunate to be working on graphic novels, so our creators are still getting paid as they have a year’s worth of pages to work on. We consider ourselves fortunate to be in this position.

But moving forward, there might be a few lessons that can be gleaned from this unprecedented scenario. Like in other creative industries, the need for a creator’s union seems more vital than ever. Right now, unless a creator has robust sales numbers to back their services, there is little bargaining power for their services. A union, should its membership be strong enough (if it also includes graphic designers, storyboard artists, etc.) can then work towards building protections such as health insurance plans and child care. Having a collective union that regulates creative costs will also help regulate the cost of our products, and make them accessible to wider audiences who previously couldn’t afford to drop four or five bucks on a single issue. Again at Z2, we keep our rates at the same levels of the majors, and we do it because we genuinely feel art is hard work, and it must be rewarded. Which leads me to the second lesson to be learned for publishers, and that is to set the business standard that one shouldn’t greenlight a project if their finances cannot support it. There are far too many stories of creators not being paid because publishers are counting on their books being successful enough to address their accounts payable. That’s putting the cart before the horse; an industry cannot thrive under those business practices. If you don’t have the money to pay creators, then you don’t do the project until you can pay them for the full project.

I’m not qualified to make suggestions for the comic book shops and distribution, but one thing which will always help shops is if we as publishers create compelling, thoughtful work that they can actually stand behind and sell. The marriage of art and commerce is a tenuous one, but it is also one of the most longstanding in the history of man. We have to find those ways to entertain and push the artform while also being mindful of our ability to find audiences for our products. When the comic book industry thrived, we had the most creatively compelling titles driving it, titles that didn’t rely upon gimmicks or pandering, they were just brilliant, entertaining stories that were executed with heart and soul. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of editors, who have to know the fundamentals of storytelling and art and trust their study, their taste, and most importantly, their instincts. As publishers, we must find, support, and push our editors to simply create the best stories possible. We must create books that give incentive for readers to buy our products, books that provide value in the form of entertainment, provoking of discussion, and the pure joy of reading something new and fresh.

Of course, all of these things can be labeled as idealistic, but nothing starts without an idea, and our ideas must have dates attached to them. Only then can we ever dream of them becoming a reality. We all want comics to survive, and they have through even the darkest of times. And in those darkest of times, they served as a refuge to the harsh realities of the world, a much-needed escape to the realms of possibility and imagination. We should never lose that.

Jake Palermo (comic critic)

In light of how many comic shops close down during the COVID-19 protocols, publishers, as well as Diamond Distributions, might need to reconsider using preorders as indicators of a title’s success. Pre-orders work best with long-established A-List titles, including Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. But for the highly-rated series that don’t become viral hits like Black Panther and the Crew or Atlantis Attacks, this is a detriment. With the COVID-19 outbreak not letting many comic stores get product and costing the publishers millions, perhaps this is what will convince publishers not to rely on pre-orders for success. Instead it would be better to use resources like critical responses and post-release date sales to determine success. The best form of advertising isn’t algorithmic procedures like on YouTube or Netflix but how the fans react to them. All the while filtering out the more toxic responses. Because not all criticisms are constructive.

Gabriel Hernandez (comic critic)

There’s a difference between wishful thinking and educated projection. So, this isn’t about what I want to happen for the Comics Industry, but what I foresee is the likely outcome in the post-COVID-19 world.

Several of the smaller and more rural Local Comics Shops (LCS) will fold…permanently.

Larger, busier, and urban-central LCS will shift focus to a smaller selection of monthly floppies that are more likely to have strong sales (e.g., Comichron Top 10) and a heavier emphasis on reprints of classic stories. They will augment revenue by pushing online sales outside their local area, and they will look to selling comics-related and gaming-related items and events in-store such as Sideshow statues, Magic the Gathering tournaments, etc..

Several of the smaller publishers will either fold and sell off their IP’s to larger publishers or remain open but severely cut staff. They will cease production on monthly floppies in favor of longtail trades. The focus will shift to aggressively farming out their IP’s to other media formats such as movies and television, similar to what Marvel did in the ’90s. To avoid costs with Diamond distribution, the small publishers that remain open will band together to form their own distribution service or develop in-house shipping.

Depending on the number of LCS and smaller publishers that fold, Diamond will be unable to sustain regular operation with significantly reduced volume. One of the Big 2 will offer to buy Diamond as a capital investment that can be written off. The publisher that wins that buyout will further monopolize the monthly market. Smart money says Disney because it can leverage that new distribution arm for all publishing content across all properties (Disney, Marvel Lucasfilm, etc.).

The medium-to-large publishers will also reduce staff and be forced into a sales-based merit system for its properties. Books that don’t sell won’t continue. Artists and writers that don’t make profitable content won’t be retained. Variant cover saturation and regular universe reboots that span multiple titles will become much less frequent. Expect significantly higher staff turnover in the short-term until the (profitable) cream rises to the top.

Since a much smaller pool of creators will be retained by publishers for full-time positions, expect to see greater numbers move to crowd-sourcing platforms ala IGG and Kickstarter. As with medium-to-large publishers, the creators that make good content that customers want to buy will thrive (after a little fumbling on the learning curve). Creators that make content that had previously been supported by publishers, but were not profitable, will leave the comics industry outright or will only remain in comics as a side gig. Some will attempt to go the crowd-sourcing route but will fail.

Conventions will return, but in fewer numbers and much smaller in scope. Alternatively, you could see a few very large conventions pop up that are a consolidated version of several smaller conventions. The publishers that survive will scrutinize the ROI of such events and conclude that hype doesn’t translate to sales. The focus of comic-cons will shift to independent creators more heavily, with a secondary emphasis on celebrity appearances to draw the crowds. The larger publishers won’t bother to show unless it’s to promote other media development such as film and TV shows.

Darryll Robson (comic book philosopher)

When we finally come crawling out of our geek caves to re-enter life the hope will be that the Comic World will have learned to appreciate those magnificent creators and traders whose work has kept us sane for those difficult weeks. Unfortunately, in a world where key workers and self-employed are expected to survive on barely a living wage and savings, they have never had the chance to amass while millionaires are asking for handouts to save their billion-pound companies, the chances are it’s the small comic shops and lone artists/writers who will suffer the most. The larger publishers will pick up where they left off, using this as a chance to streamline themselves, saving money. It will be up to us, the critics, the reviewers, the collectors, and the readers, to rescue the true heroes of the Comic World: the creators and independent shops. We have to support them in every way we can, making sure they can recover, rebuild, and live on into the future.

What are your thoughts on the comic book industry? Comment below with your ideas.

Matthew Sardo
Matthew Sardo
As the founder of Monkeys Fighting Robots, I'm currently training for my next job as an astronaut cowboy. Reformed hockey goon, comic book store owner, video store clerk, an extra in 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' 'Welcome Back Freshman,' and for one special day, I was a Ghostbuster.