“We’re at a comic con talking about Comic Con,” featured speaker Robert Salkowitz commented on the “meta” nature of his presentation at New York Comic Con’s ICv2 Conference. The Forbes contributor and author of the book Comic Con and the Business of Pop Culture was at the invitation-only event to reveal what data-gathering techniques employed via services like Facebook and Affinio can tell us about the health of the convention scene, and the types of attendees at each event.
“This show is a combination of a bunch of different fandoms under one roof,” Salkowitz said of New York Comic Con, noting that each guest is likely to be passionate about only a couple, discrete genres. This is in contrast to San Diego’s Comic Con International, the attendees of which tend to be “superfans of everything.” For this reason, Salkowitz said, the New York and San Diego Comic Cons are not really in competition with each other.
With the number of pop culture conventions exploding in recent years, that’s a good thing to understand. If they’re all differentiated, five major conventions can run on Labor Day weekend, which actually happened this year. While a boom in business is undeniably great, even for the towns that host fan conventions (seeing an economic impact of over $4 billion in 2013), competition and limited celebrity guests force cons to shell out more for attractions, passing that cost on to the consumer. Unless they’re hiring William Shatner, who somehow beamed himself to four of those five conventions on Labor Day weekend.
“The audience is shifting toward gender parity,” Salkowitz said, changing his focus from the cons to the fans themselves. The overall convention scene in fact became 50% female in 2015, with attendees under the age of 30 actually trending toward a female majority. Those statistics are a bit deceiving, though, as no single fandom is close to a 50/50 split. Comic conventions might tend to still skew male, while manga events are mostly female.
While some old-timers might lament the loss of intimacy bigger conventions and broader demographics bring, the sheer number of cons, and the different niches each fills, should give hope that if your old stamping ground ain’t what it used to be, there should still be something for you somewhere.
“Maybe you’re at the wrong show,” Salkowitz said.
As always, the main event of the ICv2 Conference was the White Paper, presented by ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp, which analyzes the yearly trends of comic book and graphic novel sales. Direct market sales (those to comic book specialty shops) continue to rise, up 52% since 2010. Book stores like Barnes and Noble have even outpaced that, though, with growth of 56% in the same time frame. Bookstores bring in more total dollars, too, as they sell mostly graphic novels. Your friendly local comic shops still push out more volume, thanks to sales of cheaper, single issues.
This success is despite what Griepp called the “Four Great Disruptions” in the comic market over the last several decades. Savvy decisions turned possible declines into opportunities, beginning with the shift away from the newsstand in the ’70s and ’80s.
“We needed something better,” Griepp said, noting the rampant fraud that occurred in the newsstand market, as books that were meant to be returned to publishers for credit were often sold anyway. The birth of the direct market, while essentially ending the childhood supermarket experience, created a sense of community among comic readers, turning many on to the concept of collecting and creating a market for the back issues that were no longer returnable.
“That’s one we’re still feeling today,” Griepp said of the disruption of online selling. Once seen as the destroyer of the comic store, internet retailers actually grew the overall market, creating online communities and reaching potential buyers without access to brick-and-mortar retailers. History repeated with the last decade’s onset of digital comics, the sales of which are up over 1,000% since 2010, but have recently leveled off while the sales of physical comics continue to rise.
The disruption caused by the emergence of the bookstore channel was beneficial in the ’90s, but could lead to what Griepp called a “dystopic future” if the major players don’t turn stresses into opportunities. By 2002, book stores were more important than comic specialty stores for graphic novels, but they may stumble if they fail to mimic comic stores by including increasingly sought-after periodicals and back issues. Comic stores will have to adapt, too, and start offering more diverse genres, as it’s been shown there is a huge, untapped market beyond serialized superhero stories. Griepp is confident, however, that as in the past, the market will adjust.
“I’m optimistic,” Griepp said.
The two sales talks were broken up by Broadway producer Vivek J. Tiwary’s tale of how music manager Brian Epstein influenced his career, most literally in Tiwary’s award-winning graphic novel, The Fifth Beatle. The ICv2 conference concluded with legendary Vertigo Comics editor Karen Berger recounting her personal observations in demographic shifts over the last 35 years.