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On Sunday, Bleeding Cool reported that Hastings Entertainment Superstore is about to undergo massive layoffs along with a major change in store practices. As the single largest account on the books of Diamond Comic Book Distributors, this represents a major shift for the monthly comic market.
Operating far beyond regional chains such as Boom, Hastings is the only retail outlet which can lay claim to being a national chain of comic book stores, as monthly comics comprise a large portion of their monthly revenue stream and, in many places, they remain the only location in which casual readers will encounter monthly comics.
The fall of Hastings’ comic book business mirrors the now-legendary near-collapse of the industry itself in the late 1990s. Hastings over-ordered on a massive scale, winding up with an immense back-stock of unsold issues from huge Big Two “events” and relaunches. What’s more worrisome is what this change may indicate with respect to the larger market.
Comic Chronicles, the leading industry publication on the comic market, tracks monthly sales numbers from Diamond, and the numbers for the year-to-date do not look promising. Through April (the most recent month for which complete numbers are available), total unit sales are down 13.5% for the year, and total sales in dollars are down 7.84%. The only area in which the market has experienced any growth is the trade market, which is showing sales up 4.87% in terms of units and 17% in terms of dollars over the same period in the previous year. Overall, the total sales of the comic market total $132.44 million, down 4% from 2015. The site’s monthly analysis is not overly bullish on the state of the market, characterizing it as follows:
“January was a slow start for the market. The comparatives were distorted a number of ways; the previous year had Loot Crate sales included, whereas January 2016 also included a lot of volume that came from publishers deep-discounting graphic novels. February’s sales were also slow. March sales recovered ground lost earlier in the year with strong orders for graphic novels.
April started off the second quarter on a down note as the month faced tough comparatives versus the best month of 2015; Black Panther #1 topped a quarter million copies to become the year’s biggest seller to date.”
After an early part of the decade which saw steady year-to-year growth for the business, print sales have steadily declined in the last twelve months, begging the question as to whether or not the industry is headed for another crash. Industry leaders DC and Marvel Comics, or “The Big Two”, have fallen back on old habits, releasing copious amounts of retailer incentive variant covers for highly promoted titles, and the evidence is clear when you go through comic book shops around the country. If you paid close attention on Free Comic Book Day, many retailers added in copies of those highly promoted #1s to their FCBD swag, looking to divest themselves of unsold back stock. While sales haven’t yet returned to the frighteningly dizzying heights of the 90s, which saw titles like X-Men sell over 8 million copies of a single issue, the trend towards over-printing in the face of shrinking monthly sales should be cause for concern.