Listen and learn

The business of publishing comics has always been cutting-edge. The first comics were political, often controversial. Modern comics publishers are innovators who have transformed niche stories into global blockbusters like the Avengers, Smurfs, The Walking Dead, The Beano, Ninja Turtles, and many more!

The success of apps like comiXology is unsurprising. John Parker, vice-president of business development at Diamond Comics, says: “The comic audience has great influence to create buzz and drive interest in new pop culture properties.”  They are very tech-savvy. He explains that film studios rely on readers to spot trends, turning fan conventions into A-list events.

Comics are arguably pre-adapted for digital reading. Jeff Webber, vice-president of digital publishing and business development at IDW Publishing, says: “The print size is very close to that of a tablet, and HD screens allow an extremely crisp image. Most comic creators are making their art on screens, so viewing the finished product that way is very natural.”

Despite this, the business is still relatively small—2013 comic sales in North America were $800m (£476m), compared to $15bn (£8.9bn) from the book market. But business is growing, up 10% year on year. “Digital comics are enabling [publishers] to reach a vast audience who may not live close to a comic shop,” Webber says. Among these digital outlets are apps like comiXology, which Amazon acquired last month. This acquisition signifies the importance of comics—if not in the books themselves, then in the brands generated by comics.Consider Disney’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel Entertainment.

What does this mean for publishers and creators? Parker feels the digital market will undoubtedly grow. Webber isn’t worried, either: “The Amazon acquisition won’t change our app business, or affect our apps. We have other app partners, such as Me Comics, which sells our all-ages comics to kids. Me Books is one of thousands of comic apps on iTunes, including publisher shops like IDW’s own app, pre-school comics, comic creators and an Instagram-like app that turns photos into comics complete with speech bubbles and BLAM! bursts.”

So what can book publishers learn from comics? Tim Collins, head of brands at The Beano publisher DC Thompson, says comic publishers “take audiences and brands very seriously.” Collins explains that  “comics can sell 12+ volumes of a series in a year, a content strategy that is more like TV. The focus is on brands.” Parker adds: “The sequential nature of comic stories creates a more involved level of fandom demonstrated by social channels and the blogosphere. Comic publishers must be judicious in engaging with the audience.” Social, audience, brand . . . sound familiar?

Eric Huang is development director at Made in Me