A recent post at Heidi MacDonald's The Beat provided recent sales figures for DC Comics that are incredibly sobering and eye-opening. (The Beat is a blog that broadly covers comics and provides a wonderful central resource for trends and breaking news.)
It's ironic that at a time when comics-based properties and geek culture have entered the mainstream and now drive a lot of entertainment media, overall sales of comics continue to decline, offset only by the higher price of comics. (When I began reading comics in the early 1970s, they were 20 cents. These same comics now sport cover prices of the $2.99 to $3.50 range, though the quality of the coloring and paper stock is generally better.)
This circulation decline is not simply due to the current economic meltdown (and the jury is still out as to how much comics will be affected by the present crisis), but rather has been a slow attrition over time. Sure there have been periodic busts, booms and spikes, but the overall sales trend since the founding of the industry in the 1930s has generally been downward.
A good overview of this can be found at a site called the Nostalgia Zone which provides a straightforward overview and history of the comic-book industry and sales figures from 1934-1960 here and from 1960-2005 here. Generally, sales of the highest selling comics in the '40s regularly topped 1 or 2 million; today, a hot-selling comic-book generally is in the 100,000—150,000 range. I often like to note that the current sales figures of some iconic comic-book characters like Batman and Superman would have been cause for cancellation back in the 1970s and '80s.
Part of this, of course, can be explained by changing tastes and the competing demands on young people (and the population as a whole) such as television, movies, computers, etc. But it does seem amazing that while comics properties have become more mainstream and popular, the genre itself has remained a surprisingly small niche market. And, not putting too fine a point on it, small publishers like me continue to fight for the scraps at the bottom.
I am not suggesting at all that comics themselves will be disappearing anytime soon. As licensed properties, comics remain incredibly lucrative for their publishers/owners. Plus, the comics industry has always shown itself to be incredibly resilient: the collapse of the newsstand market in the 1980s led to the direct-sales comic-book store market; the market has successfully found ways to reinvent itself through the rise of alternative, independent comics and the re-imaginings of major franchises like Batman; and the current sag in sales has been more than offset by the rise of trade paperback comics which offer a higher profit margin and lend themselves to new distribution outlets like bookstores.
Nevertheless, the comics industry is struggling to find a new model and place in today's digital world: declining overall sales have caused the industry's sole major distributor, Diamond, to more stringently restrict access to the market by publishers; some see a trending towards the trade paperback format since sales in that area have exploded; on the other hand, sales appear to be flattening and simply eating into the same pie taken up by the single issue comic-book format.
The Web—both for publishing and for alternative means of distribution—clearly is the main focus. But so far, not at a scale to compete with or replace the current model.
As always I remain optimistic: comics remain a popular and affordable form of expression, and the Web has created a relatively flat playing field that provides opportunities for creators' work to be seen that simply did not exist a decade or so ago. But the competition and fragmentation will continue to be a challenge for many publishers.