Covid-19 sent the worldwide comic industry into free-fall in March when its monopoly distributor, Diamond, shut down all operations. With no product to sell and high streets deserted, speciality comic book stores were shut across Britain and America. Damage to the industry was widespread and for some publishers possibly fatal. Even the industry leader, DC Comics, laid off a third of its editorial staff last month.
So how did one specialist UK publisher, Rebellion Publishing, owner of the flagship weekly adventure comic 2000 AD not only survive but thrive during the Covid-19 lockdown?
The answer is nuanced and partly based on the peculiarities of the UK comic book market. Traditionally, aside from independent comic book retailers, comics have competed for space in the large chain newsagents like WHSmith and more recently supermarkets, which now account for over 40 percent of publication sales.
As newsstand sales have declined, comic sales have fallen with it – many established titles have seen print sales decline by up to 70% since their heyday in the ‘70s and early 80’s, not helped by the exponential growth of gaming and other digital channels competing for kids’ attention.
This has been compounded by pressure from retailers to bag their titles and sell them as products, with supermarkets in particular insisting on free gifts in order for them to be stocked. Publisher promotional budgets, which in their heyday were spent on TV ads, have increasingly been spent on cover mounts at a time when less and less people are seeing them.
Enter Covid-19, the final nail in the coffin for a number of comic book publishers, exacerbated by monopoly distributor Diamond shutting operations on March 23 for two entire months. When distribution re-started on May 20th, a wrecking ball had ploughed its way through the industry.
For those comic book publishers that have endured the crisis, their very survival has depended on them returning to their roots – selling via independent local newsagents that largely remained open during the pandemic. Jason Kingsley OBE, Co-Founder of Rebellion Publishing, explains, “2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine have always been newsstand comics and that most humble British institution – the corner shop newsagent – has played a vital role in helping us weather this crisis, as it is one of the only places where loyal readers could find us. It’s been a win-win as it’s driven sales and footfall to the newsagents, a real lifeline in terms of distribution at a time when publishing has taken a real hit.”
“Although the percentage of our sales through retail is down, thanks to large chains such as WHSmiths being shut during lockdown, rather than withdraw from the newsstand or even stop printing, we instead transferred stock across to supplying traditional independent retailers which have remained open, helping the entire sector – them and us – survive the pandemic.”
It is this traditional way of selling comics that is seeing it survive.Jason Kingsley OBE, Co-Founder of Rebellion Publishing
Marianne Giusti, writing in the Financial Times, agrees, “Many readers have rediscovered the pleasure of paper. With renewed interest has followed an appreciation of the newsagent. From the traditional kiosk to the boutique ’zine store, the newsagent has been identified as an unofficial emergency service, with a unique power to charm.”
Like many other children’s publishers during the Covid-19 lockdown, 2000 AD has also witnessed a significant uptick in subscriptions at a time when children – and their parents – were at home rather than school. The publisher saw a 6% rise in subscriptions between Q1 and Q2. Additionally, the publisher also saw sales up 94% on print editions from its webshop and a 56% rise in digital e-comic sales.
Kingsley notes, “Compared to this time last year, 2000 AD is 15% up on all subscriptions, both print and digital. Considering the challenge we have faced this year, that’s an incredible state of affairs. We focused on making sure our comics could reach the people that wanted them and made sure that we supported local newsagents – places that, in some cases, will have stocked 2000 AD for four decades.”
According to John Freeman, Publisher of downthetubes, a business site devoted to the comic book industry, Rebellion has succeeded because it didn’t put the brakes on its output and made distribution its top priority, “Rebellion cannily and quickly responded to the lockdown and the lack of sales points, with high street newsagent WHSmith closed. They kept publishing 2000 AD, the Judge Dredd Megazine and various Specials as normal, which was great for fans, and made it as easy as possible for fans to subscribe to their titles. They did push back some physical book releases, but the digital releases have gone out as planned, and the general indications are that this has boosted digital sales, as it has for other publishers.”
During a time of unprecedented challenges across the publishing industry, particularly in terms of distribution, it’s refreshing to see a publisher that has prospered by both returning to its roots as well as aggressively expanding its digital footprint in a bid to strengthen audience engagement.
Kingsley adds, “Over the past ten years, we have steadily built up ways of communicating directly with our audience – through newsletters, our podcast, our social media – that has meant they have felt the advantage of that shared experience even in the separation of the lockdown. This has undoubtedly helped.”
Freeman, however, sounds a word of warning to the industry, saying, “The main concern has been that for many, they have lost income through the lack of events – comic conventions, workshops, commissions – and that’s going to have continued impact for the foreseeable future. I think we’ll lose some creators to other industries, perhaps even non-creative ones, as some seek to pay bills.”
Freeman concludes by stating that the pandemic has sped up many industry trends that were already in process, adding, “Where buying habits were slowly changing, and publishers were facing the issue of people moving to digital editions – but not in big enough numbers to sustain a shaky title – the trend has sped up in the space of a few months. This has helped a number of publishers, big and small, who have (quickly) adapted to the changes.”