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Crisis, which crisis? : How the comic book industry is holding up in the pandemic

We are in the year one after Corona. The entire book market is suffering from a slump in sales. The whole book market? No! A segment populated by indomitable readers never ceases to buck the trend.

Shortly before the anniversary of the first lockdown in March 2020, a large part of the German comic book industry is doing surprisingly well.

While the domestic book market had to cope with a sales decline of 11.1 percent and a drop in sales of 2.3 percent last year, according to the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, the comic balance looks remarkably positive, as a Tagesspiegel survey shows.

This is particularly surprising in view of the sometimes drastic fears of comic book publishers last spring.

First the shock - then double-digit growth

"Basically, after the first shock in March, in which we had to accept heavy losses in sales due to the return of bar assortments, 2020 was a very successful business year," says Max Schlegel from Splitter-Verlag. Apart from March, the Bielefeld company had good sales every month. "Both our turnover and our sales have increased by a low double-digit rate." In particular, direct sales via the publisher's own web shop were "very strong" in 2020, and have now flattened out again.

Classic children's comics such as “The Smurfs” and “Benni Bärenstark” have sold particularly well, says Max Schlegel. In general, in the German book market in 2020, the children's and youth book sector increased sales by 4.7 percent, contrary to the trend.

In addition, established series such as “Ekhö”, “Mythen der Antike” and “Der Incal” did well at Splitter-Verlag, which specializes in Franco-Belgian fantasy albums, among other things, says Schlegel. But also new ranks had a "good start across the board" in 2020.

The year with the highest sales in publishing history

In 2020, the Berlin-based Jaja-Verlag even had the best-selling year in its ten-year history, according to publisher Annette Köhn. "The ingredients of the Jaja recipe are above all courage, confidence and optimism - attitudes that are generally suitable for getting through a crisis well and that we have always been able to convey to the outside world," she says.

Since the first lockdown, she has been sending orders for Jaja books as “quarantine packages with a bunch of mood-enhancing stickers”. In the digital world, she used the social media platform Instagram more intensively.

In addition, she tried new ways to compensate for the cancellation of events such as readings or festivals, which are usually used for a large exchange with the comics scene. “So we - like so many others - went online with the book presentations, had zoom conversations, did comic readings and comic interviews and packed everything into something completely new: our own YouTube channel called Jajatube.

These changes went hand in hand with a development of the content of the publishing program. "There is one ingredient that I became much more aware of in 2020 and I would call it" seriousness ", that is, taking seriously the cultural and social educational mandate as a comic publisher and the associated awareness of mission," says Annette Köhn. In 2020 she published numerous comic book titles that “weighed heavier” in that they dealt with social coexistence and provided deep insights into personal views and problems.

In addition to Büke Schwarz's comic debut “Jein”, which deals with questions of identity and the social responsibility of artists, Jaja also published the autobiographical graphic novel “At my home” by Paulina Stulin, which gave the publisher a “ brought a little hype in the press landscape from feature pages to television and a sales record ”, as Annette Köhn says.

With the growth in sales, the publisher in the Corona year was also accompanied by a spatial expansion: the studio community "Musenstube", in which Jaja has shared the work space with several freelancers since it was founded, became a "pure" publishing house, says Annette Köhn and speaks of "Expansion in Crisis".

Corona resistant with Mickey Mouse and Asterix

The Egmont-Ehapa-Verlag, which is also based in Berlin and publishes numerous classic European series as well as Disney comics in German, is also crisis-proof. "We can definitely say that we got through the Corona crisis well," says Jörg Risken, Publishing Director Magazines at Egmont Ehapa Media GmbH.

“Our comics business has stabilized overall in terms of turnover and sales and even achieved good growth in some titles.” Strong brands such as “Mickey Mouse”, “Walt Disney Lustiges Taschenbuch” and “Asterix” in particular benefited from the positive trend.

On the one hand, this is due to the continued availability of comics in the press trade, which has only been affected to a manageable extent since the outbreak of the pandemic. “On the other hand, we achieved double-digit growth rates with subscriptions and through our shop,” says Risken. "The lockdown phases in particular have increasingly led people to classic (comic) brands and also to reading."

Return to the classics

“We also sold better rather than worse, despite some of the stores being closed,” says Andreas Mergenthaler, who runs the Cross Cult publishing house. The comic series “The Walking Dead”, “Avatar - The Last Airbender” and the manga bestseller “Demon Slayer” appear here.

Mergenthaler emphasizes that "the comic shops in particular have reacted flexibly and found alternative ways to sell books." However, in the corona year it was also found that the rather unknown, new series and individual titles were doing worse than a year earlier because they were being sold can not "discover" in the shops. “The classics and the more popular titles, on the other hand, are doing better,” says the Ludwigsburg publisher.

On the other hand, the manga area is problematic, "because we are dependent on the large bookstore chains," as Mergenthaler explains. "But when the Thalia branches are closed, they naturally order significantly fewer goods." The online book trade cannot fully compensate for this.

New marketing ideas and social media appearances

At the Reprodukt publishing house, which publishes the comic stories by the former Tagesspiegel draftsman Mawil (“Kinderland”), French audience favorites such as “Donjon” and children's comics such as “Kiste”, the worries were particularly great last spring. “Stability is very much in danger because we are always working to the limit of what is possible and have never been able to create reserves,” said Reprodukt boss Dirk Rehm at the Tagesspiegel at the time.

However, the fears were not fulfilled. "In fact, last year went much better for us than expected," says Rehm now. There was a significant slump in sales, especially in the first four weeks after the lockdown was announced, from mid-March to mid-April. "After that, business slowly recovered and by December we made up what we had in the spring in terms of losses."

It was helpful that the publishing team was "more inventive than usual" when it came to marketing the books: "Since we had considerably fewer sales outlets and therefore less presence in stores, we paid more attention to the use of social media - especially on Instagram" says Rehm.

In addition, inexpensive vouchers with motifs by the popular illustrator Nicolas Mahler were printed, signing campaigns for the International Comic Salon Erlangen, which was only held digitally due to Corona, or for Christmas, and greater attention was paid to the mail order business. “We also received endowed prizes such as the German Publishing Prize and the K.H. Zillmer Verlegerpreis also helped keep us afloat, of course. "

Export beats import

"In the spring of 2020 there was great uncertainty about our business - but it went more smoothly than expected," says Johann Ulrich, head of the Berlin-based avant publishing house. In addition to German in-house productions, successful import comics by authors such as Liv Strömquist and Joann Sfar appear here.

"We pushed three titles from spring to autumn and applied for corona aid," reports publishing director Ulrich. "Then the feared drop in sales did not materialize, and we paid back the corona aid in the summer."

He explains the unexpectedly good sales figures with the fact that many people had more time to read in the corona year. The 2020 avant bestseller was still Liv Strömquist's “The Origin of the World,” says Ulrich. "It continues to sell very well, although about ten planned theater productions based on their comics were canceled due to Corona, which would certainly have given us additional advertising effects."

It is similar with the failure of the Erlangen comic salon as well as readings and book signings. "Nevertheless, we achieved around 90 percent of our previous year's result, which was a record year - so it went great despite the challenges."

Last year, however, the license trade for importing foreign comics had become more difficult. “There is a lot of uncertainty in the book trade in France, Spain and Italy, which led to a spelling - and thus to fewer titles that could be of interest to us,” says Johann Ulrich.

The export of German comics abroad, on the other hand, went well last year: "In 2020, for the first time, we earned more from exporting our titles abroad than from foreign titles that we brought to Germany."

Successful exports from the avant program are, for example, Mikael Ross' "Golden Boy", "The King of Vagabonds" by Patrick Spät and Beatrice Davis, "The fat Princess Petronia" by Katharina Greve, "How good that we talked about it" by Julia Bernhard or “Der Umfall” by Mikael Ross. The publisher has now been able to sell licenses for “Der Umfall” in ten countries.

Business as usual - at least almost

Continuity instead of crisis also at Zwerchfell-Verlag, which has published German genre comics such as “Yellowstone”, “Prinz Gigahertz” or “Sternesehen”. "Sales through the trade went as usual," says Christopher Tauber, one of the two bosses of the Stuttgart publishing house. "Some books went very well, others not - we weren't really able to fathom why in 2020 either."

Probably the greatest impact was the lack of trade fairs and the International Comic Salon, as well as readings and other opportunities where the publisher can sell books directly. "And not only from a financial point of view, but also from the point of view of our cartoonists, especially those who made their debut with us in 2020."

Online retail as a crisis winner

At the Stuttgart-based Panini-Verlag, which in addition to superhero series by the US publishers DC and Marvel, also publishes its own productions such as Daniela Schreiter's "Schattenspringer", the corona crisis has also brought "no dramatic slumps", as senior editor and publisher spokesman Steffen Volkmer says.

Sales would have decreased during the lockdown phases because the comic book shops could not sell as usual, "but that was then made up for by the loyal fans" - among other things via the large Internet shopping platforms as well as the online and click-and- Collect offers from comic shops and stationary bookshops. “Our own online shop and subscriptions have also increased, and a little more digital comics have been sold,” says Volkmer.

However, the Coron year has shown that the classic comic book trade with regard to modern ordering and service options "is not always designed as it is now common for a large part of the stationary book trade". The comic shops are more geared towards personal communication with customers, which hardly happens in lockdown. "This means that in some cases significantly higher losses can be seen here than in the stationary book trade."

Therefore, there is "a noticeable and possibly lasting shift to online trading," says the publisher's spokesman. This could endanger the very existence of many shops: "It will probably not be possible to prevent the stationary trade from being thinned out by the situation."

The growing online trade somewhat compensates for the number of items for the publishers. However, the profit margin is getting smaller and making the general situation more difficult. "We are observing this shift in sales channels with concern and are trying to support retailers as much as possible with flexible measures," says Volkmer

Bestsellers and new authors

"Readers have usually bought what they already know," observed Klaus Schikowski, program manager for comics at Carlsen-Verlag in Hamburg, which belongs to the Swedish media company Bonnier AB and alongside European classics such as "Tintin" and Manga Best sellers such as “Naruto” also published many in-house productions by authors such as Flix, Reinhard Kleist or Isabel Kreitz.

Schikowski suspects that the aforementioned shift in comic sales channels in the direction of online trading in the past year could be a reason for the strong backlist sales.

In general, sales in the comics sector have recovered at Carlsen after the initial concern, says Schikowski: “In the end we were even able to speak of a very successful year.” He was particularly pleased that among the new Carlsen releases there were also well-known bestsellers a few new in-house productions such as Melanie Garanin's "Nils" were there.

In the book, the illustrator deals with the death of her son and her struggle for truth and accountability. The bright, friendly ink pictures by the children's book illustrator contrast with the topic and at the same time make it accessible - and every now and then even a little humor flashes. "I am pleased that the graphic novels with strong themes do not go under," says program director Schikowski.

However, he is concerned about a change in international business: “In the major comic markets in particular, there is a tendency to prefer bestsellers to rather unknown authors.” These postponements among foreign license partners caused by the pandemic also affect the export of German Carlsen titles. Nevertheless, his conclusion is positive: "Comics have shown themselves to be crisis-resistant."

Winner and Loser

Peter Poluda, owner of the comic distributor PPM, which supplies book stores, comic book shops and train station kiosks nationwide, can confirm the largely positive balance of the publishers despite all the worries. "As a publishing company, we have come through the Corona crisis well so far and were even able to increase our sales in 2020 by 2.3 million euros compared to the previous year," he says. That is a sales increase of 15 percent. "From our point of view, it doesn't get any better."

[If you want to have all the latest developments on the coronavirus pandemic live on your mobile phone, we recommend our app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

In one area, however, the German comics scene was hit hard last year: in stationary specialist retailers. He was hit harder by the restrictions enacted to combat the pandemic and, above all, by the two longer lockdowns than the publishers, who were able to resort to other sales channels via the Internet and post in an emergency.

"Sales to retailers have declined by twelve percent, but online trading (Amazon) has increased accordingly," says Peter Poluda from PPM sales. "We view this with concern because the comic book trade is the most important customer group for us and is particularly close to our hearts."

Expensive compulsory break

This hit retailers particularly hard who are based in federal states in which the book trade was not excluded from the lockdown. For example the Nuremberg specialist store “Ultra Comix”, which with twelve employees and 670 square meters of sales area is one of the largest in the industry. “In the spring of 2020 we had a drop in sales of around 80 percent, says Managing Director Ulrich Trautner. Then business went very well after the first lockdown, in the comic area and even more in the manga."We would have got away with a black eye - but then came the second lockdown."

Since in Bavaria, as in many other federal states, bookstores had to close during the two lockdown phases in spring 2020 and the current one, business collapsed almost completely. "We have now been closed for two and a half months and so far there is no aid money in sight," says Trautner. "Now we only have 20 percent of normal sales through Click & Collect and mail order, but that doesn't make up for the slump."

Nevertheless, one continues "somehow" and hopes that the lockdown will end soon. "I expect things to go relatively normal again after the reopening," says Trautner. "We feed off our regular audience - many are looking forward to browsing through us again soon."

Tight belt, small buns

It was a little better for dealers in federal states such as Berlin, which allowed book and comic book trading to be opened with certain restrictions: "Sales were very different over the year," says Micha Wießler, Managing Director of Modern Graphics with three shops in Kreuzberg , Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg.

"At times we almost reached the previous year's sales, but mostly we were ten to twenty percent lower." After the renewed lockdown in December, sales continued to collapse and are now closer to 60 to 70 percent of the previous year.

"We have tightened our belts a little bit, we get short-time work benefits," says Wießler. However, that only accounts for around ten percent of the wage bill, since he and his employees only work slightly less than usual.

“We had to bake smaller rolls last year and adjust our range,” says Christoph Wienke, one of the managing directors of the “Grober Unfug” comic shop with two shops in Mitte and Kreuzberg. “In the first lockdown, we initially had to reduce our orders by half.” For example, significantly fewer goods were needed for visitors to Berlin than usual because they just stopped coming. "Things are now a bit more stable, currently we have reduced the number of orders for new goods by around 25 percent compared to normal times."

[On the website www.comics-kaufen.de, comic readers can see which shops in their area are either still open despite the crisis or are offering book deliveries and pick-up services. More here.]

As far as state aid is concerned, attempts have initially been made to make it without this support, says Wienke. “We're just entrepreneurs and have already gone through other difficult phases.” But when only three customers came into the store a day “and you still have to pay hell in rent”, then you need help at some point, even with no employees to have to quit.

Most of the state aid his company received was spent on rent. Wienke: "I think it is important that politicians find solutions on how to relieve entrepreneurs with rent, otherwise some areas with lots of shops will soon just vegetate away."

Despite all the challenges, most comic book dealers are still optimistic that they will survive the crisis, as PPM boss Poluda has also observed. But how many hold out in the end, one has to wait and see: "The end of the crisis is not yet in sight."

Inspired by the crisis

In addition to the economic consequences, the corona crisis has also left its first traces of content in the comics from German publishers. In addition to numerous online comics on the pandemic, the first printed works are now also available in which Covid-19 plays a role.

Sometimes very explicitly, as in Ralf König's new book, "Vervirte Zeiten", which was inspired by the pandemic - here is the Tagesspiegel review. Or the illustrated diary “Corona go home” by the Spanish-German draftsman Josep Rodes, which has just been published by Jaja Verlag. He experienced the outbreak of the pandemic while working on a comic project in India and in this entertaining booklet he tells about everyday life in a state of emergency, which in India led, among other things, to Western foreigners like him, alleged to be importers of the virus, in a difficult position .

Other new publications have more to do with the topic implicitly, such as the opening volume of a new offshoot of the Disney series “Lustiges Taschenbuch” from Egmont Ehapa Verlag with the title “Weltreise”. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Co. travel through Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Italy - and all without fear of infection.

"Since our readers are bound to have an infinite desire to travel, we wanted to take them by the hand to at least travel around the world with the ducklings," says Egmont Ehapa spokeswoman Anja Adam. "In this way, adventures all over the world can be enjoyed safely at home and maybe even give one or the other inspiration for the next vacation."

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