by Joe Grunenwald and Heidi MacDonald
Graphic novel sales in 2021 resulted in a great year for comics, according to figures released by NPD BookScan to the Beat, following and building on a great year in 2020.
Overall, graphic novel sales in 2021 were up 65% from 2020 – not as much as the pandemic-fueled 100% growth from 2019 to 2020 but still impressive. 21 million more graphic novels were sold in 2021 than 2020 – a very healthy number.
The growth was led by adult graphic novels, up 107%, but it’s important to note that this category includes manga which led the charge, up 17 million units. This was the direct result of the boom in anime on dueling streaming services, with Pandemic-era stay-at-home viewers seeking out the original manga in droves.
In terms of percentage change, kids fiction comics, which have been leading comics growth for years, was up 24%, while YA fiction was up 96%. Non-fiction saw much smaller gains – or even a loss in the case of children’s non fiction – although YA non-fiction was up 30%. The nebulous category of Other was also down 39%.
NPD Bookscan also provided a genre breakdown for adult fiction comics, and this is where it gets very interesting. Manga is definitely the 800 lb gorilla here. In rough numbers, manga was up 171% from 2020. Adult superhero comics were up a modest 2.3%, but the category was the second biggest genre in actual sales after manga, shifting more than 2 million units. These numbers reflect graphic novel sales only, and not periodical comics, and are based on BISAC categories.
Looking at the number of books sold, Manga’s growth in 2021 is stunning.
Note: These charts reflect adjusted figures that remove My Hero Academia from the Superhero category where they are counted due to BISAC misnumbering.
Breaking down other genres, horror comics were up 35%, crime/mystery was up 78% and LGBTQ+ comics were up 40%. Fantasy comics were up 43%. Media tie-ins were up 36%.
Categories that were down in 2021 include “Contemporary Women”, down 14%, anthologies down 3% and the “General” category down 3%.
Every other genre showed significant growth.
NPD Bookscan’s Executive Director of Business Development Kristen McLean provided a few insights regarding the 2021 numbers for us.
- Adult Fiction C/GN accounted for both the largest overall volume and highest percentage growth of the year, driven by Manga, which was up 15M units over 2020 on a total volume of 24.4M units. Top series are tightly correlated to the top Anime series streaming on SVOD platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and Crunchyroll.
- Juvenile Fiction C/GN is the next largest category by volume and growth, adding 3.3M units in 2021, driven primarily by the continued success of Dav Pilkey’s book including the overall bestselling book of the year in the US: Dog Man: Mothering Heights, which sold 1.2M copies in 2021.
- While a smaller category, Young Adult Fiction C/GN saw some nice growth relative to its size, driven by the Five Nights at Freddy’s series from Scholastic, and the Teen Titans series from DC.
- Following a few years of soft numbers, superheroes rebounded a bit.
To put this into the larger picture, another NPD Bookscan report noted that books had their best year in 2021 since Bookscan started measuring sales in 2004. According to stats released in an Executive Snapshot of 2021, annual print volume hits 825.7M, up 9%, or 67.8M units, over 2020, the first time sales rose above 800 million.
Adult fiction led the way, up 11% over 2020, and the manga boom and its 107% growth helped this.
Kids books also gained 5%, with fiction seeing growth — kids non-fiction saw a small decline, however, the only supercategory to see fewer sales, down 5 million units from 2020. Graphic novels also led the rise in kids fiction sales, followed by animals, holidays, social themes, and humorous stories.
Despite well-documented supply chain issues, book sales grew in Q4 and the holiday season. The final week of December was up 1% vs. 2020 and 16% vs. 2019 in discretionary categories.
Dollar sales were up in 2021 as well – 15% above 2020 sales – however rising prices were a contributing factor.
While all this is impressive, 2022 will probably be a down year for books (and many other pandemic-facing industries, a phenomenon that has already begun) as people begin to regularly attend events and gatherings again. But according to the report, physical bookstores are expected to maintain their customer base, using the tools developed during the Pandemic.
In a recent presentation McLean noted that price increases are also going to impact book sales, Publishers Weekly reported, with publishers needing to keep an eye on consumer reactions.
Publishers and other industry members will also still need to contend with supply chain problems in 2022, as shortages of paper, packaging materials, and printing capacity are likely to persist throughout the year. Those factors, as well as what could be the easing of pandemic restrictions, may lead to more changes in consumer behavior this year, McLean said. For one thing, she believes customer traffic will increase in bricks-and-mortar stores, and that retailers, through changes in store layouts and marketing, are well positioned to take advantage of the higher traffic to drive sales increases. In addition, growing consumer concern about climate change and sustainability could lead customers to limit their online buying, since direct sales involve lots of packaging. And while online book sales have jumped since the pandemic began, McLean believes the online channel’s market share of book sales could decline in 2022 as consumers return to stores.
What does this all mean for comics? Well, if McLean is right, comics shops should have a great year in 2022, as more people return to the in-person experience. As Jason Mojica of Hey Kids Comics in Greenpoint wrote “People … expect bookstores (and yes, comic book stores) to be magic.” People want the magic of touching things and talking to people again, and the comics shop experience – always as much a social event as a shopping trip – will be part of that.
Despite what deeply biased video commentators have to say, comics are thriving – even superheroes. While you can argue that 2.3% is modest growth, it is growth and not a cataclysmic decline.
Many thanks to Kristen McLean at NPD BookScan and her team for providing this data to the Beat.