Hoping to stand out in a crowded market dominated by the corporate giants DC Comics and Marvel Comics, smaller publishers are adopting new business strategies to better compete.
In the latest example, two independent publishers, Lion Forge and Oni Press, announced last month that they will merge. The move, the companies say, will strengthen their library of original comics and graphic novels and help them to leverage their characters on other media platforms, including film. Other publishers are introducing direct-to-consumer sales and bingeable stories. Some are also offering greater financial stakes for creators.
Comic books are an alluring market, in which consumers can engage with characters across various platforms, from games to movies. Properties such as “Avengers: Endgame” or “The Walking Dead” on AMC have fueled growth in the comic book industry: Sales in 2018 rose $80 million from the previous year.
A desire to expand their content to other platforms drew Lion Forge and Oni Press together. “There’s a lot of alignment, and we were going down the same path,” said David Steward II, who co-founded Lion Forge in St. Louis in 2011. Rather than compete, together they can have a “bigger, stronger, singular strategy,” he said.
The consolidated publishing effort will be run out of Portland, Ore., where Oni is based. James Lucas Jones, publisher of Oni, will be president and publisher of the new enterprise. The merger was negotiated by Edward Hamati, president of Polarity, a media company Steward founded last year to help develop Lion Forge characters outside comics.
Recently, the company announced the formation of an animation studio to produce content for movies and TV. Another selling point for Jones was Steward’s love for comics. Other potential partners were more interested in leveraging comic characters for other media, but not so much the comic books themselves.
“So many potential partnership conversations that we’ve had in the past were really focused on looking at us like an intellectual property farm,” Jones said. He added that he still had interest in other media ventures, but “at the end of the day, the mission is about publishing books.”
New publishers keep entering the field, drawn by its potential. Last year, annual sales in the U.S. and Canada reached $1 billion. December brought the arrival of TKO Studios, which introduced a direct-to-consumer approach by simultaneously offering single issues and collected editions for binge readers. The company’s model forgoes a relationship with Diamond Comic Distributors, which is normally the gateway between publishers and retailers.
Still, it can be hard for small comic book publishers to break out from the pack. Despite the competitive landscape, small publishers are drawn by the hope of cultivating a multiplatform franchise, said Milton Griepp, chief executive of industry publication ICV2. “I think people keep trying because it’s like any other entertainment business: The odds of success are low, but the payoffs are big,” he said.