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November 2008 comics sales: Cover prices set record

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Top 300 comics and Top 300 trade estimates for November are now online, subject, as you'll learn in a moment, to change.

As noted earlier here, Diamond made a number of changes in the rollout of its charts this month, including the very important increase from reporting the Top 100 trade paperbacks to the Top 300. However, there may be some bugs to work out, as I and a number of other observers detected some discrepancies. Particularly, it appears that the same Order Index Number (equal to 1% of Batman unit sales) was not used for both the Top 300 Comics and the Top 300 Trade Paperbacks list. In looking at the publisher reports that we compare the Diamond charts with, it appears that the correct “magic number” for the trade paperback table is 999 copies, whereas the magic number that fits the actual periodical data best is 1,031.

There are a number of ways this could occur — particularly if the reports were prepared at two different times, which seems likely. Order codes for Batman were also combined this month, so they may have been aggregated for one purpose and not for the other.

So what’s right? On the periodical side, the cluster of actual sales versus estimates sales looks as close as it does every month — which is to say, if 1031 is not the right number for the model, then it can’t be off by more than a couple in either direction. The trade paperback clustering is unusual in that many trades reported match the publisher report exactly when 999 is used as the magic number; many more are just slightly off to the low side. I do not know how to account for this, except to say that it is never the case that the counts suggested by the Order Index Numbers exactly match what’s in the publisher reports. There is always a little variance in the mix.

Milton Griepp and I both arrived at the same conclusion independently with regard to the differences between the charts; and while there may be corrections coming from Diamond, in looking harder at the data, I think we can make a best-guess from the numbers at hand. There is significant matching on the two lists as long as two different Order Index Numbers are used; it’s possible that all that might be required to unify the lists is to generate order index numbers from 1031 instead of 999 — or to multiply the existing numbers in the TPB column by 1.032. The only other thing that might happen is that the actual order index numbers would change for the individual titles: this would seem unlikely to account for much, because, again, we do have strong correlation with actual publisher sales now. We might see a little oscillation, but not a whole lot affecting the bottom line.

So what appears here is my best guess; again, should corrections come, I'll take another pass through the data.

OK, now to the bottom line. Not much good news for consumers or the market this month: First, comics were more expensive in November 2008 than in any month in history. The average comic book offered in Diamond’s Top 300 comics had a cover price of $3.50, beating the previous record (from last month) by 12 cents. The median price is still $2.99, and $2.99 is still the most common price within the chart. The weighted average price — comics dollars divided by comics units — was $3.35, another record. The average price of comics in the Top 25 was $3.43.

I calculate the overall comics, magazine, and trade paperback sales at $33.06 million, off 9% for the month; for the year, we’re still up, but by only half a percent. Roger Fletcher said on ICV2 that Diamond’s sales to shops were off 3% for the year; I’m not certain what’s covered under that umbrella, but it’s possible the reference may include Diamond’s other lines. (Or my overall calculation could be off — although it is based on applying actual known sales to the market share charts, and there’s evidence that it’s been pretty close in the past.)

The narrower categories were off badly on the periodical side. The Top 300 Comics were off 17% in units, posting the worst monthly performance since January 2006 and the worst November performance since 2000. The Top 300 were off 11% in dollars; it was only the worst month since February 2008, though, and the worst November since November 2004.

The vital stats for the month, subject to change:

November 2008: 5.76 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -17%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -5%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -11%
YEAR TO DATE: 73.67 million copies, -6% vs. 2007

November 2008: $19.32 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -11%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +9%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +15%
YEAR TO DATE: $237.57, -4% vs. 2007

November 2008: $8.31 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: unchanged
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 50 vs. the Top 50: +27%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 30 vs. the Top 30: -6%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100: $54.87 million, +4% vs. 2007

November 2008: $27.63 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -9%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 50 TPBs: +12%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 30 TPBs: +11%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100 TPBs: $292.44 million, -3% vs. 2007

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
November 2008: $33.06 million ($37 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: -9%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +41%
YEAR TO DATE: $396.8 million, +0.5% vs. 2007

Getting the Top 300 trades does really show us a lot more of the picture — just the Top 100 brought in $6 million, whereas the next 200 added $2.3 million. The “overall” total minus the combined comics and TPB totes leaves only $5.4 million, much of which is more trades — but now, we can say that the Diamond Top TPB list accounts for more than half of direct market initial orders. (Bookstore sales are another matter.)

With one month left to go in the year, it looks like there is a chance for the “overall” category to come in above 2007 — but the narrower categories are less likely to go positive, and Top 300 Units are trailing by 5 million copies, so that’s out of the question. While that mark be the first down year for comics in a long time, it would be exceptional indeed for the medium to outperform 2007 in an economy where very little else is. That the drops are likely to be single digits is a sign of strength, to some degree — although the full effect of price increases in comics (particularly in a period of stagnant inflation) is yet to be understood.

Again, when and if Diamond issues revisions, I’ll take another look under the hood — but my guess is things won’t change much.

Note for December's report: If, as I read from the Diamond retail newsletter, UPS is closed Dec. 31 in the United States, that day's shipments wind up on Jan. 2. I would imagine as they're in the December catalog, though, they'd be tabulated with it.


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