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2008 Year-End Comics Sales: The industry moves sideways

Monday, January 26, 2009

Diamond Comic Distributors released its top-sellers list and market shares for December 2008 last week — and as the end of a quarter and the end of the year, the report from the comics industry's main distributor provides a lot to talk about.

First, speaking just of December: As seen from the tables with estimates here, it was a record month in many categories, not for the least reason that Marvel released a very large number of items into the market, taking 119 of the Top 300 comics slots, almost all of them new items. The result was Marvel’s highest Top 300 unit count since December of 1996 and the market’s highest Top 300 unit count since August 2007. Marvel’s Top 300 comics dollars were the highest observed in the Diamond exclusive era, and the market’s Top 300 comics dollars were the highest since December 1996.

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES December 2008: 7.67 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +9%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +21%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +5%
4th Quarter 2008: 20.96 million copies, -1% vs. 4Q 2007
2008 FINAL: 81.34 million copies, -5% vs. 2007

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES December 2008: $25.37 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +12%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +40%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +37%
4th Quarter 2008: $69.59 million, +3% vs. 4Q 2007
2008 FINAL: $263 million, -3% vs. 2007

December was the second month that Diamond published its sales for its Top 300 Trade Paperbacks and Graphic Novels, meaning that year-to-year comparisons require looking only at the subset Diamond was previously reporting (100 titles in 2007, 50 in 2003, and 25 in 1998). Regardless of the year, trade sales in December outdid the equivalent subset in previous years:

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
December 2008: $6.70 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. just the Top 100: +4%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 50 vs. the Top 50: +32%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +89%
4th Quarter 2008, just the Top 100 TPBs: $16.19 million, +3% vs. 4Q 2007
2008 FINAL, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: $59.27 million, +4% vs. 2007

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 100 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
December 2008: $32.08 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +11%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 50 TPBs: +39%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +39%
4th Quarter 2008: $86.08 million, +4% vs. 4Q 2007
2008 FINAL, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: $327.19 million, -1% vs. 2007

And finally, the widest calculation that can be computed from the Diamond release, Overall Sales of Comics, Trades, and Magazines, was up 11% for the month — and 39% over the same month five years ago:

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
December 2008: $39.78 million ($43.8 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +11%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +39%
4th Quarter 2008: $114.89 million, +3% vs. 4Q 2007
2008 FINAL: $436.58 million, +1.5% vs. 2007

Now, to 2008: As noted, the industry didn't so much grow or slip as move sideways. Top 300 Comics Unit and Dollar Sales were down 5% and 3% respectively, and the top 100 trades were up 4%. The overall figure is up 1.5% in my aggregated month-by month calculations, a process explained here (along with the caveats it entails).

That would make this the eighth straight year with an overall increase, but I am approaching this observation with some caution given statements out of Diamond that sales were off last year — three different sources there have stated sales declined slightly, with one referring to a 4% drop.

However, it is unclear (EDIT: Not any more: see the addition, below) whether that figure refers to its entire sales, including toys and other products; just comic book sales; or comic books, trade paperbacks, and magazines. The Overall numbers refer only to the last group mentioned. Sales could be down by 4% in either one of the first two groups or both without making a 1% increase impossible in the grouping that includes trades — especially given Steve Geppi’s announcement that trade sales were up 5% last year. Comics and trade dollars are not completely at parity — comics still lead by at least 3-to-2 dollarwise — but figure a 5% gain in trades might put a 3% loss in comics dollars into positive territory overall.

A different means of running the same calculation, applying known publisher total sales for the year to the annual market shares Diamond reported, yields a similar number, $436.62 million — so close as to be attributable to rounding within the individual months. The annual market shares are, in fact, predictable from the individual months' market shares at the sums estimated for those months — so if error exists, it would need to exist consistently throughout the individual months.

But while that does appear to backstop the estimate, we're dealing close to the borderline — and flat, slightly ahead, or slightly behind, we can say that 2008 was an exceptionally close year to 2007, particularly in light of the general economy. The year more resembles the slowdown of 2003 than any of the earlier (and more dire) examples; unit sales for the Top 300 were down that year, but price increases covered the gap. We'll see as 2009 progresses whether 2008 was a blip, as that was — or a turning point.

There will be more analysis of the year on the site in the coming days, but check out the updated market shares and trendlines while you're here.

Finally, in the post-Diamond Dialogue era, there are a few changes from Diamond this time out in what they report. They now say what items are “New This Month.” I have incorporated this into the tables in two ways. In the comics tables, when something is a reorder, the word “(reorder)” appears in the issue-number field. This is done in lieu of adding a new column, partly in order to keep the tables on the site of a uniform column count. To that end, I already had a spare field in the TPB tables, so for those, the column says “(new)”. This provides the info, while preserving the number of columns so different months can be combined easily.

EDIT 1/29: Dan Manser, director of marketing at Diamond, has confirmed my understanding of the numbers: Indeed, all three findings are correct. The 3-4% drops mentioned by Bill Schanes and Roger Fletcher refer to Diamond's overall sales, including ancillary products; Steve Geppi's quoted 5% increase refers to trade paperbacks; and my "overall comics, magazines, and trades" figures split the difference. "Your facts/figures bear things out correctly... it's just 3 sets of statistics/numbers." Manser also adds that while the "new" column was unintentionally added to the comics list this month — it's only marginally useful — the column will continue in the trade paperbacks list, and even including the month of release. This is a very helpful item, and should provide a lot of interesting insights.

(Data revised 3/29)

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