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Bookscan... and comics' big year

Friday, February 20, 2009

Edit: Caught a simple but embarrassingly large math error, thanks to John diBello. The ICV2 data included Diamond data within. Corrections made to the math, and new info below...

San Francisco retailer Brian Hibbs has his annual look at the Nielsen Bookscan numbers for trade paperbacks online, and again it provides a lot of interesting information about how comics are continuing to add to the industry bottom line through sales of bound editions.

Bookscan draws upon cash-register data from many member bookstores, and its share of industry sales on individual titles varies. It really depends on what the item is. Creator royalty statements tell me that the Bookscan share of mainstream action titles ranges between 40% and 60% of the amount not sold in comics shops; but for others, it can be much less. Tom Spurgeon passes on Eric Reynolds' note that Bookscan reported Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 1 sold 719 copies, whereas the title's book trade sales were actually 4,000 copies. There are a number of reasons why this might be true, and particularly for alternative titles; it's very possible that the independent or alternative booksellers where Fantagraphics sees much of its traffic are not as well represented in Bookscan's sample. On the other hand, I'd guess that the average Bookscan store might do better in manga and super-hero comics. It's hard to know without more information.

At any rate, I was waiting to do my protected "all-industry number" for 2008 — not just the direct market — until both Brian's and ICV2's information was out. Recall my direct market estimate was for $436.6 million at full retail in the comics shop market for all comics, trade paperbacks, and magazines. Brian reports that the 17,571 different trade paperbacks, graphic novels, and manga in the Bookscan file sold 15,541,769 copies worth $199,033,741.57 — an average of $12.80 per book. (We see here the role of manga: By contrast, the average trade paperback in Diamond's Top 300 trades in December 2008 sold for an average of $18.76 a copy!)

That number for trades in Bookscan is up 1%, Brian reports, while dollars are up 8%. The absolute number of trade paperbacks reported is up 25%, though — the result of so many things coming into print and staying in stock. In this light, the Diamond efforts to shave shelf-items make more sense: the Diamond Dialogue Annual just published reports that the new warehouse in Olive Branch, Mississippi, just across the border from the old one in Memphis, has inventory slots for 20,000 "stock-keeping units," or different products. If you figure that three months' worth of comics accounts for 1,500 or more slots and there are also toys and other items to contend with, it becomes clear that Diamond would not now be able to shelve every single item that sold in a Bookscan store last year. That may be inviolved in its recent steps toward inventory control.

OK, back to numbers: Milton Griepp in his end-of-year estimate estimated that bookstore sales of graphic novels — including manga, he confirmed for me — equaled $395 million in 2008, up from $375 million in 2007.

[Edit: Changed portion begins.]
Trade paperbacks through Diamond to the direct market amounted to approximately $150-160 million in 2008; that's the Overall figure minus the Top 300 Comics, magazines, and some extra for the comics below 300th place. So the book trade portion for TPBs would account for $215-225 million. This is relatively near to the Bookscan number. Milton subdivides $175 million for manga, which mostly would have sold in the mass market. I do not know why the royalty statements I've seen from various creators from various companies are over-reporting returnable sales relative to Bookscan; perhaps they are including copies not yet returned and paying for them anyway.

Finally, there's newsstand and subcription sales of periodical comics. The Top 300 comics for every month in the direct market totaled $263 million; ICV2 estimates $320 million if you throw in comics outside 300th place and newsstand. Looking at the increased volume in the "long tail" for Diamond comics in 2008 — and newsstand sales tipped by Marvel and Archie's Statements of Ownership, that's looking like a guess of $30-40 million newsstand not covered in the Diamond charts. That seems reasonable — remember, almost all of Archie's business is there — so for the moment let's take that as likely. Finally — and almost always forgotten — subscription sales. We know Amazing Spider-Man had 10,800 subscribers at $27 before the three-a-month schedule started last year; I'd have to dig further, but it's likely that there could be somewhere between $3-5 million out there in subscription dollars coming in.

So, that gives us, fusing everyone's estimates:

Direct Market Comics, Trades, GNs, and Magazines (Comichron): $437 million
Mass Market Trades and GNs (ICV2/Hibbs/Bookscan): $215-225 million
Newsstand Comics (ICV2/Comichron/USPS): $30-40 million
Subscription Comics (Comichron/USPS): $3-5 million

Comic book and trade paperback sales in North America: $685-707 million

I would fudge-factor that $680-710 million — which is what's going on the Yearly Sales page. I'd thought I would need to revise the previous years upward, but the math error explains the problem.

What's significant about this? It's an increase, yes, but also, it rivals the number that we always talked about for 1993, the historic peak of the market. $850 million was the figure that we at Comics Buyer's Guide derived from interviewing distributors and publishers — I do not know the specific derivation of the figure or what it involved as it was before my time, but we quoted it ever afterward. Now, I really want to revisit that 1993 material one day; the unit sales back then were enormously higher, and I'm guessing the true dollar number was more, too. Not to mention the huge money in the aftermarket back then — which is yet another part of this people often overlook: between eBay, the convention trade, and other sources, I would put the comics aftermarket in the $200 million range all on its own.

So that's getting close to a billion dollars across all channels, not even getting into licensing and ancillary revenues. A good number to remember, as the debates about the future of comics go on...

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