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May 2009 comics orders plunge on weak toplist performance

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wall Street reports often speak of "market leadership" in tracking intraday rallies and slides; what's happening with the big issues often drives the market. On the new comics racks, market leadership counts for even more — instead of thousands of stocks, we're looking at a few hundred new issues each month. And as we've seen, fewer than 60 new releases each month account for half of all the comics retailers order in Diamond's Top 300.

The top of the list explains a great deal about what happened in the month of May in the comics industry, as seen in the estimates here. When retailers order just as many comic books in the month of May as they did in January and in February, that’s usually not something you want to see — but that’s exactly what happened in Diamond’s Top 300 for May. May's Top 300 Unit Sales to retailers were the lowest for any May since 2002: unit sales were off 20% versus last May, with dollar sales were off 19%. Trade paperbacks were off, as well — and while the overall figure shows only a drop of 3%, I view that figure with caution, as I did last month: that much action in the backlist suggests more effects from discount promotions. It wouldn’t take a whole lot to make a large difference.

The top of the chart, again, was the main factor. Diamond’s Top 50 were off 28%, or 1 million copies, from last May, and that’s the lion’s share of the shortfall. Last May had Secret Invasion #2, Final Crisis #1, and three other #1s in the Top 6. Meanwhile, the highest ranking premiere this May was in 20th place, New Mutants #1. This month’s top-seller at Diamond, New Avengers #53, only sold around half the issues of last year’s top-seller.


But the tide carries everyone — as seen in the accompanying graphic, order counts at all 300 places on the Top 300 chart were lower than those from May 2008. (That doesn’t refer to orders within individual titles, just that the 50th place item last year outsold this year’s 50th place item, etc.) Summing up the various groupings, here's how the unit sales contribution of each sector of the chart changed this May:

Top 25: -29%
Ranks #1-50: -28%
Ranks #51-100: -16%
Ranks #101-150: -10%
Ranks #151-200: -6%
Ranks #201-250: -8%
Ranks #251-300: -14%

The lower parts of the list are doing relatively better this than those higher up — but that’s partially because an item on the lower part of the list is relatively more likely to be from one of the larger publishers this year due to line expansions.

What does it all mean? Chartwide drops suggest wider factors such as the recession or a change in the size or make-up of the retail ordering population. It’s possible, given the disparate hit to the top of the charts, that we might have something going on where the suburban, more mainstream-driven stores are more impacted by the recession, and ordering more lightly on the event titles. The problem is, we don't have a lot of historical evidence showing how general economic conditions impact different kinds of comics differently. In a couple of recent recessions, events within the industry had more to do with market performance — but those recessions were smaller in scale.

The figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
May 2009: 5.63 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: - 20%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -10%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -14%
YEAR TO DATE: 28.93 million copies, -12% vs. 2008

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
May 2009: $18.68 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +5%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +10%
YEAR TO DATE: $97.57 million, -7% vs. 2008

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
May 2009: $6.88 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -13%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +33%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +111%
YEAR TO DATE: $33.05 million; down 2% when just comparing just the Top 100

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
May 2009: $25.56 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -18%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +9%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +16%
YEAR TO DATE: $130.59 million; down 6% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
May 2009: $35.81 million ($39.51 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: -3%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +49%
YEAR TO DATE: $168.88 million, -2% vs. 2008, +35% vs. 2004

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.42; the average comic ordered cost $3.32.

As noted before, Diamond included in its initial wave of data information on several small publisher titles, allowing this month's table to include 15 items not in the Top 300. They appear on the table but are not included in the aggregate Top 300 figures we use for comparison purposes.

Some of the annual comparisons show some light — most of the five-year dollar category comparisons remain up, some by more than the rate of inflation. The $7.95 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen release topping the TPB table sold so many units it'd be in 41st place were it classified as a comic book. And June gives us a month with weaker comparatives — and we’ll see what Captain America #600 adds to the mix. 2009 has shown itself to be a volatile year, from month to month; the ups and downs are likely to continue.

Looking back at earlier times:

May 2008's top seller was, again, Secret Invasion #2, with 182,390 copies sold to the direct market in its first month. It was Diamond's second-best selling issue of the year — and the month also included Final Crisis #1, Diamond's ninth-best seller of the year. See what we were up against this month for yourself, here.

May 2004's top-seller was another high-profile spring launch, Astonishing X-Men #1, with first-month orders of 209,300 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

May 1999's top-seller was Uncanny X-Men #370, with preorders of approximately 127,400 copies in the direct market. 1999 was a year almost completely without the kind of chart-shaking events we saw in other years; Uncanny was the top book 10 months in a row. Check out the sales chart here.

May 1994's top seller at both Diamond and Capital City Distribution was Spawn #22. Capital alone sold 111,550 copies of the issue, suggesting the overall sales in the 400-500k range.

May 1989's top seller at Capital City was Batman #435, continuing John Byrne's "Many Deaths of Batman." Capital alone had orders of 82,000 copies for the issue, suggesting overall orders in the 400-500k range.

Finally, May 1984's top comic book, both at Capital and likely everywhere else, was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #5, continuing the year-long mega-cross-over.

Again, Secret Wars was the #1 book at Capital every month in 1984, a record matched later only by Todd McFarlane's "adjectiveless" Spider-Man #1-12 in 1990-91.

6 comments:

Jacob June 16, 2009 at 11:05 AM  

Josh,

Thanks for this discussion. Any conjecture on how much the recent increase to $4 for most titles is contributing to the drop in sales? From a personal perspective, I have not added titles that I am very interested in solely based on the price point. I'm only one person, of course, but perhaps I am not alone in this.

Jacob

Anonymous,  June 16, 2009 at 12:07 PM  

You aren't alone. The 3.99 price point makes me hesitant to pick up my non-regular titles. I imagine many of the smaller retailers are ordering very cautiosuly as well. Over-ordering costs them more now than it used to, so they have to face the question..."do I order just what I need and maybe miss a sale, or order a couple of extras and risk losing that money for months in the back issue bin." Marvel and DC are doing this to themselves.

John Jackson Miller June 16, 2009 at 1:01 PM  

It is hard to see how the more expensive comics are playing a role — the average book and average weighted book is little more expensive, really, than at the end of last year. The average book in retailers ordered is $3.37 -- six months ago it was $3.35. And the average comic book in the Top 300 in November cost seven cents more. The mode -- the most common price -- of comics ranked in the Top 300 remains $2.99... as does the median (the middle price of all comics offered).

I haven't done a breakdown within the list itself, but I know there's been additional premium pricing of the higher-profile titles. This is a common phenomenon throughout comics history -- we saw it with the X-books in the mid-1990s, at an identical difference in price ratio ($1.95 vs. $1.50 for the regular line back then, versus $3.99 vs. $2.99 now). We can see some of the intra-line differences here:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1996/1996-10.html

John Jackson Miller June 16, 2009 at 1:18 PM  

>>It is hard to see how the more expensive comics are playing a role

I should say, "hard to see exactly whether and to what extent" they're playing a role. Not casting doubt on the possibility, it's simply something that needs further research.

Jacob June 16, 2009 at 1:29 PM  

Interesting, Thanks for the response JOHN (not Josh, sorry).

So, basically, we don't have enough data to correlate a rise in price to a drop in sales. Although, we can say that the current rise in price is not enough to make up for a 20% decrease in unit sales.

Accordingly, we will likely be seeing further price increases and low selling title canceling in order to make up for the loss of revenue.

I certainly hope that I am wrong, but it doesn't feel like a good time to be a comics fan. Because, damn it, so many of the stories being told right now are some of the best stories I have read in 20 years of collecting. And as much as I want to read them all, I can't afford to.

Jacob

John Jackson Miller June 16, 2009 at 1:38 PM  

Understood, but on the other hand, we've got more ways to read comics now than we've ever had before -- just not necessarily on demand (yet). I look back at times in college when I was raiding back-issue-boxes to get all the parts of a story that had come out the year before -- it took quite a bit of labor. There is an added convenience today, but there are costs.

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