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Toys, comics, and irony: Hasbro's TV network

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The news today that Hasbro and Discovery Networks are teaming to create a new network to showcase Hasbro properties recalled an earlier connection with comics — famously, Hasbro's role in creating what was likely the most expensive advertising campaign for individual comic books, ever.

In 1999's Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies that Make Them, G. Wayne Miller wrote of how Hasbro, contending with children's television rules prohibiting the use of animation in toy ads, came up with a novel idea — one that affected comics quite a bit. The idea in the prohibition seems to have been fears that kids would think the toys in the commercials actually flew or did whatever they did in the animations — so you'd only ever see kids playing with the real toys.

But with Hasbro licensing the syndicated G.I. Joe cartoon — and Marvel producing the G.I. Joe comics series since 1982 — Miller wrote that Hasbro hit on the idea of asking Marvel to advertise comic books on TV. Animated ads for comics were unheard of — and prohibitively expensive — but according to Miller, Hasbro put up several million dollars in the effort. Marvel, the happy recipient, ran several ads for individual Joe issues — and saw the series go from a cellar dweller in sales — 157,920 copies monthly in 1983 — to one of its strongest titles in 1986, averaging 331,475 copies monthly according to postal statements. The cartoon was a big part, of course, but the ads definitely played a role in helping the comics.

Now, in the cable era, toymakers get entire networks. What'll it take for a comics publisher to get one? Looking at what happened to Joe's sales, it might be a good move!

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The changing shape of the Top 300

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I had mentioned before that, while looking at things like how many copies the #1 title each month had sold over time (and that data appears here) was interesting, we could learn some more by looking at the changes across the entire distributor Top 300 Comics lists. To show what I mean, here's a quick comparison of March 2009 with a couple of previous months.

First, let's look at March 2003, which was the first March for which Diamond reported Final Order figures. We can go earlier, but let's keep things apples-to-apples for the moment. March 2003 is an interesting month to look at for a number of reasons. 2003 was a mini-slump in the business, so there are similarities there; the March Top 300 sold just a quarter-million copies more than in March 2009 (where the fewer number of copies ordered still sold for more than $2 million more). So the number of copies represented in the Top 300 is fairly close; March 2003 sold about 5% more copies.

But let's look at where those extra copies were — and were not:



The blue line is the actual unit sales of every comic book, from 1st to 300th place, in March 2003; the red line, for March 2009. They're both sloping arcs, as we might expect. But to see the differences more closely, let's look at the front and the back halves separately:


At ranks #1-8, the March 2003 books are ahead, and in some cases, far ahead of the March 2009 books. Batman's "Hush" was still going, and Marvel's Ultimate books accounted for four of the top eight. But orders fell dramatically from eighth to ninth place in March 2003 — from 84,450 copies to 61,400 copies — allowing March 2009 to move ahead. From there, the items down to about 56th place trade off — sometimes March 2003's selling better, sometimes March 2009's titles selling more. From 57th place to the middle of the list, we see the items in March 2003's list selling better — just slightly better in the lower half of the Top 100, as much as 26% better in the 130s and 140s. You can see where the gap widens and narrows.

But now let's look at the second half of the chart:

With the scale altered, we can see something quite different about the second half of the Top 300 in March 2009. The arc of 2003 is closer to a line in 2009, with very little variance from the mean. At 192nd place, the comic books in 2009 outpace those of 2003 — and they just clobber the low-end titles once we reach the mid-200s, selling as much as 42% more copies as their earlier counterparts.

So what's going on? The arc of 2003 slope has been flattened — with sales from the top of the list and the upper midlist pushing down toward the lower portion, and making sales on the whole list more evenly distributed. There's a simple reason: Look again at the table for March 2003. The 200s are populated by familiar names like Archie and Antarctic, but also smaller publishers like Gutsoon and Aerosol. Marvel is pretty much not to be found there: it had 57 entries in the Top 300, and only 1 item in the 201st-300th place range. In March 2009, it had 99 entries on the list — and 22 in the bottom third of the chart. Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and CrossGen (the top five) combined for 215 slots in March 2003; 237 in March 2009 (with IDW in place of CrossGen).

Simply, the top comics in March 2003 were selling better — and there was more strength evident in the upper midlist. But comics from the majors are taking more rack positions than they were, and so we're likelier to find them appearing further into the list than before. The March 2009 chart represents only 5% fewer comic books sold — but the audience within appears to be fragmenting and spreading across more titles than before.

This difference between the "shapes of the market" is quite apparent here, and can be found in other months — though it grows less pronounced in comparison with more recent months. A look at March 2006, when the market was doing very well and the Top 300 sold 31% more comics, shows the difference in slope, but the first thing one notices is that the market outsold March 2009 at every single position:

Though even here, the difference in performance between the first half and the second half of the chart can be seen:


The slope in 2009 is much more uniform.

I haven't done a regression analysis on these charts, but a large explanatory factor in how high the curve starts on the page from month to month — on the Y-axis — is likely the number of comics shops, since it's their orders that are positioning these lines. Major editorial events most greatly impact the sharpness of slope at the very far left on the charts; the number of major publishing offerings, the uniformity of slope on the right side of the chart. The slow, ongoing transformation of the chart from an arc to a line — particularly in that second half — is interesting, however, and may be worthy of a second look by someone.

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March 2009: Flashbacks to the past

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Continuing the look at what came before March 2009 — when Dark Avengers #3 topped the charts with approximately 96,600 copies ordered by comics shops through Diamond...

March 2008's top seller was Dark Tower: The Long Road Home #1, with orders of approimately 123,800 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

March 2004's top-seller was Superman/Batman #8, featuring the new Supergirl. It had first-month orders of 146,900 copies in the direct market, and was boosted considerably by later reorders. Check out the sales chart here.

March 1999's top-seller was Uncanny X-Men #368, with preorders of approximately 131,400 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

March 1994's top seller was another Batman team-up — this one Spawn/Batman, the Image-published cross-over by Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane. It was the consensus leader at both Diamond and Capital City Distribution. Capital City alone sold 141,550 copies, and total sales were likely in the 400-500,000 copy range. Notably, the issue cost $3.95 — the same as the top seller in March 2009!

March 1989's top seller at Capital City was Batman #433, the first issue of John Byrne's "Many Deaths of the Batman." Sales appear to have at least doubled for the title with this issue: Capital City sold 75,650 copies of the issue, and overall sales were likely in the 300-400,000 copy range.

Finally, March 1984's top comic book, both at Capital and likely everywhere else, was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #3, continuing the year-long mega-cross-over.

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March 2009 in comics: Overall orders flat, down 7% YTD

Monday, April 27, 2009

The March 2009 sales estimates are now online here — later than planned due to various other projects, which also mean that some of the usual historical analysis will be staggered over the next little while as well.

Trade paperback sales (both frontlist and backlist) brought March 2009 almost equal in overall dollars to March 2008; this includes all comics, trades, and magazines Diamond sold to retailers. Only about $12,000 at full retail separated the two months, or less than one percent. However, the unit sales in the Top 300 for the month were the lowest since January 2005, and you have to go back to the first two quarters of 2001 to find lower unit sales for the quarter.

Overall, the direct market is off 7% overall for the quarter which is better than might be expected from the general economic conditions. In overall dollar sales, this quarter was still up 22% over the first quarter of 2004. Comic book retailers ordered $16 million more in comics and trades this quarter than in 2004; inflation plays some role, but not the primary one. The backlist is larger, for one thing — and comics in the low end of the Top 300 are selling more units.

On that score, as reported before, this month marked the first time that the top-seller at Diamond sold fewer than 100,000 copies (though once reorders are included, it may top that). Previously, there had been only two months with just a single title above 100k — January and February 2001. While a psychological marker and one for the records page, I find by looking across past top-seller lists that the offerings much deeper on the list (in the 200s) are selling many more copies than in earlier years; this could be attributable to line expansion at the major publishers, which gives them entries in a section of the list where they hadn’t been in the early 2000s. An analysis of how the shape of the sales charts has evolved over the years shows more — I hope to get that online in a few days.

One point on the Diamond chart equals approximately 916 copies. The historical comparisons for the month:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
March 2009: 5.32 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -13%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -16%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -18%
YEAR TO DATE: 16.57 million copies, -13% vs. 2008

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
March 2009: $17.8 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -7%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -4%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +10%
YEAR TO DATE: $56.22 million, -6% vs. 2008

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
March 2009: $7.09 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +6%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +32
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +35%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100: $12.69 million, up 2% vs. 2008

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
March 2009: $24.88 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -5%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +1%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +12%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100 TPBs: $68.91 million, -5% vs. 2008

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
March 2009: $31.09 million ($34.15 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: unchanged (down less than 1%)
Versus 5 years ago this month: +4%
YEAR TO DATE: $91.12 million, -7% vs. 2008, +22% vs. 2004

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.45; the average comic ordered cost $3.34.

The theory about some Diamond trade orders not making it into February by the warehouse move might be substantiated by the increase in trade paperback sales reported this month — although Watchmen and the "After Watchmen" promotion surely figure into things as well.

There is a new, experimental element in the trade paperback charts here this month. Diamond did not include its new column showing the publication months of the trades in the Top 300, so to fill the space, I ran a macro placing links to the Amazon.com pages for the trades in the list, so readers can quickly check for the current Amazon sales rankings (and find other identifying material for each title). I did not check all links by hand, but it appears that most of them found their parent title, and that Amazon has pages started on most everything in the list.

I've looked into what Amazon has available in the way of information feeds; at this time, it doesn't look possible to simply provide the live ranking data alone. Everything in the list is almost certainly available for reorder through Diamond, of course, so it's all also available through your friendly local retailer.

As noted, more to come as time becomes available.

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A March milestone? Maybe, maybe not...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The March 2009 analysis is still coming together, and will be along here soon. The market seems to be holding up better than the general retail economy, though the top book of the month does appear to have nudged under the 100,000-copy threshhold. That said, this is an event deserving of some wider context, which I hope to provide in later analysis here. A single item at a single benchmark isn't as important as what the entire market is doing — and I see some changes in that over the years that are worth discussing in greater depth.

(For now, just thinking about the 100,000 matter, we should recall that with this month's newsstand sales and next month's reorders, the true circulation number is indeed in the six figures — and there have been multiple months since 2000 where the top book at Diamond was just a smidge above 100k. So it's hard to say what the "lowest-selling top-selling comic book" of all time was, for whatever that label is worth. To get the top comic book of the month selling under 100k across all channels, though, we probably do have to go back to the initial newsstand sales on Famous Funnies, when not all the distributors carried it yet. But in a period in which other parts of the economy have posted comparisons with 1929, perhaps it shouldn't raise as much alarm to see 1935 enter our own conversation!)

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March 2009 Top-Selling Comics at Diamond

Thursday, April 9, 2009

March 2009 will be remembered in comics history annals as the month of the Watchmen movie release; and, indeed, the trade paperback again appeared at the top of the trade charts, according to the preliminary report on comics sales to retailers released today by Diamond Comic Distributors. The basic information appears in this posting, but a page for the eventual March 2009 estimates has been established.

The Obama Spider-Man title past, Marvel's "Dark Reign" event asserted itself at the top of the Diamond comic book charts in the form of Dark Avengers #3 in the top position. The Top 10:

1) Dark Avengers #3 • $3.99 • Marvel
2) New Avengers #51 • $3.99 • Marvel
3) Batman: Battle for the Cowl #1 • $3.99 • DC
4) Wolverine #71 • $2.99 • Marvel
5) Ultimatum #3 • $3.99 • Marvel
6) Uncanny X-Men #507 • $2.99 • Marvel
7) Mighty Avengers #23 • $2.99 • Marvel
8) Justice League of America #31 • $2.99 • DC
9) Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk #3 $2.99 • Marvel
10) Buffy the Vampire Slayer #23 • $2.99 • Dark Horse

Six of the Top 10 were at the $2.99 price point this time out, though four of the top five were at $3.99. Ten years ago this month found six of the Top 10 at $1.95 or $1.99, much lower than the average price of all comics that retailers ordered in March 1999, $2.51. Historically, the books placing highest on the unit sales charts were often the highest-profile lower-priced titles; with publishers putting premium prices on their highest-profile books (a phenomenon seen in the early 1990s), we haven't seen that phenomenon that often in recent months.

Topping the trades, Watchmen has been in the Top 6 every month since July 2008:

1) Watchmen • $19.99 • DC
2) The Stand: Captain Trips Premiere HC (Bermejo Edition) • $24.99 • Marvel
3) Jack of Fables Volume 5: Turning Pages • $14.99 • DC
4) Alan Moore: The Light Of Thy Countenance • $7.99 • Avatar
5) Fruits Basket Vol. 22 • $10.99 • Tokyopop
6) Invincible Iron Man Volume 1: Five Nightmares • $19.99 • Marvel
7) Naruto Vol. 40 • $7.95 • Viz
8) Naruto Vol. 38 • $7.95 • Viz
9) Naruto Vol. 41 • $7.95 • Viz
10) American Jesus Vol. 1: Chosen • $9.99 • Image

Market shares found IDW in the third spot in units, and fourth in dollars, cracking the 5% barrier.

Share of Overall Units
Marvel 47.24%
DC 27.77%
IDW 5.10%
Dark Horse 4.80%
Image 3.18%
Dynamic Forces 2.10%
Viz 1.09%
Boom 0.84%
Avatar 0.69%
Aspen 0.66%
Other 6.53%

Share of Overall Dollars
Marvel • 42.74%
DC • 27.34%
Dark Horse • 5.63%
IDW • 5.01%
Image • 3.60%
Viz • 1.88%
Dynamic Forces • 1.82%
Avatar • 0.83%
Boom • 0.78%
Aspen • 0.42%
Other • 9.95%

Diamond's next round of updates is expected early next week.

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Dawn of the Diamond Exclusive Era

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The direct market for comic book sales began the most tumultuous period in its history the last week of 1994 when Marvel Entertainment announced its purchase of Heroes World Distribution, then the third largest distributor for comic books in North America. It did not announce then that Heroes World would be taking over Marvel's distribution — though it was assumed by most, and indeed in July 1995, direct-market retailers couldn't get Marvels from Diamond Comic Distributors any more. The same was true for the other remaining distributors; Capital City sued under a Wisconsin law and received a cash settlement, but not the right to continue carrying the comics. With their largest supplier unavailable — and other publishers signing their own exclusive deals — those distributors went away one by one, leaving only Diamond.

In the meantime, Marvel had found Heroes World's logistical and customer service systems severely tested by the sudden demands on them — going from serving a small percentage of stores to essentially all of them. With Diamond available as an alternative serving all the customers Marvel wanted to reach, new management at Marvel announced that in April 1997, Diamond would become the exclusive supplier for Marvels to the direct market. The Exclusivity Wars had ended; the Diamond Exclusive Era, which had begun in 1995 for DC, Image, Dark Horse, Acclaim and others, had begun for Marvel, as well.

That's a very short history of the mid-1990s in comics — and it sets the stage for the charts just posted here for the first full quarter of Marvel's return to Diamond, beginning with April 1997. My previous records fused Heroes World and Diamond reports; from here on out, the reports were just Diamond. The reader will notice that these are preorders only — and that the market shares of the time were of preorders, not actual orders. That would come later.

The trade paperbacks reported by Diamond, just a Top 10 list, were not indexed. (There are no trades or market shares listed for June 1997 yet — they'll be added when I locate the material. It's around the office somewhere...) At the time, it wasn't entirely clear what Diamond regarded as a trade paperback from month to month; often, anything at a $4.99 price point or above seemed to make the list. Gladstone had gone to giant issues of the Disney titles at this time, and we sometimes saw them bounce from the Top 300 list to the trades list; so, too, did some of the Image "collected editions" (which were really more like double-or-triple sized comics rather than permanent-stock items).

Some interesting things in this period, such as Marvel's Flashback Month with all the "-1" issues; the curses flew then at the price guide I was with. The databases of 1997 were not happy. Round II of Amalgam is in April. And the "Heroes Reborn" universe entered its lame-duck phase somewhere in here, with "Heroes Return" (and yet another round of series renumbering, speaking of archivist headaches) around the corner.

More to come, as we whittle away at posting the remaining material...

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2003 all over again

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Well, not really — but resuming the process of posting prior months of data on the site, all of the Diamond estimates for 2003 are now online, starting with January. This completes all of the months for which Diamond Final Orders are known, which Diamond Comic Distributors began releasing in February 2003.

But 2003 is interesting to look at in the present context, as it represented a lull in what had otherwise been a comeback for the comics industry. 2002 had been strong, with the industry hitting on all cylinders: The Spider-Man movie drew attention to Marvel, where the Ultimate line was developing; DC had the last part of Dark Knight Strikes Again at the start of the year, with Jim Lee's "Hush" beginning in Batman later; Dark Horse had another Star Wars movie; and Image and Dreamwave shared in a revival of interest in 1980s comics like and G.I. Joe and Transformers.

By contrast, the first half-plus of 2003 had significantly less going on. X-Men had a successful sequel, but Hulk's movie fared poorly — and the 1980s wave seemed to have exhausted itself. It really wasn't until the fall, when the finale of "Hush" combined with new entries like Marvel 1602, Superman/Batman, and the looooong-awaited JLA/Avengers that the market recovered its earlier heat, edging into positive territory for the year.

Notably in the present context, new trade paperback sales as found atop Diamond's Top Seller chart were actually down for most of 2003 and for the year overall; the periodicals pushed the year ahead (as did, likely, the trades below 50th place, which is as far as the Diamond charts went at the time). Why the top-selling trades slowed in 2003 deserves some study, but it's likely that a lack of trade-able hits at the end of 2002 and in early 2003 played a role, since we're talking about the very top of Diamond's list here. And a lot of top-sellers in 2002 were from Dreamwave — which was generally absent from the 2003 TPB tables.

The drop in sales of the Top 300 trades in February 2009 has earned some mention online, so it's worth seeing in a year like 2003 that (a) periodicals were able to close the gap that year, and (b) the slowdown in trades was an echo of what had happened in the months before it on the comic book side of things. We had a colossal month for comic books in October 2003 — and yet the trades were way off versus the year earlier. We might expect retailers were recommitting some of their trade dollars to comics — but also, trade paperback sales would be a lagging indicator reflecting a softer beginning to the year. Note that it's in December 2003, with the Hush trade release, that we begin to see the top TPB list reflecting the fall's periodical successes.

Finally, 2003 is interesting because, again, Diamond switched to reporting Final Orders, which also permitted me to begin calculating the Overall statistic I use here. But what's less remembered is that Diamond had previously released preorder charts for February, March, April, and May 2003 — the reason being that preorder tables were always published earlier, and the February Final order tables simply weren't available yet. I ran preorder numbers for each of these months; these are interesting in that they show that the preorder charts understated orders for many titles by 5-10% (because no reorders were included); they also overstated sales because they included comics that were not shipped on time (or, in some cases, ever). One day I'll get around to posting those figures, at least in synopsis, if there is interest there.

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