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April 2009 sales: Rebound, and a Detective first

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Diamond Comic Distributors recently released its charts of comics and trade paperbacks ordered by retailers in April 2009, and as reported earlier, the market appears to have made up some of the ground lost in the first three months of 2009. Sales increases versus the previous year were observed in all categories, including, just barely, unit sales of Diamond's Top 300 comics.

The largest gain was seen in the widest category: overall orders for comic books, trade paperbacks, and magazines were up at least 14% in this five-ship-week month. The operative term is "at least," as there is evidence to suggest it was higher still — but The Comics Chronicles approaches this statistic with some caution this month. At least one very large backlist promotion put a much larger than normal amount of volume in the system at much deeper discounts, causing the full retail value of orders in the "long tail" to increase far more than did orders in the Top 300 trades.

This poses an analytical dilemma, as the metric outside observers most often see in looking at sales volume is full retail dollars — not what retailers paid for books, but what those books would be worth had they all sold at full retail. It's not possible to know what publishers and Diamond realized without knowing exactly what they all received; retailers order at different discounts, and everything from the product mix each month to publisher promotions causes the wholesale-to-retail ratio to fluctuate. It's usually much easier just to describe the number of dollars worth of comics at full retail that entered the system — that at least gives us an apples-to-apples comparison across time. This month, it does appear that discounted backlist sales did move the needle enough to expand the "overall" figure beyond the expected range — which is why that figure requires some caveats. It appears that at least $42 million in saleable comics and trades did enter the retail system; the wholesale-to-retail ratio simply may not be the same as, say, October, a month which a similar sum moving.

April 2009 also saw a historic first: The top-selling comic book at Diamond, with first-month orders of at least 104,100 copies, was Detective Comics #853, a Neil Gaiman issue — and it is amazing to consider that this is probably the first time that this, the longest-running ongoing series in American comics, has ever topped the charts. We know from looking at the Diamond top sellers from 1996 to present that Detective has never led the list in that time: Batman, many times, but never Detective. Checking Capital City Distribution sales charts from 1984 to 1995 finds that Detective never topped the list there, either.

Before 1984, monthly reports are not available — but annual reports suggest that the title probably never ranked higher than eighth, which appears to have occurred in 1967 when the Batman television show launched Batman title to #1; even then, Detective was only DC's seventh-best-selling title. Rankings before 1960 are largely speculative, although some available figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation suggest that Detective would have been behind several of the Dell titles, at the very least. After 853 issues, Detective appears to have added another first to its history.

The figures for the direct market:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
April 2009: 6.73 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: up less than 1%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +5%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +7%
YEAR TO DATE: 25.82 million copies, -10% vs. 2008

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
April 2009: $22.67 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +6%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +25%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +40%
YEAR TO DATE: $81.24 million, -5% vs. 2008

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
April 2009: $7.84 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +2%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +42%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +5%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100: $17.15 million, up 2% vs. 2008

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
April 2009: $30.51 million
Versus 1 year ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +3%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +28%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +37%
YEAR TO DATE, comparing just the Top 100 TPBs: $96.04 million, -2% vs. 2008

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
April 2009: $41.95 million ($46.6 million with UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +14
Versus 5 years ago this month: +57%
YEAR TO DATE: $133.07 million, -1% vs. 2008, +31% vs. 2004

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.43; the average comic ordered cost $3.37.

Even with the potential problem in the overall figures, this is clearly a good rebound; we can see in the narrower categories that the market has made back some, but not all, of the ground lost in the first quarter of the year. And it's noteworthy that April 2009 saw the Top 300 selling more units than 1, 5, and 10 years ago.

Looking back at those earlier times:

April 2008's top seller was Secret Invasion #1, the best-selling comic book at Diamond taht year, with first-month orders of approximately 250,200 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

April 2004's top-seller was Jim Lee's Superman #204, with first-month orders of 231,400 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

April 1999's top-seller was Uncanny X-Men #369, with preorders of approximately 129,900 copies in the direct market. Check out the sales chart here.

April 1994's top seller at both Diamond and Capital was X-Men Vol. 2 #33. Capital alone sold 107,750 copies of the issue; the Statement of Ownership for the title put overall monthly sales at an average of 614,075 copies that year. April 1994 was also notable in that Capital City also published a column showing what percentage of its comics unit sales each comic book was, all the way down to its poorest-selling new title; from this, we find that the Top 300 accounted for 95.35% of all its new comics sales — and that the breakdown within the Top 300, when compared with that of April 2009, is not altogether different.

The comparison finds that nearly the same number of titles account for half the unit sales in the Top 300 (58 in April 2009 versus 61 in April 1994). The April 2009 Top 300 table was slightly less hit-driven at the very top of the list — and the share of all sales represented by the Top 25 titles is almost identical. Once we extend out to the Top 100, we do see the top of the list accounting for more of the sales in the table — 69% in 2009 versus 65% in 1994. Comics in the 100s account for fewer units than they had 15 years ago, while the share represented by comics in the 200s accounts has shrunk the most. On the other hand, their dollar share has held up better. An in-depth look at these months in comparison can be found here; a further look at the changing shape of the Top 300 over the years can be found here.

April 1989's top seller at Capital City was Uncanny X-Men #247. Archival sources available to The Comics Chronicles confirm total sales of 413,300 copies of that issue, including 99,000 newsstand copies and 282,600 direct-market copies. Capital alone ordered 79,500 copies.

Finally, April 1984's top comic book, both at Capital and likely everywhere else, was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #4, continuing the year-long mega-cross-over. 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.

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How much of new comics sales is in the Top 300?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The April 2009 analysis is almost finished (though the tables are online already), but in looking back through the historical numbers, I found something that sheds some light on a frequently asked question: What portion of new comics sales is outside the Top 300?

The only way to know is to have a look at Diamond's entire slate of new comic books — but, of course, only indexed figures for the Top 300 Comics are made public. But in the early 1990s, Capital City Distribution was printing everything in Internal Correspondence, down to items with very small order counts — and the list didn't include reorders, so we got mostly first-time listings. In April 1994, Capital added columns for percentage of total preorders and cumulative percentage to the Top Comics list. It looked at units — and so we saw from the top of the list...

1) X-Men #33 • 1.767% of all comics units (1.77%)
2) Spawn #21 • 1.704% of all comics units (3.47%)
3) Uncanny X-Men #313 • 1.59% of all comics units (5.06%)

...that the top three books accounted for more than 5% of all new comics preorders.

Capital recorded orders for 596 new comics (!) in April 1994 — that may seem hard to believe, but such was the size of publishers' lines back then. The 301st place book was Marvel's Conan Saga #87. And while Capital occasionally mixed trade paperbacks in the list, this time it did not. So that month, we see that the unit sales break down as follows:

Top 10 comics: 13.49% of all comics preordered
Top 25 comics: 26.94% of all comics preordered
Top 50 comics: 42.2% of all comics preordered
Top 100 comics: 62.14% of all comics preordered
Top 200 comics: 84.93% of all comics preordered
Top 300 comics: 95.35% of all comics preordered
Top 400 comics: 98.66% of all comics preordered
Top 500 comics: 99.70% of all comics preordered

So we see that in a year with likely a longer tail than we have in 2009, Capital's Top 300 accounted for more than 95.35% of the comics it sold — or, put another way, only about 1 in 21 copies preordered were outside the Top 300. Capital itself observed that half the comics sold were represented by the Top 67.

The very next month, Capital shifted the calculation from New Comics Units to overall Comics Products Dollars — which put everything from trade paperbacks to cold-cast figurines on the list, so it becomes less useful for this analysis. (And then in mid-1995, Capital lost several exclusive publishers.) But I remember seeing this first calculation by Capital years ago in my first year editing the industry trade magazine Comics Retailer — and it's why I long assumed that the Top 300 captured the vast majority of new comics sales by copy count. Certainly, when we get into the late 1990s, many publishers' slates had shrunk or disappeared — so it was possible that 300 items captured even more of the market than it once had.

What about today? Again, Diamond does not publish indexed figures for copies beyond its Top 300. But — following the analysis here earlier on the changing shape of the Top 300, let's have a look at how the "cadres" break down today, versus 15 years ago at Capital. To make things even, we'll just look at Capital's Top 300 only — removing the 4.65% of 301-and-above items from consideration:

CAPITAL APRIL 1994 Share of Top 300 Unit Preorders
The Top 61 alone accounted for 50% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-10 account for 14.15% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-25 account for 28.25% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-50 account for 44.26% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-100 account for 65.17% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-200 account for 89.07% of Top 300 Comics Units
First 100 titles alone account for 65.17% of Top 300 Comics Units
Second 100 titles alone account for 23.9% of Top 300 Comics Units
Third 100 titles alone account for 10.93% of Top 300 Comics Units

DIAMOND APRIL 2009 Share of Top 300 Comics Units
The Top 58 alone accounted for 50% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-10 account for 13.47% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-25 account for 28.32% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-50 account for 45.63% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-100 account for 69.01% of Top 300 Comics Units
• Ranks #1-200 account for 90.88% of Top 300 Comics Units
First 100 titles alone account for 69.01% of Top 300 Comics Units
Second 100 titles alone account for 21.87% of Top 300 Comics Units
Third 100 titles alone account for 9.12% of Top 300 Comics Units

So what do we see? Contrary to some assumptions, today's Top 300 table has not really grown that much more top-heavy: nearly the same number of titles account for half the unit sales in the Top 300 (58 versus 61). The April 2009 table was slightly less hit-driven at the very top of the list — and the Top 25 share is almost identical. Once we extend out to the Top 100, we do see the top of the list accounting for more of the sales in the table — 69% versus 65%. Comics in the 100s account for fewer units than they had 15 years ago, while the share represented by comics in the 200s accounts has shrunk the most.

Remember, we're also not looking at the total number of units sold, but rather what part of the trade each chunk of this list accounts for. And we're looking at units, not dollars — although in April 2009, we saw that the Top 59 comics accounted for half of Top 300 dollars — not a big difference from units. But the comics in the 200s account for 9.56% of Top 300 Comics Dollars, so they're more than punching their weight; it's the comics in the lower end of the Top 100 — the upper midlist — that aren't representing the same dollar share as they are unit share. I would speculate that's because they are the books least likely to have premium pricing (as hit titles might) — whereas books at the bottom of the Top 300 might be more likely to be part of a higher-priced line.

This is only a comparison of two months 15 years apart, but it shows that, while there have been some changes over the years, the charts may not have changed as dramatically as the earlier comparisons here of years in the 2000s might have suggested.

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April 2009 sales charts online

Friday, May 22, 2009

The full report will follow later — an exceptionally busy month here — but the April 2009 sales charts are online here. As expected, they report a significant rebound, helping the market to recover some of the ground lost in the first part of the year. There are also some other factors of interest, about which more in the upcoming report.

In the meantime, a few other updates not mentioned before — with Fantastic Force relaunched at Marvel, a title spotlight has been established here for the single year of Fantastic Force in the 1990s. A small addition, but a trivial note is that it was the "guinea pig" title I used in pitching the Standard Catalog of Comic Books line nearly a decade ago; the printed version looks not too much different from the original mock-up.

Also, many comics from Bluewater on the site had mistakenly been labeled Blue King products (they both have the same three-letter abbreviation at Diamond); these have all been corrected.

More to come...

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April comics rebound; more coming

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The April comic book sales data is being processed right now, and it does appear to be a strong month — certainly the healthiest of the year so far. I want to take a second look at the data before release, however; whenever there's movement in the estimates, it's usually a good idea. Stay tuned...

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Of Star Trek and Spider-Woman

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Very busy of late — thoughts of getting Star Trek circulation history notes on the site to coincide with the film release ran into time constraints. There isn't much to be found in the Statements of Ownership, anyway, except for the single year in the late 1990s when Marvel had obtained the license for the second time. There should have been Statements in DC's first Star Trek series from the mid-1980s, as it ran long enough to have them and it was sold by subscription — but I can find none in going through most of the run. If anyone else finds them, let me know.

However, there are a couple of other updates here, including sales for April 1999, in advance of the April 2009 figures. And the complete Statement of Ownership record is now online for Spider-Woman, covering sales from 1979 to 1982.

Spun out of Marvel Spotlight, Spider-Woman was notable for very quickly spawning a cartoon series on ABC (starring the voice of Joan Van Ark!). I was surprised to find a Statement in its final year, as it had gone bimonthly and its cancellation was one of the more abrupt to be found in a Marvel series at that time. The final issue was a classic "Combat Kelly ending" in which the character not only died, but was magically made never to have existed — and there was no letters page, only a single unpunctuated line pasted onto the bottom of the final page of art announcing the cancellation. As I recall, the explanatory page describing the story behind that issue's photo cover wound up having to run over in Marvel Age, Marvel's house fan magazine.

(Fortunately for the character — not to mention later writers coping with continuity headaches — Spider-Woman's erasure from reality was later remedied in Avengers.)

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Ice cream and the genesis of Free Comic Book Day

Friday, May 1, 2009

Free Comic Book Day is this Saturday, and in this eighth edition it has become a fixture in the comics year. Since its inception in 2002, more than a hundred special edition comics have been created for retailers to distribute — not just on Free Comic Book Day, of course, but throughout the year — but having a single day to serve as the summer season kickoff has been a plus for many retailers. This year, there's even a Hugh Jackman public service ad promoting the day, a nice give-back to the comics that gave Hollywood its Wolverine.

There had been earlier hopes for an equivalent to the milk marketing board in comics — some kind of advertising council — over the years, including a publisher-and-distributor attempt in the mid-1990s that met several times but never generated much of anything before it vanished in the industry's collapse that decade. The idea for Free Comic Book Day, by contrast, came from the retail sector — or, rather, from a retailer: Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in California.

I had signed Joe on in the late 1990s as a monthly columnist for Comics & Games Retailer magazine, a trade publication that went for free each month to most of the comics shops in North America. Like the other columnists, Joe's contributions ranged from commentary on retail issues to practical advice — and in June 2001, just as the comics industry was beginning to emerge from the disaster of the 1990s, Joe advised us he had a special column on the way, along with something unusual: an instantaneous response from the Powers That Be being addressed.

In "The Power of Free" — I don't know if it was his headline or the copy desk's — Joe spoke of how Baskin-Robbins had held its annual Free Scoop Night on May 2, 2001. The event resulted, he wrote, in the ice cream store near his shop moving 1,300 scoops in four hours, meaning that's how many patrons came through the door. Joe wrote that he'd suggested a national comics "open house" event to Diamond Comic Distributors in 1997; now, he thought, the key element to add would be giveaway comics.

Giveaway comics were a major source of new readers for the comics industry over its history, from the March of Comics issues given away at shoe stores to the Big Boy comics still distributed in restaurants. I've done a lot of research into those and several other giveaway lines over the years — and it's plain that many of the people who learned to read comics (and, odd as it sounds, the storytelling language of comics is something one does have to learn to read) learned it from ones they got for free. Most of those comics went completely away in the 1980s and 1990s. Joe's suggestion in the article was that publishers could create sampler comics for their different lines — "just as Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream... a selection of samplers available from different publishers would allow stores to better cover the disparate tastes of those who'll show up."

Joe suggested a variety of steps that could be taken by publishers, retailers, and creators; I've posted the original article pages here, which I hope he doesn't mind. Click the pages to see them larger. It shows that many of those ideas, relating to the production and distribution of the samplers, were pretty close to what was eventually adopted. It also shows the sidebar response from Diamond's Roger Fletcher, embracing the idea and promising to solicit retailer interest in the idea.

And it happened. The first Free Comic Book Day was on May 4 of the following year — right after the release of Spider-Man, and a year and two days after the Baskin-Robbins event that Joe said provided the partial inspiration. The magazine followed the progress of the event, and was happy to be associated — our Maggie Thompson attended many of the FCBD board meetings as an advisor. But it all came from Joe — and Diamond and the major publishers' evident agreement that, as he had written, 2001 was the beginning of a turnaround for comics, a new opportunity. "There's a strong sense among many retailers with whom I've spoken that we're definitely experiencing a resurgence of sales and customers," he wrote. "A promotion like this could be the calling card we need to give our market strong forward momentum."

And it did. A few years later, both the sportscard and gaming hobbies put together similar events, organizers citing the FCBD experience as a positive reason to go forward. And FCBD still goes forward. I'll be there — signing my own comics work at Galaxy Comics in Stevens Point, Wis., from 1-4. Wherever you are, do your part and bring a new reader out to your local shop!

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