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September 2010 sales down, but lower-tier orders at record levels

Saturday, October 30, 2010

by John Jackson Miller    Bookmark and Share

September 2009 was the best month of last year for comics sales, and this September had a difficult time keeping pace. Unit and dollar sales for comic books in the Top 300 were down 14% and 12% respectively, while top-selling trade paperbacks held firmer, off only 2%. Backlist sales and sales of comics below 300th place improved the overall total considerably, although it does appear that at least some August sales were reported in September. Click to see my estimates for September 2010.

The quarterly losses in periodical unit and dollar sales were the worst posted since the second quarter of 2001. However, by historic standards, there have been many tougher periods; in 1998, every quarter of the year saw double-digit losses. And a trend that I've reported on in the past appears to be continuing — and growing: Direct Market sales volume for comics not appearing in the Top 300 appears to be increasing.

How do we know? Believe it or not, a record for high sales was actually set in September. The 300th place comic book, Boom's Farscape #11, sold more copies to retailers in September than in any month since November 1996: 4,702 copies. That's a record for the period following Marvel's return to Diamond.  This bellwether tells us about the shape of the market, and how prolific the major and middle-tier publishers are; when many of their titles are being released and reordered, higher-volume titles tend to push farther into the list. (See an updated list of all the 300th place titles and their sales.)

We can see how the market has changed by comparing the Top 300 Comics lists from the first nine months of 2010 with those of 2003, the first year where Diamond was reporting final orders. (This is important, because before 2003, many titles that would have made the Top 300 on reorders alone did not appear.) The Direct Market sold about the same number of comics in the two periods, so when we look at a comparison of the comics at each ranking, we see how differently comics are doing at the different tiers:


We see from the graphic that:

•  the average comic book in the Top 25 is selling more poorly in 2010 than in 2003. At the very top of the chart, 2010's average top-sellers are about 25% off what the best-sellers of 2003 were doing.

• We're selling slightly more comics from 25th place to 70th place each month...

• ...but then in the midlist, the trends turn negative. From 70th place to 183rd place, we're selling somewhat fewer comics than we used to.The low point is around 150th place, where the 150th place comic book in 2010 is selling about 15% fewer copies than the same point on the chart in 2003.

• But then, the numbers go to Mars. Beginning at 184th place and all through the 200s, comics today sell more, and often, dramatically more copies than they sold just seven years ago. The gap may not appear big in the graphic, but it is enormous, and it grows as the list goes deeper. (Look at the difference more closely, at right.) By the 235th place comics, today's books sell double what they did in 2003! It's almost triple by the time we reach the end of the chart each month. That's not dollars — that's copies. It's not a one-month fluke, since we're averaging all the titles that placed at each ordinal ranking. The bottom of the chart today simply represents far more copies sold than it did back then.

The reasons would appear to be twofold. Marvel is more prolific than it was earlier in the last decade, with more of its titles reaching further into the chart. But the 2010 stable of publishers now includes IDW, Boom, and Dynamite, which, together, are moving more copies than earlier equivalent midlisters. In 2003, we were pretty much done with the Marvels and non-kid DC titles by the time you hit the 200s in the chart; it was often Archies and one- or two-title publishers at that point. Today, those publishers often don't make the Top 300 at all.

And that's why this is important, because those publishers are still in the market and are still selling comics. They're just not in the charts that are most frequently reported on. Diamond does release a handful of data points below 300th place, a "Small Publishers List"; I include them at the bottom of the Top 300 table each month, but they are not calculated as part of the Top 300 totals. From these comics in September, we can extrapolate that items ranked #301-370 sold about 250,000 copies worth $1 million. That would add 4% to the unit sales for the Top 300, and closer to 5% to the dollar sales (because these lower-ranked comics tend to be more expensive). Back in the days when Capital City ranked everything, we find in one month that the 296 comic books not in the Top 300 only added about 4.8% to the larger total. If just the next 70 comics today are adding 4%, then the Top 300s are capturing a lot less than they used to; the most commonly referred-to aggregates, then, may increasingly be under-reporting Direct Market performance.

And it does appear from the overall sales total that the “long tail” for comics did make a difference for the market this month; the Top 300 Comics Plus Top 300 Trade Paperbacks figure captured less of the market in September than it normally does.

This does not mean the market isn't struggling — or that many ongoing titles aren't meeting their earlier benchmarks. But whatever the fragmentation of demand means for the industry, it means something specific for the measures we're following: any analysis based only on looking at the Top 300 charts is missing more of the aggregate picture today than it did a few years ago, when the 300th place book bottomed out under 1,000 copies. While the labor involved with preparing these lists makes the prospect of a Top 400 or 500 chart, as we had in the Capital City days, unappealing, I expect that such a list today would show a different picture of overall sales this year. There's more sales volume "bubbling under" than there used to be.

At The Comics Chronicles, I do calculate overall totals based on other measures, and looking at the numbers for the first three quarters, it seems clear that the direct market will clear the $400 million mark in overall comics, trade paperback, and magazine orders in 2010. The market will likely perform more poorly than it did in 2009, but the loss is expected to remain in single digits, percentage-wise. The Top 300 Comics and Top 300 Trades lists are off by more — but in this year, they’re not the whole show.

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
September 2010: 6.07 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -14%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -10%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +4%
Third quarter 2010: 17.47 million copies, -16% vs. 2009
YEAR TO DATE: 52.37 million copies, -7% vs. 2009, -8% vs. 2005, unchanged vs. 2000

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
September 2010: $21.63 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -12%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +11%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +31%
Third quarter 2010: $62.31 million, -14% vs. 2009
YEAR TO DATE: $184.33 million, -4% vs. 2009, +12% vs. 2005, +28% vs. 2000

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
September 2010: $7.03 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -2%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +10%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +60%
Third quarter 2010: $19.91 million, -6% vs. 2009
YEAR TO DATE: $55.48 million, -8% vs. 2009

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 100 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
September 2010: $28.67 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -10%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +11%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +30%
Third quarter 2010: $82.23 million, -12% vs. 2009
YEAR TO DATE: $239.75 million, -5% vs. 2009

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
September 2010: $39.89 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -3%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +36%
Third quarter 2010: $107.33 million, -10%
YEAR TO DATE: $309.58 million, -5% vs. 2009, +19% vs. 2005

The average comic book in Diamond’s Top 300 cost $3.59. The average Top 300 comic book that retailers ordered from Diamond cost $3.57. The median comic book price in Diamond’s Top 300 was $3.99, and $3.99 was also the most common cover price on Diamond’s list.

The monthly Flashbacks column is coming soon.

[Clarification: The above anaylsis contends that IDW, Boom, and Dynamite are together offering more titles and moving more copies than earlier equivalent midlisters, but no attempt has been made here to characterize how the market shares or unit and dollar sales of those publishers have changed in the past year.  Rather, it appears that these "Next Three" publishers after Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image are placing more entries and unit volume on the Top 300 list than we saw for most of the 2000s. After Crossgen's collapse, we often only had Devil's Due and occasionally Aspen logging more than 100,000 units in the Top 300, and that was on fewer titles. Part of the flatter trendline appears to come from this deeper bench.]

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