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Of iPads and middlemen: 45 years of comics subscription sales data

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

With Apple's iPad tablet product launching, much speculation surrounds what, if any, long-lasting impact the product and its like will have on the comic-book industry. Several efforts have been underway for some time to deliver comics electronically, and the addition of the new system has unsurprisingly generated much conversation.

The old issues about hard-copy-versus-virtual-copy are still out there, of course, and while I've written about them before, there is one area where The Comics Chronicles' focus on the past may be able to share some insight: subscription sales. One of the core attractions of online delivery for many is distribution — cutting out the trip to obtain the physical product. Subscription sales were the original and only channel for comics consumers looking to cut out that trip — and while any analogy with digital distribution has obvious flaws, we can at least see what consumer behavior has been over the years.

It's long been conventional wisdom that, contrary to the rest of the magazine industry, postal subscriptions for comics were a small sideline — maybe 5% at most of the business, even in the early days when comics were more widely available at newsstands. Looking at The Comics Chronicles' gigantic database of Statements of Ownership finds 1,459 statements with specific subscription sales data — and they show that postal subscription sales have always been in the single-digit range, percentage-wise:





The raw data appears here:



Percentage sold through subscription
1963
2.4%
1964
5.6%
1965
0.8%
1966
0.7%
1967
1.3%
1968
0.4%
1969
0.9%
1970
0.4%
1971
0.8%
1972
0.6%
1973
0.5%
1974
0.7%
1975
0.9%
1976
1.0%
1977
1.6%
1978
2.3%
1979
1.8%
1980
2.5%
1981
3.1%
1982
3.8%
1983
4.9%
1984
5.1%
1985
4.5%
1986
5.0%
1987
3.8%
1988
4.1%
1989
3.9%
1990
3.3%
1991
3.7%
1992
2.7%
1993
3.5%
1994
4.2%
1995
4.8%
1996
5.8%
1997
4.2%
1998
4.0%
1999
3.3%
2000
3.6%
2001
4.4%
2002
3.0%
2003
4.4%
2004
4.9%
2005
5.6%
2006
7.5%
2007
3.8%
2008
5.4%

The first few and last few years are in red because there are many fewer data points in those years. In the early days very few titles broke out subscription sales; in more recent years, there have only been a handful of titles reporting data, and not all have been added to the database yet. Only Archie and Marvel among major publishers still report subscription sales via Postal Statements, and not for every title. There are no subscription offerings on a wide variety of titles, including many of the highest-profile ones; and DC has not reported sales since 1988, when it moved away from Second Class subscription sales to First Class, thus relieving it of the legal requirement.


Still, we do see a general increase in the percentage of comics sold by subscriptions, among titles with Second-Class of Periodical-Class permits. One reason is that a publisher that has a postal license to sell subscriptions is more likely to focus on selling them. That seems ridiculously self-evident, but it isn't tautological: There were many publishers a long time ago that had licenses to mail subscriptions simply as a matter of course — but they made no effort to sell them at all. The subscription statements of Gold Key, Charlton, and Harvey shows numbers of subscribers sometimes in the single digits! (Captain Atom, we see here, had 17 and 20 subscribers in 1963 and 1964 respectively.) As time went on, many of these publishers simply stopped offering subscriptions of any kind — meaning the ones left in the business were those more likely to be actually pursuing subscribers. The dabblers are no longer in there, bringing down the average.

To a degree, we might look an increase in the percentage of comics being sold by subscriptions as a statement of how difficult comics are to find in any one era. We see a spike in the late 1970s, as newsstand outlets go away and Marvel and DC work harder to sell subscriptions; that begins to abate in the mid-1980s when comics shops become more numerous and easier to find. The biggest bump — and, I think, once all the numbers are in, the true high-water mark — is in the mid-1990s, when publishers, particularly Marvel, hit direct mail pretty hard. This is the time when Marvel was working a list of millions of names gathered from its offers via Charleston Chew, canned foods, and various other offers; there are titles like Barbie and Barbie Fashion where the number of subscribers is way higher than the norm.

Still, while comics subscriptions are a significant portion of sales, they're well behind comics sold through comics shops and the newsstand — and always have been. What does that say about them — especially since, when you think about it, the comics shop model is in large measure a subscription model, in that a large part of retailers' businesses are in comics that are preordered on a monthly basis for customers with pull-and-hold folders? Why didn't those people simply have those comics delivered to the house, when the option was available?

As a subscriber to many comics in the 1980s who migrated to become a comics shop customer, the reasons were pretty simple: 

1) Speed of delivery. My records of arrival dates from the 1980s (yep, I was keeping them as a kid!) show that the postal copies arrived on the order of two to three weeks after the comics shop received its copies. I don't know the extent to which that delay has changed over the years, but them as now, consumers wanted to get their comics as soon as they came out.

2) Damaged copies. While the Marvel subscription copies that I've seen from the 2000s came polybagged, copies in earlier years were less well protected. Marvel in the 1980s used the "plain brown wrapper" method, which led to scuffed corners and occasional damage from water or misplaced glue. Unlike magazine readers, customers for comics have tended to be relatively more interested in the physical condition of their reading material.

3) Pay-as-you-go versus pay-up front. Comics subscriptions require an up-front payment for the entire year, whereas the vast majority of comics shops charge customers only as the comics come in (and, to occasional retailer distress, only when the customer comes in, increasing the customer's control over payment scheduling). This is a pretty significant advantage.

While we can't know what a pay-as-you-go postal model from publishers would look like, there are mail-order comics houses that basically work as comics shops with home delivery. It would be interesting to learn what their scale is versus the traditional postal subscription share of the business.

 4) The comics shop experience. In my own experience, my comics subscriptions lapsed the year after the time that I got a car — the mobility necessary to make regular comics-shop runs. (I have a fair stretch of duplicates from that era in my own collection as a result of that overlap period.) The comics shop addressed the first three needs listed above, but also offered additional experiences: exposure to other products, a social community, and additional education about the field.

For these reasons, postal comics subscriptions have tended to skew more towards younger readers — they're bought as gifts or in response to targeted direct mail offers, and received by people lacking the independent means to get to the comics shop regularly. That's a generalization, of course, but it seems to fit the data. Magazines may rely on subscribers to survive, but comics readers have always been willing to make the trip to purchase — enough, anyway, to keep the periodical model going for 75 years.

Comics subscriptions are, again, not likely to give us a lot of insight into how customers might approach any given digital alternative. Digital downloads certainly address the speed-of-receipt issue, provided releases are timed to comics street dates. They also resolve issues of damaged copies, although any readers regarding virtual versions as acceptable alternatives to printed ones are probably less likely to care, anyway. Pay-as-you-go is also addressed. The lack of the comics shop experience — well, that's another thing, and I imagine it becomes a matter of personal preference, just as the preference for digital or virtual comics is. In the end, I would guess that digital availability becomes an additional, complementary channel, not one that subsumes other parts of the model; as we've seen from the subscription history of comics, multiple distribution methods can coexist as long as they serve different needs.

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2009 end-of-year sales revised

Friday, January 22, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

With more complete publisher information available, we've revised the final estimates for comics, trade paperback, and magazine orders placed through Diamond in December 2009 — and thus, for the entire year:

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
December 2009: $35.67 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -10%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +17%
4th Quarter 2009: $104.81 million, -9% versus 4Q 2008
2009 YEAR-END: Approximately $429.67 million, -2% vs. 2008, +30% vs. 2004

The small upward revision isn't enough to help 2009 catch up with 2008, but we are now almost in line with 2007. As noted in our end-of-year report and its comments section, there's a somewhat larger margin of error associated with the Overall statistic this year. The upshot remains: whatever happened at the cash register, retailers did not spend appreciably less building their comics inventories in 2009.

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Comics 2002: 1980s comeback, promos galore

Thursday, January 21, 2010

by John Jackson Miller

With the aid of research assistant par excellence T.M. Haley, we now have all the months of 2002 online here at The Comics Chronicles, as well as, for the first time, Diamond's end of year list for the Top 100 Comic Books and Trade Paperbacks for the year, which differs some from the monthly reports in that it includes reorders. 2002 was the last year that Diamond only reported preorder sales.

We can see one difference right away, in that the #1 comic book for the year was not actually the market leader in any individual month. Ultimates #1 from Marvel came in third place in January 2002 behind the last issue of Wolverine: The Origin and the second issue of The Dark Knight Strikes Again —but it only trailed by less than 20,000 copies, and as Ultimates was considerably less expensive than the other two books, it's not hard to see it surpassing them in eleven months of reorders. (The final total for the issue would likely be in the 200,000-copy neighborhood.)


2002 saw some very big things going on in the comics industry. Most memorably, May saw the release of the first Spider-Man movie and the staging of the first Free Comic Book Day, the origin of which discussed in detail here. In 2001, the industry had begun to mount a recovery from its seven-year recession, and these elements helped keep the fire going. "The industry is hitting on all cylinders," I had written at the time, noting that every major publisher had something big going on. Marvel had Spider-Man and the success of the Ultimates line; DC had Batman events at either end of the year, with Dark Knight Strikes Again and "Hush." Dark Horse had Star Wars Episode II — and Image and several other publishers had a piece of the year's most memorable direct-market phenomenon, the 1980s toy comic revival.


Beginning in earnest with a Transformers relaunch that put a company other than Marvel or DC atop the charts for the first time since the early 1990s, the wave included revivals for G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Masters of the Universe, and more. Many of the properties weren't very big in comics the first time around in the 1980s — but in 2002, it put Dreamwave solidly on the map, its market share rivaling that of Crossgen, which had built its share out of a larger line of titles. By early 2003, the fad had largely played out, but it gave the industry one more sales story for 2002 and helped the market finish ahead for the year.

Another phenomenon — and one of the reasons that 2002 took so long to post here — was the release of many giveaway and near-giveaway comics from the major publishers. There were the comics ordered for Free Comic Book Day, of course, but there was also Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure, and Marvel's answer, the nine-cent Fantastic Four issue. (There was also a 13-cent Gen13.) At the time, Diamond placed all of these in its Top 300 sales charts; while that practice later changed, it did leave some distortions in the unit sales market shares. For the listings here on Comichron, these promotionally priced items have been moved to the top of the list with asterisks, so they're not ranked; they have also been pulled from the aggregate unit sales counts, where the odd 700,000 copies really can throw things off.

With these additions, the number of sales estimates on the site has exceeded the 50,000 mark. Tables from 1998 and 2000-01 remain to be placed online in the next few weeks, at which point the entire Diamond exclusive era will be represented here. We also have more Diamond end-of-year lists to post. Coming soon!

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Top 500 Comics & Trades for 2009, with Comichron estimates

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

by John Jackson Miller and T.M. Haley
 



Following up on our report on direct market sales for 2009, Diamond has released Top 500 charts for both comics and trade paperbacks for the year. Those charts appear here on Comichron, along with our own estimates for what each of those titles likely sold.

“Comic book and graphic novel sales through comic book specialty shops were extremely resilient in 2009, despite a down economy,” said Diamond CEO Steve Geppi in the news release, which also appeared prominently this morning in USA Today. “Overall, sales were almost on par with 2008 as publishers took great steps to create books that fans wanted to buy. We’re very optimistic for 2010, with some great projects already scheduled by publishers—and our annual Free Comic Book Day event on the first Saturday in May already shaping up to be a sales winner.”

Geppi's remarks about 2009's performance square up with Comichron's analysis of the year, which found that the direct market was down 2%. What's more, the releases of the Top 500 lists also reconcile nicely with our own tracking of where various issues should land, something we did a rougher version of in the comics of the decade chart. While Diamond did not publish indexes for these rankings — the yearly tables never have them — enough information about sales is known from past monthly rankings, actual publisher sales reports, and other sources to enable some educated guesses. Readers will find that the estimated final orders in the year for these comics exceed what was visible in the monthly charts; that's because we're making allowances for months in which reorders for items were not high enough to make the Top 300 lists.

The Barack Obama issue of Amazing Spider-Man led the sales chart, as we expected, with just over 530,000 copies sold in our estimation; Watchmen was the top trade with Diamond moving around 70,000 copies.

The analysis suggests the degree to which blockbuster issues contribute to the overall bottom line. The Top 500 comics combined sold between nearly 34 million copies, or almost 45% of all the copies sold in Diamond's Top 300 charts each month. Again: Of the 3,600 comics that Diamond reported sales for, the Top 500 comics accounted for almost half the copies sold. When we look at dollars, we fin that the Top 500 comics accounted for around $116 million in sales, or, again 45% of the dollars in Diamond's Top 300 each month.

The trade chart is also interesting. The Top 500 trades accounted for around 2.6 million copies sold, worth nearly $45 million. While this is 57% of the dollars that were reported in Diamond's 12 monthly Top 300 lists this year, the pie for trade paperbacks in the direct market is much larger; the Top 300 trades lists monthly capture only about half of the dollars sold. The Top 500 trades for the year probably are closer to 30% of Diamond's trade business.

Diamond also published year-end market shares, which also appear on our annual sales page; Marvel and DC's dollar shares were similar to what they were last year. Boom and IDW picked up a point in dollar shares.

This is the first year Diamond has published year-end rankings for 500 items; in previous years, the rankings have included only 300 comics or, in earlier times, just the Top 100. Those tables, like the one for 2007, are going online over the next little while.

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December 2009: Flashbacks to the Past

by John Jackson Miller and T.M. Haley

Following the report on comics orders for December 2009, here's a look back at what was going on in previous years...


December 2008's top seller was Marvel's Secret Invasion #8, ending the series with orders through Diamond Comic Distributors of approximately 152,408 copies. Unit sales for December 2008 were up versus December 2007, but this boost was not enough to push 2008's year-end unit sales numbers past 2007's. Overall comics, trade paperback, and dollar sales were up slightly for the year.

Check out the detailed analysis of the month's sales here — and sales chart here.

December 2004's top-seller was Marvel's New Avengers #1 with first-month Diamond orders of over 240,700 copies. The title's launch capped a year of changes within the Avengers titles, including "Avengers Disassembled," and contributed to a 6% growth in overall comics, magazine, and trade paperback sales over the previous year. Trade paperbacks saw a large boost in their sales numbers from the prior year, with growth of 29%. Check out the sales chart here.

December 1999's top-seller was Marvel's X-Men #97, with orders through Diamond of more than 117,400 copies, topping both Uncanny X-Men #377 and the previous month's number one, Tomb Raider.

Sales of Diamond's top-selling trade paperbacks were up a whopping 102% in December, thanks largely to the JLA Earth 2 hardcover; at $24.95, it saw first-month orders of more than 22,000 copies. Strong trade paperback sales kept December from posting a sales deficit, as comic sales were down 6%. Still, 1999 was slightly down overall for the year.

Check out the December 1999 sales chart here.


December 1994 once again had a consensus top-seller at Diamond and at Capital City Distribution: Marvel's X-Men: Alpha #1 (actually, X-Men #A), launching the "Age of Apocalypse" storyline that led the industry in the first quarter of 1995. During the storyline — a definitive example of an "icebreaker" event crafted to enliven sales in the usually slow "dead quarter" — the regular X-Men titles went away for four months, to be replaced by series in a variant timeline. (Amazing X-Men replaced X-Men, Astonishing X-Men replaced Uncanny X-Men, and so on.)

Capital's orders for the $3.95  X-Men: Alpha amounted to 127,225 copies, putting overall sales in the 400,000-copy range. Alpha's acetate cover, incidentally, makes it one of the most difficult comics to photograph!

December 1989's top seller was Legends of the Dark Knight #4, with orders of 125,500 copies at Capital City and overall sales likely north of half a million copies. It was the end of a strong year of recovery for the industry following the black-and-white comics glut and crash a couple of years earlier.

Finally, December 1984's top comic book was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #12, ending the series with twelve consecutive months in the number one slot.

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Comichron Analysis: Comics end 2009 down 2% overall

Monday, January 11, 2010

by John Jackson Miller


Comic book sales showed some resilience against the recession in 2009, based on The Comics Chronicles analysis of data reported by Diamond Comic Distributors. We're still bringing together all the information needed for December, so the figures posted here may require some further adjustment, but it appears from our initial estimates of comics ordered in December 2009 by comics shops that the direct market was off by only about 2% in 2009, or less than $10 million dollars. It's the first down year overall since 2000, breaking a remarkable run — but given general economic conditions, the potential for a larger drop was clearly there.

December, specifically, was an off month across all categories, squared up as it was against a mammoth December 2008 that featured a whopping 119 Marvel titles in the Top 300 comics. This December Marvel again had a large impact on the charts, with 111 titles making the list, but unit sales were lower by more than a million copies overall.

In a new move for December, Diamond did not slate new comics for shipping in the fifth week of the month. It's not clear how this affected sales levels across the board, but it does seem to have coincided with smaller slates making the Top 300, with Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and IDW combining for 242 slots this year, as opposed to 267 slots last year. In a first, Boom Studios had the third largest number of entries in the Top 300 comics. Last December the 300th place title had orders of 4,607 copies; this year, the figure was 3,403.

It's also not clear what effect that had on orders of trade paperbacks and graphic novels, except to say that the string of poor year-to-year performances continued in this category, with dollar orders of the Top 100 trades off by nearly a quarter. The result was that while trades have helped the direct market escape down years in other months of the decade, it wasn't to be in 2009. Orders of Diamond's Top 100 trades each month were down 15%, or nearly $10 million, versus a strong 2008 total; by contrast, Diamond's Top 300 comics orders were only off 2% year-over-year in dollar terms.

As a result of December's orders, overall comics shop orders of comic books, trade paperbacks, and magazines for the year look to have landed around $428 million, near 2008 and 2007's totals of $436.6 million and $430 million respectively. It's likely a further loss when figured against inflation, which was a significant factor in the comics market this year; the year closed with the highest average prices for new comic books in history: $3.59, beating the old record by several cents.

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
December 2009: 6.31 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -18%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -3%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -4%
4th Quarter 2009: 18.66 million copies, -11% versus Q4 2008
2009 YEAR-END: 74.88 million copies, -8% vs. 2008, +1% vs. 2004, -4% vs. 1999

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
December 2009: $22.49 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -11%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +19%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +28%
4th Quarter 2009: $65.55 million, -6% vs. Q4 2008
2009 YEAR-END: $257.88 million, -2% vs. 2008, +21% vs. 2004, +27% vs. 1999

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
December 2009: $5.25 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -24%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -22%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: -6%
4th Quarter 2009, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: $11.61 million -28%
2009 YEAR-END: $77.65 million; -15% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
December 2009: $27.74 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -14%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +11%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +26%
4th Quarter 2009, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: $82.81 million, -10%
2009 YEAR-END: $335.47 million; -4% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
December 2009: $34.2 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -14%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +13%
4th Quarter 2009: $103.3 million, -10% versus 4Q 2008
2009 YEAR-END: Approximately $428 million, -2% vs. 2008, +30% vs. 2004

Diamond also released a Top 25 Small Publisher list that added two data points just below the Top 300.


The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.59; the average comic ordered cost $3.57. Both are, as mentioned, records. The median price — the middle price of all 300 comics — was $3.50. $2.99 was again the most common price of comics appearing in the Top 300. The average comic book ordered by retailers in 2009 cost $3.44, an increase of 19¢, or 6.8%; this is the largest year-to-year increase in the Diamond exclusive era, which began in 1996.

Again, there may be some revisions ahead as we refine our estimates — and changes have already been made to the top comics of the decade chart, as Blackest Night #1 and other 2009 issues have racked up more sales. The Overall figure is also a little fuzzier this year because, as has been written in several past market reports in 2009, the year saw several deep-discounting promotions where graphic novels worth several millions of dollars at retail entered the sales stream near or below publisher cost. Our estimates have included adjustments to the overall figures for purposes of fair comparison, so in fact the dollar value of books entering the direct market retail stream is slightly higher than that reported above.

Finally, it's important to remember that the figures represented here account for only a portion — though the largest one — of North American comic book sales. Bookstore sales of collections, which should be known soon for 2009, are expected to contribute another couple hundred million dollars — and there are also relatively smaller amounts that come from newsstand and subscription sales of comics. It's possible that those combined could push the year ahead, but we rarely know the figures with enough exactitude to say.

What's ahead? While January has been the first part of a historically weak quarter for the industry, there are a number of what Comichron calls "icebreakers" slated for the period, such as Marvel's Siege, which launched the first week of the year. There have been a number of strong winter events over the last decade and a half in comics; we'll see if there's enough ammunition out there to prevent the usual slow start to the year.

The monthly Flashbacks column will follow shortly — and Diamond's 2009 Top-Sellers and Market Share charts are expected soon as well. Stay tuned!

Update 1/13: Brian Hibbs reminds that Diamond's warehouse move resulted in erratic reporting starting in the first part of the year, something we relayed at the time. It's unclear, according to Brian, how many orders were ultimately unaccounted for during the change; possibly enough to move the needle and change the outcome for the year. Publisher data available to Comichron doesn't suggest much missing, but as Brian says, the error may not be present equally in all publisher's stocks.

These things always have some margin of error, so we might consider that this year's could be larger than most — as noted above, it already is, thanks to the amount of deep-discounted material retailers ordered.



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Diamond year-end rankings now being added

Sunday, January 10, 2010

by John Jackson Miller and T.M. Haley

With Diamond Comic Distributors soon to announce its 2009 year-end sellers and market shares, The Comics Chronicles is also beginning to post some of Diamond's year-end tables from previous years, beginning with 2007. More years will be soon to follow. Some years have a full 300 entries; earlier ones have fewer. But all show something we can't see just from looking at the monthly comics reports, because the year-end tallies include all reorders that individual comics and trade paperbacks garnered throughout the year.

2007, as the link shows, was the year that featured the end of Civil War, the death of Captain America, and World War Hulk. Thanks largely to these titles, Marvel took the #1 spot on Diamond's Top 300 all twelve months of the year. These sales contributed to the year's 9% increase in overall sales over 2006.

Since Diamond does not provide indexed figures with its year-end reports, these tables are simply rankings without estimates. The end-of-decade page does feature aggregated unit sales estimates for several of the highest-ranking issues, but, again, since not all months of reorders appear in Diamond's Top 300, those figures are slightly lower than the actual numbers of copies shipped.

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December 2009 Top Sellers: Blackest Night finishes year on top

Thursday, January 7, 2010

by John Jackson Miller


Diamond Comic Distributors has started its roll-out of sales charts for the final month of 2009, and Blackest Night has again topped the list of comics ordered by comics shops. The sixth issue of the series joins several other DC "Blackest Night" spinoffs on the Top 10 list, seen here.

DC also topped the trade paperback list with the eighth reprint collection of Ex Machina.

Marvel approached 50% of the units sold in the direct market, including comics and trade paperbacks; in dollars, the gap between Marvel and DC was narrower.

The release of the December information allows a complete look at what happened to dollar market share for the major publishers for the decade. The long track can be seen below; click here for a more detailed track of recent months.


If the schedule runs as usual, the Top 300 release should follow early next week; The Comics Chronicles estimates will soon follow. There should also be composite end-of-year tables from Diamond; last year's came out on January 12.

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