Soon after my report this morning on the January sales drops, I received a note from Jason Wood who writes a column at iFanboy, noting that, while the December-to-January shortfall may not be meaningful, the year-to-year sales drop was the worst seen from January to January in the Diamond exclusive era. Diamond reported a fall in dollar sales of comic books of 22%, which, he notes, is worse than any of the drops seen in the Top 300 as reported by Comichron since 1998. January 2000's yearly drop was 9.2%, the worst seen to date.
But there are a couple of reasons I remain cautious about ascribing more to this data point. While comparing December to January has inherent problems, the truth is that comparing any two months, even year to year as we always do, contains chances for error. We know that having a fifth shipping week tends to add around 11% in sales, and while both January 2010 and January 2011 both had four shipping weeks, in December 2009, Diamond was closed at the end of the year and did not have a shipping week between Christmas and New Year's. So January 2010 came with an additional number of days of orders and reorders, since books only make the chart when they're shipped.
So I looked at Diamond's new release archive at the lists of what actually shipped. Indeed, the number of different comics items — ones with different order codes — that shipped was about 20% larger the first week of 2010 than it was in the first week of 2011. That includes everything from the comics publishers, including statues. And when you go out to the entire month, you see:
January 2010: 683 different comics and trades shipped, including variants
January 2011: 555 different comics and trades shipped, including variants
That's a 23% decline, right there. I just did a rudimentary count, and the actual total could well be different when variants are merged, but it really does look like there was more product to be ordered in 2010. This is more than can be explained by the holiday difference; this would appear to simply be the old pattern of publishers holding fire at this time of year and releasing fewer items. Some years, that effect is more in evidence than others; this could potentially be one of the bigger years for this kind of positioning.
None of this is to say that sales on individual titles might not be declining; we'll know when the Top 300 is released and the estimates appeared. But Diamond can only sell what it has to sell. The fact that sales decline from one period to the next isn't necessarily just a function of people being less interested in a single title. It could well be that there are simply fewer titles to be interested in — and, last month, it does appear that there was a significant difference.
Update: Even without knowing the sales estimates, we can see the effects of fewer new offerings. Look at just about any ongoing series at the bottom of the Top 100 for January, and you will see it was ten or more slots lower on the charts last month. It is unlikely that those titles all improved in sales; it is more likely that there were fewer new series launches, and that the rankings for ongoing series rose while their quantity sales stood still or even slipped.