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January 2011 comics sales slide not an avalanche

Monday, February 28, 2011

by John Jackson Miller
It took longer than I had intended to get the January 2011 comics sales estimates online; it was a busy month on the other side of my business, with my first novel, Star Wars: Knight Errant, releasing. (In a sense, I was still paying attention to sales charts — just of a non-comics kind!) But the delay, bringing us to the same week in which we would expect February figures to be released, may be all for the best — as January has little to say on its own about the state of the market.

Yes, the figures for January 2011 alone set some new low marks. The Top 300 comics sold 4.4 million units in the direct market, the worst showing for periodicals since the 1930s, when comics were just getting started. In dollars, the Top 300 sales were the lowest since January 2005. The trade paperback picture wasn't much better: the $4.6 million in Top 300 trade paperbacks retailers ordered was the lowest figure since such records were first published in October 2008; looking at the Top 100 alone, orders were $2.83 million, the lowest since February 2004. Overall, Diamond reported comics and trade dollars sales were off 20% year-over-year; direct market orders of $25.79 million were just a sliver over the same month in 2006.

But — those comparatives are not the whole story. As I noted the same day that the initial figures came out, Diamond had far fewer new comics and graphic novels to sell this January than it did last January. A revised calculation found 15% fewer new items on offer from January last to this one; not enough to cover the whole drop, but a big chunk of it. Two retailers I spoke with said January saw some of the smallest shipments they had ever seen from Diamond.

The reasons are several. Some marquee titles simply did not ship issues in January, but that's not the only factor. Diamond took off the last week of 2009, so anything that would have shipped to retailers that week wound up in January 2010.

And another major element had to do with Diamond changing its shipments to Tuesdays at the start of this year. I have it on good authority that a number of publishers had not yet adjusted their systems, and that their items arrived at Diamond too late to be shipped in their scheduled windows. That resulted in books slipping into later weeks of the month, and books having fewer days to generate reorders. The result of the smaller slate is that the Top 300 included a lot of titles that don't normally appear; the 300th place title had just 1,291 copies ordered, a level we just don't see these days. It's the smallest number of copies sold in that ranking since September 2006.

Should we have expected dollars those missing books to flow the books that did appear? In stores, maybe; some dollars would have been spent on alternative purchases. But remember that we're looking at what is largely retailer preorders here: dollars left over after the order was done might have been just as likely to go into other merchandise, or toward some other need.

So January doesn't mean that much. It's not great news by any stretch of the imagination — there are many better ways to start the year! But Diamond can only sell what it has to sell.

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
January 2011: 4.4 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -22%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -21%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -16%

ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
January 2011 versus one year ago this month: -23.23%

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TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
January 2011: $15.42 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -20%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -7%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +7%

ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
January 2011 versus one year ago this month: -21.98%

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TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
January 2011: $4.6 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -12%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -20%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: -18%

ALL TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
January 2011 versus one year ago this month: -16.53%

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TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
January 2011: $20.02 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -9%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +5%

ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
January 2011 versus one year ago this month: -20.24%

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OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
January 2011: approximately $25.79 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +1%

Now, an interesting thing happened in the cover prices for the month. The average title in the Top 300 cost $3.61 and the average comic book retailers ordered in the Top 300 cost $3.50. These are sizable drops; the median price actually dropped down to $3.95, although the most common price remained $3.99. Publishers are drawing prices back for 2011, although the mix of titles in this unusual month may again play a role.

What will February look like? Last February saw retailers ordering nearly a million more comics than retailers ordered this January, with the penultimate issue of Blackest Night on the charts. I haven't done a comparison of items that shipped from last February to this one, but supply is likely not to be quite the issue it was in January.

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