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February 2011 comics sales: A rebound, a record low, and a pricing retreat

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

by John Jackson Miller
Diamond Comic Distributors released its full report for comics shop orders for February 2011, and the figures do hold some interesting facts. As noted here last week, February was a month without all the comparison problems presented by January; publishers were acclimated to the Tuesday shipping window, and we weren't comparing against an artificially lengthened sales month as in January 2010. The result is that comics and trade paperback orders were up slightly year-over-year, cutting 2011's deficits basically in half. Click to see the comics sales estimates for February 2011.

We can see the effects of a larger supply of new titles all over the list. Marvel and DC combined to place 19 more titles in the Top 300 in February. There were 130 titles selling more than 10,000 copies in January; that figure swelled to 173 in February. The 300th place title more than doubled in orders from January, rising to 2,860 copies. Trade paperback depth improved as well, up 1% year-over-year in just the Top 300 and 7% when the entire backlist was included. January does appear to be an outlier.

On the other hand, as I warned last week, February also saw the record lowest number of copies ordered for a top-selling title. DC's Green Lantern #62 had orders of just over 71,500 copies, more than 18,400 copies less than the previous record-holder — a record only two months old! For the first time, we probably cannot say that when all reorders and newsstand sales are added, the total will be above 100,000 — although we certainly would expect its eventual readership to go above that mark given reprint editions (to say nothing of digital).

It's a moment worthy of some note, and the mark can be compared to all sorts of past sales figures. (For example, it's the third comic book known as Green Lantern #62. The July 1968 edition had sales of around 211,750 copies on the newsstand, while the one that came out in March 1995 likely had sales through all channels north of 100,000 copies. The 1940s series ended at #38.) Five years ago this month, it would have only been the 18th-place title.

But as mentioned here before, lower unit sales at the top of the list are being offset by higher unit sales further down. In February, retailers ordered 3% more copies of the Top 300 titles than they did in the same month 10 years ago, a month when the 300th-place title had preorders of only 1,081 copies (versus 2,860 today). And while we may have had 173 titles over 10,000 copies this February, ten years ago, that total was only 153.

It's something I've written about here for a long time: volume is more evenly distributed across titles than it once was. When there are few blockbusters, titles are more equal.


The return worth noting is that cover prices returned to an old friend in February: $2.99 was the most common cover price for comic books in the Top 300. We haven't seen that figure since last June. DC's historically unusual move back to $2.99 from $3.99 made it possible. Green Lantern #62 was notable for something else: it was only the third top-seller in three years to be priced below $3. The average cover price for comics in the Top 300 was $3.56, a big drop from November's high of $3.78; the average price of all comics ordered, or weighted price, fell to $3.48. The median price is $3.50.

So we have an interesting mix of things going on. A month without blockbusters like there were a year ago this time, when Blackest Night was wrapping up — and yet the market held steady. And it's not clear what impact the price decreases have had on unit sales at this early stage. The spring should definitely be interesting.

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
February 2011: 5.17 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -4%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -15%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +3%
YEAR TO DATE: 9.57 million copies, -13% vs. 2010, -18% vs. 2006, -7% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
January 2011 versus one year ago this month: -2.31%
YEAR TO DATE: -13.03%

---

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
February 2011: $18 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -4%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -1%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +33%
YEAR TO DATE: $33.42 million, -1% vs. 2010, -4% vs. 2006, +20% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
February 2011 versus one year ago this month: -1.7%
YEAR TO DATE: -12.1%

---

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
February 2011: $5.15 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +1%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -8%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +1%
YEAR TO DATE: $9.75 million, -6% vs. 2010

ALL TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
February 2011 versus one year ago this month: +6.92%
YEAR TO DATE: -5.48%

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TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
February 2011: $23.14 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -3%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -2%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +30%
YEAR TO DATE: $43.16 million, -11% vs. 2010

ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
February 2011 versus one year ago this month: +0.94%
YEAR TO DATE: -10.03%

---

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
February 2011: approximately $30.4 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +1%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +6%
YEAR TO DATE: $56.19 million, -9% vs. 2010

I'll try to get the across-time graphics updated in the near future.

8 comments:

JimShelley March 8, 2011 at 4:35 AM  

Interesting - there was some speculation in December that February sales would be a low point for retailers:

http://joshblaylock.com/2010/12/08/will-february-11-be-a-comic-book-direct-market-massacre/

But if the mid tier books are offsetting the lower selling top tier books, then the retailers may be okay. Not sure if the same can be said for Marvel and DC though. I suspect the top tier books help support lower selling bottom tier books (or at least keep them around longer.)

John Jackson Miller March 8, 2011 at 11:18 AM  

Many of those middle tier books ARE Marvel and DC titles -- when there are so many titles being published, that's possible.

The problem with doomsaying is that it's easy to put together a scenario for an extreme result, but the system militates against extreme results. Because of the way retailers handle inventory, the biggest determining factor for order levels three months from now is what they're like today. You need big things to happen system-wide to move the needle a huge amount everywhere at once. In January, we had it, in publishers missing their shipping windows in the first two weeks of the month. The effects of things like pricing changes, meanwhile, tend to take longer to play out.

Paul Nolan March 8, 2011 at 11:34 AM  

Nick spencer posted on Twitter:-

"Never has ICV2 gotten a number more wrong than the Morning Glories trade. Way under, fellas. Way under."

ICV2 gave this an index ranking of 8.61

now icv2 also said "The difference between Diamond’s numbers and the ICv2’s calculation of the Top 300 indicates that there were considerable sales of comics below the Top 300 cutoff in both the periodical (2860 copies) and graphic novels (295 copies). "

I'm wondering if ICV2 numbers are simply wrong and underestimated?

John Jackson Miller March 8, 2011 at 12:11 PM  

Yeah, I just responded to him. Milton's and my figures both come from here:

http://www.diamondcomics.com/public/default.asp?t=1&m=1&c=3&s=5&ai=106342

...where the index was 8.61, and I'm confident we know what the rating means. As I wrote Nick, the figures we hear about as creators are often much larger, because this particular basket only represents what North American Diamond warehouses shipped in the month; no bookstores, no Europe. It will always be a smaller figure than the overall.

Paul Nolan March 8, 2011 at 12:25 PM  

But how accurate does the 100 rating of Batman become over time?

John Jackson Miller March 8, 2011 at 1:26 PM  

Within the Diamond list, the margin of error currently approaches zero. It's been that way since Diamond went to reporting final orders in 2003 -- my calculations, Milton's, John Mayo's, and anyone else who does them using data from actual Diamond invoices from publishers arrives at the same number. It doesn't matter whether they use Batman or another title (as they do in some months); the result is the same. The Diamond chart freezes the relationships between the titles' sales at an exact moment that we can measure. Get the numbers for that moment one publisher, and you have them all.

If you're asking about how representative this chart is of the whole comics market over time, well, obviously, that changes -- a list of the whole market plus newsstand and bookstore would have different rankings. But we could probably say that as time has gone on, the comics chart has gotten more representative of the whole market (because Diamond captures more of the periodical market than it once did), and the TPB chart gets less representative (because the direct market captures less of that market than it once did).

JimShelley March 10, 2011 at 4:56 AM  

>>Many of those middle tier books ARE Marvel and DC titles -- when there are so many titles being published, that's possible.<<

I understand that - I was unclear. I meant I wonder if the working business model of the companies can adjust to one where big hits don't support lowered tiered books. I've always figured it was things like Civil War that kept the low selling titles in print for long enough to get a trade out of them. How much extra profit is there to go around when the money is spread out evenly along the midtier titles?

John Jackson Miller March 10, 2011 at 10:34 AM  

Ah. No, that's a good question -- we'd assume the profitability model might change somehow, but exactly how, I don't know.

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