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September 2011 comics sales estimates online; highest unit sales since 2008

Monday, October 10, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

On the heels of the first wave of data on comics sales for September 2011, the first full month of the DC relaunch, Diamond Comic Distributors has released the full Top 300 lists for comics and trade paperbacks — and those lists, plus The Comics Chronicles estimates, can be found here.

As mentioned in the initial analysis, the unit sales figures for 41 DC returnable titles have been understated by Diamond in the tables to the tune of 10%. This reflects copies that may be reported in as unsold by the end of the year, and thus not paid for by retailers. The final totals published at year end will reflect more accurate numbers; it is likely, from reports, that the return percentage will be smaller than 10%.

So the numbers we have are a likely a minimum — and at 7.27 million copies of the Top 300 comics sold, comic book unit sales were higher than they've been in any month since December 2008, which is before the general recession really took hold in the direct market. Six titles topped the 100,000-copy mark, even with the reduction; this is the most since July 2009.

Batman #1 (or Batman Vol. 2, #1, as many collectors are likely to refer to it) led the charts with more than 188,000 copies ordered.  Orders for second-place Action Comics #1 were more than 182,000 copies; interestingly, this is right around the number of copies sold for its namesake issue, Action #1 from 1938. Again, remember the caveats given with the Justice League numbers: the 182,000-copy figure is only what Diamond shipped in the calendar month to the North American market. Diamond UK copies are part of the same print run, adding around 10% to the total; that, plus copies that shipped after September 30, explains the 200k+ print run figure reported by DC.

The aggregate totals:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
September 2011: 7.27 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +20%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +10%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +24%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -36%
3rd Quarter 2011: 19.36 million copies, +11% vs. 3Q 2010
YEAR TO DATE: 51.37 million copies, -2% vs. 2010, -16% vs. 2006, +6% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
September 2011 versus one year ago this month: +14.42%
3rd Quarter 2011 vs. 3rd Quarter 2010: +10.34%
YEAR TO DATE: -1.49%

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TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
September 2011: $24.41 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +13%
Versus 5 years ago this month:+19%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +49%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -8%
3rd Quarter 2011: $66.25 million, +6% vs. 3Q 2010
YEAR TO DATE: $177.49 million, -4% vs. 2010, -5% vs. 2006, +33% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
July 2011 versus one year ago this month: +8.37%
3rd Quarter 2011 vs. 3rd Quarter 2010: +6.18%
YEAR TO DATE: -3.02%

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TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
September 2011: $6.38 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -9%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +7%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +58%
3rd Quarter 2011: $18.67 million, -6% vs. 3Q 2010 
YEAR TO DATE: $51.06 million, -8% vs. 2010

ALL TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
July 2011 versus one year ago this month: -18.44%
3rd Quarter 2011 vs. 3rd Quarter 2010: -1.75%
YEAR TO DATE: -4.51%

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TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
September 2011: $30.79 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +7%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +18%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +46%
3rd Quarter 2011: $84.92 million, +3% vs. 3Q 2010 
YEAR TO DATE: $228.55 million, -5% vs. 2010

ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
July 2011 versus one year ago this month: -1.01%
3rd Quarter 2011 vs. 3rd Quarter 2010: +3.55%
YEAR TO DATE: -3.51%

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OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
September 2011: approximately $39.6 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: -1%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -29%
3rd Quarter 2011: $109.92 million, +2 vs. 3Q 2010 
YEAR TO DATE: $298.6 million, -4% vs. 2010

One of the first things we see from the aggregate totals for Top 300s is that the Direct Market's performance in just the Top 300s is much better than its performance once the "long tail" is added in. The Top 300 comics are actually up 20% in orders against last September, versus 14.42% when titles after 300th place are included; in trade paperbacks and graphic novels, the effect is even more pronounced. The Top 300 trades were off 9% in dollars versus last September, but when the rest of the "long tail" is added, the shortfall doubles to 18.44%. There is about $9 million in combined sales of comics and trades that its not captured by the Top 300s.

This suggests a shifting of dollars toward frontlist in this month, and clearly comics fared better than trade paperbacks. But another interesting factor affecting the charts is that the number of DC offerings greatly declined from August. DC took 94 slots in the August Top 300; in September, that figure declined to 68, its lowest item count since October 2002. The count also included reorders and reprints for Justice League #1; the addition of 46,650 copies to the August count brings the total to nearly 233,000 copies. That puts it at 19th place on the record list for the 21st century, just below Batman #618; the book is, of course, not done selling yet.

The economic appeal of DC's move to replace a large number of titles with a small number of better-selling ones is obvious, and it has in fact gained in the bargain. But one impact on the charts can be seen in the 300th place title, a common bellwether. The sales for titles at this level dropped, and in fact, the 300th place book this month is the same as it was three months earlier, Stan Lee's Starborn for Boom. With a couple dozen fewer DC titles in the charts, titles that had slid off the charts slipped back on — with the upshot being that in one month, sales at 300th place went from more than 4,500 copies three months ago to just over 3,300 in September. The 150th place title also dropped by more than 1,000 copies from August.

So there is at least one impact in the DC reboot on the shape of the market: the center of gravity for unit sales volume shifted toward the top of the Top 300. I've noted the changing shape of the comics tables for several years, here, most recently the trend toward fragmentation of consumer interests, with volume shifting from the top to the bottom of the list. DC's move, for at least one month, increased the number of overall units while reducing the level of that fragmentation.

Finally, for the first time, The Comics Chronicles is able to provide 15-year comparisons on the Top 300 comics orders for units and dollars. September 1996 was the first month in which I reported sales charts fusing the Exclusivity Wars-era numbers from Diamond and Marvel's then-exclusive distributor, Heroes World; it is also the first month of another Jim Lee-driven reboot, Marvel's "Heroes Reborn." Note that the comparisons are imperfect, in that the numbers back then were preorders only, and included books that never actually came out; today's numbers include every copy that Diamond sold of the books in the Top 300. The 1996 figures are also reflective of a market with more than twice as many retail outlets as we have in the direct market today.

In those days, I was able to take the top unit sales rankings out past 300th place — the last item on the list in September 1996 was a reoffering of Image's Maxx #5, with reorders of approximately 2,646 copies. (In those days, Diamond would relist items in the catalog as "offered again" months or years after they had come out — that was the only way reorders made the lists.) Coincidentally, Diamond provided some rankings for comics which came in below 300th place this month, and the 354th place item was Archie Double Digest #222 with final orders of 1,812 copies.

All the extra titles Diamond reported on this month can be found on the September 2011 page — as always, only the Top 300 titles count toward the Top 300 aggregates.

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