Tim Stroup, cofounder of the Grand Comics Database and co-owner of Cold Cut Distribution, is one of those "like-minded archaeologists of comics history" I had in mind when I wrote my site's description years ago; he's a source for a lot of interesting information. Recently, he started a daily blog, Today in Comics History, which I encourage you to check out.
here. S-M was co-owned by five publishers: Reader's Digest, Popular Science, McCall's, Meredith Publishing, and Lane Publishing — but its newsletter includes most magazine publishers at the time, and aggregates figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation.
Audit Bureau figures have been posted here from various years, and turn up in a variety of places, like the N.W. Ayer & Sons guides; I have the Ayer-reported 1959 figures here. The figures in Tim's second post are comparisons for the second half of 1948 versus the second half of 1947, and they're enlightening.
Now, as mentioned before, the ABC clumped comics together in groups for many reporting purposes; ABC figures were about ad sales, and advertisers paid to get into all comics within a group. So we don't see the individual titles ranked with the magazines — although as Tim mentions, many of the comics, just by doing averaging on the numbers presented, would have made the Top 100. But it does list the largest magazine groups, and — voila! — it is absolutely dominated by comics publishers, which had a lot of titles to bundle. National Comics Group, later DC Comics, reported via ABC 49.9 million copies sold in the second half of 1948, versus 52.1 million copies in the second half of 1947, for the top slot. Marvel was #2, with 38.2 million copies in the second half of 1948, versus 21.9 million copies in the same period the year before; Marvel had a lot more titles out that second year.
The figures are fascinating and I don't want to step on any future post he might have in the works by doing too much more work on the numbers, but it looks like the comics publishers alone on that list accounted for around 215 million copies in the second half of 1948, versus at least 168 million copies in the second half of 1947 — Archie, ACG, and Hillman did not report in 1947, so that latter number is low by maybe 25 million copies. That 215 million copies accounts for 584 issues in that second half of 1948, or an average of around 368,000 copies per issue. That seems to square up with the average reported sale. (Note: Figures revised 12/27.)
But note that Dell is not included — it was the largest comics publisher in 1959 (and probably in this year, too), so that 226 million copies for the second half of 1948 could be more like 300 million copies or more, if Dell is the same size relative to National. (The "Dell Men's Group," listed in the totals, is very likely not the comics arm.) And it could be larger still: my most recent count for comics published in 1948 was between 1,900 and 2,000 individual issues, so even with Dell there could be another couple hundred comics here not accounted for in this six months.
My 1959 thumbnail estimate based on ABC figures put a floor of 314 million copies on 1959, so if 1948 is really more than 600 million copies, that's a pretty significant difference. Especially when you consider that comics cost no more in 1959 than they did in 1948: 10¢! (Page counts had been cut.) So there's a flat-out loss of perhaps half the revenue of the business over the 1950s, if all these estimates hold up.
But here's something worth considering: If we were seeing sales of 600 million copies annually in 1948, that'd equate to $60 million industry-wide. In 2011 dollars, that'd be $564 million. And what'll 2011 sales wind up being? More than $600 million, when trade paperbacks in the mass market are included! It reinforces something I've mentioned here before: comics may be reaching far fewer eyeballs, but it's a more profitable business to be in today. The comics of yesteryear were loss-leaders, created by people who received no royalties and printed on low-quality paper. There's financial room in the modern comics model for creators to be compensated more fairly, and for consumers to get a higher-quality physical product. Whether the stories delivered are superior is, of course, an argument for the ages!
Update: I have some further thoughts on historic profit versus revenue here.