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November 2011 finds comics unit sales up 26% post-relaunch

Monday, December 12, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

As reported here on Friday, Diamond Comic Distributors has released figures showing that the Direct Market is into positive territory for 2011. You can find more details on what this moment means for the market here, but a few additional observations come out in looking at the complete table of estimates.  Click to see the Top 300 comics and trade paperbacks for November 2011.

This November had one more shipping week than last November, and that results in a unit sales bias of about 11%. However, September, the first full month of the relaunch, had one less shipping week than the previous September, so the timing balances out when you look at all three months together. The "DC Relaunch Quarter" from September to November saw retailers order 21.87 million copies of the Top 300 comics, an increase of 26% over the 17.34 million comics ordered in the same period in 2010.

The number of offerings from each publisher that made the Top 300 seems to have normalized in November after October's boom of DC relaunch reorders; reorders for a few of the #2s made the list again, but nothing like in October. Marvel had 90 entries in the Top 300, versus 86 for DC. (Find breakdowns by publisher for offerings in the Top 300 since 1997 here.)


But while there aren't as many DC repeat performers on the list, the number of Top 300 comics ordered topped 7 million copies again for the second time in three months, something that hasn't happened since 2008. And the 300th place title, which was boosted to record levels in October due to the reorder wave, remained at a high level: 4,330 copies.

November's Top 300 unit sales were up 28% over last November, and only off 12% against the five-year-comparative, November 2006, the best month for comics unit sales this century. That month saw orders of 7.96 million copies, so being in the 7 millions, even barely, puts the market in a nice range historically. The unit orders are still much less than the 11.29 million copies seen exactly fifteen years ago in November 1996, which featured the wedding of Superman; there were at least two thousand more comics shops then.

Led by the Batman: Noel Deluxe Edition hardcover and Dark Horse's Hellboy: House of the Living Dead hardcover, trade paperback and graphic novel dollar orders in the Top 300 were the highest they've been in a year, at $7.16 million. That was almost identical to the Top 300 sales in November 2010, but the category as a whole, Diamond says, is up 12.43% for the month. This presents a conundrum, because we can't easily attribute it to sales in the "long tail": Diamond reports unit sales for the category overall also stayed about the same, and in fact the 300th place trade in November 2011 had fewer unit orders than a year before (358 copies versus 385). So there are two possibilities: either the "bubbling under" TPBs were priced significantly higher (with big-ticket hardcovers selling, but just not in numbers to make the Top 300), or there were significant promotions with deep-discounted trades which Diamond counted towards dollar market share but did not report in the unit sales rankings.

Whatever the reason, the Top 300 trades category is still off nearly $6 million for the year versus 2010, so it doesn't look likely that the Top 300 trades will finish in positive territory for 2011. But it's possible the overall grouping could. Diamond has all trade paperbacks off 2.56% for the year.

The aggregate totals:


TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
November 2011: 7.01 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +28%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -12%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +9%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -38%
YEAR TO DATE: 65.97 million copies, +4% vs. 2010, -12% vs. 2006, +8% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
November 2011 versus one year ago this month: +31.19%
YEAR TO DATE: +7.01%

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TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
November 2011: $24.34 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +20%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -1%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +31%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -14%
YEAR TO DATE: $227.19 million, +1% vs. 2010, -1% vs. 2006, +34% vs. 2001

ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
November 2011 versus one year ago this month: +23.1%
YEAR TO DATE: +4.06%

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TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
November 2011: $7.16 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -1%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -2%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +69%
YEAR TO DATE: $64 million, -8% vs. 2010

ALL TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
November 2011 versus one year ago this month: +12.43%
YEAR TO DATE: -2.56%

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TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
November 2011: $31.51 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +15%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -1%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +25%
YEAR TO DATE: $291.2 million, -1% vs. 2010

ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
November 2011 versus one year ago this month: +19.44%
YEAR TO DATE: +1.87%

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OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
November 2011: approximately $42.39 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +19%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +8%
YEAR TO DATE: $389.33 million, +2% vs. 2010

The average comic book in the Top 300 cost $3.46, with the average copy ordered by retailers costing $3.47. This is a fair-sized increase from last month, and reflects higher prices on the top-sellers: the Top 25 comics had an average price of $3.67. $2.99 was again the median and most common price of comics.

So at this moment, it looks likely that the year will wind up very slightly up overall, the first time since 2008. A final total of 73 million copies of the Top 300 comics is fairly likely; back up to 2003 levels, but below 2009. And here it's worth putting some of these trading ranges into perspective — something I discussed a bit on The Beat. I'll repeat some of it here.

Total Direct Market orders have been fluctuating in a pretty narrow range from 2007 to present — around $428 million, plus or minus $10 million. We reached the lower end of that range last year; this year, we’re going to probably be in the higher end of that range. We’re oscillating plus or minus 2.3%. It’s noticeable, sure — but in historic terms, it’s not in the ballpark with the market booms and swoons we know by name.

Inflation, of course, does figure in — and where we felt the biggest hit during the recession was in new comics unit sales, which better controls for cover price. The Top 300 sold 85 million copies in 2007; just 69 million, last year. As noted above, we’re going to wind up in the mid-70s this year. That’s a plus — but we probably notice fluctuations more in this category because the range is wider, going plus or minus 10% from the five year average. And unit sales can be physically observed — so we notice more easily when things change.

Having gotten burned calling bottoms to the market in the 1990s as a trade magazine editor, I tend to approach both upticks and downticks with some skepticism. There's some good news in the post DC-relaunch numbers, but we really need to see how it fits into the longer view.

And there, I think the story has been more positive than the Direct Market gets credit for: The story of the last decade-plus is that the number of comics the direct market sold held relatively steady while the number of graphic novels sold exploded. The result was an increase in revenue and reach. We’ll see what digital can add to that for publishers, and whether periodical sales can stay north of 67 million copies, the low-water mark in 2001.

We'll also see whether unit sales on individual titles — which for titles in upper tiers have, make no mistake, have declined on average — drop to a point where the market's financial dynamic is somehow altered. The flattening of the sales curve, with the same number of unit orders being spread out across more and more titles, has been observed here many times. We'll see if that direction continues, and what it portends.

Next up for the market: the end-of-year figures. I'm also hard at work on a major update of the sales charts for the 1960s here; watch for it by following Comichron on Facebook and Twitter.

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