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The difference 50 years makes

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

Russ Maheras is one of the premier "comics archaeologists," having delved into the microfilm files of the Audit Bureau of Circulation to find much of what we know about comics sales from the Golden Age. (Find some of his research here.) On reading my post this morning about February's comics sales, Russ wrote in with the following:

"After reading your post, I did some quick ballpark math to give myself a better strategic picture of the true health of today's comic book industry vs. the comic book industry of, say, 1959 — and I found the results very interesting.

"According to your figures, in 1959, comics were selling about 26 million copies per month, or about 312 million copies per year. For the sake of argument, let's use 10 cents a copy as the mean retail cover price (yes, there were some 15- and 25-centers on the stands back then, but we're just trying to get a quick-and-dirty snapshot). That comes to a grand total of about $31 million in 1959 annual sales for the industry. Trade sales, film and television income, and other licensing income was negligible for almost all comics companies in 1959, and profits from video games did not exist.

"So that $31 million, plugged into the Department of Labor's inflation calculator, is equivalent to about $236 million in today's dollars.

"Last year, according to your figures, total annual sales for comics in the direct market were about $260 million, and for trades about $160 million. That's $420 million in total retail revenue for the industry -- more than what it was in 1959 -- plus what comes from the bookstore trade. And we haven't even begun factoring today's substantial television, film, and video game revenue which can often blow comic book revenue out of the water.

"Call me overly optimistic, but it sure looks to me like the overall financial health of the industry looks positively exceptional compared to the "good ol' days" of 1959."

Russ's comparisons are thought-provoking. I haven't had time to dig too deeply into the Bookscan figures for 2010, but from what I saw in Brian Hibbs' report, it's reasonable to expect that perhaps another $200 million is out there beyond the Direct Market, when bookstore sales and newsstand comics are included. So we're looking at a 2010 figure in the low $600 millions, exclusive of licensing.

Now, the first question out of the gate is whether the 1959 figure is correct. (We'd probably agree that 1959's sales probably were nowhere near as good as those around 1950, but let's take what we have to compare.) As I wrote at the time, those figures were based on self-reported monthly circulations from the major publishers to the N.W. Ayer & Sons Directory — an annual publication that for more than a century under various names included information on periodicals for the use of advertisers.

As I wrote then, the 26 million-copy-a-month  figure was a minimum that included everything from Dell, DC (National), Marvel, Charlton, Harvey, ACG, and Archie — left out were Fawcett and some smaller publishers. But even if we cranked that $236 million inflation-adjusted figure up to $300 million, that's still less than half the 2010 total with trades included — and pretty close to equal to the dollar value of periodicals moved in the direct market and on the newsstand. To restate: dollar sales for comic books in 2010 were similar to the inflation-adjusted dollar sales for comics in 1959 — and that doesn't count trades!

The problem with this sort of comparison is the caveats; you could fill a truck with them. The obvious one is that we don't just want dollars, we want eyeballs. The Direct Market ordered between 70 and 80 million comic books in 2010; throw in all the trades and we're looking at a bit over 100 million items. A bunch less than the 300-400 million in 1959, to be sure — and we can see that when it comes to the very long haul, comics have increased in price faster than inflation, which would expect a 10¢ comic book in 1959 to cost 72¢ today. But even that comparison is misleading, because the two products, while near in shape and size, are different in many respects. That 1959 comic book may well have had 48 pages, making it an even better deal — but on the other hand, the 2010 one is on better paper, with better color and printing. And there are other things built into the 2010 price, not the least of which is better compensation for creators relative to 1959. We're looking at the overall dollar value of the merchandise here, not profit; there are many more players to pay, now.
 
The numbers show it, but I think it's beyond doubt that the modern comic book is simply more valued as a good today than comics were back then. Comic books were, as Paul Levitz has said, considered loss leaders by retailers in the old days; and while today's fans would regard the comics of that time as actually under-priced (no cover-price increase for inflation for most of the 1960s!), it would have been hard to get buyers to go beyond that going rate — as Dell found when it tried to boost prices and had to retreat. Today, the package is regarded differently enough that when there have been price increases outpacing inflation, some portion of the readership does still follow. It's the difference between a specialty market and a mass market.

It's the old dilemma in the field. Broad sections of the legions of customers we had in the 1950s were only casually interested in comics, and abandoned them — but those who remained eventually gave rise to the smaller core of devoted readers willing to pay more for better-creator-compensated, better-printed, better-delivered comics. That devoted base, Russ's numbers suggest, has made for a more financially successful industry today — but we all still have that nagging feeling that, to make it into the next generation, we need the masses again. It's not clear that's even desirable — the comics of the largest boom in recent memory, the early 1990s, are not on balance regarded as fondly as those from some other periods — and when those boom readers left, disaster ensued. But on the other hand, it does strike me that in the 2010s, the market would be much better able to absorb that kind of added interest from outside. There remain a lot of regions that could easily absorb new comics shops — and the barriers to entry for new publishers and retailers are just high enough that both a glut of new shops and of new titles might be avoided, especially with the internet as an alternative distribution system. It would certainly be interesting to find out!

Read more...

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

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%

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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%

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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.

Read more...

February 2011 comics orders slightly up in a more normal month

Friday, March 4, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

I always strongly caution readers not to read too much into the fluctuations of a single month's comics orders, and the opening of 2011 has shown us why. As I noted early on and in my final report for January 2011, the first month of this year was one of the noisiest months in sales tracking since Marvel returned to Diamond in April 1997. Diamond Comic Distributors' switch to Tuesday shipping reportedly resulted in several publishers missing their windows for many products at the beginning of the year, and the lightest weekly shipments of new products ever seen by several retailers I spoke with.

That combined with an artificially larger comparison month in 2010 and the usual "dead quarter" publisher cutbacks to produce a major drop — a drop which February 2011, a more normal month in many respects, has gone a good distance toward erasing, according to figures released this morning by the distributor. Click to see the Top Sellers for the month; estimates will be along next week.

Batman: The Return of Bruce WayneThose estimates will likely show the all-time lowest sales for the top-selling issue of the month.  Green Lantern #62, at the new, lower $2.99 price, was the top seller in a month in which DC had six of the top ten comics — and as it's got a similar order-index number to Brightest Day, which was selling in the 70,000s, we could well find it in there too. It could be an alarming number for longtime observers, but note that the lack of a blockbuster didn't make much of a difference to the overall comics periodical numbers, which were only off 2% in units and dollars. Trade paperbacks and graphic novels, with the Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne Deluxe Edition hardcover leading the way, were up 7% year-over-year, and the overall market was up 1%. The overall figure will likely be just over $30 million. That halves the losses year-to-date; we're now off 10% in overall direct-market sales.

Perhaps the most important thing observers will be looking for in the coming months is the effects of DC's price drops. We can see it clearly in the offerings this month: In the Top 100, $2.99 was both the median price and the most common cover price. The average and weighted average in the Top 100 was $3.46, well down from last year's highs. It will likely take a few months to see what impact this has on demand: given that we're still in the slow quarter, it could take longer for the entirety of the consumer base to be exposed to the new prices.

The aggregates:

COMPARATIVE SALES STATISTICS

DOLLARS
UNITS
FEBRUARY 2011 VS. JANUARY 2011
COMICS
19.72%
20.97%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
14.08%
8.29%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
17.83%
19.87%
FEBRUARY 2011 VS. FEBRUARY 2010
COMICS
-1.70%
-2.31%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
6.92%
-1.70%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
0.94%
-2.26%
YEAR-TO-DATE 2011 VS. YEAR-TO-DATE 2010
COMICS
-12.10%
-13.03%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
-5.48%
-11.05%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
-10.03%
-12.87%



The market shares:


TOP COMIC BOOK PUBLISHERS
PUBLISHER
DOLLAR
SHARE
UNIT
SHARE
MARVEL COMICS
40.69%
45.13%
DC COMICS
27.74%
31.48%
IMAGE COMICS
5.31%
4.80%
DARK HORSE COMICS
5.26%
3.49%
IDW PUBLISHING
4.60%
4.14%
DYNAMITE ENTERTAINMENT
3.60%
3.14%
BOOM! STUDIOS
1.94%
1.62%
VIZ MEDIA
1.33%
0.66%
AVATAR PRESS INC
1.00%
0.72%
ZENESCOPE ENTERTAINMENT INC
0.68%
0.57%
OTHER NON-TOP 10
7.84%
4.26%


The top-sellers lists can be found on the main page for the month.

We'll learn more from the specific estimates next week, but it does look like February, with its slight periodical drop and slightly larger trade paperback increase is more typical of the market's previous behavior than January's steep losses. We'll see as the year goes on, of course, which is closer to the overall picture.

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