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20 years of end-of-year comics bestseller lists

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

by John Jackson Miller


Best-seller for 1991 (and all time!)
This is the week for end-of-year lists, but the comics bestseller list won't be out for a week or so. So how about 20 old lists, instead — some seeing the light of day for the first time in years?

December tends to be the time of year when I get a few extra days to prep for the posting some of the research I've had waiting in the wings — and this year is no different. The Comics Chronicles now has online every end-of-year best-seller list for the last 20 years, as published by Diamond Comic Distributors and in many cases augmented with my own sales estimates.

Simply scroll to the bottom of the Yearly Comics Sales page and click any of the linked issues to see the year's top seller list.

A few of the later years were already online here at the site, and a couple from the early days. But the vast majority of what is posted has never before appeared on the Web. Much of the heavy-lifting came from sometime assistant and world's-fastest-typist T.M. Haley over the course of 2010, keying in data and adding cover prices and publishers where they were missing from Diamond's charts. I added a lot of work cleaning up some lists and interpreting what had been published over the last year-and-a-half, as time allowed.


1992
Diamond's end-of-year listings appeared in its retail publication Diamond Dialogue, and the first one posted here, from 1991, comes from the very first issue of that magazine's relaunched version in January 1992. Diamond Dialogue existed only as a monthly newsletter through the end of 1990; it did include some monthly sales reports, but I have not found any with end-of year rankings. Nor have I found them in any of the 1991 issues I have, which were the first magazine-like incarnation of the publication. So earlier Diamond end-of-year rankings may still exist, though as I have only found monthly numbers from the newsletters, 1990 might be the only year left out there.

What Diamond published in these lists changed over time. Sometimes it published the Top 100 issues; sometimes the Top 200 or 300. (These days, it's up to 1,000!)


1993
Rankings for trade paperbacks were also included each year, although again the number printed varied, as did Diamond's definition of a trade paperback. (Most of the items in the 1991 list were Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe loose-leaf binder pages!) The lists do appear to be ranked by unit sales, always, and not dollars.

There are occasional shifts in what Diamond included in its rankings. The 1991 list includes items that shipped in January 1992, but not January 1991. I have marked those on the page. As I mentioned here when I posted the 1995 and 1996 pages, those years do not include Marvel because it was being distributed by Heroes World. And 1994's list seems to have a glitch, with Violator #1 ranking #1 at Diamond despite being much, much lower at Capital City: Spawn/Batman is almost certainly the correct top seller.

Here are the top-sellers within each year. Click on the years to see the full Top 100s (or 200s or 300s, etc.):

Comic-book Title Issue Price Publisher Est. DM Orders
1991 X-Men Vol. 2 1 $1.50 Marvel 8,014,500
1992 Superman 75 $2.50 DC
1993 Action Comics 687 $1.95 DC
1994 Spawn/Batman 1 $3.95 Image
1995 DC Versus Marvel 1 $3.95 DC
1996 DC Versus Marvel 4 $3.95 DC
1997 Darkness 11 $2.50 Image 357,100
1998 Fathom 1 $2.50 Image 257,100
1999 Tomb Raider 1 $2.50 Image 189,500
2000 Uncanny X-Men 381 $2.25 Marvel 119,300
2001 Dark Knight Strikes Again 1 $7.95 DC 188,700
2002 Ultimates 1 $2.25 Marvel 160,200
2003 Batman 619 $2.25 DC 235,100
2004 Superman 204 $2.50 DC 244,100
2005 All Star Batman & Robin 1 $2.99 DC 276,000
2006 Civil War 2 $2.99 Marvel 341,900
2007 Captain America 25 $3.99 Marvel 317,700
2008 Secret Invasion 1 $3.99 Marvel 263,000
2009 Amazing Spider-Man 583 $3.99 Marvel 530,500
2010 Avengers 1 $3.99 Marvel 175,100

The Trade Paperback list is, again, unusual in the early years because Diamond was using the category as a catchall for more expensive titles:

Trade Paperback Title
Price Publisher
1991 Punisher: Bloodlines
$5.95 Marvel
1992 Punisher: G-Force
$4.95 Marvel
1993 WildC.A.T.S.
$9.95 Image
1994 Superman: Under a Yellow Sun
$5.95 DC
1995 Sandman Midnight Theater
$6.95 DC
1996 Batman Captain America
$5.95 DC
1997 X-Man
$5.99 Marvel
1998 Battle Chasers Collector's Ed.
$5.95 Image
1999 Batman War on Crime
$9.95 DC
2000 JLA Heaven's Ladder
$9.95 DC
2001 Wonder Woman Spirit of Truth Oversized
$9.95 DC
2002 September 11 Vol. 2
$9.95 DC
2003 Justice League Liberty & Justice
$9.95 DC
2004 Batman Hush Vol. 1
$12.95 DC
2005 Sin City Vol. 1 Hard Goodbye
$17.00 Dark Horse
2006 V For Vendetta
$19.99 DC
2007 Civil War
$24.99 Marvel
2008 Watchmen
$19.99 DC
2009 Watchmen
$19.99 DC
2010 Walking Dead Vol. 1 Days Gone Bye $9.99 Image


1997
Diamond was not publishing market shares in its early end-of-year charts, so I have printed the ones for Capital City on those yearly pages. Diamond and Capital's market shares would have deviated some, just as they would have differed from those for the whole market. I have also synposized the year's sales-related events on each yearly page. It's a snapshot of some of  the ups and downs of each year.

A permanent landing page has been established for the Top Comics By Year in the newly reorganized Vital Statistics section. A space has been reserved for Justice League #1, which will be tops in 2011 unless something very unusual happens in December.

Finally, I have guesstimated top sellers based on Capital City's data for 1984-1990; these titles appear, unlinked, on the Yearly page for future population. The only real surprise is the seemingly random Uncanny X-Men issue in 1987, but it seems to be the case from my cursory look through Capital's data from the time. Additional research is necessary before any more can be posted.

It's a lot of fun reading these old lists. 1991 is a particularly interesting year, coming just before the boom of new publishers like Image; Marvel has 90 of the top 100 titles for the year!

More data goodies are coming soon, including the end-of-2011 figures, and a much-delayed updating of figures from the 1960s and 1970s. And while I haven't mentioned it at least four years, there is an account for donations to The Comics Chronicles. I run the site on my own time and expense — and would do so in any event — but additional resources translates to more information being generated by more hands, as was the case with this post.

Happy comics new year!

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More thoughts on comics industry profits vs. revenue across time

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

Following my quick analysis yesterday of the 1948 sales figures discovered by Tim Stroup, some have suggested that suggesting the industry is "more profitable" today is too strong. My old colleague from Comics Buyer's Guide John Diser notes that advertising revenues would certainly have been greater; and Chuck Dixon reminds that publishers owned their own presses — as already noted above, some publishers also owned their own distributors (as in the case of S-M News) and didn't pay creators squat. Those are all true: the more accurate thing to say is that revenues today, adjusted for inflation, are similar or slightly higher, exclusive of advertising.

However, in my post I was referring — or intending to refer — to profits for the industry, not publishing. Most retailers selling comics in the 1940s bought at horrible discounts — it was a Paul Levitz business magazine interview years ago where he said comics in the old days were loss-leaders for the stores that carried them. Today's retailers, by contrast, are receiving a much larger percentage of the cover price. And the Direct Market adds another element to the balance sheet: publishers in the 1940s were eating a large chunk of change in returns. If 600 million comics were sold in 1948, well over a billion were printed. The market is dramatically more efficient for the relevant players today. (Vertical integration knocks out some portion of the loss, but even a self-printing, self-distributing publisher would still be shelling out for paper, ink, and transport on the unsold comics.)

So the question of profitability then and now is an interesting one. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of data points, even now. We were regularly able to see Marvel's publishing profits in its quarterly reports, up until Disney bought it out; it's part of the overall franchise now. And I'm not sure how you'd begin to find out what real retailer profit margins are today without a lot of interviews. Still, it would be an interesting study for some MBA student out there!

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ABC comics publisher data for 1947-48 surfaces

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

by John Jackson Miller

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.

Today's post is of particular interest to those curious about comic-book circulations. The S-M News Company, one of many independent distributors wholesaling comics in the 1940s, published a newsletter for its retailers called Box Score of Magazine Sales, as Tim describes 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.

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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%

---

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%

---

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%

---

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%

---


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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November 2011 puts industry back in black for 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

by John Jackson Miller


It's almost a done deal: 2011 will be the first up year for the comic book direct market since 2008, resuming the trend of the early 2000s and giving the industry nine years of growth out of the past 11. Diamond Comic Distributors released its November Top 100s and Comparative Sales Statistics this morning, and they report not just double-digit increases in comics unit and dollar sales, but also for graphic novels and trade paperbacks, which had been the laggard category. Find the top-sellers list here.

The result is likely the best month of 2011, sales-wise — an increase of 19.44% over the past month. My back-of-the-envelope calculations put the month at something over $42 million. The overall figure for Direct Market orders in the year is close to $389 million, a figure which incorporates some slight revisions (which I mention below). Diamond will release its Top 300s with full data next week.


The DC relaunch continues to make a big splash, of course, but the top-sellers list for the month includes several #1s from Marvel. Not a single issue in the Top 10 had an issue number above #3, and when the list is heavy with debut and early issues of series, we generally get a strong month. Comics unit sales were up a ginormous 31.19% over last November, which, as I reminded readers last month, wasn't a tough comparative to beat. Comics unit sales are now up 7% for the year; we've got a good shot at getting back above 75 million Top 300 comics sold for the year.

A significant help to the market this month, again, came from the graphic novels and trade paperbacks, which rose 12.43%. Several hardcovers ranked highly in unit sales, and that usually means a good month dollar-wise. The Batman: Noel Deluxe Edition hardcover topped the charts, followed by Dark Horse's Hellboy: House of the Living Dead hardcover. The trade category is the only one that's still off for the year, and it's not out of the question that it too could at least pull even.

The aggregate figures:



COMPARATIVE SALES STATISTICS

DOLLARS
UNITS
NOVEMBER 2011 VS. OCTOBER 2011
COMICS
-4.57%
-7.00%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
29.67%
30.06%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
4.33%
-4.98%
NOVEMBER 2011 VS. NOVEMBER 2010
COMICS
23.10%
31.19%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
12.43%
-0.69%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
19.44%
28.12%
YEAR-TO-DATE 2011 VS. YEAR-TO-DATE 2010
COMICS
4.06%
7.01%
GRAPHIC NOVELS
-2.56%
-10.27%
TOTAL COMICS/GN
1.87%
5.47%




DC remains on top in the market shares department this month, although the gap has much narrowed, and actually looks a lot like the table for a year ago this month, only with Marvel and DC reversed. The shares:
TOP COMIC BOOK PUBLISHERS
PUBLISHER
DOLLAR
SHARE
UNIT
SHARE
DC COMICS
34.69%
39.66%
MARVEL COMICS
33.30%
37.84%
IMAGE COMICS
5.36%
4.60%
IDW PUBLISHING
5.28%
3.65%
DARK HORSE COMICS
4.56%
3.47%
DYNAMITE ENTERTAINMENT
3.48%
3.20%
BOOM! STUDIOS
1.64%
1.55%
VIZ MEDIA
1.05%
0.39%
AVATAR PRESS
0.97%
0.55%
RANDOM HOUSE
0.96%
0.27%
OTHER NON-TOP 10
8.70%
4.81%



The release of the November sales figures marks a full year since Diamond began releasing aggregate month-to-month, year-to-year, and year-to-date sales change percentages. This is significant, as it helps improve the model that Comichron uses to project Overall Comic Book, Trade Paperback, and Magazine sales figures. The current model suggests that the previously calculated Overall estimates for 2011 were slightly low, the estimates for 2010 were slightly high, or some combination of the two. I've made some modest adjustments to the bottom line figure for the industry (resulting in a few million dollars extra for the year) but will need to do some more work with it as more figures come out. (Read more about the Overall estimate and how it's calculated.)

We can also say, looking at these figures over the course of the year, that they have been mathematically consistent: if you apply all 12 month-to-month changes Diamond has presented in the past year to a constant, it nets out to the exact year-to-year percentage that Diamond has just now reported. So there haven't been any glitches or typos in the numbers being reported.

In any event, barring calamity, the numbers look on pace for a slight overall increase over 2010's sales. It's often lost in discussion of the industry that the market was likely up for eight straight years in the 2000s, and that the two intervening decreases were slight. Time will, of course, tell whether the dropoff in 2009-10 was a significant market shift or a temporary aberration.

Look for more estimates next week. Remember to follow Comichron on Facebook and Twitter!

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