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Virtuous cycle? February comics sales show depth

Monday, March 12, 2012

by John Jackson Miller


I have written many times that the recovery in comics sales that began in earnest at the end of 2001 was built upon a "virtuous cycle" developing, in which retailers placed the money from strong-performing comics not solely into paying down other expenses, but into ordering more of the next big project. With Marvel's "Avengers Vs. X-Men" event launching later in 2012, the question was whether the market could hold its gains from the DC relaunch through the "Dead Quarter," giving shops something to work with as AVX approached.

As reported here on Friday, according to figures released by Diamond Comic Distributors, Direct Market orders had their best February in years, with the year-to-date increase mirroring the increase of early 2002, when Wolverine: The Origin fed into Dark Knight Strikes Again, which fed into the Spider-Man movie, the first Free Comic Book Day, and the Transformers nostalgia boomlet. With the estimates for February sales online, we see that the internal numbers also show positive signs.

Last February, while itself a rebound month for the market, had the lowest orders ever for a top-selling title, with Green Lantern #62 selling 71,500 copies to retailers in its initial month. This February, market-topping Justice League #6 had orders approaching 135,400 copies (excluding the Combo Pack) and six titles outsold last year's top-seller.

But perhaps the more important comparisons come by looking at the two-month cycle — the tempo retailer orders are placed on. Most titles would expect to lose significant ground as the winter months are entered; retailers in February 2011 cut their Green Lantern orders more than 6% from the previous December. This February, Justice League's orders dropped by less than 5% from December — and the issue was a Feb. 29 shipping product, so it included only first-day shipments. I would suspect that going down the list we'd find a similar lessening of the usual winter order reductions; retailers ordered nearly 1 million more copies of the Top 300 comics in the month than in February 2011, so that seems likely.

February's total was, of course, aided by the fifth shipping week — it was the first February with five Wednesdays since 1984. Past years show about an 11% increase in Top 300 comics unit orders in weeks with five months; this month's increase in the Top 300 was 18%, so there's something more going on. Whether due solely to the extra week or not, the depth of publisher offerings was much greater this month: we never see a February with just 15 publishers represented in the Top 300. February used to be the month where we'd see the publisher names that usually bubble under. But this month, Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and IDW combined for 239 entries — and Dynamic Forces (Dynamite) added an additional 25! So there aren't a lot of slots left.
 
We can further see the depth by looking at the 300th-place title bellwether. Look at the number of copies ordered of the 300th-place title in the last

February 2003 • 1,585
February 2004 • 857
February 2005 • 1,155
February 2006 • 1,561
February 2007 • 1,314
February 2008 • 1,997
February 2009 • 2,604
February 2010 • 2,237
February 2011 • 2,860
February 2012 • 4,185

These are all years in which Diamond reported Final Orders, so we're comparing like against like in all cases. Even with the fifth week, retailers ordered far more copies of the titles in the low 200s than they did during even the years that were overall, like 2005-2007. The fragmentation of sales across multiple titles is an old theme on this site, but the above figures are a pretty good indicator that something fundamental has changed in the Direct Market.  (The 300th-place graphic novel, by the way, had unit orders of 337 copies, versus 295 last year.)

It may be that the successful model for a middle-tier publisher is no longer keeping to a small-sized line — the "Rule of Eight" observed by market analyst Marc Patten many years ago, who found a high mortality rate for publishers that extended past eight monthly titles in the post-Image era. IDW (which had its highest market share ever this month), Dynamic Forces, and to an extent Boom have joined Image and Dark Horse on what would appear to be a tier where trade paperbacks are making the economies of scale make sense. Is eight titles is no longer the barrier, but the lower entry point to a Periodic Table-like island of stability? And how many publishers can inhabit that region? It's something worth more research.

Here are the aggregate figures:


TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
Feburary 2012: 6.09 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +18%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -8%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +17%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -24%
YEAR TO DATE: 11.87 million copies, +24% vs. 2011, -11% vs. 2007, +7% vs. 2002, -30% vs. 1997

ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
February 2012 versus one year ago this month: +19.63%
YEAR TO DATE: +25.94%

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TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES
February 2011: $20.98 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +17%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +1%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +39%
Versus 15 years ago this month: +11%
YEAR TO DATE: $40.8 million, +22% vs. 2011, -2% vs. 2007, +28% vs. 2002, unchanged vs. 1997

ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
February 2012 versus one year ago this month: +22.26%
YEAR TO DATE: +26.71%

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TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
February 2012: $5.72 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +11%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -11%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: -53%
YEAR TO DATE: $11.69 million, +20% vs. 2011

ALL TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
February 2012 versus one year ago this month: +15.65%
YEAR TO DATE: +16.93%

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TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES
February 2012: $26.7 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: +26%
YEAR TO DATE: $52.5 million, +22% vs. 2011

ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK  SALES
February 2012 versus one year ago this month: +20.11%
YEAR TO DATE: +23.49%

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OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
February 2012: approximately $36.5 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +21%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +13%
YEAR TO DATE: $69.04 million, +25% vs. 2010, +5% vs. 2007

This is the last month that the ten-year comparisons will be limited to the Top 25 trade paperbacks; Diamond moved to reporting the Top 50 in March 2002.

A couple of observations on the aggregates: the Direct Market has now banked $14 million over the first nine weeks of 2012 versus the year before; this will come in handy as the comparatives for the second half of the year will be more challenging, as we get into comparisons with the early DC relaunch months.

Also, it's interesting to see that the dollar value of all the Top 300 comics ordered in 2012 to date is identical with the figure for the first two months of 1997. That was a period with much lower prices, of course, but the larger unit sales then was driven largely by there being many more shops. That's the big mission should our nascent virtuous cycle continue; comics sales improved in the 2000s but the number of shops didn't swell very much in response. Will retailers farther removed from the calamity of the late 1990s be more willing to expand, especially as the general economy improves? That's one of many big questions, but it's a nice one to be able to ask at all.

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2 comments:

Anonymous,  March 16, 2012 at 9:25 PM  

I see comics are getting healthy again. Do you foresee in the near future the top 5 sellers selling over 200,000 and another 10 around the 100,000s, and the 300th place selling more than 10,000?

John Jackson Miller March 16, 2012 at 9:33 PM  

We haven't had five over 200,000 in many years, but we did have close to those numbers in the first month of the DC relaunch, so it is possible (though 10k for 300th place would be unprecedented).

But what really has to happen to guarantee that that the number of ordering stores needs to increase. Then there'd be enough bandwidth, so to speak, to hit those numbers again more regularly.

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