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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.

 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Primer: North American and UK/Europe comics sales, and why the charts keep them separate


by John Jackson Miller

When it comes to our reports based on data from Diamond Comic Distributors, we're always careful to say they're based on sales to retailers by the distributor in North America. We often mention UK and European sales as not being included in Diamond's monthly tallies — but we don't often get into why that's the case. The question is occasionally raised online, so it's worth a quick primer.

Diamond launched its own service in the United Kingdom, Diamond UK Ltd., in 1991; later that year, it purchased another UK distributor, Pacific Distribution. In 1992, near the height of the comics boom and Diamond's rivalry with Capital City, the company bought out Titan Distributors. The consolidated firms operate now as Diamond Comic Distributors UK; headquartered in Cheshire, it serves both the United Kingdom and Europe.

How big a market are we talking about? For many years, I drew upon internal data for publishers who accounted for more than a third of the U.S. Direct Market — and I got to see their North American and UK invoiced orders side-by-side.
Knowing what the ratio was between sales to the two regions, I was able to extend that to the entire market — and for many years I reported that at the end of my charts. Here, for example, is what I saw from month to month for the year 2009, based on all comics and trade paperback units Diamond sold:

COMIC AND GRAPHIC NOVEL UNIT SALES, 2009

North American Comic & TPB UnitsDiamond UK UnitsUK/US RatioTOTAL N. AMERICA/ UK UNITS
Jan-096,776,000 494,000 7.29%7,270,000
Feb-096,576,000 456,000 6.93%7,032,000
Mar-096,412,000 459,000 7.16%6,871,000
Apr-099,630,000 744,000 7.73%10,374,000
May-096,877,000 512,000 7.45%7,389,000
Jun-097,739,000 564,000 7.29%8,303,000
Jul-098,559,000 590,000 6.89%9,149,000
Aug-097,847,000 580,000 7.39%8,427,000
Sep-098,611,000 630,000 7.32%9,241,000
Oct-097,237,000 581,000 8.03%7,818,000
Nov-097,309,000 585,000 8.00%7,894,000
Dec-097,796,000 666,000 8.54%8,462,000
TOTAL 200991,368,000 6,861,000 7.51%98,232,000

As we can see, the Diamond UK draw was about 7.5% the size of the North American draw when it came to units. Now we take a look at dollars:

COMIC AND GRAPHIC NOVEL DOLLAR SALES, 2009

North American Comic & TPB DollarsDiamond UK DollarsUK/US RatioTOTAL N. AMERICA/ UK Dollars
Jan-09$31,308,000 $3,237,000 10.34%$34,545,000
Feb-09$28,724,000 $2,446,000 8.52%$31,170,000
Mar-09$31,093,000 $3,056,000 9.83%$34,149,000
Apr-09$41,955,000 $4,661,000 11.11%$46,616,000
May-09$35,811,000 $3,700,000 10.33%$39,511,000
Jun-09$37,034,000 $3,533,000 9.54%$40,567,000
Jul-09$41,587,000 $3,896,000 9.37%$45,483,000
Aug-09$36,149,000 $3,753,000 10.38%$39,902,000
Sep-09$41,007,000 $4,154,000 10.13%$45,161,000
Oct-09$34,195,000 $3,745,000 10.95%$37,940,000
Nov-09$34,952,000 $3,981,000 11.39%$38,933,000
Dec-09$35,672,000 $4,286,000 12.02%$39,958,000
TOTAL 2009$429,487,000 $44,448,000 10.35%$473,935,000

As you can see, the dollar share is quite a bit more than the unit share, with the market Diamond UK serves tending to be about one-tenth the size of its North American market.

So it's not a large addition, but not an insignificant one either. But I haven't played up the ratios you see above and no longer report the category — for the same reason, it turns out, that merging the charts would create problems. The North America-to-UK sales ratio is highly dependent on the product mix of the publishers you're looking at — and where variance exists, such ratios may not be applicable market-wide.

Diamond UK sells to retailers most, but not all, of the products Diamond carries for North American customers; it also sells materials which are only available in those markets. That — besides logistical concerns in the early days — is one reason why you don't see a consolidated list. For years and years, for example, Dark Horse had the Star Wars license in North America, but Titan had it in the UK. Neither's comics were available to retailers in the others' market.

There aren't as many such barriers in play today, but some remain, and the result of a consolidated list, then and now, would be not one, but two new sets of asterisks to go with the returnable one we already have: (**Not available in North America) and (***Not available outside North America) to explain why those titles' reported sales are lower relative to other books. And while it would be more complete, a single chart peppered with information on products retailers could not buy would be less effective at its intended purpose: advising retailers about what they should be buying.

As stated here in greater detail, the distributor sales charts were never intended to be mere scoreboards. They weren't created for those of us watching at home; they weren't invented to give publishers something to crow about. They're for Diamond's customers, the retailers. The first indexed sales charts appeared in 1984 were released in order to allow shop-owners to see what was selling in other parts of the country, such that they could adjust their orders accordingly. The charts have gone through some changes since then, but they serve the same function: Diamond reports what shipped from its North American warehouses in the calendar month.

By merging the North American and United Kingdom charts, Diamond would boost the reported figures for many titles — but the result would be of less help to retailers. United States and global box office sales are both important, but it's still useful to keep U.S. box office separate, because the list of films in release to the U.S. market will always be somewhat different from week to week from the global list.

There's another concern, a logistical one: calculating cover prices and sales. I'm not sure how you'd enter onto the North American charts UK-area exclusive items, if any, that aren't cover-priced in dollars. I'm not sure applying exchange rates would work. Would we need to look at exchange rates at the moment the books were ordered, or when the report is published? And would there be two columns — one for the nominal price in pounds, another with the U.S. dollar equivalent for summation purposes?

Finally, what market analysts regard to be a pretty serious concern: adding UK data to the North American charts would throw off all the cross-time comparisons, unless we simultaneously got retroactive data for the whole Diamond Exclusive Era. The most important "horse-race" in comics is not the one between publishers, but our own competition with the past. Switching from preorders to final orders in 2003 was undoubtedly the right thing to do, but comparatives with anything before 2003 still suffer. It's like comparing modern baseball with the dead-ball era.

Right now, the Diamond charts report something very specific and exact: the books that leave its hands in the shipping month for destinations in North America. That's been a valid and reliable measure of both, but we're also very specific that it can't be expanded to report everything a publisher sold — or that retailers bought, or that customers bought — without adding caveats. The UK 10% caveat has been provided for many years here, and it's important to make sure that anything done to make it more exact doesn't undermine the integrity of the existing measures.

Collectors do want to know for posterity how many copies are in circulation — and publishers always like to see higher numbers reported, even though adding Europe might not change their situation relative to their rivals much. Is there a solution that gets UK and Europe sales of comics printed in North America recognized without creating any of the above problems?

Yes, but it's a bit complicated. Diamond would need to release a second set of charts monthly — a Diamond UK shipped-copy list — along with order index numbers for its decryption. We would then unlock and publish estimates separately on Comichron, treating it in the same manner we would if it was a separate distributor; we have plans to do that here anyway, as we have parallel monthly charts for Diamond and Capital. Then a third, fused, set of charts would aggregate all sales — beginning a parallel set of trendlines for the English-language market. It would be a lot of extra work on the analysts' side, and I could see some going with just the North American charts and doing only aggregates or a la carte research into the overseas market. But as long as the geographic markets are distinct, retailers within those markets would likely benefit from being able to look just at the parts of it they inhabit. Whatever is added, the existing measures need to remain available.


John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 20 years, including a decade editing the industry's retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises.  He is the author of several novels including Star Wars: Kenobi, Overdraft: The Orion Offensive, and Star Wars: A New Dawn, now available in paperback. His trilogy for 2016, Star Trek: Prey, ships in consecutive months in September, October, and November.

Visit his fiction site at http://www.farawaypress.com. And be sure to follow Comichron on Twitter and Facebook.
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2 comments:

AJ Harper said...

Does the UK market also account for the entire European Market in terms of US comic books being sold over there? Also have you been working to get sales figures in places like Mexico or Central/South America?

John Jackson Miller said...

It only accounts for those comics shipped to Europe via Diamond UK accounts. Other channels for some of those books may exist, but I would not expect to see data made available for them.

Comichron's sole focus is the North American market since 1935, so we don't really look beyond that. Things get complicated when considering territorial restrictions on sales of certain books.

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