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


Thursday, January 29, 2009

FAQ: Comics in the Top 300 by publisher, 1997-present

They're frequently asked questions: How many comics are the major publishers releasing each month? And how many are charting in the Diamond Top 300 title lists? And does getting more comics out translate to greater sales or market share?

Answering the first question requires tracking the Diamond shipping lists — looking at Previews alone won't work, as some items ship late or don't come out. Then the order codes get merged — once you make the arbitrary decision of what comics are the same thing and what aren't. (Are reprint versions of the same comic book the same item? What if they have different covers?) And it can be labor-intensive to do such a count — so much so, that when we did it at Comics Buyer's Guide for all the comics shipping in 1997, it took days for several staffers to complete. (Answer: 5,695 different comics, with variant covers counted as different items.)

So when I was recently asked what I had on hand regarding how slates of releases had changed over recent years for various publishers, that stumped the Comichron database. That's not a calculation I regularly run. But while it's not exactly the next best thing, we can see something of it by answering that second frequently asked question: How many comics have charted each month for the major publishers?

For Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and IDW — the five largest publishers at the end of 2008 — the answers appear here. The tables and graph go all the way back to April 1997, which was the first month in which all publishers, including Marvel, were again being distributed by Diamond after the Exclusivity Wars (beginning the "Diamond Era" in this site's terminology).

There are a number of caveats on the page — explaining both how these numbers are neither representative of publisher performance nor publisher output. In the first case, pretty obviously, placing an item on the list is not indicative of its unit and dollar sales — and for the purposes of these counts, the #1 comic book and the #300 comic book carry the same numerical weight. Further, any publisher can gain market share without being on the list at all (as manga and trade-only publishers regularly do).

In the second case, yes, even the major publishers don't always place every new title in the Top 300, particularly when the competition is fierce. In December 1993, Marvel had 18 new releases that wound up in the 300s on Capital City's more-inclusive list — a number of Marvel U.K. books, and some others. And then, depending on when we're talking about, presence on the list might not indicate a separate item — or even an item that shipped at all. Before 2003, the charts were all preorders, meaning some comics on them never came out or came out later — in which case, sometimes, they'd appear again on the lists. And since then, comics with strong reorders can appear on the list more than once. And while Diamond's team does a pretty good job of combining variant cover and reprints into the same order entry, sometimes rogue issues slip through.

So it is not correct to look at these counts and say, "wow, Publisher X is putting out Y titles a month." It is probably close to the case, but the real number could be more (if there are books outside the 300) or less (if there are duplicates, cancellations, etc.).

Looking at the numbers — or simply at the graphic — we see immediately that Marvel's number of entries on the list, in decline during the bankruptcy years of 1996-1998, slumped during the worst part of the comics recession — and later rebounded as the industry did in the 2000s. (Yes, the increase in the number of titles probably contributed to that industry rebound — but I'll leave the correlation-causation studies to others for the moment.) And the number of entries has in recent years climbed indeed, with 119 items in the December 2008 list, all but one of them new. We see from the table that its average monthly count in the Top 300 has increased annually since 2001. The 2008 annual rise is not the largest annual increase by percentage or by number; that was the increase in 2004.

We also see from the figures that IDW has added entries in every year since its inception. The others appear to go back and forth; Image has had some wider annual changes, which one suspects may be associated with evolving strategies when it comes to taking on books from outside the main studios.

Finally among the frequently-asked questions, does getting more comics out translate to greater sales or market share? Understanding, again, that market share is more than just the Top 300, let's look once more at Marvel. The average Marvel in the fourth quarter of 2008 moved around 33,500 units at $112,700 retail; averaging the 583 comics that weren't Marvels in the Top 300s, we get sales of 17,800 copies retailing at $58,000 each. So — if you're looking at market share just within the Top 300 — with the average Marvel entry representing nearly twice the copies and dollars as the average entry from anyone else, any additional entry would tend to help market share so long as that relationship holds.

That's self-evident, statistically; whoever you are, as long as your average title is doing better than the average title by everyone else, line increases help market share when we're looking at sales within the Top 300. And anyone can track any publisher's averages, and how they change across time, by looking at the data in varying groupings. (For example, in December 2008, the average unit and dollar value of Marvels in the Top 300 appears in line with past performance. Marvel's 119 items had average unit sales of around 34,900 copies and average dollar sales of $119,000 at full retail; in December 2007, when it had 99 offerings in the Top 300, the average Marvel title had orders of around 33,200 copies selling for about $106,600. When you expand the look to the whole fourth quarter, the averages change a bit. Marvel's 21% more entries in the Top 300 in the fourth quarter of 2008 sold an average of 7% fewer units and 1% fewer dollars each versus the averages for the entries it had in the lists of the fourth quarter of 2007.)

Answering the frequently asked questions above and presenting the tables and graph pose a number of invariable follow-up questions, only a few of which I'll engage here:

Was the number of Marvel releases at the end of the year unprecedented? No, not really. Here's the Top 300 count at Diamond in December 1993:

Marvel: 103
DC: 65
Dark Horse: 17
Image: 12

But, again, Diamond did not publish its entire list, then or ever. Capital City did. Marvel had 115 releases in its Top 300 — another sign that Marvel performed better at Capital stores than at Diamond stores in 1993 — but 133 non-TPB releases in its charts overall. Counts in the 130s or 140s are pretty close to what I've heard were the high-water mark of that boom time; I only did spot-checks, but it looks like by the middle of 1994, Marvel's down to the 110s.

That leads us to the second follow-up question:

Are changes like this — a doubling of a slate over the course of several years — unusual for Marvel or anyone else?
No — there's quite a lot of volatility in offerings across time. We've seen publishers — heck, the whole comics publishing industry — ramp up and cut back for a variety of reasons, and sometimes in much shorter periods of time.

These are some old estimates I need to revise, but my last research into the subject suggests that the number of different comic books released peaked in 1953, falling down to half those levels in 1962 (the nadir being only around 1,500 different comics released in the year). Marvel's line, once artificially restricted by its distributor contract, began to grow later in the decade — and then dramatically in the early to mid 1970s, leading to a glut peaking around 1976. Massive line cuts for Marvel and others followed (including the DC Implosion), and the number of releases settled just above the 1962 bottom in 1982-83.

Then the direct market, allowing access to new publishers, sparked the black-and-white boom. That peaked in 1987-88 — during which we finally caught the 1953 title count (though not the sales volume) — and started downward again in the black-and-white crash. But the slowdown in title count growth was very short — 1989 was the only down year — before it was off to unprecedented heights during the speculator boom of the early 1990s. Then the crash — and the distributor changes beginning in 1995 — and a drop in offerings again. Which pretty much brings us to the time-period in the charts above — artificially limited as it is to the Top 300. (The years mentioned in this paragraph were generated by taking the entire Standard Catalog of Comic Books and sorting it by year; the snapshot generated isn't perfect, but it does give us the peaks and valleys.)

So these changes have had a history of happening; just not in the electronic age where everyone can share the spreadsheet.

Finally, there's the all-important follow-up question that comes up whenever people notice line sizes increasing: How many titles can the market bear? As the main mission of The Comics Chronicles is to provide historical context, prognostication isn't really my department: History tells us that question is only really accurately answered when the market tells you. We just don't know. The forces at work in past oscillations may not be in play now, to the same degree, or at all.

To that score, however, we might note some things that are different this time out. First, in that boom in the early 1990s, the comics shop new-issue rack was much more likely to be the sole destination of many more of the items being released. The major publishers may have had newsstand sales and subscriptions, but to a large degree, the direct market was intended to be the breadwinner for most titles. Marvel had a few subsidiary lines the Nelson religious comics (remember The Illuminator?) or specialty comics like NFL Pro Action that might have sold a little into the direct market but were really printed for a different market (Christian bookstores, in the Nelson case). But this was the great exception — whereas today, with trade paperback and manga-sized collections opening up other channels, we'll see lines like Marvel Adventures and its classic literature comics where a presence in Previews is part of, but not the entirety of, the publishing plan.

It also strikes me that, since few retailers now or in 1993 have the capacity (or desire) to stock every new title, the efficient targeting of fragmented audiences has something to do with the question of what the market will support. I would suspect there is a greater degree of diversity in all the major publishers' lines in 2009 than in 1993 — even within the superhero lines (as we were counting Spidey and X-monthlies in the double digits back then). And the trade paperback may have made it possible to push that diversity further out into the marketplace to where the readers are. Marvel had a line of Clive Barker comics in the early 1990s; it has a line of Stephen King comics now. My guess is that the industry is better organized to push something like The Stand in front of potential King readers today than it was in putting Hellraiser in front of Barker fans then. Time, and the numbers, will tell.

As for the past — my department — more data on this topic to follow in the days ahead, I'm sure...
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