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Welcome to Comichron, a resource for comic book circulation data and other information gathered by
John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

The shape of pre-exclusivity distribution, April 1995

by John Jackson Miller

Seventeen years ago, the comics industry was in the waning days of its multi-distributor model. Marvel had purchased Heroes World Distribution, and would in July make it the only place where comics shops could buy its comics. And on April 28, 1995, DC and Diamond Comic Distributors announced their exclusivity pact — one which would be followed by many others. By the summer of 1996, all the other distributors were out of the comics business — and in April 1997, Marvel folded Heroes World and returned to Diamond. (Read earlier posts about the Exclusivity Wars.)

It was clear to all at this point in 1995 that things were about to change dramatically, and as editor of Comics Retailer magazine at the time, I was looking to get a snapshot of how things were before. Now, only five of the ten or so distributors at the time were regularly releasing Top Sellers lists — Diamond, Heroes World, Capital City Distribution, Friendly Frank's, and Canadian-based Styx Publications. And only Diamond and Capital went out to 300 items. So only the Top 100s from April 1995 were compared for the piece I did in Comics Retailer #40 (July 1995) — and even then, things didn't add up exactly, because the three smaller distributors included some non-comics items on their lists.

You can see Diamond's 100 titles (and the next 200) for the month here — but for comparison, here's how many titles the publishers placed in each distributor's top 100, followed by the top-ranking book each publisher placed with each distributor:

Publishers' Comics In Each Distributor's Top 100, April 1995
Diamond Capital City Heroes World Friendly Frank's Styx Average
Marvel 35 37 37 37 42 37.6
DC 24 23 23 23 23 23.2
Image 25 23 25 25 16 22.8
Dark Horse 5 5 4 4 7 5
Tekno 4 4 1 4 2 3
Acclaim 2 3 3 2 3 2.6
Harris 2 1 1 1 1 1.2
Crusade 1 1 1 1 1 1
Topps 1 1 1 1 1 1
Bongo 2 2 2
London Night 1 1
Hamilton 1 1

Publishers' Highest Rankings At Each Distributor, April 1995
Diamond Capital City Heroes World Friendly Frank's Styx Average
Marvel 1 1 1 1 1 1
DC 13 14 13 13 20 15
Image 11 11 11 11 3 9
Dark Horse 19 22 27 22 13 21
Tekno 60 62 75 70 78 69
Acclaim 23 13 25 23 34 24
Harris 45 46 39 49 61 48
Crusade 33 34 33 46 49 39
Topps 40 39 49 51 41 44
Bongo 107 81 92 93
London Night 97 101 99
Hamilton 120 147 74 114
Cartoon 112 106 109

As we can see, there is a lot of uniformity between Diamond and Capital — at least at the top of the charts. (Click to compare two Diamond and Capital months, from earlier in 1995.) The TeknoComix books are almost identically placed, midlist. The big difference is Acclaim (formerly Valiant),  whose top-ranking Ice Age: Magic The Gathering #2 placed ten slots higher at Capital than at Diamond; Capital had a lot of game stores in its customer base who were early adopters of collectible card games. And Bongo's Lisa Comics #1 did much better at Capital than at Diamond. But otherwise the two distributors were in pretty close to lock-step.

The same is mostly true for Heroes World, the regional northeastern distributor that Marvel had already purchased — though Dark Horse's industry leader for the month, Star Wars: Dark Empire II #5, fared worse there, as did Topps' X-Files #4. On the other hand, Harris's industry leader for the month, Vengeance of Vampirella #13, did better there than anywhere else, and Hamilton's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers #6 placed 74th, where it didn't make the Top 100 at all at Diamond and Capital.

But Tekno, publisher of comics by celebrity writers, fared much worse at Heroes World than anywhere else, with only one of its books, Neil Gaiman's Teknophage #1, cracking the Top 100. Tekno's titles ranked lower at all three of the smaller distributors seen here — which is likely attributable to marketing. Tekno reportedly dumped a million dollars in its launch ad campaign, and a lot of attention was paid to the largest distributors, which had more opportunities to promote individual titles.

At Friendly Frank's, likely the fourth largest U.S. distributor, the numbers were similar to two largest distributors but for Tekno and Topps. Styx, one of several Canadian distributors, has the list most different from the others. Marvel and Dark Horse placed more items on the list — Dark Horse's highest ranking was here — and Image ranked fewer titles in the Top 100 (but its top title, Spawn #31, ranked higher here than at the other distributors). Then the top titles for Acclaim, Crusade and Harris ranked lower at Styx than at the larger distributors as well.

This is far from a complete picture of pre-exclusivity distribution, and it is not intended as such. It's a snapshot using some handy data, and it's limited to the information we were able to see from the distributors that provided it. There do, however, seem to be a couple of takeaways. While over the years Diamond and Capital performed relatively better or worse with specific publishers as relationships and discounts offered changed, as of 1995, the sales rankings at the two publishers were fairly similar.

And the Top 100 breakdown by publisher was reasonably similar at the regional distributors as well — with perhaps a positive ranking bias in favor of the most familiar publishing houses. That effect, if in fact present over time and throughout the parts of the charts we can't see, has implications for any argument connecting distributor competition with more access for independent titles. It's likely that, when we did have a dozen distributors, the benefit mostly went to the largest publishers. The catalogs for the smaller distributors weren't very big; for some of the smaller ones, they were simply order sheets.  I expect there could be local effects due to the deals publishers had with each distributor, and the distributors' own efforts — those could favor one publisher or another. But brand recognition would have played a large role in what got sold in smaller venues.

On the other hand, it could be argued that it was the vigorous battle between Capital and Diamond that helped promote middle-tier publishers like Tekno, Crusade, and Topps; both firms were of a scale to permit focused selling, with distributor account reps calling on behalf of specific brands. That would seem to favor publishers large enough to arrange for those additional services; a comparison of the titles in the 200s might tell us more.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Full April 2012 comics sales estimates online

by John Jackson Miller

With the Avengers movie opening to a record $200.3 million this past weekend in the United States, the good fortunes of the comics industry in 2012 also appeared to continue in April, according to figures released today by Diamond Comic Distributors. Retailer orders for comic books and graphic novels rose 15% in North America versus the year prior, and several titles pushed past the 100,000 copy mark. Click to see the full estimates for April 2012.

Last April was a fairly drab and depressing month — Diamond had to talk about its sales of comics-related merchandise in its release to find a bright spot, something it hasn't had to do again since the DC relaunch at the end of last summer. Only Fear Itself #1 topped 100,000 copies last April, versus four titles this year. Still, the boost for April 2012 means the industry has outperformed the first four months of the year by nearly $17 million when all comics and trades are counted — and this becomes important heading into the second half of the year, when the comparisons will become more difficult.

Marvel's Avengers Vs. X-Men #2 led the market with orders of nearly 159,000 copies, and the preceding issue — which was ranked as a March release even though it came out in April — sold an additional 27,000 copies this past month, bringing its total to around 230,000 copies. If the book had been tabulated with all its copies recorded for April, it would've been the highest one-month total for an issue since January 2009, and the Barack Obama Spider-Man issue. But the accounting can be done a lot of different ways. If you throw August 31 into September, Justice League #1 actually had a 232,400-copy month in North America when it came out, including the Combo Pack edition, so it too would have had a shot at that highest-one-month total figure. See the list of top sellers for each month here.

By the end of the year, Justice League #1 had shipped 231,000 copies to North American retailers; including the Combo Pack version, its sales surpassed 255,000 copies. So with more months of reorders for AVX, these two releases may wind up in the same general neighborhood. The early Civil War issues topped 300,000 copies in 2006, a year that likely had more stores.

Image's Walking Dead trade collections completely dominate their category, giving Image an 8.6% market share, its highest since February 2003. Graphic novels are now up nearly 10% for the year; the slowest category thus far, trade paperbacks may be poised to break into double-digits as the DC relaunch trades enter the mix.

Partially because of Image's strength, Marvel and DC only combined for 64.76% of the market this month — their lowest combined market share since March 2004. Contrast the current figure with October's 81.26%, during the early weeks of the DC relaunch.

The aggregate figures:

April 2012: 6.1 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +14%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -14%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +7%
Versus 15 years ago this month: -35%
YEAR TO DATE: 23.99 million copies, +15% vs. 2011, -13% vs. 2007, +10% vs. 2002, -31% vs. 1997

April 2012 versus one year ago this month: +16.11%
YEAR TO DATE: +15.12%


April 2012: $21.34 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +12%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -2%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +31%
Versus 15 years ago this month: +3%
YEAR TO DATE: $82.94 million, +14% vs. 2011, -4% vs. 2007, +34% vs. 2002, +2% vs. 1997

April 2012 versus one year ago this month: +16.30%
YEAR TO DATE: +15.94%


April 2012: $6.76 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +27%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -15%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 50 vs. the Top 50: +52%
YEAR TO DATE: $24.89 million, +23% vs. 2011

April 2012 versus one year ago this month: +12.56%
YEAR TO DATE: +9.47%


April 2012: $28.1 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +16%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -5%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +15%
YEAR TO DATE: $107.83 million, +16% vs. 2011

April 2012 versus one year ago this month: +15.09%
YEAR TO DATE: +13.84%


OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)
April 2012: approximately $36 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +15%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +3%
YEAR TO DATE: $137.81 million, +14% vs. 2011, +2% vs. 2007
The average price of comics in Diamond's Top 300 was $3.53, with the average comic book retailers ordered costing an average of $3.50. $3.50 was also the median price of all comics offered in the Top 300, while the most common price remained $2.99.

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Friday, May 4, 2012

Comics sales strong in April, highest Image share since 2003

by John Jackson Miller

It's an incredibly busy day in the comics world. The Avengers movie is releasing; see our post on Avengers sales history. It's the day before Free Comic Book Day; see our post on its history. And it's also May-the-Fourth-Be-With-You Star Wars Day (and USA Today just announced my new Star Wars comics series minutes ago). So it happens that the monthly preliminary release of comics sales figures comes on a day when many are paying attention to pop culture — and the news is just the kind you want to see on such a day. Click to see the preliminary comics sales charts for April 2012.

Diamond Comic Distributors reports that comics shops in North America ordered nearly 14% more dollars worth of comics and graphic novels than last April; The Comics Chronicles has a preliminary projection of $36 million for sales for the month. The performance in all categories is slightly better than the performance for the first quarter, and as this is our first really clean month-to-month comparison of the year, it indicates that what we were seeing in previous months wasn't a fluke.

With Marvel's Avengers Vs. X-Men #2 leading the market and DC's relaunch titles continuing, new comics orders continued to be up double digits — and the Image's Walking Dead trades continued to dominate their category. Graphic novels are now up nearly 10% for the year; the laggard category, thus far, trade paperbacks may be poised to break into double-digits as the DC relaunch trades enter the mix.

The aggregate change figures:


APRIL 2012 VS. MARCH 2012
APRIL 2012 VS. APRIL 2011

Last month was the first month in the Diamond Exclusive Era that five publishers had topped 5% in dollar market share. That didn't happen this month, but an interesting thing appears in the distribution of shares. We had six publishers with 3% market share or more, something that has happened frequently lately. But that's usually been associated with those six publishers combining to sell more than 90% of the material in the market by dollars. This time, it was down under 87% — and we see that we're very close to having 10 publishers with a dollar market share of 1%.


It's possible in part because Marvel and DC only combined for 64.76% of the market this month — their lowest combined market share since March 2004. Contrast the current figure with October's 81.26%, during the early weeks of the DC relaunch. Image's Walking Dead-powered sales strength is a big factor — its 8.6% market share is its highest since February 2003.

As mentioned here many times previously, the recovery of the early 2000s was powered by a virtuous cycle of a hit from one publisher being followed by a hit from another publisher — so strength at middle-tier publishers is key to a recovery. But one difference in 2012 is that the trade paperback market is much more developed, so there is a place for retailers' dollars to go even when there are months without a major event comic book. Walking Dead and other trades may be evolving into just that — reliable places for retailers to hold their cash and a hedge against month-to-month volatility.

Full numbers next week. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Free Comic Book Day, from 2002 to today

by John Jackson Miller

Saturday marks 10 years since the first Free Comic Book Day, and as with last year, I'll be signing my Star Wars, Mass Effect, and Iron Man comics at Chimera Hobby Shop, 808 W. Wisconsin Ave., Appleton, Wis. from 11:00AM to 1:00PM, and again from 3:00PM to 6:00PM. I think it's the seventh or eighth straight year I've participated at a local shop here, and I'm glad to take part. It's very important to the business, and it's become a model for other hobbies.

It's a tradition — and so in something else that's become a tradition here, I'm retelling the story of how an event which began with a suggestion by a retailer in the pages of a trade magazine has  become a major happening in stores around the world, and the kickoff not just for the summer but most of the comic book year for many publishers.

There had been earlier hopes for an equivalent to the milk marketing board in comics — some kind of advertising council — over the years, including a publisher-and-distributor attempt in the mid-1990s that met several times but never generated much of anything before it vanished in the industry's collapse that decade. The idea for Free Comic Book Day, by contrast, came from the retail sector — or, rather, from a retailer: Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in California.

I had signed Joe on in the late 1990s as a monthly columnist for Comics & Games Retailer magazine, a trade publication that went for free each month to most of the comics shops in North America. Like the other columnists, Joe's contributions ranged from commentary on retail issues to practical advice — and in June 2001, just as the comics industry was beginning to emerge from the disaster of the 1990s, Joe advised us he had a special column on the way, along with something unusual: an instantaneous response from the Powers That Be being addressed.

In "The Power of Free," Joe spoke of how Baskin-Robbins had held its annual Free Scoop Night on May 2, 2001. The event resulted, he wrote, in the ice cream store near his shop moving 1,300 scoops in four hours, meaning that's how many patrons came through the door. Joe wrote that he'd suggested a national comics "open house" event to Diamond Comic Distributors in 1997; now, he thought, the key element to add would be giveaway comics.

Giveaway comics were a major source of new readers for the comics industry over its history, from the March of Comics issues given away at shoe stores to the Big Boy comics still distributed in restaurants. I've done a lot of research into those and several other giveaway lines over the years — and it's plain that many of the people who learned to read comics (and, odd as it sounds, the storytelling language of comics is something one does have to learn to read) learned it from ones they got for free. Most of those comics went completely away in the 1980s and 1990s. Joe's suggestion in the article was that publishers could create sampler comics for their different lines — "just as Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors of ice cream... a selection of samplers available from different publishers would allow stores to better cover the disparate tastes of those who'll show up."

Joe suggested a variety of steps that could be taken by publishers, retailers, and creators; I've posted the original article pages here, which I hope he doesn't mind. Click the pages to see them larger. It shows that many of those ideas, relating to the production and distribution of the samplers, were pretty close to what was eventually adopted. It also shows the sidebar response from Diamond's Roger Fletcher, embracing the idea and promising to solicit retailer interest in the idea.

And it happened. The first Free Comic Book Day was on May 4 of the following year — right after the release of Spider-Man, and a year and two days after the Baskin-Robbins event that Joe said provided the partial inspiration. The magazine followed the progress of the event, and was happy to be associated — our Maggie Thompson attended many of the FCBD board meetings as an advisor. But it all came from Joe — and Diamond and the major publishers' evident agreement that, as he had written, 2001 was the beginning of a turnaround for comics, a new opportunity. "There's a strong sense among many retailers with whom I've spoken that we're definitely experiencing a resurgence of sales and customers," he wrote. "A promotion like this could be the calling card we need to give our market strong forward momentum."

And it did. A few years later, both the sportscard and gaming hobbies put together similar events, organizers citing the FCBD experience as a positive reason to go forward. And FCBD still goes forward.

Lots of free comics are on offer this year: you can find the full list of titles here. Signing schedules can also be found on their website. There's also a handy FAQ page on the site. If your local comic shop is not listed, give them a call for a complete list of events and signings.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Avengers comics sales history -- five decades, assembled!

by John Jackson Miller

With The Avengers movie releasing, this seems like a good time to post the near-complete year-by-year record of Avengers sales, according to statements Marvel filed with the U.S. Postal Service. The first postal statement appeared in 1966; I have all of them since then with the exception of 1975, 1988, 2005, and 2010 when Marvel did not publish figures at all — the latter two being the first years from New Avengers and then the re-re-re-rebooted Avengers series. (Yes, New Avengers is considered part of the same "series," at least as far as postal subscriptions go. So even with the name change, it's been one title since 1963.) Click to see the entire table of Avengers sales over the years.

Marvel's Avengers brought together several heroes from other titles under the roof of Avengers Mansion: Iron Man (and later Captain America) from Tales of Suspense; Thor from Journey Into Mystery; and Hulk, Wasp, and Ant-Man from Tales to Astonish. The formula succeeded, providing Marvel with a new team title and a subgroup of heroes within its own universe. When Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor each got their own titles, the books were colloquially known as "the Avengers titles," even though all the characters had started elsewhere before the Avengers existed.

The sales story of The Avengers is an adventure all on its own, with several heroic recoveries. From a 1967 plateau of nearly 277,000 copies, Avengers sales declined along with most other titles in the 1960s, but held relatively steady through much of the 1970s. Sales improved dramatically in 1979, with modest growth during Jim Shooter's return tenure on the title and continuing on through to 1984.

But sales began to slip in the late 1980s, with sales now split between the main title and West Coast Avengers and, later, Solo Avengers. (Those titles will have their own entries here eventually.) When the rest of the industry was exploding in sales in the early 1990s, Avengers saw only modest sustained increases. The title had dwindled to five-figures in the mid-1990s when Marvel brought Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld on board to relaunch part of he Marvel line as part of "Heroes Reborn." Liefeld's brief stint on Avengers dramatically increased sales on the title, and after he left, Avengers had better luck holding onto its gains after "Heroes Return" began than other titles in the experiment had.

By 2003, sales had again approached pre-Reborn levels, and Marvel rebooted the series as New Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis. Sales soared again, and the title benefited from its central role in the Civil War storyline in the mid-2000s. Sales slipped during the recession later in the decade, and Marvel rebooted the series a fourth time (this time as Avengers again) in 2010, in advance of the 2012 Avengers feature film.

What's the best-selling issue of the main Avengers title? The peak seller in the 1980s, according to archival records, was November 1985's #261, a Secret Wars II crossover, with sales of 277,400 copies — including 151,900 copies in the Direct Market. As 277,000 was the average in 1967, one of the issues that year — or from an earlier year — likely trumps it. Bendis's New Avengers #1 had Direct Market final orders of at least 241,500 copies in late 2004 and early 2005, and newsstand, subscription sales, and later reorders would likely have boosted it still higher, so it's a contender.

But the relaunched Avengers Vol. 2 #1 — the first "Heroes Reborn" issue — had preorders through Heroes World Distribution of 276,734 copies — and that does not include newsstand or subscription sales, which would have taken it into the 300,000s. So barring some much higher issue from 1963-65, that rebooted issue is a good candidate for the top-seller. [The closest modern-era rivals would come from 1993, the biggest year of the boom era;  Avengers dropped no less than four foil or otherwise enhanced covers on the market in that publishing year. There are several near the peak that could have made it into the 300,000s, but the data is incomplete, and the average for the year was nonetheless under 200,000. The 300k-plus club for Avengers is likely very small, in any event.]

All told, the nearly 600 monthly issues of the main Avengers title likely sold between 125 and 135 million copies. Not bad for a book about to hit 50!

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My thanks to Eric S., Brent Frankenhoff, Mike Howell, and others who helped locate Statements.

[Update 5/2/12: And the aforementioned Frankenhoff has definitively found there were no Statements for 2005 and 2010, so the numbers are basically complete. 

I have also looked further into the sales from 1993: At least at Capital City Distribution, the top-selling issue that year wasn't one of the foil issues, but rather #368, the first "Blood Ties" issue, which at 103,900 copies had orders nearly four times what #367 — and most of the other non-enhanced issues of the year had. That would seem to predict an overall sale of at least 300,000 copies and possibly much higher, since newsstand draws would be more likely to track upward in concert with Direct Market orders on an un-enhanced issue. Coming at the end of the year, #368's sales would have been reflected in the 1994 Statement, which found average sales, newsstand included of 165,408. Since the Statement for 1995 saw sales falling by more than 50%, I believe that #368 probably is responsible for 1994's total being as high as it was, and that the real average could be as much as 25,000 copies less.

It's all extrapolation, however — while there are archival sources with complete information for individual issues for some years, 1993 sits in one of the gaps between them.]

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