by John Jackson Miller
While the 2012 Year-In-Review data for the North American comics shop market appeared here in January, there's of course a wider world out there — and while the "Direct Market" does continue to account for almost two thirds of print sales, it helps to put things into a larger perspective.
As in past years, Brian Hibbs has gotten access to the actual sales for trade paperbacks and graphic novels in 2012 as recorded by Bookscan, a service of Nielsen — and I have again used that material as a tool to figuring out the larger world. You can see my 2011 report here, as well as a grid with all years on the site. It also informs the graphic at lower right, which is a visual representation of the relative sizes of each category, depicted by physical area.
Bookscan draws upon cash-register data from many member bookstores — and from Amazon — and its share of industry sales on individual titles varies. The service reportedly covers something like 75% of bookstore sales, but that varies depending on the item; Bookscan appears to capture more sales for some titles and less for others, but Hibbs' list does go all the way down to the single digits for copies sold, so it's a fair starting point for analysis.
Hibbs finds that the top 750 items, once non-comics items are weeded out, sold for $89.92 million at full retail, up 12.4% from last year. That's a nice improvement, but the "long tail" shrank, with sales of the 23,365 graphic novels in Bookscan's report down 6% to $164.4 million.
Armed with that, as in past years, I have calculated an "all-industry number. Here's how it works.
• The Top 300 comic books each month in the Direct Market are known to have had orders totaling $285 million. The Top 300s capture most, but not all the comics activity; if 5% of sales fell outside the Top 300, North American periodical sales in comics shops would be close to $300 million.
• Periodicals are also sold in the newsstand. Marvel's postal Statements of Ownership have not yet appeared to my knowledge, and Archie's are only now coming out, but I expect we'll find little change in that market: it's a very small portion of sales. Throwing in the few million dollars that remain for postal subscription sales of comics, we're probably looking at around $30 million in North American periodical sales outside of comics shops.
So that's about $330 million for comic books. That's up about 10% from my guess from last year. On to graphic novels, a term which for our purposes here includes softcover and hardcover collected editions:
• We know that in 2012 the Top 300 Graphic Novels each month had orders totaling $84.6 million in the comics shop market. That only captures a bit more than half of the overall amount Diamond shipped, however; the overall figure for 2012 is probably in the neighborhood of $175 million.
That gives us $475 million for the Direct Market overall, of which about 70% comes from single-issue comics.
• Now to graphic novels outside the comics shops. Hibbs' data finds $164 million in graphic novels sold by Bookscan. He's had to make some judgment calls because of Nielsen's classifications: he's kept in the market-leading Dork Diaries, which I probably wouldn't, but may have excised things I'd have kept, too. As my former boss Chet Krause once said, the only category that fits every product in a field is "miscellaneous."
• If Bookscan covers between 75-80% of the market, that could mean there's another $46 million or so in graphic novel sales outside Bookscan.
That would give us $210 million for all graphic novels sold outside comics shops in 2012 — about 55% of the total $385 million in graphic novel sales for the year.
All together, we'd be looking at around $715 million for all North American comics and graphic novels: up about $35 million from 2011. And that growth is all in the comics shop market, which offset losses in the mass market. In 2011, the comics shop market was about 60% of the overall market for print sales; in 2012, it was closer to two thirds. The synopsis:
North American Comic Book and Graphic Novel Print Edition Sales, 2012
(all figures estimated)
(all figures estimated)
|Comic books||Graphic novels|
|Comic Shops ("Direct Market")||$300 million||$175 million|
|Mass Market Booksellers reporting to Bookscan||-||$164 million|
|Mass Market Booksellers not reporting to Bookscan||$30 million||$46 million|
|Sector total||$330 million||$385 million|
Overall total: Around $715 million
There's nothing in the the Bookscan comic book category despite Bookscan-reporting places like Barnes & Noble selling periodicals: as magazines, comic books get ISSN or International Standard Serial Numbers rather than ISBN book numbers, and aren't tracked through that mechanism.
It's important to note that the above chart does not include at least three important groupings:
1) International sales. Diamond UK sells about 10% again its U.S. direct market sales of comics and graphic novels to comics shops in the United Kingdom — so that's another $45 million or so that publishers here realize. This may or may not expand out to the UK bookstore market the same way, given rights issues, but if it did, the United Kingdom could add $70 million or more to the U.S. total, meaning U.S. print products are bringing in three quarters of a billion dollars annually.
2) Library sales. Libraries make their graphic novel purchases outside the above systems, and I'm told these account for a considerable amount. In the absence of specifics, however, it's hard to guess how much.
3) Digital sales. This is what everyone wants to know about, despite being a sector that very little hard data is made public for. It's clear from reports that digital sales ballooned for comics in 2012, at least tripling; that would put them north of $75 million, or a little less than 10% of the whole market if it were simply combined with the print totals. With print sales increasing, too, the case for optimism is strengthened: digital appears to be on its way to becoming a third leg of the stool, alongside periodical and graphic novel formats.
So the figures you see above may be considered minimums, considering those other sources. For just the traditional categories, I've entered $700-730 million on the table for 2012 on the Yearly Comics Sales page, but I think the estimate is far more likely to be low than high. That figure, by the way, is the highest seen since probably 1993 or 1994, although those markets were far larger considering the effects of inflation since.
Walking Dead trades: comics shops ordered at least 74,000 copies of the first volume in 2012, versus 38,000 copies through Bookscan's retailers. That's a big difference.
As always, these calculations are rough, and subject to revision as I get more data. The biggest question marks above have to do with the portion of the mass market outside Bookscan, first and foremost — and then the size of the newsstand market. The Direct Market figures are pretty solid, comparatively; we simply know a lot more about them. But the twin lessons again are that the world of comics is much larger than the comics shop — and that the comics shops still have the larger portion of the overall pie.
2/18 UPDATE: A number of sites today are leading with the whole-dollars comparison with the 1990s made a couple of paragraphs ago — which I deliberately didn't headline here, because, as I mentioned above, once you account for inflation, the similarity goes away. But for folks who would like to see the math:
The most frequently cited figure for sales in 1993, the market's all-time peak, is $850 million. That amounts to an inflation-adjusted $1.35 billion, nearly double the size of the current market. This should not surprise us, given the fact there were 12 distributors and nearly four times as many retail accounts ordering comics as exist today. But even the $1.35 billion is an imperfect analog, though, because comics have increased in price since the mid-1990s faster than the CPI rate. The average comic book retailers ordered in January 1995 cost $2.20; now it’s $3.58. That’s 20 cents higher than what the CPI calculator says it should be. So 1993's comics-inflation-adjusted figure could be even higher!
The best way to take inflation completely out of the picture is to forget dollars and focus on units. We just don’t tend to do that when trade paperbacks and hardcovers are in the mix, because their pricing varies so much. We know that in 2012 we’re selling way fewer comics than in the early 1990s, and way more graphic novels (and, obviously, digital versions); the net being that we’re still quite a lot behind the early 1990s in adjusted dollars.
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