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


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ignore the asterisks: Most returnable comics improve on their reported monthly sales figures

by John Jackson Miller

A number of publishers carried by Diamond Comic Distributors have dabbled with accepting returns from comics shops over the years; DC, in particular, has embraced it more aggressively. With the returnable "Rebirth" titles sending the number of comics ordered per month skyward this summer, some have asked what the real, final impact is of comics offered with limited or full returnability. Diamond reduces orders of these comics in its monthly charts reportedly by 10% out of fairness. But do titles with the returnable asterisk sell better or worse than Diamond's initially reported figure in the end?

Comichron looked back on all the comics from 2014 and 2015 which were marked with an asterisk in the monthly charts and compared each with their final order numbers from the end of the years. Fully 98 returnable comic books from 2014-2015 also made the end-of-year charts; 60 in 2014 and 38 in 2015. Almost two thirds were from DC, with most of the rest from Image; IDW, Valiant, Dark Horse, and Dynamite accounted for the rest.

It turns out that the median returnable comic book in 2014-15 wound up eventually selling 10% more copies than Diamond initially reported. Either retailers didn't return any books, the excess came from reorders, or (most likely) some combination of the two — but for half the returnable books in Diamond's charts from 2014-15, the reduction wound up being erased by sales.

In fact, only 20 comics out of the 98 wound up selling fewer copies than Diamond's initially reduced monthly figures showed. Most were either issues of Convergence or titles from the spate of June 2015 launches that followed from DC; Convergence #0 only wound up selling 121,733 copies of what was likely an initial shipment of closer to 159,000. But that was an outlier — and that summer stretch last year seems to have been unusually weak for returnable books. Almost every such release in 2014 did better, along with most by the other publishers in 2015.

The list, presented below, shows the 40 comic books that we believe sold completely through, ranked by the amount sales wound up increasing over the initially reduced first-month report.

Jan-14Serenity Leaves On The Wind1*$3.50Dark Horse47,28569,894 48%
Feb-14Serenity Leaves On The Wind2*$3.50Dark Horse38,63054,574 41%
Mar-14Serenity Leaves On The Wind3*$3.50Dark Horse37,51651,007 36%
May-14Trees1*$2.99Image31,92642,133 32%
Jun-14Outcast by Kirkman & Azaceta1*$2.99Image71,78893,819 31%
Mar-15Jem & The Holograms1*$3.99IDW29,01537,310 29%
Dec-14Autumnlands Tooth & Claw2*$2.99Image33,27241,482 25%
Nov-15Monstress1*$4.99Image30,04136,876 23%
Jun-14Wicked & Divine1*$3.50Image42,94852,250 22%
Nov-15Back To The Future2*$3.99IDW25,75131,079 21%
Oct-14Wytches1*$2.99Image67,99682,005 21%
Oct-15Back to the Future1*$3.99IDW67,01580,507 20%
Aug-14Fade Out1*$3.50Image34,44741,122 19%
Jul-14Wicked & Divine2*$3.50Image27,96233,082 18%
Apr-14Batman Eternal3*$2.99DC72,45784,818 17%
Apr-14Batman Eternal1*$2.99DC96,140112,388 17%
Jan-14Deadly Class1*$3.50Image34,57240,264 16%
Apr-14Batman Eternal4*$2.99DC70,91782,498 16%
Sep-15Sandman Overture6*$3.99DC48,55356,307 16%
Apr-14Batman Eternal2*$2.99DC76,87889,118 16%
Jun-14Trees2*$2.99Image25,51529,266 15%
May-14Batman Eternal7*$2.99DC62,04671,032 14%
May-14Southern Bastards2*$3.50Image25,81129,448 14%
Jun-15Starfire1*$2.99DC46,29852,638 14%
Jul-14Outcast By Kirkman & Azaceta2*$2.99Image55,12662,552 13%
Jul-14Low1*$3.99Image43,34049,071 13%
May-14Batman Eternal8*$2.99DC62,29470,413 13%
May-14Batman Eternal5*$2.99DC66,79575,435 13%
May-14Batman Eternal6*$2.99DC64,53072,765 13%
Nov-14Wytches2*$2.99Image58,34565,653 13%
Nov-14Earth 2 Worlds End8*$2.99DC26,94230,292 12%
Oct-14Earth 2 Worlds End3*$2.99DC34,99639,340 12%
Nov-14Earth 2 Worlds End7*$2.99DC27,61631,042 12%
Oct-14Earth 2 Worlds End4*$2.99DC34,43138,685 12%
Oct-14Earth 2 Worlds End2*$2.99DC36,53641,050 12%
May-14New 52 Futures End3*$2.99DC53,77160,334 12%
Oct-14Earth 2 Worlds End1*$2.99DC43,86349,115 12%
Nov-14Earth 2 Worlds End6*$2.99DC28,40731,803 12%
Aug-14Low2*$3.50Image28,42631,703 12%
May-14New 52 Futures End2*$2.99DC57,14763,592 11%

Note that not every one of these titles were intended to be returnable; in some cases, titles were late, forcing the distinction. So in those cases, returnability wasn't part of the initial marketing to retailers.

We find, overall, that the 10% putative reduction by Diamond in its reports is a safe figure to reduce by; three in four books wound up doing better in 2014-15, and in aggregate the returnable comics wound up with 7% more in final orders, total, than Diamond initially reported for them.

Does this mean Diamond's 10% reduction — presuming that's what it is — is ultimately unnecessary? It depends on where the book ranks on the charts. At the top of the charts, a preemptive decrease of 10% usually isn't going to change a book's position much, because the titles are more widely spaced out. If the full number of copies of Convergence #0 that Diamond shipped in April 2015 had been reported that month, its second-place rank would not have changed. Down near 100th place, a 10% change in reported orders is more likely to move a title 10 slots. (On the other hand, in the end, Convergence #0 only got a two-slot bump from where it would have ultimately landed after all returns were in; it was really the market's fourth-place book in April 2015 once all returns were accounted for.)

So as you approach the numbers already reported this summer and anticipate the data to come — and the release mix suggests we may see some significant moves to the upside in this week's August data — beware any claims that because returns are in the picture, that the real story must necessarily be worse than the monthly numbers suggest. Recent history suggests it's better.

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 And be sure to follow Comichron on Twitter and Facebook.
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