Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Circulating American Magazines Project: Best practices for use of its comics data

by John Jackson Miller

Marvel's ABC Statement for the first half of 1962
Over the last two decades, Russ Maheras, Jonathan Hoyle, and I have visited the offices of the Audit Bureau of Circulation at various times, using the old microfilm viewer to capture comics sales data. It's provided a glimpse into a time in comics history when advertising sales were so important that publishers were willing to join an agency that would certify its sales figures to advertisers.

In the time since my trips to the ABC's successor firm, the Alliance for Audited Media, I've worked a lot more of the data I collected there into my own databases, squaring it up with known information and sussing out the distinctions between what publisher information was in each different kind of report. Quite a lot of that work has come during the pandemic shutdown — and, coincidentally, a new resource has become available for all at the beginning of May.

An academic group funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities has gone into the various places where records are kept and indexed the publisher ABC statements for a slew of North American magazines, comics included, for its Circulating American Magazines Project. Led by Brooks Hefner, associate professor of English at James Madison University, and Ed Timke, Instructor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, the findings now appear on a website that includes cross-time visualizations of the data points collected. (There's a podcast with Hefner describing it here.)

The AAM's microfilm viewer in its Illinois offices
Publishers included (at the moment) on the site include Marvel, DC (as National), and Archie, as well as older franchises like ACG and 4-Most Comics. It's not all the comics ABC has records on — no Harvey, that I can tell — although that might yet be to come. (Dell was never audited after 1942, so its market-dominating years aren't covered, and E.C. never was.)

Some notes about the project as it relates to comics, as I have been indexing this material in parallel for several years. Audit bureau data has, as I've noted, been referred to in many places over the years; a lot of historical references to sales figures usually come in some manner either from ABC's statements or its audits. Often, as the project managers note, ABC data was stored in cryptic fashion; it isn't always easy in ABC's files to know what's where. 

Further, the reports themselves require some understanding for proper use, because they don't all report the same things and in the same way. Publishers would file Publisher Statements of their sales with the ABC every six months — but then the ABC would come back, usually once a year, to do an Audit — in which they consulted records both at the publisher's office and, the ABC claimed, at distributors' and printers' offices, to confirm whether the Statements were true. They never were exactly true; most all the audits say at least some over-reporting happened. In the case of Harvey, the gap between the number of copies it claimed to advertisers as its rate base in the 1970s and its actual sales was so enormous the ABC suspended the publisher for a time.

One of the ABC film rolls
The CAM Project site appears, from my early comparisons, to just be using the Statements and not the Audits, so be aware if you see slightly different numbers in other literature, it might not be in error — indeed, the audits are more accurate. It's just data from two different sources at two different times.

The larger publishers split their title groupings into one, two, and sometimes three groups over the years; CAM appears to be using the overall Statement report from each year. For smaller groups, like Archie, the visualization does name the comics (but not the issue numbers) being reported; for the larger groups — Marvel, DC — its visualization does not report the component issues. (I have captured those in my own research, to a large degree.)

A major thing to be aware of is that statement figures aggregate one month's worth of sales in the case of some publishers at certain times; sometimes it's two months. It's vital to note which is the case when referring to any grouping: if you're talking about the August-September grouping of Marvel overall, you're looking at two months of sales combined (a tracking method that made sense given that the publisher had so many bimonthlies). Take care, because, the CAM visualization pegs its data points to the first day of the month; as the fine print explains — and my cross-checking confirms — the August 1, 1961 data point for Marvel, 3,498,778 copies, is actually for all the comics in the sales group for August-September 1961. (Update after working with the CAM site some more: To underscore, do be careful when you see a sudden spike — especially associated with what may appear to be a missing month of reports. As the CAM notes on Marvel acknowledge, it often submitted for two-month periods, and went back and forth between monthly and bimonthly. For instance, in the example below, the big bump in the early 1950s isn't really there: it's that the reports went temporarily from counting one month's sales to two month's.)

A look at the Marvel visualization page
The dates are another thing to be aware of, because the ABC groupings appears to rely for the most part on cover dates, but cover dates in comics, of course, are postdated — so our mapping of those Marvel issues actually finds them having released some time before. Citing "1961 sales" will be different depending on whether you're talking about what shipped, or what appeared in the Statements.

Finally, a large source of confusion in past comics history pieces using ABC data is likely to remain because of one of the distinctions mentioned above: the Audits broke out quarterly sales figures across time, which the Statements did not do. But in one of those nuances that you only pick up by putting yourself in the past as one of the consumers of that data, you soon realize that "quarters" for ABC refer not to the calendar when it comes to the publishers with bimonthly break-outs, but to groupings of data that may not be of the same length.

In many years, December-January and February-March were considered the First Quarter for some publishers, with April-May the Second, June-July and August-September the third, and October-November the Fourth. It changes even for the same publisher from year to year in the audits; the breakdown generally seems to have been trying to create even groupings for the sales of comics, which were highly seasonal.

The CAM project also provides a look at something that's in the middle of the reports, and something that has been so complicated nobody has messed with it until now in comics research: it reports on the state-by-state breakdowns reported by the publishers. Fascinating stuff, if the results can sometimes appear a bit surprising. Once the data got to a certain level of granularity, reporting errors — or at least lags in the data — seem to have had more chances to occur.

What the CAM Project has done is amazing and has been greatly needed; my last visit to the ABC in 2017 left me worried about how long the microfilm would remain of use (and some of it, as CAM notes here and there in the reports, is of poor quality). It's a great resource for comics researchers, but it's also one that has to be used with extreme care — I strongly suggest anyone who has questions about what the data points are referring to submit their questions to me at jjm [at] comichron.com.

Work has been continuing here on the 1960s for some time, and I've learned fascinating things about how ABC's data relates to my near-complete collection of Statements of Ownership and other sales data I've collected; there will be more coming along these lines here in the future.

Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 25 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 novels including 
Star Wars: KenobiStar Wars: A New DawnStar Trek: Discovery - The Enterprise War, and his July release, Star Trek: Discovery - Die StandingRead more about them at his fiction site.

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