First, the big news: the final issues of “Brightest Day” stayed near the top of the charts in April 2011. Regardless of any positive or negative critical acclaim the title may have received, from a sales perspective, the series did very well for DC Comics. The downside of that success is, two of the top items for DC over the past few months won’t be around next month, taking away around 140,000 units a month for DC. “Justice League: Generation Lost” also ended, but it was selling around 30,700 units per issue so that loss won’t hurt as much. The net loss from just those two titles ending is an estimated 201,410 units or about 11.6% of the total units in the top 300 comics for DC in April 2011. While other titles like “Flashpoint” might replace those sales, the profits those two titles, which anchored the last 12 months of DC’s releases, are gone.
Overall, the industry has shifted away from most titles being long term, ongoing series lasting years or even decades to short term miniseries lasting a story arc. These titles, with built in expiration dates on them, create a barrier to sales that didn’t exist in the previous century.
When each of these titles end, the publisher needs to transition the readers to new titles or lose those sales. Sometimes this is easy to do; often, it isn’t. With “Brightest Day,” the clear transition title is the three issue “Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing” miniseries. Of course, since that miniseries lasts only three issues, readers will need to be transitioned to yet another title in a few months. Presumably that title will be a new Swamp Thing series since the object of most “Search For” titles invariably tends to be found at the end of the initial story.
With “Justice League: Generation Lost,” the transition title is the yet to be solicited “Justice League International.” This sort of attempt to migrate readers from one short-lived title to another is not limited to DC and Marvel. IDW is currently attempting the same thing, hoping to move readers from “Infestation” to “Infestation: Outbreak” (and possibly “Zombies vs Robots: Undercity”) having featured these characters in the framing miniseries which surrounded the non-crossover “Infestation” event. All in all, it wasn’t a bad plan.
But there is little reason to think all of the readers of an ending title will transition to the replacement title. Heck, for most titles, all of the readers don’t even stick around from issue to issue. When most titles are dropping in sales to retailers, does it really make sense to push away readers by ending a title? In theory, retailer orders should reflect how those titles are selling for those retailers. Replacing a title with a similar but not identical title introduces a bunch of sales variables for the retailers to factor in when ordering the new title. The simple fact is, the end of a title acts as a jumping off point for readers. While a replacement title provides somewhere for readers to transition to, the truth is, ending a title breaks the existing sales inertia.
Different rules apply to the small publishers in the back half of Previews which are fighting for the 5% to 10% of the total sales of the top 300 not taken by Marvel, DC, Image, IDW and Dark Horse and whatever they can take below that radar. For those publishers, the miniseries approach is a very smart move as it allows them to get a title in and out of the market place effectively. Smaller publishers should be taking a guerilla warfare approach of hit-and-run tactics against the premiere publishers. Slugging it out over the long haul against DC and Marvel is a losing battle. It is better for a smaller publisher to market strong with a miniseries followed by another miniseries and then another. This allows the creative teams to get the work done so it can come out on time. It allows the publisher to effectively market each miniseries and slowly build a readership.
One technique Marvel has been using over the past few years is the string of miniseries which essentially equate to an ongoing title or a longer miniseries. Does it really make sense to end the run of “Ultimate Avengers” after every story arc?
Yes, sales tend to drop from issue to issue on most titles. Yes, a new first issue often gets a sales bump. So, yes, this can work in the short term. But the short term tends to be very short these days.
Here are two charts for the “Ultimate Comics: Avengers” series of miniseries:
The first chart lines up the various miniseries by issue number. The second chart lines them up chronologically as if there were a single series. Notice the single issue spikes from the first issue of each miniseries and the subsequent overall downward trend. The increase on the “Ultimate Avengers vs New Ultimates” is due to that miniseries being part of the line-wide Death of Spider-Man event going on in the Ultimate Universe. The upcoming retooling of the Ultimate line is yet another opportunity for readers to bail out of the entire line of comics if there are looking for an excuse to drop the titles.
Marvel is only risking around 121,000 units with the relaunch of the Ultimate line. The loyal followers of that product line will continue to support it and the expansion of the line from a single ongoing with a few support miniseries to multiple ongoing titles should help the line. Overall, Marvel will probably increase the sales of this product line with the relaunch. But each relaunch they do re-enforces the “and this too shall pass” sense of short term titles and narrative universes resulting in a decreased attachment to those titles and narrative universe. Over time, this can build up into a general apathy and overall low average sales.
The other thing to note is the lower starting numbers for first issues. While “Fear Itself” and “Mighty Thor” both launched with strong numbers, the next highest #1 issue sold around 38,774 units. By definition, none of these other first issues were high profile ones, but even “Fear Itself: Homefront” #1 sold an estimated 32,601 units. That is a little over a quarter of the sales of “Fear Itself” #1.
We are also seeing very sharp drops on some second issues, particularly of higher profile titles. “FF” #2, for example, dropped 42.4% from the first issue sales of around 121,172 units down to approximately 69,790 units. Those are actually strong sales in the current market, allowing the issue to place in fifth place in April. An even sharper drop occured on “Sigil” #1 with first issue sales of around 28,496 units dropping down nearly 62% to around 10,887 units. “Ruse” #2 suffered a similar fate with a nearly 58.5% drop from about 28,520 units down to an estimated 11,861 units. These numbers do not bode well for the new CrossGen universe.
These sharp drops on second issues could be a sign of more people trying out the first issue with the intent on continuing with the title in a collected format later on, or it could be a reflection of a lack of faith the retailer community has in new titles. Remember, these are drops in the comics bought by retailers to sell to readers. Either they accurately reflect a diminished interest in the title or we will see reorder activity in coming months. While individual retailers might be off in predicting the demand or lack thereof for a title at their store, the numbers we are looking at are the aggregate of the retailer community of the North American direct market for comic books as a whole. The result is a counter-balancing of retailers ordering too little with those ordering too much to get a consensus of how the collective group thinks the title is doing. On occasion, we see a major market correction with a title doing massive reorders and a lasting bump in sales when most retailers under ordered a title compared to the demand that materialized for it.
A good example of this is “Chew,” which started low before jumping in sales around the third issue and remaining steady at that higher level ever since. But this is an exception and not the general trend. Even if there is reorder activity on the new CrossGen titles at Marvel, these miniseries will be over before the sales stabilize. The result is sales which are ultimately transient by nature, making it ironic for DC and Marvel to be publishing so many short-term titles requiring them to constantly sell us on replacement titles to compensate for ending titles instead of selling us on additional titles thereby growing sales. As a result, they now have the dual problem of readers dropping titles, and titles dropping readers.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at John.Mayo@ComicBookResources.com.