March, 2007 Sales Analysis

March 2007 issues of "52"

Earlier today, CBR published the March, 2007 sales estimates. All in all, March 2007 was another great month for Marvel which took eight of the top ten slots. The only DC title in the top ten was Justice League of America #6 in slot six. Dark Horse took the ninth slot with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of those top ten slots, seven of them have multiple covers, six of them were Civil War related comics, four of them were first issues and three of them had significant mainstream "mindshare."

Coming in just below the top ten was 52 which took slots eleven through fourteen. The series seems to be sliding a bit as it approaches the end of its run. Overall this title has been a fairly steady seller since around issue #13 or so and has followed what seems to be a fairly standard attrition rate of a few percent per issue. This seems like it may be a benchmark title given how stable the sales have been on it. Issue #13 is a dividing line for the series since that was the first issue that retailers were able to order after they got the first issue and were able to see how it sold. Since then, the series has had minor attrition from issue to issue with a slightly larger (but still fairly low) attrition on the first issue ordered from month to month. By that second month of ordering after having issues in hand, the retailers seem to have a fairly good sense of how well the series would sell. Most of the issues after #18 fall extremely close to the trend line for the series. The only issue since then that had a major deviation from the trend line was #35 which was solicited as having two covers (but only one was published). The issue showed about a 6.75% or so gain over the previous one, but the next issue fell right back in line with how the series had been doing. Keep in mind that this is based on how retailers ordered based on knowing only that the issue would have two covers.

Mighty Avengers launched strong for Marvel. The new Buffy the Vampire Slayer series from Dark Horse also had a very strong start. The question now is if those titles will fall victim to the rather common "second issue drop" which seems to usually average around 22% or so. Dark Tower Gunslinger Born seems to have fallen victim to it which implies that it is following the same trends as most other comics. I wish I could say I am surprised by the drop off on Dark Tower, but I'm not. I won't be the least bit surprised to see both Mighty Avengers #2 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer #2 come in around 22% less than the respective first issues. But, you know, I'd be more than happy to be wrong about that too.

Civil War is still a strong seller with every issue except #3 having reorder activity during March. And if you include Civil War Initiative, Civil War Confession, Civil War Battle Damage Report and the Civil War Poster Book, then Civil War took 10 of the top 300 slots a month after the series itself ended. Maybe that Civil War Chronicles series isn't such a bad idea after all. Personally, I'm curious how much people are going to care about Civil War a year from now.

And as should come as no surprise to anyone that follows the news, Captain America #25 sold exceedingly well. In fact, it actually did Civil War numbers resulting in, once again, the top selling comic book selling more than twice what the next best selling comic did. This has happened more often than not over the past year. This indicates to me that there might be a much larger consumer base out there than most comics are tapping into. Or, they might be a large group of speculators out there like there was in the 1990s.

Since there are so many copies of Captain America #25 out in the market, the value of it as a collectible is highly questionable. Given the high prices that copies were going for on eBay shortly after the issue was released, I have to wonder if the mass media blitz may do more long term damage than it did in terms of short term gains. So many of the things we are seeing in the comic book industry right now like the proliferation of variant covers and the constant "event" comics seem reminiscent of the pre-crash 1990s. The problem is that the comic books don't seem to be selling as well now as they were back then. If any sizable contingent of the readership gets burnt out and leaves, as happened with the crash of the 1990s, just how many titles are going to be able to survive that? A sudden departure of five to ten thousand readers could easily result in the cancellation of titles like Amazing Spider-Girl, Checkmate, All New Atom, Blue Beetle, Jonah Hex and Irredeemable Ant-Man to name but a few. Hopefully, we won't have to find out if I'm right about that any time soon.

Captain America #25 illustrates an opportunity for improvement within the industry. Specifically, I think that there is an opportunity and a need for improved sales tracking and reporting at both the distributor and at the retail levels.   I think that there is a wealth of potential information about how and when comics sell in relation to a mass media blitz like we saw for Captain America #25 if we had more detailed information on when the various units made it into the retail sector and how quickly those units sold to readers. Did retailers have the units they needed when they needed them or long after the mass media buzz ended? How many units are still sitting on store shelves? With more detailed information on how and when copies of "Captain America #25 were sold could be very useful in maximizing sales to readers the next time a major comic book event hits the mainstream news outlets. While there are clearly lessons to be learned from the Captain America #25 hype, it is much less clear exactly what those lessons are.

On the trade paperback side of things, the 300 hardcover got a major boost from the movie. It no doubt did fairly well in the mass market outlets as well. Also of interest was the original trade paperback Empowered which came in at slot twenty-one. Just by looking at the publishers that have items in the top ten trades in March shows just how different the collected edition market is from the monthly comics market. The top item and two others were from Dark Horse, the second place item and one other were from Viz. DC only had one item in the top ten and Marvel had the other three slots. DC and Marvel have a lot more competition in this arena than they do in the monthly comics arena.

Since Augie recently wrote about how poorly comics are selling in his column, I figured that I might as well address the topic too. And I'd like to say that Augie is wrong. I'd really like to say that. But here is the thing: he isn't wrong. Most comic book titles aren't selling well. Sure, overall sales are up, but sales on most individual titles are going down. And I don't want to downplay the upswing in overall sales. That is a great and wonderful thing. It just seems to be a result of various sales gimmicks and not a true reflection of how most ongoing titles are doing.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the industry could be and should be doing better.

Every month I look at how the top 300 comics are selling. Part of that process involves comparing the sales to the previous issue of the title. Usually the number of units changed is a negative number. And most months "usually" translates to about nine out of ten titles having dropped in sales. And that one in ten that didn't go down frequently are either just treading water or only have a minor increase in sales. Most disheartening are the titles that have large bumps that are most likely transient in nature and sometimes only last for that particular issue. The best example of that right now is probably Amazing Spider-Man which is selling around twice what the title had been prior to the string of "events" such as The Other, the Road to Civil War, Unmasked and Back in Black. This title could potentially lose about half the current readers in a very short time span if (or is that when?) these events end or the readers simply get burnt out on them.

The real irony is that new titles and major events like Civil War usually more than compensate for the existing titles that are losing readers. This gives the appearance that comics are selling better than perhaps they really are. But that begs the question of what it means for the industry to be "healthy" or "doing well" or whatever terminology you want to use. There are many, many ways to look at the industry and judge how it is doing. While I think that the overall sales are an important indicator of how the industry is doing, I think that the movement trends of the individual titles are equally important, perhaps more so.

There are far too many great titles hidden down at the bottom of the list of top comics each month. Hidden down at slot 278 is Athena Voltaire: Flight of the Falcon #4 which would appeal to fans of the Indiana Jones style action/adventure movies. In slot 264 is the excellent all-aged title of PS238. This is a series about an elementary school for super power kids. I read around a third or more of the top 300 comics each month and I think that PS238 is one of the best written titles I'm reading these days.

If existing titles continue to lose readers each month and many new titles launch with decent but unimpressive sales, how long can the monthly comic book survive? Factor in the eventual price hikes and things look even less promising. Some people see the trade paperback as the savior of the industry and I both agree and disagree with that. I agree that the trade paperback is a vital part of the comic book industry these days and will only grow in importance over the coming years. However, I think that the proliferation of quick trades over the past few years is part of the reason that sales on many titles continue to drop as people "wait for the trade." The publishers seem to be moving away from an attrition/bump cycle to an attrition/replace cycle. Fewer titles seem to be going through the process of slowly losing readers over time only to have some major event or creative team change bump the sales up for the next slow decline resulting in another jump from the next shake up in the title. It seems increasingly common for a title to launch, lose readers and get cancelled and replaced with a newer and equally short-lived title.

Augie described much of this fairly well in his column last week. And I wish I could say that he has it all wrong. But he doesn't.

One thing that I don't think is a factor in the declining sales is the quality of the comics. The last few years have been one of the best times to read comes ever. We are seeing what may turn out to be the beginning of some new era of comics much like the start of the Golden Age, the start of the Silver Age and whatever age started in the early 1980s. Maybe comics run in some sort of roughly 20 year cycle with a new generation of creators taking control and doing great things. But just as the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s weren't exactly great times for the industry in some respects, how are things going to look in another couple of years? Will the 2010s be a great time for the comic book industry or will comics be lucky to survive it?

One thing that seems to get overlooked when people suggest that the industry will simply convert to trades as the primary format for new stories is that most trades don't contain new stories. Sure, a few do like the Pride of Bagdad hardcover, the Halo graphic novel, the Fables: 1,001 Nights of Snowfall hardcover and the recent Empowered trade paperback. It sure seems like the majority of trades seem to be reprinting material from monthly comics or foreign comics. If the monthly comics go away, where will the content for new trades come from? Sooner or later Marvel and DC will have released most of their library in trades and/or hardbacks and probably on DVD-ROM for that matter. What will happen when they eventually run out of "new" old material to collect?

Does anybody really think that publishers can do projects that go direct-to-trade for the same cost as reprinting existing material? That seems unlikely at best. New content costs money to create. Monthly comics are still one of the two main sources for new content. (Overseas material is the other main source of "new" content. And, really, in that situation it is only new to this audience.) As a direct result of being the driving force for new content, monthly comics are charting the course for the overall industry. So while it is interesting and potentially important to know how trade paperbacks and other collected editions are selling in the mass market outlets, those sales are secondary revenue streams. This revenue is increasingly important as sales on most monthly comics fall but the long term health of the industry seems reliant on new content.

Many of these titles at the bottom of the top 300 comics list are selling 1% of what the top selling comic book sold for the month. One percent. Think about that for a moment. There is a huge difference between what a comic near the top of the list is selling versus one near the bottom of the list. In March, the bottom half of the top 300 comics accounted for less than 10% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics. Ten Percent. For comparison, the top four comics also accounted for about 10% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics. The top selling comic of the month, Captain America #25, accounted for about 4.15% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics. That is roughly equal to the bottom third of the list combined (the last ninety-eight slots to be exact). One comic sold as well as another ninety-eight comics combined. Granted, some of those slots were reorder activity, but that just means that the reorders bumped even lower selling titles off the list.

Either there are a lot of readers buying multiple copies of the top selling comics which could be a bad thing for the long term health of the industry or there are a lot of readers that only buy a very select number of comics which seems like an even bigger problem for the industry. If only five or six out of a hundred existing comic book readers are willing to buy the average independent comic book then the industry has a serious problem. Existing comic book readers should be the easiest people to get to read more comics. But since most titles can't keep the readers they have, why should those same titles be expected to attract new readers?

The core problem seems to be matching up the readers and the titles that are right for them.

There was a fellow named Joe that used to work at the local comic book shop. This was many years ago but I was getting a ton of titles then, too. One of the things that really impressed me about Joe was his ability to point out titles that I wasn't reading, but should have been. Just finding titles I wasn't reading was no small feat. But to be able to routinely pick out titles that I would like but simply hadn't noticed resulted in numerous additions to my pull list. I don't know how many people like Joe there are in the comic book stores these days but I think we need more of them.

I've since moved and currently get my comics from an online retailer, but even over the internet that retailer tries to get me hooked on new titles by heavily discounting them. I've picked up a couple of things that I otherwise would have skipped because of those increased discounts.

My point here isn't that retailers should discount comics (that is another topic entirely) but that they shouldn't discount selling comics. Too few retailers (and publishers and creators for that matter) seem to sell comics. The art of selling involves more than just having a comic book available for a customer to purchase. It involves giving customers reasons to buy the comic. And it seems to me that figuring out why customers are buying the comics that they do and pointing out similar comics might just help sales a little.

So, what should comic book readers do about this?

They should buy and read what they like in the format they like when the like. While I think that it can be beneficial for comic book readers to be aware of how things are selling, it is the responsibility of the creators, publishers, distributors and retailers to work on improving how comic sell. Readers are welcome to help out they shouldn't feel obligated to do anything other than buy what they enjoy reading.

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