Earlier this week, CBR published my estimated sales numbers for April, 2008. Today, I offer you an analysis of those numbers and what that means to the health of this industry.
As should be no surprise, not only did "Secret Invasion" #1 top the comics chart in April with an estimated 250,200 units, but the various crossover issues like "Mighty Avengers" #12 and "New Avengers" #40 also did very well. We saw some of this sales bump last month with the 70% increase on the "Secret Invasion" tie in issue of "Ms Marvel" #25. It was this event bump for both "Civil War" and "World War Hulk" that helped Marvel dominate the top 300 comics and then the top 100 trades when those issues were collected. This is the third successful major event in a row for Marvel. Given the initial success of "Secret Invasion," it would be shocking if the people at Marvel were not already planning the next major event.
This is a case in which prior success helps foster future success. The success of "Civil War" paved the way for "World War Hulk" and now "Secret Invasion." Marvel has done a very effective job of building up interest in the storyline with a strong marketing campaign and by planting the seeds of the storyline in a number of titles. The really brilliant move was to time the release of the "Secret Invasion: Infiltration" trade paperback to coincide with the kick off of "Secret Invasion." That trade paperback was the top selling trade with an estimated 7,247 units. It is rare for a crossover storyline to top both charts in the same month.
Over at DC there was an interesting upturn in the numbers for the final four issues of "Countdown." Early on in the run of the series I had wondered if we would see such an increase in sales as the series led into "Final Crisis," but I started to have my doubts over the past few months. There was as similar upturn at the end of "52," but some of that was due to the "World War III" mini-event. What is particularly interesting is how the sales curve of the two titles followed the same general pattern with the only key difference being that "Countdown" started at a lower point initially:
Here is a chart of the sales for both titles with each issue in terms of the percentage of the units for the first issue of the series. As you can see, while "Countdown" had lower orders than "52," it did a better job maintaining those sales than "52" did.
Based on the sales of these two titles, I'm really curious if we'll see a similar sales curve for "Trinity," DC's next weekly series. There are enough key differences in "Trinity" such as the creative team, the feature characters and the lead story/backup story format that it may not follow the pattern of "52" and "Countdown" at all.
If "Trinity" does follow that same sales curve then I would suggest that publishers consider adopting the format of the series of "Super Sentai" television shows over in Japan. The formula is a weekly show that lasts a year and is replaced by another show which is very similar but not identical. They essentially retool, revamp and rework the series into a new and improved version each year. It is a different set of characters and different stories each year, but the same basic high concept from year to year. That formula has worked in Japan for over three decades. A variation of it has worked for over 16 years here in the USA with the "Power Rangers" franchise. And, really, it isn't that different from the series of miniseries that is being used by a number of publishers, including DC.
Even if "Trinity" is a huge success, there is no exit strategy for the series. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all have solo titles. Comics are a habitual purchase and the goal should be to get readers hooked for the long term, not just for the duration of a storyline or limited series. DC should really consider following up "Trinity" with a weekly series featuring the various Justice League characters that can almost, but not quite, sustain a monthly series. Use the weekly to build up the fan base for those characters and then spin off the most popular ones into monthlies. The following year they could then take another group like the Titans or Legion of Super-Heroes and re-energize those properties in a similar manner. DC has a proven track record of being able to produce a weekly series on time for two years running and they should leverage that success.
The only titles not by Marvel or DC in the top 50 were "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" #13 in rank 11 with around 83,559 units, "Serenity: Better Days" #2 in rank 32 with approximately 56,114 units and "Angel: After the Fall" #6 with an estimated 46,663 units for April. (Technically "Angel: After the Fall" #6 counts as a reorder since there were around 4,398 unit on the March list even though the issue didn't ship until April 2 according to the Diamond shipping lists.) All three of these are recognized television properties as well as the strength of properties created by Joss Whedon. With much of the dollars spent on comics going to items published by Marvel and DC, anything that a publisher can do to market and sell a comic is worth doing. One way to generate sales is to publish a comic featuring a property that the readers are already familiar with and interested in.
The first items from Radical Comics, "Caliber" #1 and "Hercules" #1, came out in April. I always like to see how new publishers do during the first few months as those initial sales can set the stage for future orders. The price point of $1 for the first issues of "Caliber" and "Hercules" certainly lowered the risk for retailers and readers. The sales figures for the first issues look good with "Caliber" #1 doing an estimated 12,147 units and "Hercules" #1 doing around 10,711 units. I suspect that we'll see some strong reorders for these next month, but we may also see a drop on the orders for the second issues which are at the full cover price of $2.99 and lack alternate covers. In any case, this is a strong start for a new publisher with sales exceeding those of some titles by Marvel and DC. In this case, the initial numbers for both titles was right around the usual median sales for the top 300 comics.
The median is similar to the average, but instead of taking the total sales of the items on the list and dividing by the number of entries, the median is the mid-point value for the list. In the case of the top 300 comics list, it is the average of the items at ranks 150 and 151. Half the items did that well or better and half did that well or worse. The median isn't skewed by data at the top of the list that sold unusually high. For example, in April "Secret Invasion" #1 sold an estimated 250,200 units with the next highest item ("New Avengers" #40) selling only 44.14% of that with approximately 110,442 units. Clearly that top selling item is something of an anomaly. In this case, the average sales for an item on the top 300 comics list are 22,368 units while the median is 11,920 units. Since most titles are selling at the lower end of the spectrum, I find the median to be a more representative measurement.
Below is a histogram of the top 300 comics for April 2008. Each bar is a count of the number of items which sold that much or less. The first bar shows that there were 56 items on the list that sold 5,000 units or less.
It is the huge gaps between the top selling item and the next best selling item that makes me question if comics are being marketed in the best way possible. When the best selling comic is doing well over ten times better than the average comic and almost 21 times better than the median sales, it sure seems like there is a larger potential audience than most comics are reaching. Most of this potential growth is in the independent publisher area. Normally the percentage of the overall sales of the top 300 comics that is taken by publishers other than Marvel and DC is between 10% and 20%, usually closer to the 10% than the 20%. Finding a way to match up these comics with the readers that would enjoy them could easily result in a huge increase in sales for everyone involved. I'm really curious to see if the upcoming "War of the Independents" series will have any sort of sales bump for the related comics like the various events over at Marvel has done for those titles.
At the bottom of the top 300 is "Wildguard: Insider" #1 from Image with an estimated 2,959 units. This is the third highest estimated sales for rank 300 since Diamond first started reporting what shipped to retailers (instead of initial preorders) back in February 2003. The highest point for the bottom of the list was an estimated 3,170 units for "Sam Noir: Samurai Detective" #3 in November 2006. The second highest was "King Kong of Skull Island" #0 in October 2007 with around 3,028 units. At times the bottom of the list has dipped as low as approximately 668 units in January 2004. In that respect, April 2008 was a very good month for the top 300 comics.
For the second month in a row, "The Walking Dead" is the top selling comic from Image having overtaken "Spawn" last month. The gap between these two titles increased from around 1,500 units last month to about 1,900 units this month. This is due more to "Spawn" dropping an estimated 2,000 units since the start of the year while "The Walking Dead" held reasonably stable, losing only about 400. The sales for "The Walking Dead" have leveled off with the peak sales for the title being 23,098 on #42. It seems a little ironic that "The Walking Dead" managed to become the top selling ongoing title for Image more by momentum than from a continued increase in sales. We are seeing a similar cooling off on the trade paperbacks for "Walking Dead" with only the first two volumes showing up on that list with around 1,758 units for the first volume and 1,280 units for the second. Last month there wasn't a single Robert Kirkman trade in the top 100 at all.
Overall, activity on the top trades list is a bit sluggish again in April. The top item (the "Secret Invasion: Infiltration" trade paperback I mentioned above) move only 7,247 units.
There are reportedly an estimated 3,500 comic shops in the United States. While that number is open to debate, it puts things into perspective when you realize that only 14 items on the top trades list sold over 3,500 units in April. The core problems here are shelf space and cash flow. With nearly every comic book title published generating a trade or two a year (and sometimes a hardcover or two a year as well), comic book stores need to pick and choose which trades they stock. Not every store needs to carry every trade that comes out and we are starting to see that most stores don't try to.
While I understand some of the reasons why the publishers continue to collect nearly everything they publish into trades and hardcovers, I have to think that it results short term gains at long term costs. In overly simplistic terms, it costs very little for a publisher like Marvel and DC to take recent comics and collect them into trade. They already have the digital files from the periodical comics. All that needs to be done is to string half a dozen issues together, add a table of contents, rework an existing cover into the cover for the trade, add an ISBN code and the trade is practically ready to go. Again, that is overly simplifying the process a bit but in theory a person on salary in the production department could package up a trade from existing materials inside of a day or two. At which point, why wouldn't a publisher collect whatever they can into trades and hardbacks? Those have theoretically infinite shelf lives and are well suited to the mass market outlets. The problem is that of saturation. How many trades are too many trades? When will retailers and readers need to cut back because they are either out of money or simply out of space?
The explosion of collected editions turned the back issue market into a niche market within the niche market of comic book shops. Then it started to eat away at new issue sales as well with more and more people "waiting for the trade" instead of buying the stories in the periodical format. I'm starting to wonder if the collected editions will start to become a snake eating its own tail. While I don't think that the soft sales on the top 100 trades list over the past few months are cause for panic, looking at the long term view of this, the existing publishing model probably isn't going to remain viable forever. My suspicion is that the trades will eventually take over at the primary format for many titles. But that is at least a few years away.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me.