Marvel Comics once again accounted for over half of the units sold for the top 300 comics in August, 2008. Marvel has done this a dozen times since Diamond first started releasing final sales to retailers back in February, 2003.
Unsurprisingly, "Secret Invasion" #5 topped the list with an estimated 165,648 units, down about 9,762 units from the previous issue. In second place was "Final Crisis #3" with 123,812 units, down about 10,240 units from the previous issue. The top selling title not from Marvel or DC was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" #17 from Dark Horse with around 79,263 units, down an estimated 2,745 units from the previous issue. The top selling item from the back half of Previews was "Angel: After the Fall" #11 in rank #54 with an estimated 44,880 units.
"The Boys" #21 came in rank #93 with 27,508 units. This is only slightly below the estimated sales of 27,563 units for the previous two issues. The title seems to be leveling off and remains the top seller for Dynamite Entertainment by a wide margin. Had it remained under the Wildstorm imprint at DC, it would have been the top seller for that imprint.
Terry Moore's “Echo" has settled into the 14,000 units range with minimal drop off between issues. While it lost almost 2,000 units between the first two issues, since then it has only been losing around 100 or so units per issue. This is a great sign as it indicates a strong and loyal following for the series.
A notable absence in the list of top 300 comics was "Walt Disney's Comics & Stories" which normally places in the bottom third of the list. In August, "Walt Disney's Comics & Stories" #693 and #692 placed in slots 11 and 12 respectively of the top 100 trades list. This brings up the question of the definition of a "graphic novel/trade paperback" and if these really fit that definition or not. Prior to August, this title was on the top comics list, not the top trades list.
While this could simply be a mistake, there is evidence that it might be part of a larger problem of how items are classified for these lists. In slot 18 of the trades list is "Walt Disney's Vacation Parade" #5. The two previous issues of this annual title were put on the top comics list while the first two issues were considered trades. "Walt Disney's Christmas Parade" has also bounced between the two lists over the years. Even more confusing is "Uncle Scrooge" #377 and #378 which both remained on the top comics list this month despite having the same price as "Walt Disney Comics & Stories."
August 2008 was a great month for DC on the top trades list. Not only did "Watchmen" top the list with well over 43,000 units but it moved more units than the seven new releases in the top ten combined. This sets a new record level high on the top trades list for the final order period. The number of units for "Watchmen" still fall short of the approximately 49,200 units of the "Batman: War on Crime" oversized trade paperback in November 1999, and the approximately 55,200 units of the "Superman: Peace on Earth" oversized trade paperback in November 1998. Both of those Paul Dini/Alex Ross items were new releases costing $9.95. This breaks the previous single month reorder record for a trade paperback of approximately 19,100 set by "Watchmen" in July 2008.
While this could be seen as a sign of the strength and longevity of "Watchmen," what it really demonstrates is a major marketing success for DC. In a brilliant move, DC set up a consignment program for "Watchmen" and offered it to retailers for free provided they return any unsold copies in salable condition between December 1 and December 30, 2008. By doing this, DC is taking on the risk and making it as financially viable as possible for retailers to have as many copies of "Watchmen" as they want over the coming months. DC was under no obligation to do so, particularly for as well known a product as "Watchmen."
The somewhat puzzling aspect of the program is the end date. Wouldn't it make more sense for the consignment program to last until shortly after the movie comes out? Is the goal to maximize the number of copies out there or to help retailers figure out how many copies of "Watchmen" they are able to sell and increase the number of shelf copies each store stocks going forward? Neither would be a bad goal and the end result over the next few months is the same: more copies of "Watchmen" are available at comic book stores at minimal risk for the retailers. Given the returnable nature of these units, reporting them as sales is rather questionable.
The entire idea of selling comics on consignment shifts the burden of risk away from the retailers which have limited information about the products when they need to order them and places it on the publisher which has full information about the products. Of course, it would be both unrealistic and ill-advised for the industry to shift to a consignment based business model. Doing so would place far too much of the risk on the publishers who lack information about the customer base, information the stores have. Moving to a consignment model would allow retailers to order an excessive number of copies at minimal risk which would hurt publishers should a large percentage of the print run get returned.
Obviously, returnability would be a partial step in sharing the risk between publishers and retailers with numerous advantages and disadvantages involved for both sides. But the goal shouldn't be just to shift the risk on unsold items but to reduce the number of unsold items while maximizing the sales. The problem of how much of each product can be realistically sold by each retailer can only be solved with information. Publishers need more and better information about the sales patterns of the readers which the retailers have access to while retailers need more and better information about the products which the publishers have.
A key point here is retailers have access to the sales patterns of the readers but may not actually have that data. Having this data requires that the retailer track the sales of each item to each reader. Retailers that don't have a Point-of-Sales system could still track this information but it would be impractical to do so on a regular basis. With a Point-of-Sales system, tracking sales patterns for readers is vastly simplified but still not a given since each sale would have to be linked to the purchaser. Beyond just the data collection is the matter of compiling and reporting the data which requires a certain amount of work even for a just a single store.
Another factor in the risk equation comes from the publisher having control over when and if the products are released. A good example of this is "Family Dynamic" #1 from DC, which placed in rank #229 on the top comics list with an estimated 5,083 units. This originally was the first part of a six-issue miniseries when solicited, but was shortened to a three-issue miniseries prior to publication. People at DC had complete knowledge of the contents of the series while the retailers only had a cover image and this short solicitation blurb to base orders on:
Written by J. Torres Art by Tim Levins & Dan Davis
Cover by Sean Galloway
Pyralis! Sirocco! Troylus! Terran! This is The Family Dynamic, defenders of Storm City who use their mystical Elemental Rings to battle the forces of evil. But what happens when members of their extended family want in on the superhero action? They say the family that plays together stays together - but does that count when they're playing the good guys? Find out in this exciting new 6-issue miniseries by writer J. Torres (WONDER GIRL) and artist Tim Levins (BATMAN: GOTHAM ADVENTURES).
On sale August 27
1 of 6, 32 pg, FC, $2.25 US SHIP DATE: 8/27/2008
All in all, that isn't too much to go on: a six-issue series featuring a family of new elemental heroes. But there is one other key piece of information that retailers probably used to base the orders on: the imprint. In this case, "Family Dynamic" fell under the Johnny DC imprint. Lately, with the ending of "Batman Strikes!" and "Legion of Super Heroes in the 31st Century," this imprint has been shifting towards focusing on younger readers with new titles like "Tiny Titans" and "Super Friends." It would be reasonable for retailers to expect this new title to also be targeted to a similar younger audience.
Even if retailers had known "Family Dynamic" was more along the lines of "Batman Strikes!" than "Super Friends," the results would have been the same since "Batman Strikes!" #48 sold an estimated 6,698 units while "Super Friends" #6 sold around 6,667 units. Because "Family Dynamic" featured new characters and not iconic ones like Batman and Superman, orders were going to be lower than either of "Batman Strikes!" or "Super Friends."
The mistake DC made with "Family Dynamic" was putting the title under the Johnny DC imprint in the first place. Had this title been part of the DC Universe line, sales probably would have been as much as 10,000 to 20,000 units higher than it got under the Johnny DC imprint. Chances are good that it would have at least done well enough to finish out the full six-issue run originally promised. By placing the title under the Johnny DC imprint, retailers had certain expectations about the tone and style of the series and how well it would sell for them. Because the retailers are buying the comic on a non-returnable basis, they take the full risk for any unsold copies. Understandably, they ordered conservatively on the title. That resulted in low enough sales on the first issue for DC to cut their losses by cutting the series down to three issues. Based on the sales trend for the hypothetical average title, "Family Dynamic" #2 would sell around 3,978 units and "Family Dynamic" #3 about 3,557 units. Ending the series with the third issue was the proper decision for DC.
But even under the Johnny DC imprint, had DC either shared more information about the product or taken on some risk on the title instead of placing it all on the retailers, the title may have done better. As it stands, DC both lost sales on this title and has added to the stigma for the Johnny DC imprint by cutting the series short before it was released. But these things happen. DC didn't do anything particularly wrong in this case other than placing the title under the Johnny DC imprint. The problem here was a lack of any particular marketing push for this title. Given the competitive nature of the market these days and the downward trend on most ongoing monthly titles, perhaps business as usual simply isn't enough these days.
The irony of the situation is the estimated sales of the first issue are viable numbers for a creator owned work from a smaller publisher. But DC is a bigger company and each title needs to contribute to the cost of doing business for it to be financially viable there. "Family Dynamic" would have survived better elsewhere. Hopefully, J. Torres is able to take the property to another publisher if he wants to. "Family Dynamic" is the kind of all-ages title that the industry needs as an entry point for new, younger readers.
"Watchmen" is an unusual example of the publisher taking an unusually and unwarranted amount of the risk resulting is increased sales of a known and reliable product. "Family Dynamic" is an example of retailers being cautious in supporting a new and unknown title resulting in low sales and an early ending of the series.
Selling comics involves risk for both the publishers and the retailers. By sharing information and working together, those risks can be reduced and sales can be increased. As much as the industry needs and benefits from successes like "Watchmen," it also needs to be able to successfully launch new titles like "Family Dynamic" in order to ensure the long term health and viability of the industry.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at John.Mayo@ComicBookResources.com.