September 2011 was an important month for DC, seeing the relaunch of the entire DC Universe line of titles. "Justice League" #1 set the stage in August with estimated sales of 171,344 units for the print only version and another 14,432 units for the print and digital combo pack bringing the total estimated sales to 185,776 units.
The New 52 ranged from "Batman" #1 with approximately 188,420 units at the top of the list down to "OMAC" #1 at rank 82 with around 33,581 units.
All but eight of the New 52 first issues were marked as having reduced numbers reported by Diamond because of returnability. DC has reported all 52 of the titles sold out and have gone back to press, but bear in mind that sell outs can be manufactured easily since the print run is determined after the final order cutoff date. In this case, since DC aggressively shared the risk of the relaunch with the retailers by making majority of the titles returnable, DC shouldn't be faulted for not massively overprinting.
With all 52 of the new first issues selling out and many going to additional printings, reorder activity seems much more likely than returns. If the reorders for "Justice League" #1 are any indication, or even if the "Flashpoint" #5 reorder activity of around 4,972 units is more realistic, the October top comics list could have an unusually high level of reorder activity for DC in October.
The question now is whether or not DC can retain sales on this relaunched line-up or they will fall victim to the standard attrition that eats away at the sales of most titles. Historically speaking, the sales spike we are seeing now is very similar to the one DC had in May 2006 with One Year Later.
There are a number of similarities and differences between the two initiatives. In both cases, a clear jumping-on point into DC continuity was established without a reboot of the narrative universe. With One Year Later, it was done by having a year of story happen off panel. With the New 52, the continuity has been ambiguously altered by the Flashpoint event. We are seeing the same line-wide sampling that happened with the start of One Year Later being duplicated. The key difference here is the way DC is supporting the New 52 relaunch both with returnability on the print side and with the day and date digital releases. While the digital sales information is not being released, we'll be able to see in the coming months if the New 52 can retain print sales better than the One Year Later titles did.
Retaining sales is the single most important thing for an ongoing title. Getting new readers is great, and publishers have found a number of tried and true methods of getting readers onto a title: relaunches, events, character deaths and resurrections and an amazing variety of cover gimmicks. The one thing common to those marketing techniques is the readers that get the issue with the gimmick leave as fast as they came. The "Civil War" event crossover caused tie in issues to sell two or three times the sales of the previous and subsequent issues. The issues tied into "Blackest Night" with the promotional Power Rings sold as much as five times the regular sales of the titles for those particular issues. After the promotional gimmick ends, sales usually fall right back into line with the sales trend of the title without missing a beat.
Let's take a look at the average sales trend during the final order era which started in March 2003 when Diamond first started releasing sales information based on the invoiced sales to retailers for the month. (Prior to that, the information reported was on what stored pre-ordered and included items which never shipped.)
Typically, the first issue sales are the high water mark for a series. Over 98% of second issues come in with lower sales than the first issue, and that average drop is 22.5%. Around 91.2% of the second issues drop by about another 11.3%. The trend doesn't stop there. On average, by issue #11, sales drop to under half the sales of the first issue. Of course, some titles manage to lose half their sales much faster than that and a few lucky titles level off or increase in sales.
For monthly titles, the sales of those first few issues reflect the expectations of how the title will be received by the readers. The second issue drop on some recent titles has been staggering, such as the nearly 62.2% on "Mystic" #2 from Marvel, going from approximately 18,784 units on the first issue down to an estimated 7,105 units on the second issue. In August 2011, "Captain America" #2 dropped by nearly 45.8% from the estimated 100,321 units down to a comparatively modest 54,384 estimated units.
There probably isn't a magic formula to retaining readers, but keeping every issue accessible and ensuring it contains enough story content for the average reader to feel the cover rice was justify certainly helps. Each issue should be selling the reader on the next issue.
For that matter, every cover should be selling the comic it is on. Most of the covers for the New 52 were somewhat generic images of the character or team. Few, if any, of them even attempted to sell the story contained in the issue. Compare the cover to the right from 1983's "Batman and the Outsiders" #1 to any of the New 52 covers:
The cover to "Batman and the Outsiders" #1 shows a Justice League shocked by Batman announcing he is quitting the team to join a new group. Questions immediately come to mind: Why is Batman quitting the Justice League?
Who is this new group?
Why is Batman joining them?
The questions about "Batman and the Outsiders" are actually posed specifically by that cover. Certainly the dialog on the older cover helps pose those questions. If questions asked by the cover feel like they will be answered in the issue itself, a sale is more likely to happen.
While those questions might not get everybody interested in the title, it should get a few readers hooked. The only questions that seem to arise from the modern style of comic book covers are: Who are these characters?
And why should I care?
The problem is those two questions apply equally to almost all of the modern generic action shot or heroic pose covers. Comic book covers have become movie posters. The problem with that is, movie posters are backed by a huge marketing campaign including trailers and commercials which reveal a lot more information about the content, tone and stars of the movie. Comic covers don't have the additional material supporting them.
A number of the New 52 titles read more like the opening chapter of a book than like the pilot episode of a television series. "Superman" #1 stood out in my mind as doing the best job on establishing the characters, status quo and telling a complete story in a single issue. Around 118,376 print copies of that first issue were available in the direct market, plus an unknown number of digital copies compared to the approximately 35,919 copies of "Superman" #714 which ended the previous run. There are a ton of potential new readers to "Superman" and every other first issue of the New 52. Are those new readers going to feel like they understood the story and got the return on investment on that first issue? If they do, they are more likely to come back. If not, why would a reader invest in another issue?
The promotional push behind the New 52 was far from average. DC went to extraordinary lengths to encourage strong initial sales for these titles. With all of the first issue of New 52 titles reportedly selling out and going back to print, any returns are likely to be dwarfed by reorder activity. This introduces the interesting possibility that in addition to the 52 second issues next month, DC could place a number of these first issues back on the chart.
Over at Marvel, "Fear Itself" #6 was the best seller with around 93,032 units. However, the relaunch of the Ultimate Comics line lost ground in September, with "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" #1 moving around 87,237 units before dropping by around 39.74% down to 52,569 units with the second issue. "Ultimate Comics: Ultimates" #2 was down nearly 27%, going from the first issue sales in August of around 58,525 units down to approximately 42,728 units. Lower on the list was "Ultimate Comics: Hawkeye" #2 with around 25,551 units, down 31.78% from the first issue.
With "Mystic" #2 selling around 7,105 units, it seems unlikely that many more CrossGen properties will be revived.
Over on the trade list, there were three notable items. The first was Frank Miller's "Holy Terror" hardcover which topped the list with around 9,939 units. Not too far behind it was the long awaited "New Teen Titans: Games" hardcover which sold an estimated 8,231 units to retailers. The other notable item was the "Castle: Richard Castle's Deadly Storm" hardcover, adapted from the fictional work of fictional writer Richard Castle from ABC's "Castle" series. This came in with an estimated 5,307 units, which would have topped the trades chart by a wide margin in August. It just shows that it isn't how many units sold but also when those units are sold that matters.
As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email me at John.Mayo@ComicBookResources.com