Why Did DC and Marvel's Sales Drop in September?

September 2016 the top 300 comics was down 1,819,538 units to 7,535,367 units after three months of record breaking sales. DC has 48.32% of the units for the top 300 comics with 3,641,285 units, down 985,588 units from the record high last month. Marvel had 2,435,588 units in the top 300 which equates to 32.32%, down 775,727 units from last month. The other publishers accounted for 19.36% of the units in the for the top 300 comics with 1,458,494 units, down only 58,223 units from last month.

The majority of the drop from the record breaking high water mark for the unit total of top 300 comics last month can be clearly attributed to DC and Marvel. The obvious question is what caused those drops.

Overall, sales were generally a little lower across the list. In August 2016, the median sales (the midpoint of the list) for the top 300 comics was 16,329 units while it was 13,919 units in September. The average number of units in August for the top 300 comics was 31,183 units but only 25,118 units in September. The range of the list (the largest value minus the smallest value) was 354,461 units in August and only 134,614 in September. The massive change in the range reflects the massive fluctuations at the top of the list from month to month. The low point on the lists went from 5,496 units in August to 4,239 units in September while the top of the list went from 359,957 units in August to 138,853 units in September.

What can we learn from those statistics?

First, around a quarter million units were "lost" because of no blockbuster hits in September. Lost being a relative term, of course; you can't really lose something you never had, and September simply didn't have any comics selling massive numbers. The range essentially reflects the loss of a single hit comic. In August, seven comics sold better than the top selling comic in September, with average sales of 217,893 units equating to a loss of around 553,280 at the top of the list.

Second, the median dropping by 2,410 units reflects a drop of at least 361,500 units. To get onto the top half of the list, a comic had to sell at least 2,410 more units in August than in September.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, you can't really judge the health of the industry by looking just at the statistics for the top 300 comics. You have to look at how individual titles and groups of titles changes over time.

We knew sales were down, the question is, why were they down? Why did both DC and Marvel lose over three-quarters of a million units each?

The main cause is many titles last month were at unsustainable sales levels with thirteen titles selling over 100,000 units totaling to 1,992,846 units and accounting for 21.3% of the unit sales for the top 300 comics in August. In contrast, in September only four titles sold over 100,000 units into retailer stores totaling to just 532,394 units. Two of those high selling titles last month, "Harley Quinn" and "Amazing Spider-Man" dropped significantly on the following issue during last month, with other titles such as "All-Star Batman" and "Suicide Squad" having a significant issue-over-issue drop landing in September. Double shipping compounds the impact of this considerably. The two issues of "Harley Quinn" in September sold a combined total of 155,313 units compared to the combined total of 476,608 units in August.

Unsustainable sales is nothing new. Launching titles with a heavy promotional push and numerous incentive covers followed by issues without that sort of marketing support yield high sales followed by much lower sales. First issues and the start of new story arc get a stronger promotional push in Previews as well as on websites and podcasts. Promoting jumping-on points heavier than the average issue makes sense. Shorter lifespans of titles is increasingly impacting the month-to-month sales. Flipping an existing title to a new volume gets a bump in sales for the first issue. One of the consequences of this constant restarting of titles is the publishers have to keep reselling retailers and readers on those title as each new volume is as much of a jumping-off point as a jumping-on point. Any readers jumping off titles is usually hidden by the sales generated from the promotional push and incentive covers on the first issue.

DC and Marvel were in very different positions in September in this respect.

DC has a number of new ongoing titles launching over each of the past few months with most of them being part of the Rebirth initiative. "Trinity" #1 was the best-selling new ongoing title from DC in September with 93,797 units while "Blue Beetle" #1 was launched with around 52,230 units. While not all of the Rebirth titles have a previous title/volume to compare against, all which do have stronger average sales so far. Volume to volume average sales can be a little misleading since sales are generally stronger at the start of a volume than at the end resulting in higher average sales earlier in a volume than at the end of it. To account for that, I've included both the average over the entire run of the previous volume and the average over the same number of issues as the current volume.

Rebirth in continuing to be successful for DC. From the first round of titles, "Flash," "Green Arrow," "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" are selling better than the previous volume while "Action Comics," "Aquaman," "Detective Comics" and "Green Lanterns" have already fallen below the corresponding issue of the previous volume. DC had 39 of the top 50 comics in September which is why DC has had the largest percentage of sales in the top 300 comics for three months in a row. Clearly Rebirth seems to be working and "Batman" continues to be the flagship title for DC selling roughly the same as previous volume. While the new volume is doing no better than the previous volume, the previous volume never dipped below 100,000 units during the nearly five year run.

Rotating titles in and out can work. Valiant seems to being going with this model, and it seems to be working for them. Up until recently, it was working for Marvel. The strategy relies on a steady stream of titles readers are interested. As time goes on, continues to rotate titles in and out can get harder and harder for a creative and publishing perspective. From a reader and retailer perspective, it can be challenging to keep track of the ever changing line up of titles and frustrating when a great title comes along since it isn't likely to last very long.

The crop rotation approach is working for Titan Comics, who placed six different Doctors (the 3rd, 4th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th) on the list in September, not counting the "Supremacy of the Cybermen" miniseries. "Doctor Who: The 9th Doctor" started as a miniseries much like the concluding "Doctor Who: The 4th Doctor" and the just-launched "Doctor Who: The 3rd Doctor" titles. Giving older versions of Doctor Who a miniseries on a rotating basis allows Titan Comics to tell stories with the different versions. When one clicks with the readers, promote that one to an ongoing. As they keep publishing, this allows Titan Comics to build up a library of collected editions featuring each of the Doctors which should work out well in the long run.

The reason the crop rotation strategy isn't working for Marvel right now is the strategy only works if you keep rotating in new titles. Having a lot of titles playing out with no new ongoing title launching right results in lower overall sales for a publisher. Marvel is in an awkward "end of season" position with 25 comics on the list below 20,000 units. Many of these were for titles either ending with the issue on the list, or announced as ending soon. All of them have an issue number of 12 or lower.

Marvel seemed to have mastered the crop rotation strategy over the past few years, so it is surprising it is in this position right now. Somehow it ended up with a period of time with no new ongoing titles launching. "Deadpool and Mercs for Money" #1, launched on July 20, was the most recent ongoing title launched by Marvel and the next ongoing title launched by Marvel were "Champions" #1 and "Jessica Jones" #1 on October 5th. Those two titles will be in the next set of sales data since they were released in October. No new ongoing title launching in ten weeks makes it harder to place a first issue on near the top of the list. Marvel only places ten items in the top 50 in September, which isn't a coincidence.

Replacing these low selling titles with new first issues as Marvel Now 2.0 heats up will boost sales for Marvel as they put more items at or near the top of the list. No doubt the recently solicited "USAvengers" #1 with 60 different covers stands a great chance of topping the sales chart when it is released, much like "Justice League of America" #1 did in February 2013 with a nearly identical cover gimmick. Marvel is at least going to have different art on most of the covers which is a major step above just replacing the flag on an otherwise identical cover for "Justice League of America" #1. Equally likely is "USAvengers" #2 will sell drastically lower numbers than the first issue, just like "Justice League of America" #2 dropped by 71.94% in March 2013, a loss of 235,225 units.

Marvel has a number of new volumes and titles launching in the coming months so expect to see a Marvel sales appear to pick up as a number of those titles launching near the top of the list. Whether this is an illusion caused by promotional stunts like the "USAvengers" #1 cover gimmick or is it reflects an actual ongoing increase in sales for Marvel like Rebirth seems to have done for DC will depend on how readers react to the new titles.

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