Brandon: Sales charts are the devil's work

201111210312 Brandon: Sales charts are the devil's work

Writer Ivan Brandon gives voice to the frequently-stated among creators idea that sales charts are a dangerous thing for the business, and may actually help put people out of work. He was most upset by the recent iFanboy piece that looked at all the Marvel books that seemed to be below the line that spelled cancellation:

what’s the harm in that? well, maybe the speculation itself helps to lead those books down the road to cancellation. in an industry with contracting numbers where folks are already very cautious about buying books they think “don’t count” in a line’s continuity, your speculation for kicks based on murky arbitrary sales “data” maybe has the added bonus of a causative effect, creating the reader insecurities that lead to the effects that you’d “predicted”.

and between the books on that list there are probably upwards of 30 people drawing an income. about half of which are probably working FULL TIME on those books at longer than normal office hours (often 7 days a week) with no other source of income.


Sadly, one of the books on Ifanboy’s list — DAKEN — has already been canceled. One person’s speculation is another person’s informed guess, especially in these bottom line-conscious days.

I’ve actually heard the complaints about sale numbers many times over the years — an entire forum of creators was called “standard attrition” as a defiant gesture against Marc-Oliver Frisch’s usual note. I’ve asked retailers many times if seeing books selling at a low point might inspire them to cut orders further. No one will admit to any such thing. But low numbers don’t make anyone happy. Certainly, in Marvel’s case, they are looking at more accurate numbers with even greater scrutiny.

I’m not sure if the fascination with ranking in all the arts — Nielsen ratings, box office charts, bestseller lists — is a healthy thing or not, or merely an expression of some kind of “winning” mentality. One thing is certain: People sure like reading these charts, or else we wouldn’t keep doing them.

Update: Okay y’all need to read Tom Spurgeon’s take on this, if only for the chance to see a photo of Tom’s genitals.

Comments

  1. The other rankings of the arts, Nielsen ratings, box office charts and bestseller lists, are different in that comic lists only show what retailers are ordering. They don’t show what people are buying or reading.

    That’s not the case with this other ranking lists.

    If a retailer looks at these lists and sees that not a lot of other retailers are ordering a specific book, they very well may follow the herd and do the same. Nobody really knows why a retailer orders the amount of books that they do.

  2. The numbers are surely important — but with comics, much less so than any other medium. Marvel has cancelled several titles — but DC just cancelled ALL of their titles! The point is they come back, whether it be right away or over time.

  3. Once we cut past the fact that a lot of these types of complaints are coming from people who don’t know what the Diamond sales data mean, don’t care what the Diamond sales data mean or are just vaguely worried that everybody else but them won’t know or care what the Diamond sales data mean, the debate isn’t particularly new, as you point out.

    Here’s what I wrote when Jason Aaron voiced the same concern three years ago:

    http://comiksdebris.blogspot.com/2008/05/messenger-shot-dead.html

  4. I wrote a long blog piece about Mr Brandon’s piece but abandoned it in favor of a simple reply: comics are a business. Businesses involve money. This is a capitalist society. We need to analyze money and what is and isn’t working.

    His criticism that external number analysts don’t have correct numbers is particularly offensive. It’s offensive because it is the publishers’ fault if the publicly available numbers are wrong. He’s angry but he cannot yell at his employers, so he yells at the analysts. Misdirected frustration.

    As for the idea that publicizing poor sales leading to poorer sales–I am sure it happens. But what is worse, a book being quiety axed for underperformance, with nobody understanding why? There’s ten reasons for each of Mr Brandon’s reasons why-not.

    Transparency is healthy. And as we have seen with the recent fiasco with digital comics sales, people feel deceived and bullshitted when publishers boast of high performance with no objective, tangible metric of what “success” means.

    I empathize with Mr Brandon’s complaint of feeling exposed by these numbers, but only to an extent. How is anybody going to take this “business” of comic books seriously if publishers are not open with how the business is performing.

    Many, many people work in jobs in which their approximate income is publicly known. That is life.

  5. “If a retailer looks at these lists and sees that not a lot of other retailers are ordering a specific book, they very well may follow the herd and do the same. Nobody really knows why a retailer orders the amount of books that they do.”

    Retailers order what can sell. Our stores don’t place a single order decrease based upon these sales charts, although reading them is interesting. If a book is selling well in our stores, we are happy no matter where it is on the sales charts. We base our sales on our own internal sales charts that our POS spews out.

    I presume most retailers do the same.

  6. The operative word there is “maybe,” and honestly, I don’t see it. I’ve been reading these charts here for years, and I can’t think of a single instance where the bottom fell out on a book because of rumors of cancellation. If a book has been consistently losing 3-4% every month, that rate continues all the way up until the end, even after the cancellation has been announced. The charts have nothing to do with it.

    I mean really, think about what he’s arguing. These articles are read by a few thousand people at most. Of those, a small percent already read the book in question. Of that small percentage, only an even smaller percentage would drop a book they’re enjoying just because there are rumors it might be cancelled. And then that drop wouldn’t hit the actual sales of the title until two months later when the retailer makes their next order. I mean, when a book is really on the cusp, on the razor’s edge, that tiny shift could conceivably be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I find that highly unlikely.

    On the other hand, bringing attention to a book being in the danger zone could drive people who love the book to be more vocal about it and try to drive interest through word of mouth. Do I even need to mention how many times Spider-Girl was saved this way? I’ve read more love for X-Factor over the last week than I had in the year before, and it warms my heart to see other people as thrilled as I am by the book.

  7. Marc: Jason Aaron is the same writer who last week had one of his comics cancelled and wants to spin it like “it concluded naturally!” Which smells exactly like the stink that it is because people are voting with their dollars “less Jason Aaron comics,” and he wants to convince the public that “more Jason Aaron comics” is what is needed.

    Furthermore, upon browsing that link that you posted, Marc, Jason Aaron seems to believe that journalists, analysts and bloggers are part of his PR team and that they’re not doing their jobs in promoting comic sales. This is not a healthy attitude to have. It is the attitude of an egotist who believes that people in the world exist to serve him. Surprisingly, this is a false belief.

  8. I’m inclined to believe Jason Aaron when he says that his story is reaching its natural conclusion. It doesn’t take a genius to see that he’s doing the rise and fall of one character in parallel with the fall and rise of another, and that both arcs are nearing completion. This may be a happy coincidence. But there are plenty of in-story indications that he’s telling the truth.

    As regards the broader points, we live in a world with Neilsen ratings, Bookscan reports, Box Office Mojo, Billboard charts, and so forth. I don’t see comics as fundamentally different.

  9. Maybe a better measure is total titles shipped as Brad suggests. Just because a title gets canceled does not necessarily mean work is lost, many times that effort just goes to another title.

    Each title should be and likely is considered based on cost vs revenue. If a title is losing money and there is no prospect to get that back long term via trades, etc. Then it should be canceled, imo.

    Or the publisher is doing some altruistic thing because they believe in the project, think there are other longer term prospects, want to make a statement, etc. I would characterize almost all of those as typically DC motivations vs. Marvel — at least in the DiDio era of DC or what might be the post-Disney era of Marvel.

  10. Earth-2 Chad says:

    It’s also worth noting that no one seems to mind sharing sales data when it goes their way, as when Brandon’s publisher, Image, trumpeted the pre-release sell out of his series “Viking,” complete with a happy quote from Brandon. Don’t know that you can have it both ways — either sales info is a big secret, or it’s not.

  11. I can’t speak to any other retailer, but I’ve never lowered a book’s order because of the sales charts — I order what my customers want (which is often VERY different than what the charts say)

    However, if we know factually that a title is already cancelled, then I am substantially less likely to order more than the minimum number of copies needed to fill that demand — why throw good money after bad?

    -B

  12. re: Jason Aaron and PunisherMAX, this is what he told CBR in August. “This is the culmination of the Punisher/Kingpin story, but it’s not my last story on the book,” the writer said. “There are definitely plans in place after this next arc, but I can’t talk about them without spoiling what’s coming up.”

    So yeah, not buying the natural conclusion story.

  13. there were no numbers in that announcement, i’ve never spoken about my own numbers. as far as i know i’ve only ever sold out pre-release the one time and my main goal was, after promoting the book for months, to let anyone interested know there were more copies on the way.

  14. the blog ate the quote, that was SUPPOSED to be a response to —It’s also worth noting that no one seems to mind sharing sales data when it goes their way, as when Brandon’s publisher, Image, trumpeted the pre-release sell out of his series “Viking,” complete with a happy quote from Brandon. Don’t know that you can have it both ways — either sales info is a big secret, or it’s not.—

  15. Mikael says:

    I love all the backseat analysts who ignore people who get paid based on the actual work and sales of their books.

    Also – Diamond releases these numbers. Why should it be the publishers’ fault if they are incorrect? They aren’t the ones gathering information across multiple publishers. Diamond does that.

    The numbers are skewed. They are a guessing game. I also have no idea what people get out of them other than some kind of bragging right. Which is dumb. Most of the times, it shows how retailers’ habits haven’t changed in decades, not the habits of readers.

  16. Might be off-topic there, but as a reader, when I see numbers are dropping, I tend to make more noise about it, in chances the title get enough new readers.

    I suppose that retailers are fans too and can support titles they really believe in. But as always in a business, for a title to support, there must be huge sellers too.

  17. Earth-2 Chad says:

    Point taken, Mr. Brandon. But I’d argue that discussing sales in that way — even without numbers — opens the door to the kind of “winners/losers” sales analysis that the Beat offers up every month, not to mention the iFanboy article you referenced.

  18. Earth-2 Chad says:

    One more thing: Why does Diamond release the numbers?

    If the data is out there, I think it’s tough to expect comics sites not to analyze it. Even if those numbers are incomplete, they’re the best info comics journalists have about what’s selling.

    But I doubt Diamond’s intention is to provide fodder for well-read posts on comics websites. What’s their rationale for releasing the info?

  19. I agree with what Jason Green writes. I don’t see talking about dropping sales hurting a book.
    It’s often stated that if you looked at internet response, no one would read any more Jeph Loeb books (unless Tim Sale is drawing them), but his books sell big.
    So it seems the internet is not a great barometer of what will sell. And I can’t believe it’s a great barometer of what will NOT sell.

    I also keep getting books when they get cancelled. I either like them or don’t. For every book that felt rushed or forced in their last few issues there’s one that has a nice conclusion that wrapped up a series I love. So while I am sad when a book is cancelled, I get books I think are good regardless of it’s future sales forecast.

  20. Mikael–publishers, distributor. Who cares? The point is that Mr Brandon and Mr Aaron are accusing analysts of causing harm when the “dangerous” information is coming from the supply side of the economy. These numbers arent being made up, they are released for the benefit of interested parties.

  21. —Mikael–publishers, distributor. Who cares? The point is that Mr Brandon and Mr Aaron are accusing analysts of causing harm when the “dangerous” information is coming from the supply side of the economy. These numbers arent being made up, they are released for the benefit of interested parties.—

    did you read my blog post? or are you reacting to excerpts? because i don’t think that’s what i said at all.

  22. Personally, I think the open dissemination, discussion and analysis of the available sales information contributes to making the comics market a healthier place.

    And I think so precisely BECAUSE said information shows, among other things, which types of material are particularly favored or disadvantaged by the market at a given time, and how the various creative, promotional and marketing measures taken by publishers affect sales month in, month out.

    I think we’re all much better off with that type of information than without — and by that I mean everyone in comics, creators included.

    (And if you’re one of those “the numbers are inaccurate” types, I’ve got no time for you, at this point. At this stage, the merits and limitations of the available information are clear and well-established to anyone who’s really interested, and if “it’s not correct” is all you’ve got to say, you’re either not paying attention, or you’re purposely out to misinform.)

  23. Torsten Adair says:

    And gosh darn it for all those speculators on Wall Street, forecasting profits and losses with almost no data, then punishing companies when the reported profits aren’t as high as the traders expected! “You only made $1 Billion dollars in profit? I was expecting $1.2! I’m selling!”

    And when the stock price drops, the big investors with millions of shares, who sit on the board, expect heads to roll.

  24. One factual note: Diamond does NOT RELEASE NUMBERS They release an index number. However savvy folks like Milton Griepp and John Jackson Miller extrapolate these numbers for their own charts which are NOT 100% accurate as to number. They do, however, give a very accurate idea of degree. Robert Kirkman demonstrated this at Charlotte a few years ago in his debate with Brian Michael Bendis.

  25. And even if Diamond DIDN’T release index numbers, you could still figure out just from the top 300 placings which books are selling below cancelled books. The sales estimates are a red herring in this context.

  26. Ivan- I’ll admit that I only read your essay on Friday, and formed my impressions then, wrote my notes then (and you and I talked a bit on twitter then), but I have not revisited the essay since.

    So while everything I said this morning is an accurate representation of my impression on Friday, I am willing to take a fresh look at the concerns.

  27. @darrylayo you may want to read heidi’s comment above as to “These numbers arent being made up, they are released for the benefit of interested parties.”

    and i never said anyone was “causing” harm. i listed my impressions of potential pros vs cons.

    it would be impossible to measure the effects of these kinds of things and i’m not much for anecdotal arguments.

  28. Ralf Haring says:
  29. I don’t know if releasing the (low) numbers of some books causes them to get canceled either, but I do know that there is usually no shortage of schadenfreude in certain sales figures rundowns, and I suspect that’s what Mr. Brandon, Mr. Aaaron and others are really reacting to… let’s just say that I am not remotely surprised to hear about that “Standard Attrition” forum, and leave it at that.

  30. I think the numbers might convince retailers and customers to abandon a book that’s already selling like crap. But there are much larger forces at work that make something sell like crap in the first place.

  31. Synsidar says:

    One difference between the comics publishers and other media companies with rankings is that the other companies use the rankings for marketing. A bestselling book can stay on the charts for months; movies can have extended runs. Consumers use the lists to decide what to buy or to go to. Individual comics issues, conversely, aren’t marketed. The Previews system only works because the fans are, in a sense, a captive audience. If a reader wants new Spider-Man stories, there’s nowhere to go but Marvel. As soon as a series issue is released, unless it’s controversial for some reason, the publisher’s attention immediately shifts to the next issue. The ceiling on the comics readership would discourage promoting individual issues anyway.

    Critics of the charts are right, in a way, that publicizing sales estimates has mostly negative effects, but that’s due to the way the issues are published. If issues were available for purchase for months at a time and marketed, high rankings would have the same effects on consumers that the rankings for other media products do.

    SRS

  32. Synsidar,

    I think the DC marketing on the new 52 showed that advertising does work, whether it was profitable enough we will find out when/if they do anything marketing campaign.

    Until then, publishers will continue to pretend that retailers are the ones responsible to market their books.

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