Comics sales are back at 1994 levels, dawg

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2013NACOM Comics sales are back at 1994 levels, dawg
Industry analyst John Jackson Miller has taken the BookScan numbers posted by Brian Hibbs, and added them with the Diamond year-end sales charts, and then triangulated them with a cosine angle, trapped the outlines in their own layer, tossed the results with a bit of olive oil and garlic, and presented it all for you to read. The above infographic gives a visual representation of sales for each product (GNs and periodical) in various channels; as Miller points out, library and digital sales are not included and the BookScan numbers are very low, but the end result is a combined comics market of more than $700 million, which Miller notes, is the first time comics sales have reached this level since 1993 or 1994, the high times of speculation and chromium covers.

Now granted, $700 million went a lot further in 1993 than in 2013—you could easily buy 10 Manhattan apartments, 56 runs of MARVELMAN or 20,000 venti Frappucinos with all that cash—and we’ve kinda gone back to the chromium cover era with all the variant covers for everything these days, but still…it’s a good healthy number.

Informally, everyone in the comics sales business I’ve spoken with recently says sales are incredibly strong right now. and it isn’t any one thing driving sales. WALKING DEAD is probably the king of the hill, but all sectors are doing well right now. Things are looking good on the retail side…if we can just got a few more better-paying jobs on the creative side.

Miller has lots more analysis at the first link. We urge you to go over and have a look. Also, if any retailers are reading this, how are YOU doing?

Comments

  1. Well, that $715mil is about $1.1bil today. For comparison the movie industry was $10.8bil industry in North America alone (the worldwide market is becoming more and more significant). Just Avengers alone made $623mil in US alone (over $1.5bil worldwide). Sure movies are movies, but Diamond distributes the books worldwide – so UK, Australia, Europe, Mexico… are all included in those figures. Not trying to be Debbie Downer, but just putting those numbers in perspective.

  2. This article needs a celebratory variant cover.

  3. J North says:

    Umm, yeah. Hard to ignore twenty years worth of inflation. Think I paid like $1.25 to $1.50 versus $3.99 per book.

  4. Johnny Memeonic says:

    If ’93/’94 levels were $700 million at the time then inflation would translate that to roughly a billion of today’s dollars. So more like 2/3 of the way there.

  5. >>>but Diamond distributes the books worldwide – so UK, Australia, Europe, Mexico… are all included in those figures.<<<

    UK numbers are NOT included in the reported totals, FYI — Diamond UK is a separate company.

    -B

  6. For 2012 we ended the year up a whopping 26% over 2011. Including January and February (so far) of 2013, we have had 19 months of double-digit sales growth.

    Factors contributing to our growth include:
    The DC Relaunch
    Strengthening local economy
    A minor competitor closing
    The Image Renaissance
    Walking Dead and other mass-media “wins”
    New, larger store location.
    Marvel NOW!
    Improved business practices

  7. “N” — Brian is right. Euro distribution is handled by Diamond UK; these are North American figures. As the article states, Diamond’s UK branch adds another 10% or so.

    And yeah, as the piece says, it’s absolutely not adjusted for inflation — it’s been that long since we’ve seen that number, but the number doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

    The 1993 peak figure reported in a few places at the time was $850 million, which would be closer to $1.35 billion today. But I don’t think even that is necessarily an apt comparison, for a couple of reasons. We’re reaching that $715 million figure with more than half the money coming from bound editions, the vast majority of which didn’t exist in in 1993-94. That market got there almost entirely on comic books. So there’s a huge difference in the number of eyeballs we’re reaching.

    There’s also whatever degree that comics prices have outpaced inflation which should be considered, as well. The average comic book retailers ordered in January 1995 cost $2.20; now it’s $3.58. That’s 20 cents higher than what the CPI calculator says it should be.

    Which is why I put the mention of the past at the bottom of the piece, instead of putting it in the lede: it’s because there really is no comparison, once you deal with these other factors. For the periodical market of 2012 — setting aside GNs — to rival the peak year of 1993 when adjusted for inflation, we’d need to move four or five times as many units. And that would require at least somewhere close to the number of shops we had then, which is four times what we have now.

  8. horatio weisfeld says:

    Thanks to John Jackson Miller for reminding us not to forget reality ..
    If you factor inflation (the same money now buys about 30 / 40% of what it did in 1994) + then you consider that, more than ever, comics are published as a loss-leader in marketing schemes (so while comics produce revenue, they don’t necessarily make much profit – AKA: Pay wages – anymore), you might conclude that the industry is still at a small (as little as 20 / 30 % ?) fraction of where it was in the time period (1994) to which the comparison is made.

    History teaches that one overlooks inflation (and the impact it might have on you, everyone else and everything else) at great peril.

  9. MBunge says:

    What balances out the inflation thing, however, is that the comic industry is achieving this sales level despite it’s 2nd biggest publisher being a total basket case with sales in the toilet always getting worse. At least that’s the impression you get from reading the DC sales analysis on The Beat. It’s amazing that everyone else in the comic biz is able to overcome the lead anchor that is DC. Simply amazing.

    Mike

  10. For reference, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator, a 2012 dollar has the same buying power as 65 cents in 1994 — and if you reverse it, the 1994 dollar has the same buying power as $1.55 in 2012. The calculator: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl

  11. chuck says:

    I’m not so sure we can say there were more “eyeballs” reading comics because the individual reader may have bought more…I know I did. I’m still spending the same amount of money, though. I wonder who’s buying the graphic novels…more New or lapsed readers or people like me who buy them so I don’t have to dig thru boxes of my own back issues…;)

  12. Jesse says:

    This is awesome but I thought the Beat was eliminating comedy articles?

  13. There were 11,000 comics shops in 1993, Chuck, so I am absolutely certain the readership pool was larger.

    Still, yes, we were talking even then about “phantom readers” — the unit count was implying there were more readers than there were, when far more of the comics retailers ordered went unsold, and when even among sold copies, we had the phenomenon of individuals buying copies by the case as investments. I am sure individuals following more titles also contributed to reduce the number of people we reached.

  14. Johnny Memeonic says:

    The readership pool today could be as big or larger than it was in the mid 90’s (not counting the speculators obviously). People engaged in piracy are technically readers even if they aren’t paying readers.

    Their numbers are not insignificant and neither is the financial effect they have no matter how much the comics journalists and blog sites try to play this down as they have to pretend to be pirate friendly for their general readership.

  15. I am amused that perhaps $75 MILLION DOLLARS iin digital sales are invisible, untracked and unreported. Very interesting. A secret, unmeasurable sales outlet, with unverifiable everythings.
    How cool! And how unlike 1993, when we were first Netscaping around the known dial-up universe.

  16. Playing that game leads to madness, and here’s why. In the 1990s — and in every decade before when comics were being published — publishers’ advertising media kits touted “pass-along readership,” the unpaid readership that came from comic books being read multiple times by family members and by people lending or giving away their comics. Publishers would inflate their readership totals by 400%, 500%, and even more, using this catchall.

    Physical pass-along readership is far less today: families are smaller, and the “churn rate” of comics changing hands is slower. Certainly, unpaid downloads have become today’s equivalent. But advertisers paid little heed to the “pass-along” claims of the past because there was no statistical way to evaluate them — and the same problem hinders us when it comes to measuring the impact of unpaid downloads. We didn’t know what the real readership was then, and we don’t know now. Since the financial impact is usually item #1 under the heading of “why we want to know,” most reports, from the distant past to present, have tended to focus on the number of hands that have plunked down money. That should come as no surprise.

    The total universe would be an interesting fact to know, to be sure — though we’d also want to know the data on which downloaders are candidate buyers (as opposed to living in places where publishers aren’t able to sell, for reasons of licensing or capability). But on the wish list, that probably comes after getting hard numbers on the paid digital purchases, and we don’t even have that at the moment.

  17. Kingdom says:

    So based on the 2.5x increase in comic book costs, it really means you really have around 60% less comics sold at a 60% increase in price. Not really something to be proud of if think about it. Really sounds like comic book companies did what we all suspected …they maintained their profit margins not through increased sales of product but just through increased prices while lying about the causes.

    Another thing is the graphic above doesn’t mention digital sales. 2012 was the year comics finally wholeheartedly embraced digital across the board and I would be curious to know what kind of boost to the bottom line that has caused especially since the companies are not sharing 50% of each sale with a comic book store but getting to keep most of it themselves (minus the Comixology cut which I believe is significantly less then 50%).

  18. Kingdom says:

    After post saw Miller’s response on digital and do recognize that all we know on digital sales is “Top 10″ lists which tell us nothing about actually money changing hands or the number of units sold. So basically digital sales could be anywhere from 0 to infinity based on the public information currently out there.

  19. Ally McFuckyou says:

    Not adjusting for inflation is silly, but even more nutso is not including digital sales. I mean, if the point of the article is to express how great things are going in comics, why wouldn’t you mine the data that would end up obliterating those old 94 numbers?

    Weird.

  20. horatio weisfeld says:

    For reference, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator, a 2012 dollar has the same buying power as 65 cents in 1994
    >>
    @John Jackson Miller:
    Right.. uh.. and housing prices only go up.. and the fed will pull out of its death spiral (aka: ever growing QE/monetization of the 2000-2007 ponzi credit expansion) just in time.
    .. I stand by what I said– All in all: I think my buck buy about 1/3 of what it did in 94.

  21. The graphic is about print — hence the headline on it — but it absolutely does acknowledge digital sales. It’s on the bottom there: the best public estimates I’ve heard are north of $75 million, which would make it a little less than 10% of the overall market, if you were to combine print and digital. (Which my site rarely does, because my research area is print.)

    Print is still the meat and potatoes, but digital is adding a healthy side dish. My own rooting interest is simply that people can keep making a living creating and selling comics, so the growth in the new channel is good news.

  22. >>> I mean, if the point of the article is to express how great things are going in comics, why wouldn’t you mine the data that would end up obliterating those old 94 numbers? <<<

    Uh… what data?

    AT BEST all we have is purely anecdotal evidence, and a lot of utterly unindexed charts.

    -B

  23. Again, I would urge a reading of the actual post: you’ll see that I mention the unadjusted dollars comparison only at the end, that I say it isn’t adjusted, and that I didn’t make any such comparisons in my headline or lede. While I have done some broader comparative pieces in the past, the main intent of this one was to deliver the numbers.

    Horatio’s economic mileage may vary, but he hits on a problem I alluded to above: we can do inflation-adjusted comparisons, but the fact that comics inflation is an independent variable makes it less than perfect. Because of the stair-step nature of comics pricing — we don’t increase like gallons of gas, but rather in $0.50 and dollar increments — we see islands of stability and then big lurches, so squaring up any two given points with CPI or any other outside index gives us some squirelly moves.

    The best way to take inflation completely out of the picture is to forget dollars and focus on units. We just don’t tend to do that when TPBs are in the mix, because their pricing varies so much. And as said above, we’re selling WAY fewer comics than in the early 1990s, and WAY more graphic novels (and, obviously, digital versions); the net being that we’re still quite a lot behind the early 1990s in adjusted dollars.

  24. J.J. Miller knows his facts, knows his research and knows the biz. I like the data and I’m happy to see it laid out. The industry has shrunk, warped, grown and morphed into several arenas. Despite all that – we still see good sales and exposure for the medium on several fronts – print included. I call that GOOD NEWS. Granted, it’s not gangbusters… but it’s not like we need a government bailout. We are holding our own (with many of the same companies that were around before many commenters were even born).

    I’m amused by the *lack* of celebrating.

  25. Also once you start talking about eyeballs, you have to remember in the 90’s there were a very large number of collectors who weren’t readers, but would bag and board comics never to read them hoping they would be worth something down the road. We still have collectors these days, especially with variant editions, but anecdotal it seems like there is a larger percentage of readers than just pure collectors.

  26. I’ve added a coda to my post, encapsulating the additional caveats I mentioned above. Happy to do so — I want the data to be correctly interpreted.

    There are over 100,000 sales figures on my site, and the vast majority of them are unit sales figures for the simple reason that the comic book makes for an excellent package for cross-time comparisons. When and if you see the comics market top 48 million copies a month — the record from April 1993 — you’ll definitely see me headlining that. And then I’ll hide in the basement, because this business has rarely seen a more tumultuous time than the years that followed that.

  27. Chris Hero says:

    John Jackson Miller does awesome, awesome work. That can’t be stated enough.

    I think this is pretty awesome news. I’m interpreting the shift towards graphic novels and OGNs as showing people are interested in reading complete works.

  28. “And then I’ll hide in the basement, because this business has rarely seen a more tumultuous time than the years that followed that.”

    I rather doubt it’ll come to that again, though.

    Certainly, the periodical market seems everything but safe from that sort of thing — retailers are still prone to buying into all kinds of non-sustainable sales stunts; there are fewer shops right now; and while the overall numbers for serial print comic books look great, it’s the constant reboots, relaunches and crossovers that’s been keeping them up, rather than a wealth of strong individual titles; also, there’s no reason to believe that Warner or Disney will want to keep periodical comic books around any longer than they turn in a solid profit, since you don’t need them to produce a bunch of Batman or Avengers films that will probably make 10 times the money Marvel and DC combined can in a year. There’s plenty to be worried about there.

    But that said, we’ve got much stronger graphic-novel and collection sales now than 20 years ago, both in comics stores and in bookstores. And with a little luck, the digital market keeps growing fast enough to be able to compensate another decline in the direct market for periodical print comic books if or when it happens.

    Times are tumultuous enough as it is, of course, but at least all eggs aren’t in one basket anymore. There are significant options and distribution channels now that weren’t available in 1993.

  29. I agree, Marc-Oliver. There are more checks in the system, especially with more stringent standards for opening a shop than there were in those days. It serves as a check against overfast expansion, which is part of what got us back then.

  30. I also had a quick thought on Chris Hero’s “interpreting the shift towards graphic novels and OGNs as showing people are interested in reading complete works.”

    There’s another explanation for that, and it’s the volume of material available. Diamond limits the number of new comics it releases and how many back issues it shelves, but the number of GNs available for order, while also limited, is simply much higher. One category is new comics; the other category is the best comics from 75 years. I could see where the balance would tip some. It just can’t tip all the way without a change in how comics stories are produced and financed.

  31. horatio weisfeld says:

    I rather doubt it’ll come to that again, though.
    >>
    @Marc-Oliver Frisch:
    I’m with you – I hope not – but I don’t doubt that it could again, somehow, tomorrow… The sooner people stop doubting how easily and how quickly the comic market, the real estate market, tulips, fried dog assholes or hairballs can become fodder for a perverse and (ultimately) catastrophic financial mania, the sooner world will be a safer place… I don’t expect to see that sort of peace in my time.

  32. Another point of consideration is that those graphic novel collected editions represent stories that we used to have to buy as back issues. To my knowledge, back issue sales were never included in the sales figures for the industry because they were the secondary market.

    It was certainly a lot cheaper in many cases to rummage through back issue bins than to plunk down $20 for a collected edition, plus only my local comic shop knew (or cared) what I paid for those back issues.

    This also means that readers 20 years ago were picking up back issues on the secondary market *in addition* to the reported purchases of new issues in the figures presented here. Today’s readers expect each arc to be quickly collected, but there was a time when only the most popular/best-selling/”important” arcs were given the trade paperback treatment.

  33. Torsten Adair says:

    There are more readers now.
    As stated in the article, school and library sales are not included in these numbers.
    Scholastic book fairs has sold AT LEAST 200,000 copies of Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Every clever librarian knows that comics are seductive, and stock a wide selection. A child doesn’t want to read?.Hand them a comic book.

    That didn’t exist in 1994. Back then, only seven publishers sold graphic novels to bookstores. Now, every major and minor comics publisher does, as do all the major book publishers.

  34. MBunge says:

    “That didn’t exist in 1994. Back then, only seven publishers sold graphic novels to bookstores.”

    But bookstores were more likely to carry monthly comics back then.

    Mike

  35. I wonder about that. Barnes & Noble and Hastings both carry a full line — as does the independent bookseller chain up here in the midwest. Borders had monthlies, while it was around. I don’t know about the other chains, but it seems to me like while the number of bookstores is down, the product is still in — if selling less.

    I would note the “newsstand” category is the one I’m most looking at revising upward, having done some more work with the Statements of Ownership for 2011. Still looking for last year’s from Marvel — they had been coming out in November or December. But I’ve seen them run as late as December of the FOLLOWING year (as happened in DR. STRANGE in the 1980s, when it was bimonthly and a bunch of letter columns got bumped).

  36. Synsidar says:

    One problem with not adjusting for inflation is that failing to do so makes comparisons with other forms of entertainment difficult, whether the point is to compare the sizes of markets n years ago, or to compare the sizes of a person’s entertainment budget across years.

    As I recall, Marvel and DC have been able to raise their prices faster than inflation because of inelastic demand. Purchases of superhero comics aren’t really comparable to expenditures on other forms of entertainment. However, the money spent on other genres of comics, from other publishers, along with units sold, might be comparable to the broader book market. Isolating the Marvel and DC numbers from everything else in the comics market might simplify comparisons.

    SRS

  37. The Beat says:

    >>>But bookstores were more likely to carry monthly comics back then.

    In 1994? Not really. If you read back to all the'”saving comics” initiatives from that era getting into bookstores and 7-11s again was always a priority.

  38. @John — When I worked in consumer magazines the pass-along rates were derived from polling and market research. Definitely not hard data, but it’s the kind of data that gives us things like congressional approval ratings and whatnot. Also, the “total readership” number was usually total paid circ plus unpaid circ (free distribution to doctor’s offices, etc.) plus the wonky pass-along number. Kind of an unimportant point compared to the actual points in your article but I thought it was worth elaborating a little. I’m also not sure how Marvel or DC calculated their total readership numbers.

    Also, whenever the question of digital sales comes up there seems to be an outpouring of “They’re keeping those numbers secret from us!” type comments. But sales figures are always secret, for very good marketing reasons (except for subscription-based magazines). Maybe we’ve just gotten so used to the ICv2 sales estimates in comics that we’ve started taking data for granted. But for regular books, and just about every other type of product, sales figures come out in dribs and drabs through press surveys, interviews with publishers, or incomplete estimates like Bookscan.

  39. Fred Ganczar says:

    Let’s put these numbers in a simpler perspective: how many comics stores are there today, compared to 1994? How many other major distributors besides Diamond? That comics are seeing stronger sales speaks volumes about their relative popularity. If it wasn’t for the impact of superhero films, comics could indeed be a dead medium today. And I’ll say the same thing now that I said when I was downsizing from six stores to none by 1995…comics are just too expensive! The next generation of readers just can’t afford to buy, much less collect, them.

  40. Jesse, thanks for the recollection. Yeah, we did the same sort of surveys at CBG to figure out a pass-along number we could hang our hats on — but I would expect the further back in time we go before the 1990s, the spottier that research was.

    No, I wouldn’t expect publishers to release information about downloads, either. The fact that we know as much as we know about comics sales is an artifact of their being mailed Second Class to subscribers (and the number of participating publishers in that market is currently down to Archie and MAD, until we see something from Marvel) — and due to the fact that Milton Griepp started running indexed data in the 1980s. If there’s no need for a sales figure to be audited by the USPS or for advertisers, I see little reason for a publisher to release it.

    As to Fred Ganczar’s question on the number of stores, I said above there were 11,000 stores in 1993; Joe Field has pointed out to me that figure was likely accounts, and that the number of stores was much smaller. His estimate is 5,500-6,000, many having multiple accounts; I tend to think that’s a bit low, given Steve Geppi’s figure of 6,400 cited at a panel my publisher ran in the summer of 1995 — and also knowing the size of the readership COMICS RETAILER generated by having our office staff go through all the national Yellow Pages.

    But it’s really tough to say for sure, because it was also an era in which sportscard stores and a lot of non-traditional outlets had come in to dabble in comics — so the number of “comics shops” back then really depends on how literal your definition is. There were guys with accounts that turned out to be selling at flea markets on weekends, we always heard — and I vividly remember visiting a “comics shop” that was set up in a psychiatrist’s office in a doctor’s complex.

    Whatever the figure is for 1993 (which I am using, as it was the peak), it was probably at least three times what it is now. It’s been reported there are between 2,000-3,000 Diamond accounts ordering comics, but as some will point out, the number of full-service or full-line stores is going to be a subset of that.

  41. Horatio Weisfeld says:

    It’s amazing that everyone else in the comic biz is able to overcome the lead anchor that is DC.
    >>
    @MBunge:
    That’s a great point — so what you have is a huge (Zombie) comics loser, ever gobbling up market share, in the service of it’s (non-comics) licensing. .. but do we really “overcome this anchor” or are comics forever destined to be a school-of-hard-knocks for the young and foolish, who, if their lucky, eventually find the wisdom to move on to some (profit based) business.
    Also: Having an insolvent player like DC is particularly disheartening to anyone who might be thinking of starting a new comic company (especially those thinking of using anything like elbow grease) — why would anyone want to go up against this 10 million ton gorilla that ever vomits oceans of red ink?

  42. “There were guys with accounts that turned out to be selling at flea markets on weekends, we always heard — and I vividly remember visiting a “comics shop” that was set up in a psychiatrist’s office in a doctor’s complex.”

    Ha! That’s amazing! I remember a furniture store in our neighborhood called The Wicker Baron that started selling comics and cards that year. It was right across the street from a real comics store and both still managed to stay in business.

  43. 50,000 at 2.25 in 1993
    5,000 at 4.99 in 2013

    Which do you think I’d rather deliver to the market?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] lets not forget inflation, so that $700 million in 1993 is worth significantly more than that now. Comics sales are back at 1994 levels. Of course, if there isn't a very successful Walking Dead tv show on the air now, than the dollar [...]

  2. [...] and need to focus more on bringing people into the store rather than just selling comic books. Comic books are in demand now  (you can thank digital sales and movies for that, BTW), we just need to provide the right [...]

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