SalesBeat: The long tail of comics; Marvel clarifies

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farscape 11 boom SalesBeat: The long tail of comics; Marvel clarifiesA couple of developments in the ongoing pamphletpocalypse/sales adjustment.

§ At long last John Jackson Miller has appeared with comforting words to explain why September’s sales figures weren’t cause to jump out the window. This may be just our interpretation, but it appears that the plunge isn’t so much that all periodical sales are shrinking as top periodical sales are slipping. Miller explains that the tail-end of the long tail is actually HEALTHIER than ever.

Direct Market sales volume for comics not appearing in the Top 300 appears to be increasing.

How do we know? Believe it or not, a record for high sales was actually set in September. The 300th place comic book, Boom’s Farscape #11, sold more copies to retailers in September than in any month since November 1996: 4,702 copies. That’s a record for the period following Marvel’s return to Diamond. This bellwether tells us about the shape of the market, and how prolific the major and middle-tier publishers are; when many of their titles are being released and reordered, higher-volume titles tend to push farther into the list. (See an updated list of all the 300th place titles and their sales.)


A few other data points: The top 25 periodicals are selling about 25 percent worse than they did in 2003, the period when the most recent sales “boom” was at its healthiest. The 25-70th places are steady, but the midlist definitely needs a tummy tuck, down about 15%. And then things pick up for the end like CRAZY. “Midlist” publishers BOOM!, Dynamite, and IDW are all solidifying the audiences for their titles, and might even be building NEW audiences for people who like to read, say, TRANSFORMERS or INCORRUPTIBLE but not Big Two comics.

JJM has a table showing the 300th comic sales for the last 14 years or so; it’s incredibly interesting just for the flashes of also-rans from the datebook of comics history: IronCat, Dabel, Jack Lake, Gutsoon.

Like we said, this sales trend—combined with the fact that Marvel and DC are very busy redefining their price point, format and line size—suggets that all signs point to a significant balking of hardcore Marvel/DC periodical readers.

§ Indeed, in an interview with Kiel Phegley Marvel’s co-executive editor Tom Brevoort was busy explaining the recent announcements re line cutting and price cutting:

Tom Brevoort: I think that the key thing, from my understanding of it at least, is that people either misreported or misconstrued what David Gabriel actually said at that panel. They kind of confused it a bit with the DC announcement and mixed them all together, and so it created what amounts to an unrealistic expectation for what would be happening in January. As I understand it, in the panel that David was in speaking about digital comics, he said that our digital comics sales had been really successful and that as a result of that, beginning in January we’d be able to start pricing some of our upcoming limited series and other releases at $2.99. This announcement came at around the time that DC announced that they were rolling back all their titles to $2.99, and people got very excited and confused and a little crazed, and I think that all of the particulars got lost in the shuffle. So now that the actual January catalog is out, people are going, “Wait! Didn’t you say all these books were going to be priced at $2.99?” No, we didn’t actually say that.

We said two things: one, we’re going to be able to do more things at the $2.99 price point as a result of the success of digital comics, and two, that we’re going to try to contract some of the wild line expansion that we’ve had over the next couple of months. It’s not all going to happen instantly– it’s not going to be that suddenly in January we’re down to only four Deadpool books. We’re still going to have the same number of Deadpool books that we normally had (or perhaps a little bit fewer just to pull that all back.) But this morning we announced the Point One initiative that we’ve got running through many of our monthly titles between February and April, and all of those books are priced at $2.99. And you’ll see more initiatives like that in the months to come. So really, what this kind of amounts to from my point of view is either people reporting the wrong message or reading the wrong message from those reports and then being upset that reality isn’t exactly the thing they had in their heads.


As many have pointed out, this misconstruing may be partially due to the fact that Marvel hasn’t really made a concrete policy announcement re all this. However, it is our understanding that further statements are coming this week. STAY TUNED, TRUE BELIEVER.

Comments

  1. Except Marvel almost regularly has fewer titles a month in the beginning months of the year, but they ramp the title count back up by summer time. Rinse, lather, repeat. I do like the Point One initiative though.

  2. The Point One initiative is a good thought and certainly has its heart in the right place. It sounds great for grabbing pre-existing comic readers who maybe have drifted away from these Marvel books.

    But I’m not real clear how people who don’t regularly go to comic stores, or more likely never go at all, are going to just naturally sense that new-reader friendly comics are waiting for them and they should get themselves to their local sequential art store.

  3. Brevoort is technically correct that Marvel is doing what it promised, but Marvel seemed very happy to let everyone believe in what turned out to be false expectations.

  4. Al™ says:

    I may be half awake and have only half read this item, but if top sales are down, middle sales are down, and the lowest selling comics sold more than before, how is this good?

    Is this like saying we are still losing money, but more slowly than before?

    Companies are cancelling their low selling titles and consolidating lines. So, aren’t the lowest selling titles of today actually yesterday’s “midpoint” selling titles?

    Or am I oversimplifying this, and just need more coffee?

  5. Al – I don’t think anyone’s saying the Direct Market is healthy or doing well right now. It’s just that the top-tiered titles are always DC and Marvel and those seem to be the ones people fixate on. This news is that, as some of the readership moves away from the Big Two, they seem to be shifting toward other publishers as the lower-ranked titles are doing better than lower-ranked titles used to do. Overall, it’s still an ugly picture but maybe slightly uglier for DC and Marvel.

    I enjoy the fact that Dynamite and IDW are solidifying a fan base because they’re putting out more worthwhile comics than the majors lately.

    As for the Point One initiative: yes, it’s a great idea. The first time I heard of it, I thought “Yes, do that and also do it for all of your comics and all the time.” Entry-level comics for a lower price designed to tell satisfying stories in a single purchase are a GREAT idea to bring new readers in. On Corey’s point: No, it won’t bring people into shops which is why they should release it online. I know people will chime in about the logistics of making a profit off of digital comics but if Marvel truly wanted new audiences, they’d figure out ways to make it all function.

  6. What are the numbers for the Top 300 when taken as a whole? Is the aggregate total slipping? How many Marvel and DC titles are not making the Top 300 (a very distressing sign for them) each month? Are the smaller companies gaining market share away from the large publishers?

    The lowest selling titles of today are yesterday’s “we won’t even consider printing this, the numbers are too low” titles. DC and Marvel are set up to move large amounts of product. They might create an Epic or Vertigo imprint to market smaller niche titles, but even those numbers must be in the tens-of-thousands.

    The Direct Market, with pre-orders, allows smaller publishers to print comics with less risk. You calculate profit-and-loss spreadsheets with realistic numbers (two thousand copies? five thousand?) and hope the comics shops order at least that amount, or at least enough to break even.

    Of course, publishers have various revenue streams for their product. After it sells as a comicbook, it can also be sold as a hardcover, a paperback or a digital download.

  7. Oh, and if you look at the comics “backlist” (the Top 300 graphic novels), you’ll see A LOT of diversity. Marvel and DC still rule, but there are many trades which make that list which rarely appear on the Top 300 comics list (Atomic Robo, for example).

  8. Torsten:
    What are the numbers for the Top 300 when taken as a whole?

    The answer is at the John Jackson Miller link, at the very end of the article. I don’t want to just steal his data, but the general gyst of it is that unit sales are down vs. recent years but on par with the doldrums of 2000, while dollar sales are down vs. last year but up over earlier years due to prices rising.

  9. Actually, the Top 300 unit sales of the two periods I compared — the first three quarters of 2003 versus the first three quarters of 2010 — are nearly identical, close to 53 million copies. It is how those copies are distributed that has changed.

    And in fact, just following the trendlines past 301st place, it’s definitely the case that we’ve sold more comic books by units in the 2010 period. Diamond did report sales of the 370th place title this month…

    http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2010/2010-09.html

    …an issue of TICK, with an estimated 2,895 copies. In September 2003, those sales would have made the book the 243rd place title. Again: the sales of the 243rd place title of September 2003 would only merit 370th place today. That is a major shift in where copies in the chart are sold.

    It perhaps goes beyond what I observed to characterize the performance of those newer publishers too specifically; I have not tracked these midlist publishers’ performance over time, to be able to say whether they’re growing their individual title sales or in aggregate. But we can say this: In September 2003, beyond Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and Archie, you only had two players really placing more than four titles in the Top 300: Crossgen and Dreamwave, with a total of 25. In September 2010, IDW, Dynamite, and Boom combined to chart 46 titles — and that is despite Marvel charting 52 additional titles. These newer publishers are bringing relatively larger lines to market, and that, plus the Marvel expansion, has moved a lot of titles we used to track out of the part of the charts we can see.

    The upshot is that the Top 300 is not as explanatory of the market’s condition as it used to be. As I discovered, in 1994, the entire rest of the market after 300th place added just 4.5% more copies. Today, the next 70 books alone add 4%. The bubbling-under market thus appears to have grown in volume.

  10. And a small correction, Heidi: “the most recent sales boom” wasn’t at its healthiest in 2003 — that would have been more like 2007-2008. 2003 was actually more of a mixed bag, following the 2002 toy-comics successes; Civil War and the bigger numbers that came with that still lay ahead. I chose 2003 because the overall unit sales levels were roughly equivalent, and because it was the earliest year where we had final orders for everything.

  11. Micah says:

    Now, what are the cover prices those comics ranking on the low end? If it is less than the high-ranked books, then the idea that a higher price point per unit is good for sales is now false.

  12. The average September comic book in the 200s cost $3.62, versus $3.60 for the Top 100. (The middle 100 average is $3.56.) So the pricing has flattened out in the list, too.

    The average cover price at the low end has almost always been higher since it’s loaded with independent titles lacking the big publishers’ economies of scale. (The exception is Archie, whose lower-priced books usually wind up in this section.) The handful of books Diamond reported on above 300th place does fit this pattern, averaging $4.26.

  13. Micah says:

    Cool number cruching! So does that mean that the trend is that, given the cost is the same, readers are leaving established best sellers for new material? This reflects my recent reading habits; reducing the super-heroes and trying the pulp, crime, weird science stuff.

  14. Didn’t Diamond add a cutoff (to get rid of lowselling indie comics) recently?
    That surely must also be a reason why the lower placed comics (say rank 270-300) have better salesnumbers….

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