NOVEMBER '09 Comichron Report: Comics Sales Gain Ground

Comic book orders in direct market gained some ground in November, led by strength in the periodical market, according to The Comics Chronicles analysis of data released by Diamond Comic Distributors. The estimates appear here.

This is the first month for we can do year-to-year comparisons on the full Top 300 Trade Paperbacks, which Diamond began reporting last November, and we see from them that trade paperback orders were down considerably — but the periodical market made up for it. Last November was the weakest month of the year in Top 300 Unit Sales — many important titles being delayed until December — so this year’s performance looked that much better by comparison. This November also included DC’s rings promotion for Blackest Night, tying ring purchases to orders on specific titles. (Titles associates with the promotion are marked with asterisks on the chart page.)

Overall, the direct market to date in 2009 is running just slightly behind 2008 — we’re down $3 million for the entire year, or less than 1%. The gap was more than $5 million last month, so ground has been closed. However, as noted, December 2008 was a blockbuster, with many delayed titles shipping along with regular monthly issues, so it seems unlikely that the industry will close much ahead.

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES

November 2009: 6.15 million copies

Versus 1 year ago this month: +7%

Versus 5 years ago this month: -4%

Versus 10 years ago this month: -8%

YEAR TO DATE: 62.42 million copies, -7% vs. 2008, +1% vs. 2004, -4% vs. 1999

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES

November 2009: $21.56 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: +12%

Versus 5 years ago this month: +16%

Versus 10 years ago this month: +23%

YEAR TO DATE: $213.81 million, -1% vs. 2008, +21% vs. 2004, +27% vs. 1999

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

November 2009: $6.12 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -29%

Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +10%

Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +54%

YEAR TO DATE: $72.4 million; -17% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

November 2009: $27.68 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: unchanged

Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +15%

Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +25%

YEAR TO DATE: $295.11 million; -4% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)

November 2009: $34.95 million ($38.9 million with UK)

Versus 1 year ago this month: +6%

Versus 5 years ago this month: +21%

YEAR TO DATE: $393.8 million, -1% vs. 2008, +32% vs. 2004

Chew Vol. 1 was the top-selling trade paperback.

Diamond also released a Top 50 Small Publisher list that added a number of data points, down to Archie in 359th place. The inclusion of 21 additional comics adds 39,000 units to the list, selling for $136,000. These have been included in my charts, but not counted toward Top 300 sales for comparison purposes. However, it does give us a good look at what portion of comics sales are "bubbling under" the Top 300 list, a topic explored previously here.

The 359th place title had direct market orders of around 1,260 comics, less than half that of the 300th place title. These extra data points show a sales slope that drops fairly sharply beneath 300th place — and we can infer that if Diamond’s list were 20% longer, going to 360th place, this month it would have added around 117,500 comics sold, for around $410,000. That’s slightly less than 2% of the value of the Top 300 — so unless the “long tail” for comics is incredibly long (something Diamond’s changed stocking practices would seem to make less likely) the Top 300 really does seem to capture the vast majority of new comics orders. Interestingly, these 21 comics past 300th place are right at the average price for all comics Diamond sells, something we wouldn’t have expected a few years ago. Many of the issues are lower-priced Archies — and only one of the issues is priced higher than $3.99 (Archaia’s Secret History Book 6).

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.51; the average comic ordered cost $3.50. The median price — the middle price of all 300 comics — was $3.25. $2.99 was also the most common price of comics appearing in the Top 300.

While the direct market is close to flat for the year versus 2008, it is up 32% versus 2004. What’s the role of inflation? The Consumer Price Index has increased 14.5% since 2004, meaning that either we’re selling more units in aggregate, or the average item sold is more expensive by a rate far exceeding inflation. Top 300 Comics unit sales are, as noted above, up 1% year to date versus the same period in 2004, whereas the dollar value of those comics is up 21%. The price of the average comic book retailers sold in 2009 is $3.42, as compared with $2.86 in 2004. That’s an increase of 19.5%. So it’s true that inflation is contributing to part of that increase — but not all. Increased trade paperback sales account for the rest of the jump versus 2004.

Note also that the selection of years for comparison is important in looking at inflation; there are stretches in which price increases in comics have not kept up with the change in CPI, and so sometimes what appears to be an outpacing of inflation is actually the product catching up with other categories. Starting from 1999 prices, CPI predicts a comics price today of $3.36 — much closer to the actual average. Comics pricing increased slower than the pace of inflation in the stretch from 1999-2004.

Looking back at what came before...

November 2008's top seller was Marvel's Ultimatum #1, with first-month orders through Diamond of approximately 114,200 copies. It was the slowest month of the year, unit-sales wise; Marvel's Secret Invasion had ended the month before. Perhaps bigger news was that comics were more expensive in November 2008 than in any month in history to that point. The average comic book offered in Diamond’s Top 300 comics had a cover price of $3.50, beating the previous record (itself only a month old) by 12 cents.

November marked a number of changes from Diamond in its reporting, as the company began releasing Top 10 lists several days before the larger data rollout; it also began listing the Top 300 Trade Paperbacks for the first time, bringing that list into parity with the comics list. Check out the detailed analysis of the month's sales here, and the sales chart here.

November 2004's top-seller was DC's Superman/Batman #13, another of the new Supergirl issues, with first-month orders of nearly 158,000 copies. With Identity Crisis and "Avengers Disassembled" still running, aggregate periodical sales were slightly up over the previous year; trade paperbacks, however, were significantly down (much like November 2009). Check out the sales chart here.

November 1999's top-seller was Image's Tomb Raider #1, ending the ten-month run of Uncanny X-Men in the top slot. Lara Croft's comics debut had first-month preorders through Diamond of more than 189,400 copies.

A different video game, however, was driving most of the new traffic to specialty stores: The Pokémon Trading Card Game fad was near its absolute peak. (Personal note: In the middle of the month, Krause Publications, recognizing the craze, purchased Scrye magazine, naming me editor.) Retailer Garrett Anderson, manager of A-F Books of Tinley Park, Illinois, told Comics Retailer magazine that questions about the game had worn him out. "I long for the days when the typical question was something like, 'Who would win in a fight, Flash or The Hulk?" he said. "Still, it's better than 'What's a good comic book to buy that will one day be valuable enough to pay for my kids' college bills?'"

Check out the November 1999 sales chart here.

November 1994 had a consensus top-seller at Diamond and at Capital City Distribution: the deluxe version of Marvel's X-Men #40. Capital's orders were 95,575 copies; overall sales of the issue, including newsstand and subscription copies, were in the mid-300,000s.

Again, the big news story in most comics shops that month wasn't comics, but Pokémon's trading-card game precursor Magic: The Gathering. Magic had saved many shops from failure in 1994 but the beginning of the end of the initial craze had begun, with the November release of the Fallen Empires expansion — a bomb with most players, and, as the first set with widespread mass-market distribution, the first where supply was sufficient to fill all orders. Retailers who had over-ordered speculating they would only get a small allocation found themselves buried under product. (One, accustomed to receiving only 10% of his Magic orders, ordered 550 display boxes, ten times what he needed — only to receive them all, at a loss to him of tens of thousands of dollars.)

November 1989's top seller was Legends of the Dark Knight #3, with orders of 126,900 copies at Capital City. Overall orders were likely over half a million copies. The buzz had faded somewhat from the speculator summer (first of a series); Capital reported in its magazine that "the fall of 1989 seems to be developing as a period of a 'soft fall landing' for the comics market after extremely robust growth.'"

While Legends had the numbers, more money was definitely brought in by the first Elseworlds title, Gotham by Gaslight. At $3.95, the squarebound title with art by Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell had orders of nearly 100,000 copies at Capital alone.

Finally, November 1984's top comic book was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #11, marking eleven straight months with the limited series in the top slot.

Market share and other historical sales graphics can be found here.

Writer of comics and books about comics, John Jackson Miller (http://www.farawaypress.com) has tracked comics sales figures for years. He’s developing an online archive for academic researchers at The Comics Chronicles (http://www.comichron.com). Follow research updates on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/comichron.

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