DECEMBER '09 Comichron Report: 2009 Recession Resilience

Comic book sales showed some resilience against the recession in 2009, based on The Comics Chronicles analysis of December and year-end data reported by Diamond Comic Distributors. It appears from our initial estimates of comics ordered in December 2009 by comics shops that the direct market was off by only about 2% in 2009, or less than $10 million dollars. It’s the first down year overall since 2000, breaking a remarkable run  —  but given general economic conditions, the potential for a larger drop was clearly there.

“Comic book and graphic novel sales through comic book specialty shops were extremely resilient in 2009, despite a down economy,” said Diamond CEO Steve Geppi in the news release, which also appeared prominently this week in USA Today. “Overall, sales were almost on par with 2008 as publishers took great steps to create books that fans wanted to buy. We’re very optimistic for 2010, with some great projects already scheduled by publishers — and our annual Free Comic Book Day event on the first Saturday in May already shaping up to be a sales winner.”

Geppi’s remarks about 2009’s performance square up with Comichron’s analysis of the year, and coincide with Diamond’s release of Top 500 charts for its best-selling comics and trade paperbacks for the year. Those charts appear on Comichron, along with our own estimates for what each of those titles likely sold:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2009.html

The Top 500 lists reconcile nicely with our own tracking of where various issues should land, something we did a rougher version of in the comics of the decade chart (http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/topcomics2000s.html). While Diamond did not publish indexes for the 2009 Top 500 rankings  —  the yearly tables never have them  —  enough information about sales is known from past monthly rankings, actual publisher sales reports, and other sources to enable some educated guesses. Readers will find that the estimated final orders in the year for these comics exceed what was visible in the monthly charts; that’s because we’re making allowances for months in which reorders for items were not high enough to make the Top 300 lists.

As widely predicted, the Barack Obama issue of Amazing Spider-Man led the sales chart for 2009, with just over 530,000 copies sold in our estimation; Watchmen was the top trade with Diamond moving around 70,000 copies.

Our analysis of the Top 500 lists  —  and our own estimates  —  suggest the degree to which blockbuster issues contribute to the overall bottom line. The Top 500 comics combined sold between nearly 34 million copies, or almost 45% of all the copies sold in Diamond’s Top 300 charts each month. Again: Of the 3,600 comics that Diamond reported sales for, the Top 500 comics accounted for almost half the copies sold. When we look at dollars, we fin that the Top 500 comics accounted for around $116 million in sales, or, again 45% of the dollars in Diamond’s Top 300 each month.

The trade chart is also interesting. The Top 500 trades accounted for around 2.6 million copies sold, worth nearly $45 million. While this is 57% of the dollars that were reported in Diamond’s 12 monthly Top 300 lists this year, the pie for trade paperbacks in the direct market is much larger; the Top 300 trades lists monthly capture only about half of the dollars sold. The Top 500 trades for the year probably are closer to 30% of Diamond’s trade business.

Diamond also published year-end market shares, which also appear on our annual sales page; Marvel and DC’s dollar shares were similar to what they were last year. Boom and IDW picked up a point in dollar shares.

This is the first year Diamond has published year-end rankings for 500 items; in previous years, the rankings have included only 300 comics or, in earlier times, just the Top 100. Those tables are beginning to go online at Comichron, working backwards from the present.

Now, to December, specifically: It was an off month across all categories, squared up as it was against a mammoth December 2008 that featured a whopping 119 Marvel titles in the Top 300 comics. This December Marvel again had a large impact on the charts, with 111 titles making the list, but unit sales were lower by more than a million copies overall. View the sales estimates for December 2009 here:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2009/2009-12.html

In a new move for December, Diamond did not slate new comics for shipping in the fifth week of the month. It’s not clear how this affected sales levels across the board, but it does seem to have coincided with smaller slates making the Top 300, with Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and IDW combining for 242 slots this year, as opposed to 267 slots last year. In a first, Boom Studios had the third largest number of entries in the Top 300 comics. Last December the 300th place title had orders of 4,607 copies; this year, the figure was 3,403.

It’s also not clear what effect that had on orders of trade paperbacks and graphic novels, except to say that the string of poor year-to-year performances continued in this category, with dollar orders of the Top 100 trades off by nearly a quarter. The result was that while trades have helped the direct market escape down years in other months of the decade, it wasn’t to be in 2009. Orders of Diamond’s Top 100 trades each month were down 21%, or nearly $14 million, versus a strong 2008 total; by contrast, Diamond’s Top 300 comics orders were only off 2% year-over-year in dollar terms.

As a result of December’s orders, overall comics shop orders of comic books, trade paperbacks, and magazines for the year look to have landed around $428 million, near 2008 and 2007’s totals of $436.6 million and $430 million respectively. It’s likely a further loss when figured against inflation, which was a significant factor in the comics market this year; the year closed with the highest average prices for new comic books in history: $3.59, beating the old record by several cents. Our records page has been updated, here:

http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/diamondrecords.html

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES

December 2009: 6.31 million copies

Versus 1 year ago this month: -18%

Versus 5 years ago this month: -3%

Versus 10 years ago this month: -4%

4th Quarter 2009: 18.66 million copies, -11% versus Q4 2008

2009 YEAR-END: 74.88 million copies, -8% vs. 2008, +1% vs. 2004, -4% vs. 1999

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES

December 2009: $22.49 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -11%

Versus 5 years ago this month: +19%

Versus 10 years ago this month: +28%

4th Quarter 2009: $65.55 million, -6% vs. Q4 2008

2009 YEAR-END: $257.88 million, -2% vs. 2008, +21% vs. 2004, +27% vs. 1999

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

December 2009: $5.25 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -24%

Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -22%

Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: -6%

4th Quarter 2009, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: $11.61 million -28%

2009 YEAR-END: $77.65 million; -21% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

December 2009: $27.74 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -14%

Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +11%

Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +26%

4th Quarter 2009, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: $82.81 million, -10%

2009 YEAR-END: $335.47 million; -4% when just comparing just the Top 100 each month

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

December 2009: $34.2 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -14%

Versus 5 years ago this month: +13%

4th Quarter 2009: $103.3 million, -10% versus 4Q 2008

2009 YEAR-END: Approximately $428 million, -2% vs. 2008, +30% vs. 2004

Diamond also released a Top 25 Small Publisher list that added two data points just below the Top 300.

The average comic offered in the Top 300 cost $3.59; the average comic ordered cost $3.57. Both are, as mentioned, records. The median price  —  the middle price of all 300 comics  —  was $3.50. $2.99 was again the most common price of comics appearing in the Top 300. The average comic book ordered by retailers in 2009 cost $3.44, an increase of 19¢, or 6.8%; this is the largest year-to-year increase in the Diamond exclusive era, which began in 1996.

Again, there may be some revisions ahead as we refine our estimates  —  and changes have already been made to the top comics of the decade chart, as Blackest Night #1 and other 2009 issues have racked up more sales. The Overall figure is also a little fuzzier this year because, as has been written in several past market reports in 2009, the year saw several deep-discounting promotions where graphic novels worth several millions of dollars at retail entered the sales stream near or below publisher cost. Our estimates have included adjustments to the overall figures for purposes of fair comparison, so in fact the dollar value of books entering the direct market retail stream is slightly higher than that reported above.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the figures represented here account for only a portion  —  though the largest one  —  of North American comic book sales. Bookstore sales of collections, which should be known soon for 2009, are expected to contribute another couple hundred million dollars  —  and there are also relatively smaller amounts that come from newsstand and subscription sales of comics. It’s possible that those combined could push the year ahead, but we rarely know the figures with enough exactitude to say.

What’s ahead? While January has been the first part of a historically weak quarter for the industry, there are a number of what Comichron calls “icebreakers” slated for the period, such as Marvel’s Siege, which launched the first week of the year. There have been a number of strong winter events over the last decade and a half in comics; we’ll see if there’s enough ammunition out there to prevent the usual slow start to the year.

Looking back at what came before...

December 2008’s top seller was Marvel’s Secret Invasion #8, ending the series with orders through Diamond Comic Distributors of approximately 152,408 copies. Unit sales for December 2008 were up versus December 2007, but this boost was not enough to push 2008’s year-end unit sales numbers past 2007’s. Overall comics, trade paperback, and dollar sales were up slightly for the year.

Check out the detailed analysis of the month’s sales here (http://blog.comichron.com/2009/01/2008-year-end-comics-sales-industry.html)  —  and sales chart here:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2008/2008-12.html

December 2004’s top-seller was Marvel’s New Avengers #1 with first-month Diamond orders of over 240,700 copies. The title’s launch capped a year of changes within the Avengers titles, including "Avengers Disassembled" and contributed to a 6% growth in overall comics, magazine, and trade paperback sales over the previous year. Trade paperbacks saw a large boost in their sales numbers from the prior year, with growth of 29%. Check out the sales chart here:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2004/2004-12.html

December 1999’s top-seller was Marvel’s X-Men #97, with orders through Diamond of more than 117,400 copies, topping both Uncanny X-Men #377 and the previous month’s number one, Tomb Raider.

Sales of Diamond’s top-selling trade paperbacks were up a whopping 102% in December 1999, thanks largely to the JLA Earth 2 hardcover; at $24.95, it saw first-month orders of more than 22,000 copies. Strong trade paperback sales kept December from posting a sales deficit, as comic sales were down 6%. Still, 1999 was slightly down overall for the year.

Check out the December 1999 sales chart here:

http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1999/1999-12.html

December 1994 once again had a consensus top-seller at Diamond and at Capital City Distribution: Marvel’s X-Men: Alpha #1 (actually, X-Men #A), launching the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline that led the industry in the first quarter of 1995. During the storyline  —  a definitive example of an “icebreaker” event crafted to enliven sales in the usually slow “dead quarter”  —  the regular X-Men titles went away for four months, to be replaced by series in a variant timeline. (Amazing X-Men replaced X-Men, Astonishing X-Men replaced Uncanny X-Men, and so on.)

Capital’s orders for the $3.95 X-Men: Alpha amounted to 127,225 copies, putting overall sales in the 400,000-copy range. Alpha’s acetate cover, incidentally, makes it one of the most difficult comics to photograph!

December 1989’s top seller was Legends of the Dark Knight #4, with orders of 125,500 copies at Capital City and overall sales likely north of half a million copies. It was the end of a strong year of recovery for the industry following the black-and-white comics glut and crash a couple of years earlier.

Finally, December 1984’s top comic book was Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars #12, ending the series with twelve consecutive months in the number one slot.

Updated market share and other historical sales graphics can be found here:

http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics.html

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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