August 2010 COMICHRON REPORT: Can 2011 Repeat 2001?

August 2010 COMICHRON REPORT

Another soft month for comics sales overall, August saw the lowest sales yet seen for a top-selling title in the direct market. Brighest Day #7 led the market with first-month orders of around 93,500 copies, just slightly underselling the previous record-holder. (Diamond-era records can be found here (http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/diamondrecords.html).) Trade paperback sales also saw a year-to-year loss; Scott Pilgrim led the pack for the second month in a row in the month of the film's release. You can find the August 2010 charts with market shares here.

A number of other elements contributed to the softer market this time out; DC had a dozen fewer comics in the Top 300 this month than in July, and so the balance of large-publisher to smaller-publisher offerings was different. Partially as a result, sales for the 300th-place title dropped by 1,000 copies. Marvel's new X-Men title, without the multiple covers, saw a second-issue drop of nearly 49%; to place it in historical context, the previous multiple-cover X-Men #1 from 1991 saw an astounding 82% attrition from its first issue, dropping from the all-time industry record 8.19 million copies to 1.47 million copies for #2. (Few speculators back then preferred second issues, unless it was Marvel's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero —an undersold collector's item in its day.)

The aggregate figures:

TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES

August 2010: 5.46 million copies

Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%

Versus 5 years ago this month: -23%

Versus 10 years ago this month: -5%

YEAR TO DATE: 46.3 million copies, -6% vs. 2009, -8% vs. 2005, -1% vs. 2000

TOP 300 COMICS DOLLAR SALES

August 2010: $19.41 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -17%

Versus 5 years ago this month: -7%

Versus 10 years ago this month: +20%

YEAR TO DATE: $162.7 million, -3% vs. 2009, +12% vs. 2005, +28% vs. 2000

TOP 300 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

August 2010: $5.3 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -2%

Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -12%

Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +1%

YEAR TO DATE: $48.45 million, -9% vs. 2009

TOP 300 COMICS + TOP 100 TRADE PAPERBACK DOLLAR SALES

August 2010: $24.71 million

Versus 1 year ago this month: -18%

Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -8%

Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +15%

YEAR TO DATE: $211.08 million, -4% vs. 2009

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

August 2010: approximately $32 million ($35.5 million including UK)

Versus 1 year ago this month: -11%

Versus 5 years ago this month: -2%

YEAR TO DATE: $270.66 million, -5% vs. 2009, +18% vs. 2005

The average comic book in Diamond’s Top 300 cost $3.54. The average Top 300 comic book that retailers ordered from Diamond cost $3.56. The median comic book price in Diamond’s Top 300 was $3.99, and the most common cover price on Diamond’s list was $3.99.

2010 continues to be a bit rocky, and so, noting an understandable thread of anxiety in the community, I took a closer look at the historical comparatives this time out. I've been covering the industry since 1993 — and as of this month, have completed 14 consecutive years of monthly reports, all of which are available here. Often, I look at recent trends and numbers and see flashes from the past; things that "feel" like a different year. Usually, those impressions fall apart on looking at the numbers in detail, but something I've noted here several times this year is that the unit sales for comic books in 2010 have looked almost exactly like those in 2000.

In fact, Diamond has, for most of the last 12 months back to October 2009, sold pretty close to exactly the number of Top 300 comics that it had preorders for exactly 10 years earlier. Unit sales are a great measure because they're apples-to-apples, and inflation plays no role, as it does in dollar calculations; here, we're strictly talking magazines in racks. And that number has correlated pretty well with sales from 2000. What are the hallmarks of that year in comics history?

Like 2010, 2000 was a year with a successful super-hero movie release — the first X-Men film. In that year, however, it had little impact on the market partially due to the cash-poor position of retailers at the time — and we might expect retailers were in the same position this year. In 2000, by contrast, the reason wasn't the general economy, but rather the seven-year industry recession that preceded it.

Another similar element: price increases. From 1999 to 2000, Marvel went from benchmarks of $1.99 and $2.50 to $2.50 and $2.99. Other titles increased as well; $2.95 first became the industry's median price in late 1999.  The 2000 jumps are one of the more drastic previous increases by percentage — eclipsed, of course, by the current $2.99-to-$3.99 move.

There are differences with 2000, too, of course, making the unit sales comparison problematic. 2000 was near the bottom of a long industry recession; 2009-2010 are years coming off a period of relative growth, and there aren't the kind of structural problems driving down sales that we contended with in the late 1990s. Marvel also had many fewer comics coming out each month in 2000. But all that said, we do still have about the same number of comic books being pulled from UPS boxes and placed on shelves each month as we saw back then.

Now, as I've mentioned before, these identical numbers for the comics unit sales category are not a sign of market stagnation overall, because since 2000, the industry has enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales of trade paperbacks that didn't exist back then. The market has grown in dollars and units — it's just those units are trade paperbacks, where 2010 is concerned. And periodicals rebounded nicely in the 2000s, with energy behind projects like Civil War and a stronger general economy. So the narrative is not that sales haven't increased since 2000; rather, we are not keeping pace with the best years of our run.

There's no reason to expect that the past will be prologue — but it's interesting to look at what happened in the twelve months that followed August 2000. Things got worse in late 2000 — despite the fact that the first major hit of the 2000s came out. Ultimate Spider-Man #1 released 10 years ago this month — only placing 15th in its first month, with just over 54,000 copies preordered. Ultimately (no pun intended) it would sell far more, as retailers reordered it again and again, and Marvel released it in multiple formats and venues.

Over the course of the next year, the Ultimates line developed, and by the end of the year, Marvel had a sure hit in Wolverine: The Origin. DC followed with The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Soon, the 1980s toy revival was going, and the recovery was off and running. Unit sales soon passed the lows of 2000 and early 2001.

I heard on CNBC a video game commentator saying that market was always only ever "one hit away" from a boom time. The comics industry seems basically in the same position today. There is nothing structurally stopping the industry from returning to 2006 levels given the right mix of strong products; the "installed base" is there and operating.

Looking back at previous August sales charts:

August 2009's top seller was DC's Blackest Night #2, with first-month orders of 145,600 copies. By the end of the year, it would have orders of more than 161,400, making it the fifth-best-selling comic book of 2009.  Check out the sales chart here.

August 2005's top-seller was DC's Justice #1, with Diamond first-month orders of more than 190,400 copies. Final orders including reorders brought the issue to 223,900 copies, making it the 14th best-selling comic book of the 2000s. (See the whole list here.) DC published six of the top ten titles in the month. Check out the sales chart here.

August 2000's top-seller was Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #385, with Diamond preorders of 109,800 copies; it didn't make the Top 300 list for the decade. Marvel had gotten a lot of attention from the X-Men movie a couple of months earlier. Preorders for comic books were off, but trade paperbacks and hardcovers were incredibly robust – by dollars, the strongest since the release of the Crisis on Infinite Earths hardcover back in 1998. Check out the sales chart for August 2000 here.

August 1995's top seller at Diamond Comic Distributors and Canada's Multi-Book and Periodical, Spawn #35, almost certainly wasn't the top-seller in the industry. Again, Marvel had stopped distributing its comics through all other distributors but Heroes World Distribution beginning with July, and Heroes World's sales are not publicly known before September 1996. This was the last month that Capital City Distribution had DC comics — and while it didn't have Marvels either, it polled its accounts to see what quantities of Marvels they were selling. Thus, Capital's sales chart this month reflected its actual sales of DC and other publishers — and estimates of where Marvels would rank. Capital's reports put Marvel's Wolverine #93 in first place, projecting Spawn in fifth. Known average annual sales for Wolverine that year were at nearly 335,000 copies.

Capital also tried to estimate what the dollar shares were for the business based on its reports from retailers: they found Marvel with a 39% market share, versus 15% for DC and 14% for Image. It was only the second month for Marvel to self-distribute, and growing pains were already in evidence. "Is it possible," asked Gerry Mattson of Comic Encounters in British Columbia, "to actually order from Heroes World without waiting on hold for two hours?" It would become an often-repeated refrain as 1995 turned to 1996.

Diamond's top trade paperback was the Star Wars: Dark Empire II collection from Dark Horse. The average price of comics in Diamond's Top 300 was $2.50, and the average comic book ordered within Diamond's Top 300 cost $2.54. The most common cost of comics was $2.50.

August 1990's top seller at Diamond and Capital City was Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #3. Marvel sold 756,600 copies of the issue through all channels, including 98,300 copies on the newsstand and 642,000 copies in the Direct Market (including 151,900 through Capital). It's almost certainly the best performance ever for a comic book with an upside-down logo!

August 1985’s top seller at Capital City was Marvel's Uncanny X-Men #200, breaking the chain of Secret Wars II wins. Overall, Marvel sold 410,300 copies of the anniversary issue through all channels, including 127,200 copies through the newsstand and 237,300 copies through the Direct Market (including 57,000 copies through Capital). The month's biggest moneymaker, however, was probably the $1.50 X-Men/Alpha Flight #2.

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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