Rant: Comic Sales, The New 52, and Trades

DiamondAlthough the recent sales figures that came out from Diamond this week help paint a picture of which comic book publishers are selling more books, digging a bit deeper into the numbers, comparing them to previous years’ statistics, and applying some commonsense really puts things in a much better perspective. The numbers show signs of some confusion at the retail level, lop-sided trade sales indicative of success, possible explanations for swinging publisher changes, and a whole ton of wild accusatory comments.

The Problem

AmazingSpider-Man#1The problem with these sales numbers is that they really don’t show off how successful a book really is. I mean, the top selling issue of 2014 was Amazing Spider-Man #1, but ish #2 of ASM was not on the top 10. While we still don’t have the full sales figures for 2014, 2013’s best selling comic was The Walking Dead #115 (not a valid comparison) but Justice League of America #1 was the second best (at 326,000 copies sold to stores). Issue #2 of Justice League of America came in at #80 of 2013 sales (95,600 copies sold), a reduction of 230,400 copies. That’s a huge reduction in sales! And this is the norm for just about every issue #1 in the top 20 for the past few years (source). There are exceptions, of course; Batman, events, a few other regulars; but #1s are big sellers. Besides The Walking Dead #132 (a comic that always seems to find its way to the top), the rest of the Top 10 of 2014 is full of 5 number 1s, and 2013 had 8! But among the rest of 2014’s Top 10 is a 4 issue weekly and the return of Superior Spider-Man after months. When a debut issue sells so well, but the rest of the series does not, there’s something wrong. There are a few possible explanations, but one more possible than the others.

1) Readers are Quitters

It’s quite possible that comic book readers are picking up the first issue of a series, not loving it, and putting it down without another thought of picking up issue #2. I find this incredibly hard to believe. I’m a comic book reader, I know a lot of comic book readers, I’ve spoken to a lot of comic book readers throughout the years, and that’s just not how we operate. Sure there’s the rare instance of a complete turd of a book, but we geeks are very willing to give creators a solid chance. We pick up a #1 with the initial hope that it’s going to be good, and we want to be paid back for our investment. This is the least likely explanation.

2) Collectors are Collecting

Maybe there’s a bunch of speculators out there that still think comics are a good investment. These people are, obviously, not keeping up with the current price guides recommendations.  The comic book you bought today for 3 bucks is probably going to be worth much less than 3 bucks 10 years from now, and the very high number of issue #1s being printed makes it even more likely that your book will not be the financial investment some hope for. There is an exception, however, which is quite a valid explanation for the high sales numbers of #1s, but is also quite sinister in an upcoming context (see below).

Publishers love to put out variant covers for #1 issues. I don’t understand it, but it’s a fact of life. These variant covers come in ratios to the regular cover (example: for a 1:20 variant cover a retailer would receive 1 copy of a comic with the variant cover for every 20 copies they order with the regular cover) making it more attractive for comic shops to order more book so they can sell that much rarer variant version to collectors and an equally much higher price. The comic retailer, stuck with all these extra #1 issues, would theoretically push that comic to their customers a bit harder, providing everyone with the possibility of a boon. This is a very likely possible explanation for the high numbers for debut issues, but does it really explain a 200,000 copy reduction in sales from the first issue to the next? If variant covers help sell comic books so very well, why do we not see more variant covers for issue 2s and 3s and…on and on?

3) Ordering #1s is Near Impossible

Any store that doesn’t have what its customers desire when they desire it immediately becomes at a higher risk of losing that customer to a competitor. The majority of local comic book shops are small businesses, compounding the problem even more. Then there’s digital copies, bootlegs, and every other form of entertainment on the planet. If comic shops don’t have enough #1s on shelves for their customers they have a problem, but they have no idea how many #1s to order because customers may not even know they want it. It’s a fine line that retailers have to walk, and the retailers I’ve spoken to tell me they have back issue bins full of #1s due to this very reason. This also explains all 4 issues of the Death of Wolverine weekly also appearing on the Top 10: retailers simply did not have time to adjust their orders to their customer base.

But What Do We Do About It?

I’m not sure there IS anything that can be done about this. Collectors are still going to collect, there’s obviously a market for variants, and retailer woes in the comic industry have been on the rise for years. Issue #1s are going to continue to sell a ton of issues compared to other numbered issues in the same series, reducing sales figures to nothing more than a tangent to actual series success. It’s the continued success of a series, a creator, or a publisher that is truly meaningful to comics from the readers’ point of view. While Diamond’s numbers do shed some light on those questions, the sales figures of the Big 2 tell a story of the future.

The New 52’s Painted Corner

The difference in retail dollarshare between Marvel and DC was 5.5% with Marvel winning out, but DC released more books than Marvel. Out of all of the book in the Top 10, 9 of them were Marvel books and none of them were DC titles. Doing a bit of quick math, estimating the average decrNew 52 Logoease in sales from #1s to #2s, and taking into account the high number of #1s that Marvel put out compared to the ones DC debuted, there’s a really good chance that DC would have narrowed that dollarshare quite a bit if they had put out more #1 issues. Unfortunately, since The New 52, DC Comics hasn’t really been able to stop series and begin new ones like they were able to do in the past. Which brings us to the future of DC Comics, which is Convergence. This rumored reboot could potentially introduce an onslaught of new issues that will help DC bridge this sales gap, and the new status quo could effectively give the publisher an entire year’s worth of new books to debut on a public that seems to eat them up. Either way, it makes sense that the lack of new books to introduce has not helped the publisher, and it makes sense that DC is changing things up to better take advantage of the current state of comic books. Could Convergence, ditching the New 52, and the DC reboot all be caused by the lack of #1s?

There Is Some Hope

There is one set of numbers from Diamond’s sales charts that do tell us something about the success of a series based solely on its Image Comics Bannerquality, and that’s the sales of collected trades. Unlike weekly comics, trades can be ordered by comic shops all year long, and are constantly stocked and restocked by comic shops as they sell books. There is no fluff or confusion when it comes to these numbers, and what they show us is the surge of popularity that continues at Image Comics. Between The Walking Dead and Saga, Image Comics took all but 1 of the Top 10 trades sold last year. These are sales based entirely on the quality of the comics. People learn about the book, try it out, and keep reading and buying. It’s a novel method of selling books, right?

The Verdict

Some Saturday morning research and statistical analysis was on the menu today, and as I delved deeper into the comic sales numbers, some things popped up at me, and I thought I’d share. Who knows? I could be way off base with most of these assumptions, but if you’ve come to a different conclusion from looking at these figures please, share them below.

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