November 2008 was another month where what didn't come out was as important as what did. No issues of "Secret Invasion" or "Final Crisis" shipped during the month taking the main event titles out of the equation for both Marvel and DC. In addition (or should that be "in subtraction?") there were no issues of "Mighty Avengers," "New Avengers," "Justice League of America" or "Astonishing X-Men."
The result was the total units sold for the top 300 comics was down by an estimated 1,763,925 units from October 2008 and down 1,185,793 from November 2007. The lesson to be learned here is one which ought to be obvious: Comics have to be published to be sold. These kinds of irregularities in the shipping schedules is why I focus more on issue over issue changes and not month to month changes. The month to month changes are heavily influenced by the sometimes unpredictable schedule of the top selling titles.
It is worth noting that "Mighty Avengers" shipped two issues in January, March and May and even without an issue being released in November managed to get 14 issues out during 2008 (the final of which was released in December). Perhaps the lesson here is getting the issues out of a predictable schedule is as important as getting the issues out at all. The December numbers will include top selling issues than November and therefore appear to be a huge increase in sales. Obviously, from the perspective of either a retailer who is selling comics or a reader buying comics this does make a huge difference. It also makes a big difference for the publishers as well in terms of cash flow and profits. But, what it doesn't reflect is any sort of increased interest in comics.
November had only four comics selling over 80,000 units. Only two of those sold over 100,000 units. "Ultimatum" #1 topped the list with an estimated 114,214 units. "Batman" #681 sold around 103,137 units. "Hulk" #8 continues to defy my expectations and sold strongly with approximately 90,761 units. Few titles are able to sustain sales at this level and I didn't expect "Hulk" to be one of them. "Wolverine" #69 was only a little behind that with an estimated 88,894 units. But in December, there were a lot more top selling comics released. There were two issues of "Batman" and "New Avengers" as well as an issue of "Ultimatum," "Hulk," Justice League of America," Mighty Avengers," "Secret Invasion," "Final Crisis" and "Secret Invasion: Dark Reign." All of those comics are likely to do 80,000 or more units in December. Compare a month with only four comics doing over 80,000 with a month having perhaps a dozen comics doing over 80,000 and things do look good. Even if the sales on each (or most) of those titles is down from the previous issue of the series.
Hopefully Marvel and DC will follow Robert Kirkman's lead and pledge to get things out on time in 2009. Better yet, maybe more publishers will actually get comics out on schedule.
The trades list was much more informative than usual. Diamond expanded the list from 100 items to 300 items providing a wealth of information. This allowed another two dozen publishers to get items on the list as well. It also shifted the rankings of a few publishers from where they would have been had the list remained at 100 items. Instead of cutting off at sales around 1,127 units, the list went all the way down to items moving just above 400 units.
When I crunched the numbers at the end of 2007 and compared the total of the monthly reported sales for "DMZ" vol. 1 to where it ranked on the year end list it uncovered the fact that around two-thirds of the sales for that trade paperback fell under the radar of the monthly top 100 trades lists. In November, the first "DMZ" trade paperback was in slot 288 with an estimated 423 units. (The actual number of units was 420 but due to the Diamond order index only going to two decimal places, the math works out to an estimate of 423 units plus or minus 5.15685 units. Anybody curious about the math behind this can email me with questions. Anybody curious how DMZ sold overall including sales outside of the Diamond sales channel will need to ask Brian Wood since my data is limited to what sold through Diamond.) Given the number of unreported units for that trade during 2007, it is reasonable to believe it is moving roughly that many units every month. By expanding the top trades list to 300 items, we now have visibility into these slow but steady selling items.
Other titles that were previously under the radar successes include "Fables," "Walking Dead," Y: The Last Man," "The Boys," "Criminal" and "Preacher." Each of these titles had multiple volumes of the trade paperback on the list. In some cases all or nearly all of the volumes made the expanded list. If I were a retailer, I would certainly investigate how those titles were selling in my store. Clearly some titles have a longer and more active shelf life in the collected format than other titles. Given the number of new collected editions being released each month, it is increasingly important for retailers to know which ones have long term sales potential and which are going to be dust collectors. While this will vary from store to store the increased visibility in to the overall sales trends should help retailers.
One trend in the sales for the titles with multiple trades on the list is how the earlier volumes and the more recent volumes tend to be the better sellers with the middle volumes being the lower selling ones. This implies the some readers are in the discovery phase with the title and are getting the first volume and working forward from there while other readers have been putting of getting the more recent trades and are getting them as time, money and interest allows. This something I've suspected for a while and it is nice to now have some data to support the idea. We'll see over time how if the data continues to support that theory or not.
I want to thank Diamond for expanding the length of the top trades list and encourage them to do the same with the top comics list. With the top comics list cutting off around 2,200 units this month, 4,230 units last month and averaging around 2,400 for the past two years, it is time to expand the length of the top comics list. Too many titles are falling below the visibility of the top comics list. Heck, even the reasonably stable selling "Scooby Doo" title fell below the cutoff point in October. Given how many comics are being published each week, expanding the length of the top comics list would provide better visibility into how lower selling items are doing from issue to issue. These are the titles that have more room to grow since it would only take an increase of a single unit per store for them to double in sales.
And, finally, I find the amount of discussion lately around the question if comics are recession-proof or not to be surprisingly high. It seems to me that these discussions are starting from a false premise, specifically that comics have been doing fine while the economy was (or at least seemed) good.
There are two ways to look at comic book sales. You can either look at the aggregate sales of the top 300 comics resulting in the impression that comic book sales are fine or you can look at the individual titles making up that aggregate total which quickly results in the realization most comic book titles are dropping in sales. In his "Tilting at Windmills" #12 column in "Comics Retailer" #13 (originally published in early 1993), Brian Hibbs was discussing how disconnected publishers were from the day to day operations of retailers and made this statement: "The forest may be beautiful from miles away, but you have to ensure that the individual trees are healthy, if there's to be a forest in the future."
Regardless of if publishers have become more aware of the day to day reality of comic book retailers, Hibbs made a very valid point about the health of the comic book industry that remains true. The individual titles need to be healthy for the industry to be healthy. In a typical month only around a tenth of the comic books on the top 300 comics list show an increase over the previous issue. Of those issues showing a gain, the majority of them are the results of obvious sales gimmicks like multiple covers, a new creative team or a bold new direction for the title. These are short term gains which are often lost with the next issue of the series. Until more titles can consistently keep readers from issue to issue, this downward sales trend of individual titles isn't going to change. If it doesn't change, sooner or later the aggregate sales will reflect that downward trend. All it took in November was a handful of titles not shipping for the total sales of the top 300 comics to drop by over 1,750,000 units.
Comic sales weren't great before the recession and it seems a bit crazy to think people will spend as much or more on comics as a result of the current economic situation. For the past few years, major events have been propping up sales contributing to the illusion that sales are healthier than they really are. Things like increasing cover prices on a number of titles at Marvel and the impact of the economy on sales and 2009 could be a really difficult year for the comic book industry.