December 2008 was another blockbuster month for Marvel with a dominating 54.16% of the total units sold and 55.83% of the total dollars earned by the top 300 comics. December ties with June 2008 as Marvel third highest percentage of the unit sales for the top 300 comics behind the 55.22% Marvel had in March 2005 and the 55.44% from September 2008. It is also Marvel's third highest percentage of the total dollars for the top 300 comics behind the 56.23% in March 2005 and the 56.63% from September 2008.
But those percentages are relative to everything else sold during those months. At cover price the items Marvel had on the top 300 comics list in December 2008 total to $14,167,215.36 which is the highest amount for Marvel since Diamond first started releasing final order information in February 2003. For comparison, Marvel's average dollar total for the top 300 during the final order era is $9,362,617.46 and the total for Marvel from November 2008 was $9,124,913.71. The next highest monthly total for the top 300 comics for Marvel was $12,444,594.70 in October 2008.
Likewise on the unit sales side, the 4,153,993 units sold by Marvel's items in the top 300 comics list is a record high during the final order era. The next highest amount was 3,927,467 in July 2007. Marvel's total monthly unit sales for the items on the top 300 comics list averages 3,118,328 units.
The top selling item was "Secret Invasion" #8 with an estimated 152,403 units. That series ended with higher sales than the estimated total reported 151,657 units for "Final Crisis" #1. And with the exceptions of "Final Crisis" #5 and "Batman" #682 and #683, Marvel took the top dozen slots. No matter how you look at it, Marvel did exceedingly well in December. DC, on the other hand, had more of an average month.
DC's total unit sales of 2,517,948 units for December are fairly close to the average total monthly sales for DC of 2,372,932 units. The average dollars earned by DC's items on the top 300 comics list is $6,976,308.40 and the total for December of $7,863,510.29 is comfortably above that but still close enough to it for the month to be considered an only slightly better than average month for DC. The high water mark for total sales of DC items on the top 300 comics list was in May 2006 with 3,434,618 units and $10,348,482. That month included sales from "Infinite Crisis" #7, the first four issues of "52," a number of "One Year Later" issues and "All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder" #4. Due to the five shipping weeks in May 2006, there were also two issues of a number of titles such as "Superman/Batman," "Teen Titans" and "Action Comics."
One of the major factors causing Marvel's domination of the top comics list was the 119 items they had on the list. More surprising is the fact that all but the reorder activity for "X-Men: Worlds Apart" #2 were new releases. However, two dozen items technically didn't arrive in stores until January 2nd, 2009 and therefore perhaps should not have been included in the December data. These two dozen items had combined sales of around 892,701 units out of the total of an estimated 4,153,993 units for Marvel for the month. That works out to 21.49% of Marvel's unit sales for the month.
There were 19 January shipping items from DC on the list with total unit sales of 651,898 units. That accounted for 25.89% of DC's units for the top 300 comics on the December 2008 list. Only six other items with shipping dates of January 2nd, 2009 were on the list. Three were from IDW, two from Image and one from Dark Horse. With the exception of the three items from IDW, all of the January items included in the December data are from Premiere Publishers located in the front of Previews. But those tend to be the better selling titles in general.
The more alarming aspect of these January 2nd, 2009 items making the list is there are a total of 49 of them. Just shy of one out of every six items on the December 2008 top comics list technically didn't arrive in stores in December 2008. Each one of those 49 items pushed out a December shipping item that would have otherwise made the list. For example, "Atomic Robo" #5 was listed in slot 50 of the top 50 independent comics list with a quantity rank of 304. (The quantity rank is the ordering by the units sold and is how the top comics and top trades lists are ordered.) It is the only item in the top 50 independent comics list which didn't make the top 300 comics list. "Atomic Robo" #5 arrived in stores on December 24th, 2008 and sold an estimated 4,430 units but it was pushed out of the top 300 comics list for December because extraneous data from January was included. Without the January shipping items, "Atomic Robo" #5 would have placed in slot 255 of the top comics for December 2008.
But is the bottom of the top 300 comics is really seeing some growth? The bottom of the list went from 2,228 units in November to 4,607 units in December. While this month it might be an artifact of the shipping schedule confusion around the beginning of the year, overall we are seeing an upward trend at the bottom of the top 300 comics.
The question is then how and why are we seeing this upward trend in slot 300 when most titles continue to drop in sales each month. The short answer is some months there are fewer strong selling items than other months.
Much of this has to do with the number of titles being published by the Premiere publishers. In general those titles tend to sell better. As more comics are published by the bigger publishers, more the comics by smaller press titles get pushed off the bottom of the list. Marvel has gone from having an average of 65 items in the top 300 in 2004 to an average of 91.5 in 2008. Meanwhile DC went from an average of 73.4 items in the top 300 comics in 2004 to 87.3 in 2008. Add in the other two Premiere Publishers of Dark Horse and Image and the average number of items on the list from the four Premiere Publishers in 2004 was 176.25 compared to the average in 2008 of 217.3. Factor in the changes in the middle tier of publishers accounting for an average of 38.4 items in 2004 to 48.8 in 2008 and you can see how the smaller press comics are getting pushed off the list by the increased number of titles by the larger publishers.
One of the results of this massive output by the large publishers is the changing breakdown of the bottom of the top 300 comics list. At the bottom of the top 300 in December are a collection of titles from Dark Horse, Image, DC and Marvel. With comics set in the "mainstream" DC and Marvel universes selling as low as an estimated 4,682 units ("El Diablo" #4 in rank 298) and 5,327 units ("Big Hero 6" #4 in rank 284) respectively, it seems even the big publishers are fighting over the lower end of the list.
Publishers are now faced with new order thresholds from Diamond requiring sales of $2500 at wholesale in order for Diamond to place an order for an item. The previous order threshold was $1000 and was set back in September 2005. It is worth noting only 22 items made the top 300 comics list between the start of the final order era and the $1000 threshold being implemented. Excluding those items and reorder items, nearly 1100 items on the top 300 comics list would have failed to meet the level of this new order threshold of $2500 over the past few years. Some titles missed the mark by as little as a single unit while one item would have been shy by almost 1,000 units. That particular item was promotionally price at $1 and it is unclear if it would be subjected to the order threshold or not. In either case, this policy change gives publishers one more reason to raise pices.
Titles on the top 300 comics list in 2008 which could be impacted by this new order threshold seem to mainly be aimed at kids and include "Archie," "Betty," "Betty and Veronica," "Looney Tunes" and "Sabrina." Obviously many of the items which fail to get into the top 300 are in danger of falling under this new order threshold as well.
One of Diamond's stated goals of the new order threshold is to cut down the number of variant covers. When you compare the number of items that had multiple order codes in March 2003 of 8 (the all time low in the final order era) to the 69 items in December 2008 (the current high water mark for the final order era), it becomes very understandable why Diamond might want or need to do something about variant covers. It is worth noting one of the unintended consequences of this might be to reduce the number of separately orderable variant covers but not a corresponding reduction in variant covers. The result would be readers and retailers having less control over how many of each cover they get. And, if this was the primary goal for Diamond, they could have simply enforced limits on the number of variant covers without raising the order threshold.
The raising of the order threshold is a clear reminder the direct market for new comic books is currently not a Long Tail market since there is a non-trivial cost involved with distributing items whether or not they sell. One of the hallmarks of a Long Tail market (as defined by Chris Anderson in his book of the same name) is the low or near zero cost of distributing items thereby allowing minimal sales over longer periods to be cost effective. The stated reason by Diamond for increasing the order threshold is to cover the costs involved in distributing each individual item. Likewise there is a cost to the retailer for every item stocked. Long Tail markets are enabled by the negligible cost and risk of offering up a seemingly infinite variety of items for sale and taking a long term approach to measuring the sales of those items. This allows low sales on a large number of products to be profitable.
This new order threshold and the policy change of expiring order codes 60 days after the initial shipment (making them unavailable for reorder) will no doubt hurt a number of publishers and creators. There is an opportunity here for distributing the lower selling items if someone can operate in an efficient enough manner to serve this end of the comic spectrum profitably. Hopefully a company like Haven Distributors will step up to the plate and take over distribution of the smaller publishers.