February 2009 was another great month for Marvel, both in terms of having sold the most units for the top 300 comics and for topping the list for the second month in a row with "Amazing Spider-Man" #583. Obviously the Obama backup feature and variant covers worked out exceptionally well for Marvel. It would be strange enough for a title to drop by around 200,000 units and still top the list. But for a specific issue to do so is unprecedented.
But this may not actually be the first time an item topped the list two months in a row. How can that be if this is unprecedented? The lack of a precedent prior to February 2003 is a function of how the data used to be reported. Before then Diamond reported sales based on pre-orders and not what actually shipped to stores. It is possible in the past some other issue of a comic book series sold the most units to retailers in two consecutive months. But since that data isn't publicly available, we'll never know for sure.
The combined total for the January and February sales of "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 are an estimated 501,656 units. The January sales of an estimated 352,856 units already made it the highest selling non-promotionally priced comic book since Diamond started reporting on final sales to retailers in February 2003. Going further back to the start of the "Diamond era" when Diamond became the last major distributor of new comic books in April 1997, only one other comic book has reached this level of sales success without being promotionally priced: "Darkness" #11 at $2.50 in December 1997 with an estimated 357,000 units. But that record was shattered by "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 once the additional units from February were added in.
The only two items with known sales estimates to out sell "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 are the promotionally priced "Fantastic Four" #60 at $0.09 in August 2002 with approximately 752,700 units and "Batman: The Ten Cent Adventure" #1 at $0.10 in January 2002 with approximately 702,100 units. Diamond does not always report the sales of promotionally priced items so it is possible other items (such as Free Comic Book Day issues) sold more units to retailers than "Amazing Spider-Man" #583. Since publishers tend to only breakeven or, more likely, lose money with promotionally priced items this level of sales on a comic at a standard price is even more exceptional.
This raises the question of whether comic books could routinely sell at this level or not. Back around 1993 and 1994, "Amazing Spider-Man" routinely sold well over 500,000 units an average paid circulation of 544,900 units in 1993 and 592,442 units in 1994. Obviously the total paid circulation numbers include sales outside of the Diamond channel. But if it was possible for "Amazing Spider-Man" to sell at that level back then, why can't it now?
What has changed since then? Spider-Man has been featured in three blockbuster motion pictures, four cartoon series and a theme park ride. The average non-comic book reader is more aware of Spider-Man now than back in 1994. Shouldn't the result of all of that be increasing sales? Then again, the price of comic books has jumped in price from the $1.25 back in 1994 to the current $2.99 or $3.99. Comic books have gotten much harder to find outside of comic book stores and comic book stores themselves aren't always easy to find.
As things currently stand, the sales of "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 are only a few thousand units shy of the combined total sales of "Amazing Spider-Man" #579 through #582 and #584 through #587. It should be noted the sales of "Amazing Spider-Man" have been dropping over the past year. At the beginning of the thrice monthly run it would have only taken five issues (#546 through #550) to exceed the current total for "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 whereas now it takes nine issues. Currently the title is selling around the 60,000 unit mark and shows signs it might level off there.
Apparently it is possible for non-comic book readers to find and purchase a comic book if they have a sufficiently strong incentive to do so. This puts into question the theory of comic book sales being down because comics are too hard to find.
"Brit" #12 is the final issue of the series and sold a little over 3,000 copies through Diamond. Given the cover price of $3.99 for the issue, it would have earned around $1,100 for the creative team. The comic had 30 story pages. Even if Kirkman didn't have to pay for the writing (he co-wrote the main story with Bruce Brown and wrote the backup feature himself), he still had to pay the penciler, inker, colorist and letterer. Perhaps a budget around $1,100 will actually cover the page rates for a penciler, inker, colorist and letterer on a comic book with 30 story pages. But in all likelihood, it doesn't. Kirkman had to be losing money on "Brit" which is no doubt why he ended it.
One of the many factors influencing how well a comic book sells is if it comes out on time or not. A few months back, Robert Kirkman made an "On time in 2009" pledge to get his titles shipping on a predictable schedule. But already two of Kirkman's titles have shipped late. According to page 149 of the November 2008 Previews, "Astounding Wolf-Man" #12 had a guaranteed ship date of January 21st, 2009. It shipped a week late. Also listed on that page was "Brit" #12 with a scheduled ship date of January 21st, 2009. It shipped two weeks late. In the Previews solicitation both items were marked with "On time in 2009! Ship date Guaranteed!"
Normally I wouldn't mention the lateness of these comics. In most cases it isn't a big deal for a comic to ship a week or two late. The average reader and retailer often don't notice if a book is only a week or two late. Unless the problem is chronic and Kirkman's titles like "Walking Dead" and "Invincible" have a history of shipping late. Since Robert Kirkman made a big announcement about getting these items out on time it seems only fair to point out the lateness.
The bigger issue here is both "Astounding Wolf-Man" #12 and "Brit" #12 were resolicitations. The original solicitation for "Astounding Wolf-Man" #12 on page 148 of the September 2008 Previews had it scheduled for release on November 19th, 2008. Worse yet, the solicitation on page 148 of the July 2008 Previews for "Brit" #12 had it originally scheduled for September 10th, 2008. In that respect, these items shipped months later than originally promised. "Walking Dead" #57 shipped January 7th, 2009 which technically counts as "on time" if you go with the resolicitation and not the originally scheduled ship date of November 26th, 2008. Likewise with "Invincible" #58 which was "on time" when it shipped on January 14th, 2008 even though the original solicitation had it scheduled for November 12th, 2008.
In fairness, Kirkman has averaged around a dozen issues a year on both "Walking Dead" and "Invincible" even with the lateness. So it isn't like readers and retailers were left empty handed. Hopefully Kirkman will be able to get everything else out on time going forward.
A major offender on late comics at Image is Scott Kurtz. "PvP" #42 is a year late. Given that "PvP" is a compilation of web comics, there is virtually no reason from a production point of view this title couldn't immediately get back on schedule. The question is if it is worth Scott Kurtz's time to get it back on schedule. His stated plan back in November was to end the comic at issue #50 and move to larger collections of the web strips. Given the title is selling around 3,400 units, this decision makes sense. After subtracting out the printing costs and the $2,500 Image fee, Kurtz might be bringing in around $1,000 per issue or less. And that is money earned per issue, not profit. That amount has to cover any production costs for the issue with anything left over being profit. Since this series is a compilation of existing web comics, the production costs are going to be much, much lower for this series than the average comic.
While the core of the "PvP" audience probably reads it online, there is a portion of the audience waiting for the print version. Given the lateness of "PvP" #42 at this point, Kurtz should consider canceling the late issues with Diamond and ending the periodical issues immediately. He could then move to trade paperback sized collections of the material with the first of those volumes containing the marriage of Brent and Jade. That event happened in the web comics last May but has yet to see print. This seems like ideal content for kicking off a series of trades containing never before collected web comics. Kurtz had been very successful in the web comic arena and there is no reason he can't be equally successful in print.
It is also worth pointing out this month the Diamond data is a measure of what Diamond shipped and invoiced to retailers during the month. At the end of January, Diamond began the process of moving out of the Memphis, Tennessee warehouse and into the new warehouse in Olive Branch, Missouri. The graphic novels and trade paperbacks didn't start getting moved until around February 5th and involved a complete suspension of all reorders for trade paperbacks and graphic novels during the move.
The announcements and advisories from Diamond implied that the suspension of reorders would only last from February 5th to February 16th with items arriving in time for the Wednesday, February 25th new comic day. Diamond prioritized the top 100 trades from 2008 in an attempt to minimize the impact the warehouse move would have on retailers. Unfortunately yet understandably, Diamond underestimated the time it would take to relocate into the new Olive Branch location. Given the scope of the move, there had to be unforeseen delays and complications. As of late March, thousands of products were still unavailable for reorder with more becoming available for reorder every day.
As it was, the top 300 trades list cut off at 251 units with the rank 100 item selling less than 900 units. This is the second lowest total sales for the top 100 trades since February 2004 when Diamond first expanded the top trades list to 100 items. The lowest total for the top 100 was for the first month of the expanded list in February 2004. The bottom line is sales on many items would have been higher if Diamond had been able to ship all of the items reordered by retailers during February and March. This could result in higher than expected trade sales in April.
This is a case of long term gain at the cost of short term pain. This new location is a major investment by Diamond and one that will hopefully payoff big in the long term. In addition to physically moving warehouses, Diamond merged the two Memphis distribution centers and an off-site storage center into a single location as well as implementing a new Warehouse Management System. Ideally, this positions Diamond to serve the needs of the retailers and publishers much better. In the short term, the warehouse relocation did impact Diamonds ability to ship graphic novels and trades during February and March. The fact that the trade sales only dropped by around 9% in February and didn't plummet further indicates that Diamond did a decent job handling the move.