March 2009 was not a great month for comic book sales. The top 300 comics only sold a total of an estimated 5,322,773 units. This is well below the average estimated sales of 6,525,784 units for the top 300 since the start of the final order era back in February 2003. Only two other months have had lower total unit sales for the top 300 comics during that time. The second lowest was the 5,146,687 estimated units for January 2004. The lowest point was in January 2005 with only 4,982,058 units. Typically January is a weak month as both retailers and readers tend to have more restrictive budgets right after the holiday spending. March, on the other hand, is not usually a weak month.
To put this estimated total of 5,322,773 units into perspective, "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 (the Obama issue) has sold an estimated 521,724 units which equates to about 9.8% of the total sales of the top 300 comics for March. But that is also a reflection of the unusually strong sales of that particular issue.
March 2009 was also the first month in the Diamond final order era with no issues selling over 100,000 units through Diamond. No doubt once reorders and non-Diamond sales are factored in, the top few items on the list will have cleared 100,000 units. The top selling comic was "Dark Avengers" #3 with an estimated 96,523 units. This is the lowest sales level for the top selling comic during the final order era. During that time, the top item has been averaging and estimated 179,217 units in sales.
This chart of the sales of the top selling comic during the final order era illustrates how weak the sales of the top ranked comics have been over the past two years compared to the few years prior. What is a little depressing is the noticeable downward trend for the top slot over the past year. The downward trend from April 2008 to October 2008 is the first seven issues of "Secret Invasion" followed by "Ultimatum" #1. The upswing in December 2008 was "Secret Invasion" #8. The huge spike in January 2009 is the initial month sales of "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 (the Obama issue) and the data point for February 2009 is the second month sales for that same issue.
One of the reasons there were no titles over 100,000 units in March was the lack of any company wide crossover events at both Marvel and DC. No "Secret Invasion," "Final Crisis," "World War Hulk," "Infinite Crisis" or "Civil War." While there have been other months with no major events, those months have usually had either magic number issues ("New Avengers" #50, "Thor" #600, "Uncanny X-Men" #500, "X-Men" #200, "Captain America" #25, "Wolverine" #50), the launch or relaunch of a major title ("Dark Avengers," "Invincible Iron Man," "X-Force," "Hulk," "Thor," "Avengers: The Initiative," "Mighty Avengers," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight" and "Justice Society of America") or a major sales gimmick like the President Obama appearance in "Amazing Spider-Man" #583 or the death of Captain America in "Captain America" #25. These events and sales gimmicks are often the top sellers. Here is the same chart of top selling items with a red line added representing what the top sellers would have been if you ignore the events titles and major sales gimmicks:
Over the past few years, Marvel and DC have been cranking out events on a routine basis. Based on these sales trends, it is easy to understand why. This strategy has been working very well for Marvel and stands a good chance for working for DC with the upcoming Blackest Night event.
There are a number of other factors why the total for the top 300 was weaker than usual. The economy is certainly one of the major reasons. Some comic book stores have closed and many readers are cutting back on comic book spending to due budget constraints. The downturn in the economy and the increase in cover prices on some titles is a bad combination. But, since downward sales trends are the norm and not the exception, the economy isn't entirely to blame.
"Hulk," "Thor" and "Justice Society of America" failed to ship in March and would have likely been in the top ten if they had shipped. It is being fairly common for a handful of major ongoing titles to not ship each month. In some cases this is just a scheduling quirk with two issues of the title showing up in the preceding or following month. There are also cases like "Wolverine" which recently has shipped an issue every two or three months. The weekly release of "Wolverine" #73, #72 and #74 on May 13th, 20th and 27th respectively is an attempt to make up for those earlier delays. And, yes, "Wolverine" #73 will ship a week before "Wolverine" #72.
The biggest percentage drop was "Marvel: Your Universe" #1 which lost around 55.45% of the units from the first issue. Since it reprints a random selection of recent comics, the drop is unsurprising. This is a very atypical comic book series and as of the second issue, some stores aren't carrying the title at all.
The second biggest percentage drop was "Ultimate Hulk versus Wolverine" #3 which lost around 42.75% of the units. Just the 51,048 estimated units lost from the previous issue exceeds the sales of all but the top 21 items on the list. The three year hiatus between the second and third issues was no doubt a major factor in the massive drop in sales. The same thing happened to the "Spider-Man/Black Cat: Evil That Men Do" series after a similar multi-year delay.
The biggest percentage drop for DC was "The Mighty" #2 which dropped from around 17,955 units for the first issue to around 10,621 units for the second issue. This 40.85% drop is not too surprising given the "neither fish nor fowl" nature of the series. It is a super-hero title published by DC and listed in the main DC section of Previews yet doesn't have any connection to the DC universe. People that might have gotten it if it were released under the Wildstorm imprint probably passed on it while those that did get it may have expected it to play into the DC universe somehow. This same sort of poor positioning of the title within the various imprints at DC resulted in the "Family Dynamic" series from Johnny DC getting reduced from six issues to three. The sales of "The Mighty" #1 would have probably been lower under the Wildstorm imprint. But, the drop on the second issue probably would have been much lower as well and the odds of the series surviving past a story arc or two would have been much better.
"Amazing Spider-Man" #589 had the lowest sales since the start of the thrice monthly run of the title, dropping below 59,000 units. However, with the stability of the sales from issue to issue, the move from one issue each of three different titles to three issues of a single title a month seems to have paid off for Marvel. Were these same stories published across three different titles, odds are "Amazing Spider-Man" would have been the best selling title of the three with the other two titles combined doing well to match those sales. It also seems unlikely that it would matter which of the stories were told in which titles. "Amazing Spider-Man" has always been the main Spider-Man titles resulting in higher sales for that title over the other Spider-Man titles. This trend held true even when stories were serialized across the multiple titles.
March was a good month for Marvel which had 51.36% of the combined unit sales for the top 300 comics. Marvel has been averaging over 50% of the unit sales for the top 300 for the past 16 months. During that same period of time, DC has been averaging around 33.27% of the unit sales for the top 300 comics. The remaining average 16.51% of the unit sales are split between the rest of the publishers with Image, Dark Horse, IDW and Dynamite Entertainment combined accounting for around 10% of those overall sales leaving less than 6.51% for all of the smaller publishers. Between the large output by the biggest publishers and the increasing cover price for many of those titles, these smaller publishers have to fight harder and harder for their sales. Add to that the Diamond order thresholds and low selling but profitable titles can get squeezed out of the direct market.
Over on the top trades list, the top selling item was the "Watchmen" trade paperback with another 32,124 estimated units of reorder activity. The consignment program that DC has in place continues to result in impressive sales for the trade. "The Stand: Captain Trips" premiere hardcover had the second highest sales with an estimated 14,457 units. Everything else on the list was under 5,000 units.
DC once again had the largest percentage of the total unit sales for the top 300 trades. There is a very clear difference between the items for DC and Marvel on the list. The strong showing by the Vertigo imprint each month with all or nearly all of the volumes of "Fables," "Preacher," "Sandman" and "Y: The Last Man" in and of itself gives DC a clear edge. Marvel, on the other hand, doesn't have any titles with the same sort of regularly recurring reorders. This is why DC routinely has higher aggregate sales for the top 300 trades than Marvel. Between items like "Watchmen," "V for Vendetta," "Kingdom Come," the numerous volumes of "Fables," "Preacher," "Sandman" and "Y: The Last Man," DC is almost guaranteed to have a few dozen items on the top trades list every month. While many of these are only selling a few hundred units a month, these sales add up over time.
VIZ did unusually well in March thanks to the eight different volumes of "Naruto" on the list. Four of them were released in the first week of March. This practice of releasing three or four volumes in a single week runs counter to the very idea of a periodical publication. Releasing a single volume a week on a routine basis would help build and reinforce the buying habit in the readers. It would also reduce the risk of burning out readers and retailers who may not have either the time or money to keep up with three or four volumes being released at once. That having been said, sales of "Naruto" are holding reasonably steady within the direct market so this odd release schedule doesn't seem to be causing major problems even if it does seem short-sighted.
The estimated sales on the top trades list drops below the number of stores well before rank 50. There are so many trades already out with another dozen or more new ones being released each week. The unfortunate reality is most comic book stores aren't ordering most trades. And, if they don't think they can sell a trade, they shouldn't order it. The same ordering criteria holds true on the comic book side as well. Retailers buy what they think they can sell. The customer base at each store is unique. What is selling great at one store might not be at another store. More importantly, neither store is likely to be a reflection the overall sales trends.
But, keep in mind that during March, Diamond was still in the process of moving into the new Olive Branch warehouse and many trades were not available for reorder. We should see a bump in the trade sales in April reflecting the demand that built up during the time retailers were until to reorder items they needed. Hopefully, between "Flash: Rebirth," "Wolverine: Weapon X" #1 and April being a five week month we'll see some stronger sales next month on the comic book side as well.