April 2009 was a much better month for direct market comic book sales than March 2009. But given March was the third worst month during the final order era (which started in February 2003), that isn't saying much. April was a slightly better than average month with a few surprises. The biggest surprise was DC taking the top two slots with the only two titles to crack 100,000 units: "Detective Comics" #853 and "Flash: Rebirth" #1. But even with those top two slots, DC still only had 33.8% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics. Marvel once again dominated the sales with 50.74% of the total unit sales for the top 300 comics.
There were 52 first issues in April which is more than in any other month during the final order era except for July 2002 which had 54 first issues. The sales of the first issue of a series are often the high water mark for the title. The result of those two facts is part of what caused April to be a stronger month for comic book sales than March. But first issues are no guarantee of strong sales. The average sales for these 52 first issues were an estimated 22,492 units. All but two of these issues sold below 43,000 units. A number of these were one shots so the typical drop in sales of subsequent issues is irrelevant. The odds of the new "Exiles" series ever breaking above the 31,131 estimated units the first issue sold are slim. If it follows the typical pattern, the second issue will sell in the ballpark of 25,000 units and the third around 22,000 units. So within a handful of issues, the relaunched title stands a good chance of selling about as well at the "New Exiles" series it replaced. It also bring ups the question of it the series would have launched stronger at a $2.99 price point instead of at $3.99.
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the $3.99 price point, particularly on Marvel titles which include no additional content for that extra dollar. The recent comment made by John Turitzin, Marvel's general counsel and EVP of the executive office, about testing prices to see what the market will bear seems to have sparked a lot of discussion. (See Robot 6's coverage for more on this: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2009/05/more-on-marvels-price-increases/.)
This is one of those cases in which the business of comics and the hobby of comics are at cross purposes. Marvel is a business and has the goal of making as much money as possible. Comic book readers, on the other hand, are individuals trying to get the best entertainment value possible.
So far, very few ongoing Marvel titles have gone from $2.99 to $3.99. In most cases, it is new titles starting at $3.99. On the few that have had a prices increase such as "Hulk" and "New Avengers", there has been no major drop in sales with the price increases. It is difficult to determine from the aggregate sales data if the price hikes on some titles are hurting the sales of other titles. For people with fixed budgets for comic book spending, this is almost certainly happening and the only question is the degree to which it is happening. That having been said, since a price increase doesn't seem to negatively influence the sales of that title, the decision at Marvel to increase prices is understandable from a business perspective.
The folks at DC are at least giving us an extra 10 page story for the extra dollar. On a price per pages basis, the co-features are a fair deal, at least in a theoretical sense. It is questionable how many of the 10,000 or so units the "Blue Beetle" series ended at will translate into new sales of "Booster Gold." The pairing Booster Gold and Blue Beetle somewhat arbitrary given that the two characters have barely interacted (if at all) since "Infinite Crisis" and the start of the "Blue Beetle" series three years ago. Putting the Blue Beetle co-feature in "Teen Titans" would make sense but then where would the Ravager co-feature go?
The co-feature approach works best for people already interested in both the main feature and the co-feature. "Green Arrow/Black Canary" seems like it will be an excellent example of what happens when a title goes up in price and includes additional story pages on the featured property. Since the two lead characters will both remain in the title current readers shouldn't be upset about having to pay an extra dollar for a co-feature they may have no interest in reading. Some readers may be unwilling or unable to spend the extra dollar even with the extra story pages. Based on the sales trends on the Marvel titles which have gone up in price, a sudden major change in the sales of "Green Arrow/Black Canary" is unlikely.
It would be interesting for DC to release a potential co-feature as a thinner standalone comic. How many people might be willing to buy a monthly 10 page "Blue Beetle" title for $1.00 but aren't willing to pay $3.99 to buy "Booster Gold" just for the Blue Beetle co-feature? No doubt some retailers would be against such an experiment as it costs them as much effort to stock an issue selling for $1.00 as it does for one costing $3.99. The lower financial barrier to entry for the readers, however, might be enough to make such a format at least worth experimenting with.
The bottom line is until price hikes hurt sales enough to compensate for the increased revenue from the higher prices and make increasing the price an unprofitable business decision, price hikes will continue to happen.
Over at DC, "Trinity" continues its gradual attrition in sales and is just below 33,000 units. The sales on this series had to be one the factors in DC opting to go with the 12 week "Wednesday Comics" series instead of another year long weekly title. Hopefully DC will continue to experiment with the weekly format as it seems to be able to retain enough reader interest from issue to issue to slow attrition down to less than a 1% loss per issue. Using a weekly series to build up interest in a batch of characters that then move on to co-features before getting a mini-series or ongoing titles would be a much less risky way to launch titles than is currently employed. Sure, the upcoming "Magog" series could be brilliant and could be a sales success but is there any evidence to suggest that it will be?
One sales technique that worked well for a number of titles in April was the crossover storyline between two or three titles. "The Great Fables Crossover" storyline started out in "Fables" #83 which sold around 23,627 units, an increase in sales of 5.27%. The second chapter of the storyline was in "Jack of Fables" #33 which jumped up in sales by 41.55% over the prior issue to an estimated 19,239 units. The third chapter was in "The Literals" #1 which sold an estimated 20,284 units. The "wisdom of crowds" of the retailer community indicates more people are interested in "The Literals" than in "Jack of Fables" which is a little counter-intuitive since the Literals were first introduced in "Jack of Fables."
Another crossover storyline which resulted in a huge spike in sales was the "Deathtrap" storyline crossing over between "Titans," "Teen Titans" and "Vigilante." The "Vigilante" title launched with sales around 18,233 units on the first issue and has dropped down to around an estimated 11,122 units prior to the crossover storyline. The second chapter of the "Deathtrap" storyline was in "Vigilante" #5 which saw an increase of 91.4% putting the sales for the issue at an estimated 21,287 units. The next issue concludes the crossover storyline and will probably sell in the ballpark of 20,000 units. "Vigilante" #7 will most likely drop back down around 11,000 units. For comparison, "Titans" and "Teen Titans" are both selling around 35,000 to 36,000 units. Even with "Vigilante" nearly doubling in sales due to the crossover storyline, it still sold over 14,000 units less than the other parts of the storyline.
The "Messiah War" storyline in "X-Force" and "Cable" boosted sales of both titles. "X-Force" #14 increased by 10.65% over the prior issue to an estimated 57,300 units and "Cable" #13 increased by 25.11% to around 40,534 units. Once again, there is a noticeable difference in sales between the different chapters of the storyline. This sort of gap in sales between chapters of a storyline split across multiple titles is fairly common.
Placing a little below the top 20, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8" #24 sold an estimated 60,907 units. The title remains a strong seller and it is a great gateway comic title for converting fans of the television series into comic book readers. It still sells over twice as well as the next best selling comic not by Marvel or DC, "Angel" #20 from IDW with around 30,304 units. I've heard more than one retailer say "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8" is the top selling title at their store. Of course, each store is unique and attempting to generalize overall sales trends based on the trends at any single store is pointless. The reverse is also true, just because something is topping the Diamond sales charts is no guarantee it will sell well at every individual store.
IDW had another strong showing in April with over 4% of the unit sales for the top 300 comics. While movies rarely result in a direct increase in comic book sales, the release of "Star Trek," "Terminator Salvation," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" can only help IDW which has the license for all of those properties. "Star Trek: Countdown" #4 sold an estimated 14,543 units which is only about 42 units below the sales of the first issue. The covers and title of this series could have been much clearer about it being a prequel and integral part of the movie. While the solicitations pointed out the connection to the movie, people seeing the issues or trade on the rack don't benefit from the listings in Previews.
Over on the trades list, "Watchmen" once again sold the most units to retailers during the month, this time with only 6,402 estimated units. Only two other collected editions sold over 5,000 units: the "Dark Tower: Treachery" and the "Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys" premiere hardcovers.
The exact number of comic book stores out there is unknown and continues to change with stores opening and closing over time. The Diamond data for April states that Diamond has over 4,000 accounts but not all of them are what would generally be considered a standard comic book shop. Only the top seven collected editions sold over 4,000 units in April. What this tells us is most collected editions don't make it into every store. And given the numerous new collected editions released each week that is probably a good thing.
The "waiting for the trade" mantra allows readers to skip the monthly comic with the intention of eventually getting the collected edition. With virtually everything publish getting collected into a trade paperback, hardcover or both, there is almost no risk of not being able to get the material in a collected form. This serves to complete undercut any sense of need to get the individual issues. The downward sales trend on most ongoing titles is one of the results.
The irony is the trade sales aren't making up the difference, at least within the direct market. It is possible, although unlikely, sales of trades in the mass market are compensating for the perpetual downward trend on the monthly issues.
To be fair, various comics increase in sales each month. The list of titles increasing in sales changes each month with very few having sustained upward sales trend for any length of time. Many of the increases each month can be easily accounted for by variant covers, new creative teams or storyline and other short term sales techniques and gimmicks.
Of the 50 comics that increased in sales by more than 1% over the previous issue, 21 of them had multiple covers. (For that matter, all but four of the top 20 comics in April had multiple covers.) The 70th Anniversary variant covers and the Wolverine Art Appreciation variant covers at Marvel are two of the variant cover themes currently boosting sales on various titles. The Decades variant covers and the 70th Anniversary Frame variant covers are upcoming cover themes for Marvel.
This goes back to the "if it is profitable, keep doing it" mindset at Marvel that brought us the $3.99 price point for the standard 22 story pages. Marvel is a business and a smart one at that. They are trying to make as much money as possible while avoiding as much risk as possible. If enough of us are willing to pay $3.99 for a standard 22 comic book with only 22 pages of story, that is what Marvel will give us. At least until they think we might be willing to pay $4.50 or $4.99 for it. Likewise, if putting variant and incentive covers on issues will increase the sales on those comics, they will keep doing it. So, if you don't like it, don't support it.