Okay, it’s late and we’re not so hot with numbers and graphs, but a couple of blogs have done some number crunching so you can see the Long Tail theory in action for comics.
Yet Another Comics Blog kicked it off last month by making some actual graphs that show the “inflection point” for comics by graphing sales against rank. (We’re surely getting this wrong so please school us in the comments.) The inflection point shows where the log-log correspondence drops off and inefficiency begins. David Carter analyses it thusly:
It’s not surprising to see that the graph looks like many other markets. What is surprising to me is how soon the inflection point hits: right around rank #45. Looking at the raw data, it appears to be right between #45 (Sensational Spider-Man 29: 55,300) and #46 (Green Lantern Corps 3: 51,400). Put another way, that’s right at about the mid-list for Marvel, just after the top books for DC, and above any other publisher. Putting some names to the numbers: Comics like Y, the Last Man (91: 25,800), Fables (92: 25,300) & Runaways (93: 25,000) could probably be selling another 15-20,000 copies every month. Way down at the end of the tail, books like Gold Digger, Rocketo, & Action Philosophers which are selling 2,100 copies could be selling around the 20,000 range.
Carter goes on to suggest reasons for the underserved population, including alternate distribution channels, and the fact that no one can find a comics shop. Now, of course, the idea that people who read CIVIL WAR would be interested in ACTION PHILOSOPHERS seems kind of nutty on the face of it, at least from a conventional wisdom standpoint, but in abstract terms, the fact that only the top of the charts shows any forward momentum (aside from THE WALKING DEAD and one or two others) is odd.
MacGuffin picks up the thread:
The most common factor in limited a product ability to fully serve its market is a distribution bottle-neck. Because these numbers are sell-in to retailers rather than sell-through to readers, the implication is that any bottlenecks would lie with Diamond or the publishers. This is certainly possible considering the limits on growth due to the relatively low overprints from Diamond’s brokered publishers and Diamond’s own unwillingness to stock much of their non-brokered publishers’ titles in any depth. The bottle neck more likely occurs, however, much later in the supply chain, namely at the retail level. Most direct market comic shops (at least the ones that manage to stay open) base their orders primarily on previous sales patterns. This makes perfect sense, but most shops aim for at least 80% sell through on each title, which means that if orders are based on previous sales, growth is almost be definition limited to 20-25%.
Thus you have the bottleneck paradox. By any reasonable observation, comics are having a huge boom now, and yet that boom still hasn’t reached the end of the tail, or indeed anywhere beyond the top 50 titles. Is this only natural, or a harbinger of the heat death of the direct sales market? We can’t answer that…we can only ponder and ponder some more.