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.


  1. suggestion that someone who reads Civil War might read Action Philosphers isn’t so far fetched. There’s a growing number of us out here who just want good comics entertainment. My personal reading list ranges from 52, JLA and Daredevil through to Rocketo, Action Philosphers, Criminal and MouseGuard. and that doesn’t include the webcomics and manga I read as well.

  2. Back in the late 90s, I used to chart all of Matt High’s numbers(comic book sales as reported by Diamond) , trying to devine the wisdom of the distribution system, and even ran a small bit of number crunching on the data. When all the curves fell into a series of patterns, I figured it was time to stop.

    At the time, I was interested in seeing what exactly affected the market place, such as variant covers, new #1 issues, new creative teams, that sort. There was a whole market analysis that someone could probably prove with a lot of charts and graphs with the cumulative data, but I’ll list a few of my conclusions made back then that probably still hold a bit of water:

    There’s at least three tiers of comics: I broke them down into
    The Top 25
    The Next 50
    The Rest

    Each of the groups had similar sales decline charts, where — if there were no “#1 issue, variant covers, new creative team or new storyline” issues, you could pretty well guess what the next month’s sales would be. If I could do it with Matt’s estimated numbers, you can guess the publishers could too.

    A new launch of a title is a lot like Opening Day for a big movie premiere. That initial order is very important, because it determines the decline curve. Oh, some fall offs were steeper than others, and predictably by the 6 issue the sales patterns were very much locked into place. Everyone used to talk a lot about how the sales numbers didn’t reflect the re-orders, but those were the exceptions – you might assume that if one particular issue was reordered in any significant numbers the presales orders would then go up accordingly, which they rarely did. So, in the long run, the presales numbers show trends fairly accurately, even if the hard numbers are above that curve by some measure. (Granted, with some “low selling” titles in the 25-75 sales rank range, that unknown number of extra sales could be enough to keep the title profitable when to the outside it might look like cancellation time)

    The Top 25 (and that “25” mark isn’t a hard and fixed number, but seemed right on the mark for quite some time) were certainly the titles that got the most attention, and were the most likely to get advertisements to keep their sales high — High cost, high reward. I’m pretty convinced that Spawn was kept up in the sales ranks by sheer advertisements for a while, keeping fans buying long after the real interest went elsewhere. For example, if there were almost no advertisements and no promotion, which title would fall the most in sales, and which would remain high? Individual titles/creative teams had varying amounts of sales inertia. Again, this is for smarter brains than what I posess to divine. I just noted there was something there.

    The next 50 were titles that for the most live off of whatever sales inertia (read: loyal buyers) they have and were the least affected by promotional events (a variant cover would not create a new higher benchmark of sales for any new decline curve, but would just be a two month noise blip in sales) Many of these were DC comics.

    The Rest. All the way down to the #300 in sales, where the creation usually fell on teams that owned their own characters, and sometimes controlled their own publishing distribution. Promotion and #1 sales reboots would be almost useless here, and sales at conventions/store appearances would provide as much or more income as any sales noted through the Diamond catalog. This was the real “Long Tail” of the comic book business.

    The question “Why decline curve?” might come up, and the answer to that is complex in detail, but in reality, pretty simple. Comic books are sequential art forms and by nature provide an ongoing adventure told through successive issues. Miss last year’s LOST on TV? Grab the DVD on sale! Catch up. There is no similar feature with comic books.

    People find it hard to catch up with sequentially told stories. They fall away. Prose authors are cautioned not to make a book series where reading the first book is mandatory for reading the second and third. By the time the fourth book is out, the first book is hard to find. The author might be popular, but the nature of the series makes it hard to pick up the story in the middle. So, as old fans drop off, no new fans are acquired.

    In other words, movie ticket sales decline and comic book sales decline, but for completely different reasons.

  3. That’s excellent analysis. It’s the nature of any brick and mortar businesses to carry high-end sellers only (limited storage space and limited number of customers within driving distance). The term “inflection pointâ€? is used incorrectly, however. It’s actually the point at which a curve changes from a right turn to a left turn, or vice versa, as at the center of the letter ‘S’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inflection_point)

    Unless business folks use the term differently than math geeks like me do.

  4. One Long Tail effect is the popular product leading the consumer to discover a less popular (new to them) product.

    I’m not sure that Civil War to Action Philosophers is an example I’d use, but I’m pretty sure a few people have read Kirkman’s Ultimate X-Men and then picked up Walking Dead or Invicible. The original example is with books on mountain climbing, IIRC.

    Civil War bringing up Black Panther and She-Hulk sales would be valid, although more valid if the sales would stay elevated _after_ the cross-over ends.

    Anyone care to do one of those graphs for, say, 1992 and see where it goes?

  5. Regarding old data crunching: With DC, you might be able to piece together some information from Google Groups, but for quite a while, Marvel data wasn’t available.

    Here’s a link to a post from ten years ago this week GoogleGroups

  6. Heidi, there actually is no inflection point in that graph. An inflection point is technically where the second derivative of a function (in this case the line plotted in the graph) equals zero. Visually, it is where the curvature of the line switches from concave to convex (or vice versa). I’m not sure what the term is intended to mean here, apparently something referring to the acceleration of the graph’s decay.

  7. As a soon-to-be comics retailer, I always find this kind of analysis fascinating. One of the things that really affects the sales of comics (and any other entertainment media) is market penetration.
    My racks will have room for 240 titles with the complete covers showing at once. That means I won’t even have room to display all of Diamond’s Top 300 comics for a full month at a stretch. That further means that I can’t even order too many of any non-top 300 book. If no customers subscribe to Gigglypuss Superheroic Pepper Squad, I have little incentive to order any “for the shelves” normally. There will always be titles that I will champion personally and order no matter what, but my store’s ordering budget can only absorb so much. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If GSPS can’t be carried by a store, it loses out exposure to that entire customer base. Without exposure, sales can’t grow, and as has been shown in numerous studies, sales are always shrinking when there’s no new exposure. While I would love to be able to carry every title that is offered by Diamond (or the other, mostly imaginary, comics distributors) each month, it’s never going to happen, nor will it happen in any store, anywhere, ever. Retail real estate is too valuable to do that.
    Just in case anyone is wondering, our store will be carrying a good mix of independents and mainstream comics, and once our sales hit the right levels, we will be able to expand what we carry.

  8. Thanks for the linkage, Heidi.

    I should say that the point I was trying to make (obviously not adequately!) isn’t that readers of Civil War should/could be reading Action Philosophers (although I’m sure there are some). Rather it is that, while the audience for Civil War and the other top books are getting them, there is a much larger potential audience for books like Action Philosophers that for whatever reason isn’t being met via Diamond.

    And don’t beat up on poor Heidi for “inflection point”; the mistake in terminology is all mine. I guess it should be “the point at which the data begins to deviate from the expected values” or something like that.