And finally, the comparison chart of DC, Marvel and Image.  So we can see where the biggest sales sit on the Direct Market Landscape.

Standard disclaimers: The numbers are based on the Diamond sales charts as estimated by the very reliable John Jackson Miller. These charts are pretty accurate for U.S. Direct Market sales with the following caveats: 1) you can add ~10% for UK sales, which are not reflected in these charts; 2) everyone’s best guess is you can add ~10% for digital sale – while some titles do sell significantly better in digital (*cough* Ms. Marvel *cough*), that’s the average rule of thumb; 3) it’s not going to include reorders from subsequent months, although reorders will show up in subsequent months if they’re high enough.  So if you’re a monster seller in Southampton and it took the US audience 3 weeks to reorder, it’s probably not going to be reflected here.

What’s a sales band? It’s another way to have a higher level view of the market.  The general idea is to divide the market into bands of 10K copies sold and see how many issues are in each band.  How many issues sold between 90-99K copies, 80-89K copies, etc. etc. In very broad terms, the market is healthier when there are several titles selling in the 70K-100K+ range because titles that move a lot of copies give the retailers some margin of error on their ordering.  When you see titles selling in the 20-29K band and especially below, there’s a pretty good chance a lot of retailers aren’t ordering those titles for the shelf (pull box/pre-order only) or minimal shelf copies at best.

And this chart sums up why so many retailers are having such a hard time right now.  Figure that somewhere in the middle of that 20K-29K sales band is the cutoff between a store ordering several shelf copies and being a special order/subscribers-only and perhaps one for the shelf.  If you’ve got too many titles that are only one or two shelf copies the retailer could get very concerned about how many of those shelf copies sell out and there’s not always a lot of fiscal wiggle room unless there are several very profitable, higher-selling titles to balance things out and distribute the risk.  There aren’t several of those high sellers on the chart right now, just a handful.

Way, way too much of the product coming out in December is going to be a flavor of special order and limited/no shelf copies.  That’s not a healthy thing.

Want to see something less healthy?  Let’s take the Events and #1s off the chart and look at DC and Marvel.

Let’s just agree that Doomsday Clock and Metal are the proven sellers right now and accept that they will end, as limited series do.  What can retailers count on for ongoing sales?  Throw out Batman and there’s not that much left and not that much difference between DC and Marvel.  DC’s still showing a little higher issue count over 40K+, which you’d expect would be profitable and stockable for the shelf for most stores.  Marvel’s overall issue count is higher under 30K, which is not the sweet spot for retail.

The more low selling titles there are, the tighter the inventory control has to be for the retailer or problems ensue.  And even if a store is subs only for a lot of titles, at a certain point there still have to be enough raw sales for the bills to get paid, even if the sell-through percentage is high.

And as we’ve been hearing, some stores have reached that point where bills weren’t paid and closed.  Or perhaps saw that point coming and got out while they could.

If that spike of titles in the 20-29K range was moved over the 50K-59K range, there would still be grumbling, but a retail business can be run on that.  As it is?  Survival of the fittest.

For reference, the individual December sales distribution charts for:

Want to learn more about how comics publishing and digital comics work?  Try Todd’s book, Economics of Digital Comics

13 COMMENTS

  1. With LEGACY proven to be a bust, Marvel will now have to create comics readers actually want to buy. The first thing they should do is hire writers and artists that can deliver solid work in the traditional Marvel style.

  2. At this point it’s looking more and more like a death spiral for the market. Attrition of the customer base due to aging out or just moving on is still happening, but nobody is working to bring new customers into the market. I’ve long believed that both Marvel and DC as companies had moved into a mode where they view the Direct Market as a dying model that they’re going to suck money out of for as long as they can but aren’t going to put any real effort into growing. Since both companies have moved from being “magazine publishers” to being “brand managers”, this actually makes a whole lot of cynical sense – the majority of their money no longer comes from monthly book sales after all.

    I have no idea how to “fix” it either. Prices are too high on monthly books for younger folks, who have so many entertainment options at their fingertips for free or cheap monthly subscription that paying $4 for a 32 page comic book is a laughable proposition. Add that to the idea of making a special trip to a shop to spend $4 on said comic book and it becomes really crazy. You can download whatever entertainment you might want directly to your phone/TV/tablet/whathaveyou – what reason does a new reader have to go to a specialty store to buy overpriced skinny magazines?

    Pushing digital sales might be a way to grow the market for comics (though it wouldn’t help retailers), but Amazon seems bound and determined to not make that easy for people and neither Marvel nor DC seem to see digital as anything but an extra revenue stream – they don’t seem to be doing much to bring in new readers instead of just getting more money out of existing ones. And the entertainment value on digital comics is horrible – for $4 you can pick up any number of decent games for your phone or novels in eBook format or even rent a movie. It also pays for half of a monthly Netflix subscription. All of which will give you more entertainment per dollar than a digital comic. And I say that as a person who buys digital comics! I know I’m making a bad value judgment but I do it anyway because I’ve been reading comics for so long – convincing new people who weren’t reading books back when you could get an issue for $0.75 is the challenge. If they’d been $1.75 each back in the 80s I would never have had the money to get started – for that I could have gotten an entire paperback novel! ($1.75 in 1985 adjusted for inflation would be $4 today – that $0.75 comic adjusted for inflation would be about $1.50 in 2017 dollars. Comics have gotten a lot more expensive in real dollars than a lot of other media have).

    Absent some big push to get new customers – including some major changes in format to provide a better entertainment value per dollar – I don’t see how the direct market survives. It may survive for another decade or so just draining money from the existing customer base, but we’re going to die off or stop buying comics eventually, and without a big influx of replacement customers there won’t be a market.

  3. Not meaning to sound too alarmist, but comics books are extremely fringe right now and more readers/collectors are dying or aging out each day than are being born. They are written and marketed towards a hard-core audience and are not a cost-effective form of entertainment. At a time when comic book characters are dominating US culture, comics are slowly dying because they aren’t written to where new readers can get into them, the stories are too long and drawn out, and they are extremely expensive for the amount of entertainment they provide. In the “old days”, comics were unique in that they could show readers things that they couldn’t see anywhere else. Today, though, they are no longer unique: the same amazing experiences can be shown in a better, more realistic way in movies, television, and video games.

    In terms of comic collecting, there will always be demand for Action #1, X-Men #94, Batman Adventures #12, etc, but to think that possible investors in the future will give a crap about the first appearance of some minor characters who also happened to appear in a movie or about that “rare” variant cover is delusional.

    Enjoy them while you can but if some changes aren’t made to the medium in the next 10 years or so, they will no longer be profitable to produce because the audience will be too low to support them.

  4. I don’t even know what to say looking at these charts.

    I guess I feel good I joined the Comix Experience GN of the Month Club? That’s all I can say.

  5. Not aging out or anything like that, I just can’t afford them. Plus marvel has driven me away with the storylines that have made the heroes the villains and I’ve lost track of the DC reboots. The stories don’t matter anymore, not at full price when I can just wait a year or less and pick them up out of the discount boxes (when I can afford that anyway). Special event after special event and crossovers may have gotten them some sales but when you know the status quo is going to be super short lived there’s no point in keeping up anymore.

  6. What’s the picture look like for graphic novels?
    I see that Astro City is transitioning from comicbooks to original graphic novels.
    Of course, most of the bestseller lists were populated and dominated by OGNs.
    (I keep hoping DC will figure out their Earth One series, and figure out how to produce a volume a year.)

  7. As admittedly rotten as December was, retailers ordered 5% more comic books overall than they did in the December before the New 52 launch. It’s the distribution that’s changed. It takes more offerings to get there, as with most fragmented entertainment media audiences.

    I would tend to put the modern subscribers-and-one-for-the-shelf grouping in the tens, rather than twenties.

  8. Not to mention that in terms of selling old comics, there will be a glut at some point as these older fans with legacy collections of classic comics will die off and their wives will be selling them off fast to grab any money. So at that point, stores won’t be buying older books for much money as they are hard to sell anyway. I just sold two short boxes to a dealer and got around $700 for what I thought was good stuff but again, he has to find someone who wants to buy them now. I’ve been selling comics on ebay since February of last year and only certain things move. Most collections are bulked together and blown out (say like a run of Amazing Spider-man #150-#300) The stuff that seems to move best and for more money are books that came shrinkwrapped and were just never opened. I’ve not been in a comic store in… 5 years now. Nothing I’ve seen appeals to me so I’ll stay with my older books, which I’m sure the publishers hate to hear.

  9. “What’s the picture look like for graphic novels?”

    I’ve heard that graphic novels and trades had a good year in 2017, even as periodical sales were cratering. Heidi M. would have data on that.

    Comics will survive in some form, but the era of the pamphlet may be nearing an end. People can debate the quality of current stories and art, but they simply cost more than most people think is reasonable for a thin magazine. Ten minutes of reading is not worth $4 and up.

  10. Graphic novel sales were off slightly less in the Direct Market than comics were, but still off high single digits. Not many hit titles. Adult and young adult graphic novels in the book channel reported to have been off as well but not by as much; same reason. But kids’ graphic novels were reported to have been up last year.

    Our report with ICV2 will be along later in the year; Brian Hibbs’ report is usually in February.

  11. My impression is that people looking for a graphic novel go to a bookstore (or shop online), rather than going to a comic shop.

    People who go to comic shops are usually looking for periodicals, mainly (though not entirely) Marvel and DC comics. The Direct Market has catered heavily to superhero fans and collectors since its beginnings in the ’70s.

  12. Here’s an idea for Marvel: get top tier talent on big books and reduce the number of spin off titles. One Spidey book, one Avengers book, one or two X books at most. They need to go back to basics.

    Marvel (and retailers, evidently) need something big. Something like Grant Morrison and Greg Capullo on Avengers. Brian K. Vaughan on X-Men. They’re running on fumes right now.

  13. Marvel and DC need to follow the lead of Alterna Comics. They should start printing their floppies on newsprint and charging $1.99 for them. They could continue to print their collections on 50-pound paper.

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