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UPDATE: The continuing obsession with sales figures

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The Great Bookscan debate continues. Rich Johnston has helpfully leaked the actual chart so everyone can play along at home. ADD, Brian Hibbs and Dick Hyacinth all weigh in with second third or 99th rounds — to be honest we’re beginning to get flustered and lose count.

We would agree that the argument over the definition of terms like mainstream, indie and art is getting a little silly, and everyone’s pre-existing conditions are making themselves heard loud and clear, as when ADD turns this

Also worth considering is how perception of Bone has changed over time. When it first debuted, it was so different, so much better than the vast majority of comics, that I think one might have been justified in lumping it in with Eightball or Yummy Fur (I know I did, back in my late teen years). Today, with the massive success of the Scholastic printings and the sheer number of similar works (many inspired by Jeff Smith), it’s harder to classify it that way.


into this

Dick Hyacinth looks at the Bookscan kerfuffle, and is sharp enough to understand exactly why Bone is an art comic, which some people you would think would know better weren’t able to quite wrap their brain around.


It’s getting so we’re almost ready to turn it all over to the brave few like John Mayo and John Jackson Miller who just crunch numbers on a higher, Euclidian plane.

Just to beat out own hobby horse again, yes, we know that Bookscan figures don’t tell the whole story, and they shouldn’t be used to paint a much-beloved graphic novel as a failure just because it sold “only 5000” copies according to Bookscan. The point is that D&Q and Fantagraphics are publishing very successful books that are selling healthy amounts of copies even though they sell “only 5000” copies on Bookscan. In that regard, this piece from Slate by Daniel Gross from a few years ago is must reading: Why writers never reveal how many books their buddies have sold.:

BookScan, a Nielsen service started in January 2001, tallies retail sales from chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, from Amazon.com, and from stores like Costco (but not Wal-Mart). James King, vice president for sales and service at BookScan, suggests that the database captures about 70 percent of sales for a typical hardcover book. As such, BookScan has emerged as a powerful tool for the editors and agents whose employers pay several thousand dollars a year to subscribe. But in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has becomes a blunt instrument to humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy at the misfortune of other writers.


It’s not just us, folks.

As long as we’ve got the mop out, we’d like to address one more question. Many times commenters wonder why we’re so obsessed with sales figures anyway, because they don’t give a shit about them. To be blunt, we’re obsessed in sales figures because in our 20+ years of working in various areas of the publishing, EVERYONE is obssessed with sales figures!

When I was at the Hollywood Reporter, we constantly fretted over the sales variance between us and Variety. When I worked at Disney Adventures, they once made a big display of FOUR YEARS WORTH of covers with the newsstand sales for every issue so that the ENTIRE STAFF could look at what sold well and see if they could come up with a formula. (The answer, I seem to recall, was Timon from the Lion King.)

At DC, sales figures were shown to us every month, and every so often there would be the sad meeting when we were told sales had reached the point of no return and a book was getting cancelled. And so on at PW and Fox Atomic and the other places that give us money.

As observer/bloggers, we’re being given imperfect, incomplete numbers. But you can bet that the perfect and complete numbers are what are driving most of the trends and decisions of the industry. So, that’s the bottom line. We’d like to think that Alvin Buenaventura and Dan Nadel don’t sit around obsessing over Bookscan, but we’ll also bet that every once in a while they run a P&L and adjust the business plan.

For those of you uninterested in sales figures, that’s fine, and you can just skip over posts on sales figures like you do posts on Hugh Jackman. For ourselves, we’ll keep trying to get more and better information so those who want to can look for the next Timon.

UPDATE: Tom has one of his great “I don’t care about this so I’ll write 1200 words about it” posts. You should read the whole thing, as it’s a fitting wind up to this whole discussion:

I suspect what’s deeply frustrating to many publishers and their advocates is that they now see comic shops through the lens of their recent experiences with bookstores. Despite the lack of saturation in the bookstore market and the fact they’re competing with so much product and it’s tough there and all the many, never-denied problems with book sales, over the last decade they’ve been made to feel much more welcome in that market than they have been in the comics market. Their bookstore distributor probably hasn’t signed massively unfair and restrictive contracts with their other clients that puts them at a structural disadvantage. They’re treated with respect and enthusiasm at BEA compared to the disdain or begrudging acceptance that greets them at comics conventions. Their bookstore distributor doesn’t try to sell them services as much as it seems to work with them as a partner in selling as many books as possible. Their retailing partners at the bookstore level don’t spend hours trying to convince them that they’re doing better or at least as well as another market. There is no framework by which the idea that anyone owes anyone anything is ever floated. No one from Amazon.com has ever to my knowledge publicly ripped into a comic book publisher for allowing a comic shop to take one of their sales. Can you blame many publishers for simply making room for a market that has in the last decade moved so many books, treated them professionally in doing so, has been the avenue for their biggest hits, and whom their records now indicate serves more than 50 percent of their bottom line? I can’t.

19 COMMENTS

  1. Dunno about other stores, but the Scholastic Bone novels are shelved as children’s books at Barnes & Noble. The Art book and the one-volume trade are placed in the general Graphic Novel categories, not Comics Lit.
    If one counts Maus and Persepolis as art books (what a crappy name, art books are exhibition catalogs, retrospectives; these are comics literature or graphica or independent titles) then there is no contest. Superhero serial fiction (ignoring watchmen and heroes) trades rarely break into double digits in my store, one of the largest and best stocked B&Ns in the country.
    And let’s face facts… most Manga could be considered arty/independent: singular creators, working outside the superhero genre, mostly in black and white, smaller representation in comicbook stores. Of course, I consider Walt Kelly’s Pogo collections to be graphic novels, so what do I know?

  2. That’s some nice commentary, Tom! Though, argh, I’m going to have to freshen up the perspective of something I’m working on now.

    On another note, it seems “a dog in the fight” is so last year! Everyone’s using “a horse in the race” now. I think I’m going to start using “a cock in the ring.”

    And, yeah, “graphica” is horrible.

  3. I find the public release of sales figures useful on a lot of levels, but one benefit infrequently mentioned applies directly to the comics-as-collectible crowd: As supply levels have become better known, speculator frenzies like we saw in the black-and-white boom and in the early 1990s may have become less likely — or at least, better informed by reality.

    I stress “may.” I’d like to think that the one customer who famously had his retailer order 5,000 copies of the “adjectiveless” X-Men #1 in 1991 would have been deterred, had he known that there were 7-8 million more copies out there, but maybe nothing would have stopped him. (I doubt he would have put his money into 5,000 DIFFERENT comic books, in any event.) But bubble markets tend to harm even those who don’t participate in them — as many retailers from the last crash can attest — so I have to think that having information out there is a good thing for everyone. Fewer people burnt is fewer people burnt out — and less collateral damage, we would hope…

  4. “When I worked at Disney Adventures, they once made a big display of FOUR YEARS WORTH of covers with the newsstand sales for every issue so that the ENTIRE STAFF could look at what sold well and see if they could come up with a formula.”

    Digressing, this reminds me of the correlations we used to run at Krause on the newsstand numbers. I think we found out the ideal issue of “Scrye” had a polybag with between three and five inserts, a yellow bar across the top with black lettering, game logos in specific places, and a fifth ink in the logo. So that soon described every issue, which only made the next batch of data more confusing still!

    And the Curtis Circulation guys would come out with their “what-cover-sold-well-and-what-didn’t” slideshow quizzes — which seemed to only ever establish that the uglier a magazine covers looked to an editor, the better it probably sold. If the sight of it made people sick from across the store, it was probably a winner!

  5. “At DC, sales figures were shown to us every month, and every so often there would be the sad meeting when we were told sales had reached the point of no return and a book was getting cancelled.”

    As a reader, this is mainly where my interest in sale figures lies. Are my favorite comic books and favorite comic book creators selling enough units to keep producing more great comics? Also as someone who mostly picks up trades, are these good titles doing well enough to be collected in a trade? Or perhaps a fancy hardcover if I think the quality of the comic is especially good. Finally, is the comic popular enough that I will be able to easily find it in a comic book or book store and not have to special order it through them or through Amazon?

  6. >> “When I worked at Disney Adventures, they once made
    >> a big display of FOUR YEARS WORTH of covers with the
    >> newsstand sales for every issue so that the ENTIRE STAFF
    >> could look at what sold well and see if they could come up
    >> with a formula.”
    >
    > Digressing, this reminds me of the correlations we used to run
    > at Krause on the newsstand numbers. I think we found out the
    > ideal issue of “Scrye” had a polybag with between three and five
    > inserts, a yellow bar across the top with black lettering, game
    > logos in specific places, and a fifth ink in the logo.

    Further digressing, I recall an editor of a movie/entertainment magazine telling me they’d gone through a similar exercise and concluded that the larger the movie-star’s head was on the cover, the higher the sell through.

    And, getting back to comics, there’s the story that Julius Schwartz realized that comics with gorillas on the cover were top-sellers…

  7. From Lucien’s Library: Strange Nature Tales #37 “The Monkey Wrench Gang” The cover, by Anderson and Swan, features a variety of simians in leather jackets riding motorcycles through a small midwestern town as townfolk panic and Main Street burns in the background.

  8. Who is this “we” you (plural) keep referring to? Is there more than one person writing this article? Was this article written to speak for more than one person? I think any point this column tries to make is greatly diminished by the mystery of the “we” the reader is presented with. Who are they?

  9. Ali, that doesn’t surprise me — the Curtis folk advised that the average newsstand magazine had less than half a second to attract attention, with only 10%-20% of the cover showing. (Though their testing showed that of magazines actually picked up, almost 50% were eventually bought.)

    To the topic of Nielsen’s Bookscan and its sales charts, an interesting post just up about its sister Soundscan top-seller lists — and how they set it up so that backlist items wouldn’t creep back up into the top-seller lists:

    http://new.music.yahoo.com/blogs/chart_watch/4065/week-ending-feb-24-2008-the-case-of-the-missing-2-album

    As this is a case of them publishing sales rankings in actual practice, we might wonder whether they would bring a similar approach to comics, separating frontlist from backlist. On the Diamond charts, the monthly sales for the Golden Oldies do make the list with everything else, when they earn the spots.

    And Heidi’s comics royalty, so the pronoun fits either way! :-)

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