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Tilting at Windmills #255: The long and diminishing tail of graphic novel series

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By Brian Hibbs

Here’s my preface on this column, so you understand my point-of-view: I am bullish on graphic novels. They’ve been the leading category in my main store long before it was fashionable or trendy to be so, and the majority of our display and organization is around the book format comic. They represent 56% of the sales of our primary store (while new periodicals represent 39%), and I consider myself a bookstore (albeit a purely comics-focused one)

But one of the things that people in publishing know, but that the general public probably doesn’t really understand is just how terrible the overwhelming majority of backlist actually sells in any given month. In point of fact, of the more than twenty-two thousand graphic novels that I can see on the annual BookScan report that is leaked to me, only about twenty-eight hundred of them sold more than triple digits in 2016. That is to say: roughly 87% of graphic novels sold 999 or fewer copies, nationwide, through all sources that report to BookScan (which includes every chain of significance, the largest independent book stores, and Amazon – BookScan likes to claim 85%+ of sales are reported to them, though there is plenty of evidence to dispute that in universal)

Still, ponder that for a bit – nine hundred copies sold of a book in a year means that just seventy-five copies sell in the average week.

Nationwide.

Including Amazon.

I have more people than that browsing my new comics rack on new comics day in just a single one of my stores!

And more than half of the books on BookScan – 55% of them – only sell two digits or less.

The math of books is all about the “turn” – copies that you sell regularly and steadily over time. I currently sell something like six copies of Watchmen each and every month, about seventy-five a year, and I’ve done that for a really long time – since July 2007 and the installation of our Point-of-Sale system, we’ve sold five hundred and twenty-six copies; and I’m certain in the nineteen years before POS we sold close to a thousand copies. That’s significant and an excellent result for a book. Watchmen is currently our #23 best-selling book for the year in 2016, but we don’t stock the book in stacks of twenties. In fact, our “par” for stock is eight copies, and that’s entirely down to our wanting to maintain a face-out stack at all times – I’m pretty certain I could drop that down to four or five copies, and we’d still sell the same steady drip-drip-drip of copies each week with absolutely no interruption.

There’s very little that we need to keep more than a half-dozen copies in stock at a time – in fact, for 90% of what we carry, having just a single copy is sufficient.

The notion of not having more inventory on hand than you’d be able to completely replace before the next customer wants to buy one, however long the restocking process takes, is called “Just In Time” ordering, and it is, I believe, the way that most books are ordered by most stores. I certainly could order sixty copies of Watchmen and be pretty confident that that would be an excellent investment that would fully be recouped within a year – but why take the cash-flow hit and stock so many copies when I can have the publisher or distributor hold on to the inventory, and thus the expense and “risk” to do so?

One way I like to think about it is that I took investment cost of my “par” (about $80), and turned it into over $10k in sales over about a decade’s time.

Ah, if only every book was Watchmen!

But much to my chagrin, they very much are not.

Most books don’t sell six copies a month in a single store. Most books don’t sell six copies a year. Really and truly, most books don’t sell more than a single copy in a single store in a typical year! For just a quick illustration, in all of 2016 we’ve sold exactly one copy of Before Watchmen: Ozymandius. We sold two copies in 2015. And one copy in 2014 (the year the collection was first released)

“Well, sure, Brian,” you’re likely muttering, “but the entire ‘Before Watchmen’ project was a soulless and cynical corporate cash grab that didn’t yield great art, what else do you expect?”. And I’ll agree with that conclusion, but I can also show you Jeff Smith’s mighty “Bone”, a comic that I think we all can agree is one of the best comics every published, with a wide-ranging appeal. And the first volume of that series, “Out of Boneville”? Yeah, we’ve sold exactly the same number of copies of that so far in 2016 as we sold of Watchmen.

But if we look at the later volumes? Hm, well, volume eight of “Bone”, “Treasure Hunters”? That one we only sold a single copy of so far in 2016. I sold three copies in 2015. One copy in 2014. Oooh, we sold four in 2013…. But, oh, only one in 2012. You can’t really argue “quality” on “Bone”, but the later volumes trickle out as slowly as anything else.

Every store is going to have a difference expectation and tolerance for what they’re going to keep in stock, and for how long – for Comix Experience we’re typically “giving the store a haircut” about once a year, and when I run reports on book-format comics, I set my cut-off for “has a copy sold in the last eighteen months?”, a pretty generous standard, I think. (this is one of those places there just aren’t any national guidelines, so it’s kind of hard to tell how we stand in relationship to my peers) And even then? Probably 3-5% of the “wish it to the cornfield” list gets an intervention from myself or another staff member of “No, this is an objectively good comic, let’s not cut it!” (Booksellers tend to be book lovers, even when it is irrational!)

And the number of new potential incoming books is a growing and accelerating beast all of the time – if booksellers don’t keep a solid control of inventory, it really runs a profound risk of completely over-whelming your ability to stock and manage it profitably.

Here’s a for example: on the October 2016 order form that we just finished, Marvel alone was offering thirty-eight different GNs and TPs. DC offered twenty-six. How many of them is my book-forward main store ordering for the shelf? Just sixteen from Marvel (42%) and fifteen from DC (58%) – and I really am strongly motived to carry any comics related book that will turn and build an audience and maybe become a Watchmen of its own some day. But most of them won’t – and, really, even of those thirty-one books we’re going to try to sell, it’s likely that half or more of them will never sell or only turn one or maybe three times before needing to be permanently removed from inventory.

Why do I think that? Well, I went back five years to the week of 10/17/2011, and looked up the thirty-one new books that we received rack stock of that week. Of those, just seven of them are still being stocked today, and six more went out-of-print or otherwise we’d (probably?) still be stocking them. Eleven of them either sold none or one copy before being “biffed” (where we remove them from inventory, and mark them down to get rid of them) The other seven series turned a few times, but eventually had their reorder point (the number at which the POS automatically reorders the book) set to zero and we let the book sell naturally off the shelf (in some cases 2+ years later) but not be replaced.

How can this work to only have seven of the thirty-one titles from that week still be stocked five years later? Well, because two of them went on to sell more than eighty copies each over the next five years. That’s not Watchmen levels, but it’s more than enough to make up for the eleven books that we took a loss on.

Still, the typical nature of most books is to turn slowly, and the enormous growth of the category makes the problem even greater – the more material out there to purchase, the harder for any individual piece to stand out and succeed.

This is also a problem at the wholesale level – in fact, that’s what inspired me to write this particular column in the first place: wholesale availability of product.

Roughly 20% of backstock I try to order any given week isn’t available to be ordered.

This isn’t limited to the comics market – this is just as true when I try to order weekly from book wholesalers like Baker & Taylor, my fill rate hovers around 80%.

Some of this is from books being out-of-print, but no one at the publisher level letting the distributors know that a book isn’t available any longer, and some of it is from books being “in transit”, and, sure, some of it is distribution error – but my orders only fill at about 80% each week, regardless of source, and that costs me money.

Over the years I’ve learned that placing “back orders” is more likely to blow up in my face than work the way it should – whether that’s from orders getting stuck at one source for a book while another source has it, or erring the other direction and finding backorders getting duplicated with five times what you can use arriving at once, I personally subscribe to a theory of only ordering what’s in stock. It keeps things clean and simple, which is good when you’re dealing with several thousand SKUs.

80% fill rates cost me in dollars, and they also cost me in time as I have to track what will or will not fill, and keep track of individual books for 6-8 weeks at a time before giving up on it and marking it as “stop ordering”.

I love books, and I love selling books, and books can be a healthy and profitable business, but the cold reality is that most of the time they sell very small quantities, and are nothing like a universal panacea to the industry’s ills. When given a choice between a serialization and the collection, most comics will sell significantly better as a periodical comic – even over time. You should always argue for the comics industry you desire, but those arguments should always be centered around the actual truth of how things are.

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Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing. You may also find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here, a list of columns from the CBR years here (New link as of 9/2016!), and also the archives here at the Beat. Brian is


 

 

24 COMMENTS

  1. Harlan Ellison, when he was a commentator for the Sci-Fi Channel’s FTL broadcasts, noted that books in O’Hare International Airport had FOUR HOURS to sell in the airport’s gift shops. That was the time it took the stockman to make a complete circuit of the airport’s stores. If it didn’t sell, it got replaced by something else.

    In bookstore retail, the period is THREE MONTHS. (Why? Because of the four seasons of the calendar. Note that new titles are scheduled for every week of that quarter, not just at the beginning of the month.)
    There are finite space and finite budgets. You anticipate sales. You monitor sales. Three months later, you can return unsold product for credit, and make space for the next wave of new titles. Sometimes, you keep a copy on the shelf because sales indicate it will sell.

    A year later, the paperback edition is released, and it starts all over again, although paperbacks, given the lower price point, generally have a longer sales period.

    It is rare for a hardcover title to sell consistently for a year, and remain on the shelves until the paperback arrives.
    (Children’s books are the exception. Picture books don’t work well as paperbacks, and there are classics which people are inclined to purchase as hardcovers, as collectibles, gifts, or heirlooms.)

  2. And, of course, there’s the additional element that a great many if not the overwhelming majority of “graphic novels” are not original work but collected editions of serialized comics. So take everything Hibbs says and consider the impact of a higher price point and the absence of any audience built by the serialized original.

    Mike

  3. “Still, ponder that for a bit – nine hundred copies sold of a book in a year means that just seventy-five copies sell in the average week.”

    That’s meant to be month, yeah?

  4. “Still, ponder that for a bit – nine hundred copies sold of a book in a year means that just seventy-five copies sell in the average week.”

    Match check, you mean “average month”, or more likely seventeen in an average week.

    And I see you already caught the pull quote thing. That’s not how pull quotes work…

    The dropoff on sales of a series always amazes me. In addition to BONE, look at any list of sales on the SANDMAN series. That first book outsells the objectively much better later books by a huge margin.

  5. People who already own Watchmen won’t be buying it again. But they will buy stuff that they can’t possibly own already…. new stories. Pretty simple. Also the customers who buy monthly periodicals already own all of the individual issues reprinted in trades so again, no reason for them to buy the story twice.

  6. Paul, you would be FLABBERGASTED by the number of people who “double-dip” (or triple- or quadruple-dip!)

    Very very clearly the people who buy WATCHMEN are not especially interested in new stories there!

    -B

  7. I wish I could remember who this quote is from, but one of my fellow retailers once said something like “most trade paperbacks are actually bought by the staff of that individual store” — and while that’s not true when it comes to WATCHMEN, it might actually be true for the average TP.

    -B

  8. @BobH

    “The dropoff on sales of a series always amazes me. In addition to BONE, look at any list of sales on the SANDMAN series. That first book outsells the objectively much better later books by a huge margin.”

    One thing missing from the analysis of TPB series attrition rates is that the release of a new volume significantly boosts the sales of the first volume in the series. In a sense each following volume becomes a sales tool for the series as a whole, not just itself.

  9. This is why I always laugh when people complain about the DM with “comics used to sell millions of copies, but now the average title barely breaks 30K!”

    Do people have any idea how much traditional print publishers — even highly commercial ones — would kill to have their average title sell 30,000 copies in its first month on the racks? Point of fact is that printed literature sells at very low margins with the occasional breakout best-seller carrying the publisher’s many, many loss leaders. There are plenty of issue that comics’ Direct Market has, but its ability to sell to a significant quantity of readers on a consistent basis is a strength overall.

  10. How steep is the BookScan dropoff for Bone compared to your store? Because I suspect that certain first volumes (Bone: Out of Boneville, Saga Vol. 1, perhaps Astro City: Life in the Big City) are being bought by comics fans as gifts to get non-comics fans into comics… and those folks might be more likely to turn around and buy volume 2 from Amazon than from their Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop. (Which isn’t to say that many of them either won’t read that volume they were given, will read it and enjoy it but just as it’s own thing, or simply won’t like it – becomes some folks got no friggin’ taste!) But that’s just a guess.

  11. I’ve bought so many copies of Watchmen I’m about 90% convinced DC prints them with a super fragile spine just for the extra sales. The trades only last me a couple years

  12. Great Article Brian! Out of curiosity, how much does the omnibus version of Bone sell compared to the smaller editions?

  13. BookScan:

    15,034 (v1) OUT FROM BONEVILLE
    9,382 (v2) THE GREAT COW RACE
    7,878 BONE: THE COMPLETE CARTOON EPI
    5,796 (v3) EYES OF THE STORM
    4,906 (v4) THE DRAGONSLAYER
    4,092 (v5) ROCK JAW: MASTER OF THE EASTER
    3,636 (v9) CROWN OF HORNS
    3,441 (v6) OLD MAN’S CAVE
    3,363 (v7) GHOST CIRCLES
    3,175 (v8) TREASURE HUNTERS
    2,079 ROSE
    1,942 TALL TALES

  14. Ah, thanks!

    Okay, it’s a serious decline, almost 80%, between volumes 1 and 8… but that’s still well less than the 95%-ish decline you’ve seen in your Bone numbers this year.

    (And for anyone else looking at those Bone numbers and thinking they should be higher: remember, Bone is published by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic…. which means it has a whole other huge distribution chain not watched by BookScan, those book order sheets that kids get at schools.)

  15. Sorry about the dropped graph — all the text has been restored.

    Re Bokscan #’s — these are low and NOT the entire sales. As I like to say they are *A* metric. So it’s accurate to compare Bookscan numbers to other Bookscan numbers.

  16. Much of what you write here, Brian, can be attributed to three known facts:

    1) There are limits to growth in a finite world.

    2) Comics is a niche market.

    3) Sturgeon’s Law.

    Those are three essential points anyone should know before deciding to be a bookseller focused on comics. And once you know them, if you make the crazy decision to sell comics anyway, you have to account for them.

    The smartest thing you’re doing in response to this reality, at least that you talk about here, is your policy of only ordering books that are in stock from your distributors. As a consumer, I know having a book I want on back order in the direct market results in me getting the book from the dealer who back-ordered it maybe 20% of the time. The other 80 percent of the time I’m on my own and need to get it from another source, the only question is how long does it take me, and/or the dealer, to figure that out.

    It sounds like the distributors need to be strongly lobbied to be more honest and up to date in communicating to their customers (comic shops) what is and isn’t available. And as always, comics retailers should be doing what is in their best interest and being realistic about what Diamond is and isn’t capable of, and what they are and aren’t willing to do in order to service their customers.

  17. It’s amazing how those BONE sales for the Bookscan reporting market resemble the sales trend you’d see for a periodical comic in the direct market. Big sales on #1, big drops for #2 and #3, decreasing drops settling into “standard attrition” and then a slight uptick for the final issue. And lower numbers for the spin-offs outside the main narrative.

  18. Enjoyable and interesting post. Thanks.

    A little off-topic — speaking of collections and all — but will there be a third “Tilting at Windmills” printed edition? I have volumes one and two, would really enjoy a three, four, and however-many.

  19. So, where does Heidi’s perky posts about the burgeoning graphic market for Young Adults, the burgeoning graphic market for women,, and the the burgeoning graphic market for [insert minority here] fit? It seems like there are a few big sellers and the most of the buyers are libraries…

  20. Right now the young adult and all ages category is the fastest growth catagory in our store. Raina Tegemeier is spearheading a drive that blew Batman away on her last two graphic novels.

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