Looking for a Theme: Lessons Learned from April Comics Sales

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on May 22, 2015.

Sales

Trying to discern trends in comics from Diamond’s industry statistics is a bit like peering into a crystal ball. I’ve tackled the subject before here and spent a large portion of the analysis discovering what numbers could even be trusted. Diamond’s numbers only represent physical sales to retailers in North America, leaving out a lot of key data. Assuming sales are an accurate reflection of readership is unfair because there’s no way to tell how many copies are actually sold in stores. But here I am, going once more unto the breach and attempting to discover some insight in the April sales numbers.

One of the important points of comparison when looking at the best selling comics in North America is how they are measured: in dollar or units. With standard price points ranging between $2.99 and $4.99, and extreme outliers like 25¢ and $9.99, there’s no guarantee that the comic with the most issues sold made the most money. Let’s take a look at the top ten best selling comics in April based on both measures.

Top Ten Best Selling Comics in April 2015 (by Units Sold)

Title Units Sold Price
Star Wars #4 203,817 $3.99
Convergence #0* 143,053 $4.99
Convergence #1* 132,747 $4.99
Batman #40 131,128 $4.99
Darth Vader #4 123,394 $3.99
Convergence #2* 111,760 $3.99
Convergence #3* 109,388 $3.99
Kanan: The Last Padawan #1 108,167 $3.99
Convergence #4* 106,131 $3.99
Princess Leia #3 102,434 $3.99

Top Ten Best Selling Comics in April 2015 (by Dollars)

Title Units Sold Price
Deadpool #45 96,897 $9.99
Star Wars #4 203,817 $3.99
Batman #40 131,128 $4.99
Convergence #0* 143,053 $4.99
Convergence #1* 132,747 $4.99
Darth Vader #4 123,394 $3.99
Convergence #2* 111,760 $3.99
Spider-Gwen #3 102,234 $3.99
Kanan: The Last Padawan #1 108,167 $3.99
Convergence #3* 109,388 $3.99

Issues of Convergence on these lists are marked with an asterisk. This is because DC Comics is allowing retailers to return up to 100% of their orders (and including a 10% discount) on the series as long as they order at least as much as they ordered of Batman #31, so Diamond has “slightly reduced numbers”. This means that the numbers shown are less than those ordered, but do not accurately reflect the amount returned. Neither that information nor the formula used by Diamond to reduce the quantities is known, so the final sales to retailers will likely remain a mystery. It’s one more example in a long line of examples as to why a ranking on this list should not be treated as the gospel truth. It’s the best information we have to work with though, so we’ll assume these numbers are close to accurate, unless new information arises.

So what can we observe in these two lists?

Deadpool #45 is an obvious outlier. While it is only ranked #13 by units, it is #1 by dollars. This is because it is cost twice as much as any other comic in the top ten at the price point of $9.99 for 86 pages. That price and content have more in common with a graphic novel than a comic book based on consumption. However, there is a key difference in that, unlike graphic novels, Deadpool #45 is only available to be ordered by comic retailers excluding the bookstore market. This is a very real benefit to local comic stores, encouraging readers to shop with them instead of Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The correlation between price point and pages is reliably coordinated between many of the best-selling comics. Convergence #0 and #1, as well Batman #40, are all priced at $4.99, but also come with 40 pages. Convergence #2, #3, and #4 are only 32 pages, but also reflect a decreased price of $3.99. These six issues along with Deadpool #45 create an a linear correlation between price and page count. That goes right out the window when Marvel Comics’ other titles are included. All of the Star Wars titles (Star Wars, Darth Vader, Kanan: The Last Padawan, and Princess Leia) and Spider-Gwen cost $3.99, and come in at 22 pages, 10 less than their DC Comics counterparts at the same cost.

There’s also a notable drop in sales between Convergence #0, #1,and #2, decreasing by 10,306 units and then 20,987. Convergence#2, #3, and #4 all come very close to the floor established by Batman #31 for returns. They are all less than 5,000 units above the total sales of Batman #31: 107,499. This gives the appearance that retailers are ordering just enough to receive the discount and be allowed to return unsold stock, no more.

So we can we draw any conclusions or ideas from the observations and data listed above? I think so, but only with a much bigger asterisk than the one Diamond places next toConvergence titles. We are drawing from an incomplete and flawed set of data, and focusing on the cursory statistic provided at the very top of all that. Even considering these restrictions, the numbers do suggest some interesting points.

First of all, the return program for Convergence makes the sales numbers, especially those past #0 and #1, very unreliable. Retailers appear to be ordering just enough to receive discounts with no risk to themselves. There are always incentives to account for, but this is an offer so good that it would be foolish for retailers to not order the necessary amount.

I spoke with several retailers about this to see how well Convergence was selling and whether any of the other titles in the top ten offered similar incentives. Spider-Gwen#3 was accompanied with a 10% discount, if ordered at 150% of Amazing Spider-Man. However, this is an offer that multiple retailers I spoke with declined due to a lack of confidence that the new series could outsell one of Marvel’s best-selling series. This may still explain why that issue ranks so closely to Amazing Spider-Man in the month of April. The return and discount offer on Convergence is truly unique and the numbers it is producing does not appear to reflect sales in stores. Jason Dasenbrock, co-owner of the Eisner Award winning Legend Comics and Coffee in Omaha, NE, had this to say:

“Actual sales on Convergence are dismal, I will be returning 55-60% of our order. I slashed the orders for the #2’s of the tie-ins by 50% and we still aren’t selling through most of them.”

The other titles in this list all sold through at a rate of 95-100% at Legend, with Batman #40selling out in only six hours.

Leef Smith, owner of Mission: Comics & Art in San Francisco, CA, said, “Convergence has been weak seller, with the main series doing ‘ok’ and tepid sales for all tie-ins.” However, other big DC Comics like Batman #40 and The Multiversity #2 have both sold very well for him. Smith also commented that Star Wars sale have been “brisk”, comprising 6% of all his sales from Marvel Comics.

Convergence sold better at Larry’s comics in Lowell, MA, with every issue being one of the store’s top ten sellers in April. Larry Doherty, the owner, mentioned that as the series continued fans “reluctantly picked up the main series” and “sell through on the crossover titles has been terrible.” Deadpool #45, Batman #40, Star Wars titles, and The Walking Dead were all top money makers for the store.

Based on these anecdotes, it’s clear that Convergence sales to retailers do not reflect sales to readers. If you throw out the three Convergence titles which just meet the minimum requirement to be returned, then the top ten list as ranked by units sold includes Spider-Gwen #3, Amazing Spider-Man #17, and Deadpool #45 instead.

Both top ten lists are dominated by comics that could be described as events. Convergenceis a literal event and the re-launch of Star Wars at Marvel has been received the same treatment as an event. Batman #40 and Deadpool #45 are both landmark issues, concluding a well-publicized storyline and concluding a well-loved series, respectively. I would only characterize as Spider-Gwen and Amazing Spider-Man as not being event comics, and both of them just barely reach the bottom of the top ten.

The high sales, in both units and dollars, accompanied by higher price points reveals that the price of event comics is likely very inelastic. Without digging too deep into Microeconomics 101, price elasticity refers to how buyers increase or decrease purchasing in response to a change in price. These comics appear to be inelastic because increases in their cover price do not seem to be met with proportional decreases in sales. Basically, we’ll keep buying these event comics no matter how much they cost.

Diamond’s data doesn’t support the kind of economic analysis necessary to come up with some real numbers on this subject, but there’s enough here to support the idea.  People don’t appear to be deterred from buying Star Wars or Convergence #0 despite them costing more than many other comics featuring science fiction and superheroes (the closest comparable items). There is something special about these properties that cannot be substituted for many readers. The amount of content provided doesn’t appear to matter significantly either. Star Wars #4 sold better than any other comic priced $3.99, but only contained about one-third less pages than many other comics that cost the same or less.

Batman #40 sold about 12,000 more issues than Batman #39, and Deadpool #45 sold about 58,000 more issues than Deadpool #44. The attraction to these big finales over the regular ongoing story is clear. This is explained by a variety of reasons in addition to them being events though, like variant covers and the unique collector’s market.

That’s a lot of data and a lot of dissection, but this mix of anecdotes and analysis boils down to two key lessons.

One: Don’t trust the numbers. Publishers like to brag about where they ranked in Diamond’s monthly statistics, but there’s really no reason to brag. Not only do these numbers fail to reflect the entire market (excluding digital sales and international market), but they also fail to incorporate unique strategies like the return policy of Convergence. Asterisks on these numbers are not minor notes, but a mark that they are completely unreliable.

Two: As much as independent publishers have to brag about, they are still far from the giants on mainstream comics market. Even runaway successes like The Walking Dead and Sagaonly rank at 20 and 30, respectively, for units sold, and much lower on dollars considering both are still priced at $2.99. Corporately owned intellectual property and well-marketed events still dominate comics in North America. Devoted fans of franchises like Star Wars and the DC universe are not easily deterred by higher prices or a comparable lack of content, and comprise the greatest buying power in comics today.

The most important takeaway from all of this isn’t what comics consumers are buying, as much as the fact that consumers are buying comics. Sales are up, stores are successful, and more people are discovering comics. That’s a lesson you can discover looking at these numbers or walking into most comic book stores, and it makes the future look a little brighter.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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