Weak August sales mirror comics market from 2000

by John Jackson Miller, with T.M. Haley

Another soft month for comics sales overall, August saw the lowest sales yet seen for a top-selling title in the direct market. Brighest Day #7 led the market with first-month orders of around 93,500 copies, just slightly underselling the previous record-holder. (Diamond-era records can be found here.) Trade paperback sales also saw a year-to-year loss; Scott Pilgrim led the pack for the second month in a row in the month of the film’s release. Click to see the comics sales estimates for August.

A number of other elements contributed to the softer market this time out; DC had a dozen fewer comics in the Top 300 this month than in July, and so the balance of large-publisher to smaller-publisher offerings was different. Partially as a result, sales for the 300th-place title dropped by 1,000 copies. Marvel’s new X-Men title, without the multiple covers, saw a second-issue drop of nearly 49%; to place it in historical context, the previous multiple-cover X-Men #1 from 1991 saw an astounding 82% attrition from its first issue, dropping from the all-time industry record 8.19 million copies to 1.47 million copies for #2. (Few speculators back then preferred second issues, unless it was Marvel’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero an undersold collector’s item in its day.)

The aggregate figures:


August 2010: 5.46 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: -19%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -23%
Versus 10 years ago this month: -5%
YEAR TO DATE: 46.3 million copies, -6% vs. 2009, -8% vs. 2005, -1% vs. 2000


August 2010: $19.41 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -17%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -7%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +20%
YEAR TO DATE: $162.7 million, -3% vs. 2009, +12% vs. 2005, +28% vs. 2000


August 2010: $5.3 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -2%
Versus 5 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: -12%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +1%
YEAR TO DATE: $48.45 million, -9% vs. 2009


August 2010: $24.71 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -18%
Versus 5 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: -8%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +15%
YEAR TO DATE: $211.08 million, -4% vs. 2009

OVERALL DIAMOND SALES (including all comics, trades, and magazines)

August 2010: approximately $32 million ($35.5 million including UK)
Versus 1 year ago this month: -11%
Versus 5 years ago this month: -2%
YEAR TO DATE: $270.66 million, -5% vs. 2009, +18% vs. 2005

The average comic book in Diamond’s Top 300 cost $3.54. The average Top 300 comic book that retailers ordered from Diamond cost $3.56. The median comic book price in Diamond’s Top 300 was $3.99, and the most common cover price on Diamond’s list was $3.99.

2010 continues to be a bit rocky, and so, noting an understandable thread of anxiety in the community, I took a closer look at the historical comparatives this time out. I’ve been covering the industry since 1993 — and as of this month, have completed 14 consecutive years of monthly reports, all of which are here on the site. Often, I look at recent trends and numbers and see flashes from the past; things that “feel” like a different year. Usually, those impressions fall apart on looking at the numbers in detail, but something I’ve noted here several times this year is that the unit sales for comic books in 2010 have looked almost exactly like those in 2000. That is to say, Diamond has, for most of the last 12 months back to October 2009, sold pretty close to exactly the number of comics that it had preorders for exactly 10 years earlier.

What’s notable about that is that, while comics unit sales go up and down, what we’ve seen in 2010 has, thus far, been in the 14-year range for periodical sales, if at the bottom of that range. The chart below is a bit of a jangle, but it groups trendlines for Top 300 orders (or preorders, before 2003) for all 14 years. Take a look:

The red line is 2010 — and we can see that comics orders have tended, for most of the last 12 years, to be right in the 5-7 million copy per month track. That continues to be the case. (This graphic clearly isn’t designed for making specific comparisons; the idea is to superimpose all the monthly tracks and show that most exist in a narrow range. The other colors are to help identify the outlier years.)

Now, let’s boil it down to just the last 12 months — and compare them with the same months, 10 years earlier:

As we can see, 2010 squares up almost perfectly with 2000 — at least, where retail orders for the 300 top-selling comics titles are concerned. The regression trendlines are almost identical, as well. Unit sales are a great measure because they’re apples-to-apples, and inflation plays no role, as it does in dollar calculations; here, we’re strictly talking magazines in racks. And that number has correlated pretty well with sales from 2000.

Like 2010, 2000 was a year with a successful super-hero movie release — the first X-Men film. In that year, however, it had little impact on the market partially due to the cash-poor position of retailers at the time — and we might expect retailers were in the same position this year. (More analysis of the movies-to-comics relationship here.) In 2000, by contrast, the reason wasn’t the general economy, but rather the seven-year industry recession that preceded it.

Another similar element: price increases. From 1999 to 2000, Marvel went from benchmarks of $1.99 and $2.50 to $2.50 and $2.99. Other titles increased as well; $2.95 first became the industry’s median price in late 1999.  The 2000 jumps are one of the more drastic previous increases by percentage — eclipsed, of course, by the current $2.99-to-$3.99 move.

There are differences with 2000, too, of course, making the unit sales comparison problematic. 2000 was near the bottom of a long industry recession; 2009-2010 are years coming off a period of relative growth, and there aren’t the kind of structural problems driving down sales that we contended with in the late 1990s. Marvel had many fewer comics coming out each month in 2000. Downloads for comics, authorized and otherwise, were far less readily available. And as noted before, month-to-month comparisons across time have other problems in comics.

But all that said, we do still have about the same number of comic books being pulled from UPS boxes and placed on shelves each month as we saw back then. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, these identical numbers for the comics unit sales category are not a sign of market stagnation overall, because since 2000, the industry has enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sales of trade paperbacks that didn’t exist back then. The market has grown in dollars and units — it’s just those units are trade paperbacks, where 2010 is concerned. And periodicals rebounded nicely in the 2000s, with energy behind projects like Civil War and a stronger general economy. So the narrative is not that sales haven’t increased since 2000; rather, we are not keeping pace with the best years of our run. 

There’s no reason to expect that the past will be prologue — but it’s interesting to look at what happened in the twelve months that followed August 2000, shown below as the purple line:

As you can see, things got worse in late 2000 — despite the fact that the first major hit of the 2000s came out. Ultimate Spider-Man #1 released 10 years ago this month — only placing 15th in its first month, with just over 54,000 copies preordered. Ultimately (no pun intended) it would sell far more, as retailers reordered it again and again, and Marvel released it in multiple formats and venues. (It is the obvious missing issue from our Top Comics of the 2000s list, which is, by necessity, cobbled together from Diamond sales reports. Diamond did not report reorders in its tables in 2000-2002.)

But over the course of the next year, the Ultimates line developed, and by the end of the year, Marvel had a sure hit in Wolverine: The Origin. DC followed with The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Soon, the 1980s toy revival was going, and the recovery was off and running. Unit sales soon passed the lows of 2000 and early 2001.

I heard on CNBC today a video game commentator saying that market was always only ever “one hit away” from a boom time. The comics industry seems basically in the same position today. There is nothing structurally stopping the industry from returning to 2006 levels given the right mix of strong products; the “installed base” is there and operating.

The monthly Flashbacks column will follow soon. Stay tuned!

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