Even as the Great Recession was raging, average comics cover prices continued to increase until 2010, when DC rolled back most of its line from $3.99 to $2.99. The move was, to paraphrase one insider, one of the most popular yet least financially successful moves the publisher had tried; even with the price drop, comics sales continued to struggle until the DC relaunch in the fall of 2011. In the years since, most of DC’s line had risen back to $3.99 — when for “Rebirth” DC determined to have a price drop coincide with its relaunch event, with returnability on the first few issues thrown in to boot. The result continues to resonate in the Direct Market, as DC placed 39 titles in the Top 50 in September. Click to see the comics sales estimates for September 2016.
Batman #6, the first of the fully nonreturnable issues, led the charts with orders of nearly 139,000 copies. That’s a hard number, not reduced for returns. Batman #5, the previous month, shipped about 158,000 returnable copies, of which 142,000 were reported in the charts; so retailers ordered nonreturnable copies at about 88% of their returnable levels. That suggests both that were pretty sure about selling most of what they ordered, and that they had already honed in their returnable orders close to demand levels.
One consequence of the price drop is that while unit comics sales were up 23% in the third quarter over the same period last year — more comics were sold in the Top 300 than in any quarter since the fourth quarter of 1996! — comics dollar sales were only up 18%. So it’s still open to question how well 2016 will finish out versus last year: we’re up only $11 million, or less than 3%.
A factor in that will be how well trade paperbacks perform into the holiday season, and there again we’ve seen another impact of Rebirth: graphic novels were off 9% in the third quarter, likely as retailers directed more dollars towards comic books. Walking Dead Vol. 26 led the September charts with nearly 21,000 copies ordered.
This marks the beginning of the 21st year I’ve been tracking monthly comics sales — read more about that here — and as such, we can now do 20-year comparisons with what was sold in September 1996. That month was the first month of Marvel’s “Heroes Reborn” mini-reboot, and we can see a number of things right away.
Sales volumes on the major titles were much higher in 1996: Led by Jim Lee’s Fantastic Four #1, September 1996 had six titles over 200,000 copies and 23 over 100,000; September 2016 has none over 200k, and only four in six figures. But the titles from the smaller publishers weren’t as strong back then: by the time you reach the 300th place title, September 1996 is at parity with September 2016 (4,223 copies versus 4,239 copies). And September 2016 has many more titles below 300th place.
So while this September’s unit sales in the Top 300 were off 32% versus the same month 20 years ago, it’s worth remembering that we probably have more sales not in the Top 300 now — and, of course, we have graphic novels and digital adding sales in a way they didn’t then. Also recall that because we were getting preorder data in 1996, actual sales levels were probably different anyway. They could have been higher due to reorders, yes — but also the charts back then included titles that shipped in later months or never came out. (Dollar sales of the Top 300 are actually up 5% versus September 1996 — inflation in action right there!)
The most important thing to remember about these cross-time comparisons is that the largest factor in determining Direct Market comics levels across time is the number of comics shops. At this time in 1996, we still had between 4,500 and 5,000 comics stores — well over what we have today. But shops then were closing swiftly, and today we’re seeing modest growth.
The changes over time:
TOP 300 COMICS UNIT SALES
September 2016: 7.54 million copies
Versus 1 year ago this month: +21%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +4%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +14%
Versus 15 years ago this month: +29%
NEW! Versus 20 years ago this month: -32%
3rd Quarter 2016: 25.48 million copies, +25% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: 65.52 million copies, +1% vs. 2015, +28% vs. 2011, +8% vs. 2006, +35% vs. 2001
ALL COMICS UNIT SALES
September 2016: 8.15 million copies
September 2016 versus one year ago this month: +15.61%
3rd Quarter 2016: 27.88 million copies, +23.2% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: 72.83 million copies, +1.59% vs. 2015
September 2016: $27.2 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +12%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +11%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +33%
Versus 15 years ago this month: +66%
NEW! Versus 20 years ago this month: +5%
3rd Quarter 2016: $92.36 million, +17% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: $252.1 million, -1% vs. 2015, +42% vs. 2011, +35% vs. 2006, +90% vs. 2001
ALL COMICS DOLLAR SALES
September 2016 versus one year ago this month: +9.23%
3rd Quarter 2016: +18.31% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: +3.32%
September 2016: $7.41 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: -5%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +16%
Versus 10 years ago this month, just the Top 100 vs. the Top 100: +25%
Versus 15 years ago this month, just the Top 25 vs. the Top 25: +30%
3rd Quarter 2016: $21.7 million, -7% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: $66.43 million, +7% vs. 2015
ALL TRADE PAPERBACK SALES
September 2016 versus one year ago this month: -10.94%
3rd Quarter 2016: -8.66%
YEAR TO DATE: +1.15%
September 2016: $34.61 million
Versus 1 year ago this month: +8%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +3%
Versus 10 years ago this month, counting just the Top 100 TPBs: +13%
Versus 15 years ago this month, counting just the Top 25 TPBs: +66%
3rd Quarter 2016: $114.06 million, +12% vs. Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: $322.39 million, unchanged vs. 2015
ALL COMICS AND TRADE PAPERBACK SALES
September 2016 versus one year ago this month: +2.2%
3rd Quarter 2016: +9.40%
YEAR TO DATE: +2.65%
September 2016: approximately $46.33 million (subject to revision)
Versus 1 year ago this month: +2%
Versus 5 years ago this month: +20%
Versus 10 years ago this month: +50%
3rd Quarter 2016: $154.51 million, +9% vs Q3 2015
YEAR TO DATE: $434.67 million, +3% vs. 2015
New comic books released: 458
New graphic novels released: 301
New magazines released: 16
All new releases: 775
The average comic book in the Top 300 cost $3.87;
the average comic book
retailers ordered cost $3.61. The median and most common price for
comics offered was $3.99. Click to see comics prices across time.
Comichron founder John Jackson Miller has tracked the comics industry for more than 25 years, including a decade editing the industry’s retail trade magazine; he is the author of several guides to comics, as well as more than a hundred comic books for various franchises.
He is the author of novels including Star Wars: Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Dawn, Star Trek: Discovery – The Enterprise War, and his latest release, Star Trek: Discovery – Die Standing. Read more about them at his fiction site.
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