Graphic novels monopolize publisher slates, retailer budgets in slow November

Publishers always look to November as a time for graphic novels, and that was the case this month in what is almost certainly record fashion: Diamond Comic Distributors shipped 436 new graphic novels in November 2016 — while on the periodical side, the market-leading publishers didn’t increase their output to take advantage of a fifth shipping week.

Those appear to be among the major factors contributing to what was, in overall terms, a disappointing month — especially so since sales were off 4.25% versus a November last year that only had four shipping weeks. (While I’m a guest this weekend at Paradise City Comic Con, it’s an unusual enough result that I took some time to look at it.) In the Direct Market, a better month for graphic novels doesn’t always have to mean overall sales are down, but since only one in three dollars in comics shops comes from GNs, the category has more work to do to offset losses in periodicals.

Before getting further into the possible explanations, here are the aggregate changes. Retailers ordered $49.89 million in new comics and graphic novels in the month, down from $52.1 million last November:

Dollars Units
Comics -10.33% -13.26%
Graphic Novels 19.48% 18.91%
TOTAL COMICS/GN -2.72% -11.35%
Toys 28.48% 53.60%
Comics -12.71% -6.09%
Graphic Novels 21.56% 25.78%
TOTAL COMICS/GN -4.25% -4.15%
Toys -9.53% -12.99%
Comics 1.85% 1.97%
Graphic Novels 1.74% 0.77%
TOTAL COMICS/GN 1.82% 1.87%
Toys -5.60% -8.56%

You can see right away a couple of important things. First, the dollar sales of new comics periodicals are off quite a lot more than the units are — which suggests principally that the month’s most popular offerings were lower-profile lower-priced titles. It also suggests what retailers have reported, that a number of specific Marvel titles have been receiving free overships of significant size. Monday’s retail rankings will point to specific ones.

Diamond sold 8.36 million new comics in November 2016, down from 8.91 million last year — and that difference becomes more stark when you consider the number of weeks involved.

November 2015 October 2016 November 2016
Comics ordered in month 8,906,500 9,642,500 8,364,000
Total value of comics, GNs, magazines ordered in month $52,102,800 $51,289,400 $49,891,800
New Comics Days in month 4 4 5
Comics ordered PER SHIP WEEK in month 2,226,625 2,410,625 1,672,800
Total value of comics, GNs, magazines ordered PER SHIP WEEK in month $13,025,700 $12,822,350 $9,978,360

As noted above, however, it’s the release slates that have a lot to do with the numbers above. While publishers do not increase their periodical slates by 25% to accommodate a fourth week, they have in practice increased new offerings at least somewhat most such months. And by simple chance, late-shipping books from earlier in the year would get an additional week in which to appear. But what we find is that November’s 518 new comics was actually a smaller number than we saw in four-week October!

Graphic Novels
Total shipped
Marvel 88 44 0 132
DC 84 35 0 119
IDW 46 25 0 71
Image 50 9 1 60
Dark Horse 28 26 0 54
Viz 0 45 0 45
Titan 23 18 2 43
Boom 23 8 0 31
Dynamite 25 5 0 30
Archie 15 4 0 19
Other 136 217 30 383
TOTAL 518 436 33 987

Marvel and DC released slightly fewer comics this month versus last — and the 103 average new comics per week overall is pretty low by 2016 standards. Image’s new comics and graphic novel slates were slimmer by a greater margin, offering 11 fewer new comics this November versus last November and — in a departure from the rest of the market — only nine new graphic novels, its smallest roster in at least two years.

Other graphic novel publishers, by contrast, went to town — with 45 new Viz titles in November as compared with October. Titan published two graphic novels in October; in November, the number was 18. And the “other” category ballooned. If this volume increase explains the big leap in graphic novel sales, it well ought to affect comics unit sales, with only so many dollars to go around.

DC has now cycled through most of its returnable windows for its Rebirth launches, and while that could also be a contributing factor to lower aggregate unit sales, it does seem more that the decline was spread more across the market evenly, suggesting most of those effects hit in October’s charts. The market shares:

Marvel 38.08% 39.46%
DC 26.17% 31.30%
Image 8.99% 9.06%
IDW 5.23% 4.59%
3.65% 2.85%
Boom 1.98% 1.66%
Titan 1.61% 1.30%
Viz 1.52% 0.56%
Dynamite 1.40% 1.23%
Archie 1.01% 1.06%
Other 10.38% 6.92%

The impact of DC’s lower average prices this year can be seen in the dollar-to-unit share gap — and that, too, has shaped the year-to-year comparisons.

Finally, the Top 10s. Two regular Batman issues led the comics charts:

Comic Book Price Publisher
1 Batman #10 $2.99 DC
2 Batman #11 $2.99 DC
3 Civil War II #7 $4.99 Marvel
4 All Star Batman #4 $4.99 DC
5 Invincible Iron Man #1 $3.99 Marvel
6 Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows #1 $4.99 Marvel
7 Batman Annual #1 $4.99 DC
8 Venom #1 $3.99 Marvel
9 Walking Dead #160 $2.99 Image
10 IVX #0 $4.99 Marvel

And on the graphic novel charts, we see that while Image didn’t offer many new titles, it took the top slot with Paper Dolls Vol. 2:

Graphic Novel Price Publisher
1 Paper Girls Vol. 2 $12.99 Image
2 Marvel: The Hip-Hop Covers Vol. 1 HC $34.99 Marvel
3 DC Super Hero Girls Vol. 2: Hits And Myths $9.99 DC
4 Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 4: End of Games $19.99 Marvel
5 Unbelievable Gwenpool Vol. 1: Believe It $16.99 Marvel
6 Sandman Overture $19.99 DC
7 DC Universe: Rebirth Deluxe Edition HC $17.99 DC
8 Vision Vol. 2: Little Better Than Beast $17.99 Marvel
9 Moon Knight Volume 1: Lunatic $15.99 Marvel
10 Deadpool V. Gambit: V Is For Vs $16.99 Marvel

There does seem to be a heavier than normal degree of deep discounting in the graphic novels category as publishers sold books to retailers at lower-than-usual prices, but that’s not unusual for this time of year.

Finally with regard to November, under the heading of unusual correlations that probably don’t mean anything, across all United States presidential election years since and including 2000, when the party in the White House wins another term, November’s comics periodical unit sales have gone up, while a switch in party has in every case coincided with a down month. There’s only five cases to look at and it’s likely a spurious correlation, given that the vast majority of shipments represented are based on orders placed before the election result was known — and in 2000, even that wasn’t known for sure in November. But it is an interesting conversational piece.

One more month to go in 2016, and with November’s lackluster performance, it now looks like the year will end slightly better than flat — and perhaps just missing the 100 million copy mark for new comics periodical orders. A finish up around 2% would match 2008, the last year of a strong cycle before a three-year recessionary stretch in comics; publishers and retailers alike certainly hope the resemblance ends there. Time will tell…

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