First comics industry Statement of Ownership with electronic-copy sales data appears

Since 1960 when the U.S. Postal Service began requiring publications that shipped Second Class (now Periodical Class) to include circulation data in their annual Statements of Ownership, Management, and Circulation, comics researchers have been collecting them; I currently have 3,854 out of a projected 4,100, with the remaining balance mostly in Charlton and Harvey titles from the 1960s. (Learn more about Statements here.)

The decline of comics by postal subscription has narrowed the number of titles including the Statements dramatically, from around 170 in the early 1960s to less than a dozen now. Among comics publishers, only Archie continues to publish them since Marvel stopped several years ago — and those only in a handful of titles.

But there is one other comics-related title we’ve long tracked: Mad, which on schedule published in issue #543 (Feb 2017) its 57th consecutive annual Statement, adding to my complete set for that title. In my rankings of postal data, I’ve always kept Mad apart because it’s only partially comics — and, of course, for many years its numbers blew away anything happening on the spinner racks. Those numbers remain high; its 2016 average paid bimonthly circulation of 127,040 copies would make it #1 in the Direct Market some months. That readership is heavily subscriber-based; each issue in 2016 had 75,466 average subscribers, well over half. It’s easy to see why the title still carries a postal license!

What’s interesting about the 2016 filing, however, is something new to the form itself. The USPS has fiddled with the form every few years, requesting additional information; in the early 1960s only a single sales figure was required, whereas later in the decade print runs were added, as well as (usually inaccurate) information on the most recent issue shipped.

In 2012, a new version of PS Form 3526 appeared (since updated again in 2014) which included electronic sales data for the first time. You can see the section in the image just above; click to enlarge. The change was made in response to newspaper publishers’ lobbying efforts to see that their subscribers who converted to digital would still be counted.

And while it appears Archie and Mad were using the older forms before now, the 2016 Mad form is the new version. Reported digital circulation in the Mad Statement is listed at the very end of the print data. (It appears below, with the relevant section inverted for clarity; again, click to enlarge.) The Mad form lists 412 average electronic copies paid and requested of each issue in 2016, with a much larger 2,470 digital copies of the most recent issue before filing, #541. In the reverse of the print case, one would tend to expect the most recent digital data to be more accurate, not less, since there are no digital copies sitting in newsstands waiting to be returned.

It’s not clear through which channels those electronic copies were distributed — whether it was some of the electronic storefronts or all, or just the publication’s own service. Given that we don’t know, I would strongly recommend against extrapolating. My hunch is the real digital total is probably higher. And while the copies are reported as paid, we don’t really know what they went for. 

The more interesting thing really is the fact of it: had the digital comics revolution occurred just ten years earlier, Marvel would have still been publishing Statements and there were still 40 titles still reporting data; we’d have had a wider sample to draw conclusions from.

Archie’s Statements, once printed like clockwork, have been turning up later and later in the following year, so it’ll be a while to see whether they’ve switched to the new form as well.

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