The “Shutdown Split” Era: Comichron adds comics sales projections for April through July 2020

New comics sales charts are back on Comichron, after a fashion. They’re not Diamond Comic Distributors‘ charts, but they do report on retailer purchases from Diamond — as well as of retail purchases from DC‘s new distribution channel, which includes Lunar Distribution and UCS Comic Distributors.

The new charts are also old at the same time, in that they go back to April 2020, covering the period of Diamond’s shutdown. They then progress through May and June to July 2020, the month after the DC/Diamond divorce finalized — bringing us fully to the new status quo.

Let’s get into the why first, then the what, and then the “for how long are we doing this” questions.

The shutdown and the charts

Returnability, deep discounts, and widely varying release volume dealt a triple whammy to chart-publishing-as-usual.

I had noted back in March that the pandemic would likely complicate the monthly Direct Market charts in several ways — at least as it related to how those charts had been produced beforehand. Publishers responded to the shutdowns by making many comics returnable; deep discounts were also offered. And the volume of new issues released declined precipitously, which I explored here after it happened. I assumed early on that all three of those elements would pose challenges for Diamond; between them, I expect they’ve served to delay the normal resumption of reporting.

First, Diamond’s charts are designed to report sales on nonreturnable comics. They report comics shipped, and shipped comics are sold comics. When DC and other publishers began turning to limited returnability as a promotional tactic some years back, Diamond accommodated for that by applying a 10% reduction off the top of every such title’s sales to reflect the fact that sales might differ from what was reported. The end-of-year charts backed those reductions out, showing just what retailers kept, after returns.

One problem with doing that is that in more normal times, the 10% adjustment tends to work, reflecting about the level of expected returns. But when it’s not business as usual, that percentage might not be the appropriate one to apply. Another issue is the sheer number of returnable books. DC gave us the most “asterisks” ever seen in the charts with its Rebirth launch in 2016 by having most of its line returnable for months. That obscured the true picture at the time, possibly making 2016 look a little better than it was — and making 2017’s lackluster year look even worse by comparison than it actually was. And returnable books likely pose logistical demands behind the scenes in chart-making, in that a number factors would probably have to be backed in and out individually. That’s a big ask given the other priorities in today’s world.

So the regular charts would be harder to do and would be less reflective of actual events — but on the latter score, there’s yet more to contend with. Diamond’s charting is based on what retailers paid the distributor; its dollar rankings and dollar market shares come from that. This creates a not-inconsequential gap when we try to use dollar-denominated data to speak of what publishers sold; Publishers X and Y might sell the same number of comics at the same cover price, but X selling at an average of 55% off will look smaller in the market shares than Y selling at 50% off, because Y took in more money.

In general, we just take that disjoint as a given at the publisher level; at the item level, we use the split between unit and dollar sales rankings to tell whether a comic book is deep-discounted or not. But when you get to deep discounts of the kind that Marvel offered at the start of the pandemic, we’re pumping up the noise on the charts to a high volume. Market shares reported out from this spring might not be comparable with past ones at all.

Finally, we have the volume of releases, which has changed dramatically during the pandemic. The number of comics released went nearly to zero in April, and wouldn’t have been much higher in May without DC’s distribution move; by July, Marvel is still only about at half its regular new comics volume. And in the meantime, once Diamond did start back, its graphic novel release volume exploded, a result of the fact that new titles were still moving through the book channel while Diamond was shut down. That bottleneck produced a June and July where the number of new graphic novels was far larger than the number of new comics. It’s still larger than the number of comics, variants excluded, in August.

That, too, would cause major moves on the chart, with graphic-novel heavy publishers like Random House, St. Martin’s, Viz, and Yen Press vaulting ahead whether DC was in the mix or not. And while that different look would not result from a technical distortion, as in the previous cases, the charts would still be less about how well specific comics lines were doing, and more about what the pandemic had made them do — at least for a while.

Distributor sales charts, remember, are not a scoreboard; they exist to help tell retailers how much material is on the market, so they can set their ordering levels and aftermarket prices properly. Sales-to-consumer charts, valuable in their own right, don’t address those matters in the same way; distributor charts function as a commodity report saying how many copies exist in the wild, and copies on shelves yet unsold are a part of that equation. Data reported by a Billboard or a BoxOfficeMojo speak of the audiences for music and movies just fine, but we’re the entertainment format that’s also a physical collectible; we need the circulation reports that exist in numismatics and sportscards just as much.

We fully expect Diamond to resume its monthly chart reporting when the time is right.

Diamond restarted its weekly reorder charts after a break as soon as they became relevant and useful again; we fully expect Diamond to resume its monthly chart reporting when the time is right. The distributor, and its publishers, understand the value retailers place on the data, and the uses they make of it — and have made of it, for more than 30 years. But the reasons mentioned above, it’s certain, would have made reporting during the spring a mess. Some, like returnability, will still be present at some level for a while; when the charts return, we expect it’ll be a sign that the noise-making impact of these factors is down to a tenable level.

All of that is in the mix before we even get to UCS and Lunar, which would have forced changes to our practices no matter what.

The DC Split and the charts

To recap, in April 2020, during the pause in new comics distribution caused by the Coronavirus outbreak, DC Comics left its 25-year-old exclusive agreement with Diamond and began shipping through Lunar, a sister company to mail-order firm DCBS (Digital Comic Book Service) — and UCS, sister company to retailer Midtown Comics.

Both distributors have understandably been very busy, so it’s not surprising that we’ve seen little sales-to-retailers reporting from them — and nothing on the scale of what Diamond used to do. UCS, as we first covered in May when it happened, deployed a bestsellers section on its side, but it doesn’t give retailers much hard information to work with. It seems to simply be a variation of the bestsellers engine on Midtown’s site — it looks back over a period and reports what’s had the most orders. But we don’t know what that period is, or what the relative sales levels are.

A look at the first chart released by UCS, from May 18 just after its bestseller section deployed

We do believe that both distributors would be well served to make more detailed reporting available, as it serves them in the same way that Diamond’s reporting has long served it: it works to sell more of their comics, by publicizing titles that are doing better nationally than retailers might be observing in their own stores — and by highlighting those items where knowing scarcity might provide aftermarket opportunities. It’s also in the best interests of DC, as Marvel found in 1995-96 when for a long time retailers knew very little about what it had on the market. Marvel opted back into the reporting system, working with me to begin a set of fused charts that began in September 1996.

This time around, we didn’t wait nearly as long to get a mechanism ready to estimate DC’s sales to retailers within a unified marketplace; the waiting, rather, was to get to the new status quo period: the first month where DC was strictly at UCS and Lunar and not at Diamond. That was July. Since Diamond hadn’t gotten charts out for the intervening period, we applied the same procedure to estimate its sales, as well.

The process involves a subset of retail orders of all comics. It’s a sizable portion of what’s out there, but we won’t attempt to put a percentage on it given that the universe of stores and the universe of fully open and operating stores are different things at every month since the shutdowns started. Perhaps more importantly, we haven’t and don’t plan to alter the makeup of the subset from month to month, which was a problem with the sales-to-consumer charts we did at Comics Retailer magazine. The idea is to get something that would generate rankings that looked something like reality, with a bit of a nod toward relative sales levels.

To that end, we have, ironically, turned to the tool that Diamond and Capital City Distribution before it have used for years: the order index title. Sales levels are expressed as a multiple of a particular issue each month, usually something that doesn’t change very often. Diamond and Capital used Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men before the 1995 Heroes World split, when Diamond turned to Batman for the next 25 years.

Here, two order index titles are needed — one for Diamond, and one for DC’s distributors (whose sales are being expressed as a group). After a long look, Avengers and Justice League were selected; even though they’re not the bestsellers on the chart usually, that’s not what you want for this purpose. Batman‘s problem was it was always prone to some fairly wild moves — this summer in particular! Better, they tend to be the closest equivalents, title-wise and saleswise; Avengers is Marvel’s Justice League and vice-versa in a way that can’t really be said for other pairs of titles. Justice League also has offered an issue with no cardstock variant from May through July, which has also been helpful.

We looked exclusively at comics — and only at new comics, to boot; all variants were merged. The data isn’t as helpful when it comes to providing answers about small quantities, which rules out it being something we’d want to use for second-and-later month reprints. For that matter, we presently only provide rankings for items selling at less than 5% of the Order Index titles’ sales levels.

As you may have inferred, we’re not addressing graphic novels at all, except to provide a flavor of what Diamond and UCS have said each month. Graphic novel sales to the Direct Market were already split between Diamond and other distributors; we don’t feel the retail order subset is going to be that helpful for that category. Comic books are Comichron’s primary focus, and that applies here.

So we now have three pages for each month in Comichron’s architecture, beginning in April. There’s a DC page, a Diamond page, and a fused page — the latter of which will continue the URL nomenclature Diamond had to itself for the last 24 years. And Diamond returns to having its own dedicated pages, which is how it has always appeared on the site in the years before September 1996.

A tour of what we see in these months:

April 2020: “At least it’s something”

After Diamond shut down in March, DC made its deal with UCS and Lunar and began shipping a very limited slate of comics on April 28: just three comics! Daphne Byrne #4 had a variant and was, according to our retail order subset, the top ordered comic among them — but it definitely wasn’t much of a race.

There were also two reprints in the mix: following our practice, we’re not ranking them, but having five issues to depict fills out our graphic!

Even though Diamond didn’t have anything out yet — it would play catch-up on UCS and Lunar’s issues later — to keep things parallel through the site’s structure, we’ve created a page for Diamond, as well as an Overall page.

April 2020 DC Comics Sales to Comics Shops

April 2020 Diamond Comics Sales to Comics Shops

April 2020 OVERALL Comics Sales to Comics Shops

There’s obviously not a lot to say about a chart this size; Daphne Byrne was only the 132nd place title in March. The more important thing historically is the issues — along with DC’s Walmart issues, of which that Batman Giant was a Direct Market edition — saved the U.S. comics market from having its first month with no new comics since the 1930s. And it also marked DC’s move of its New Comic Book Day to Tuesday.

May 2020: Diamond restarts, slowly

Diamond’s restart on May 20 begins a phase where two charts are relevant: DC’s sales, and Diamond’s sales — though, really, you can get away just with the Diamond one. That’s because in this interim two- or three-track era we did not seek to distinguish between DC copies ordered from Diamond and those ordered from DC’s new partners; the important thing was getting a look at DC overall. So while you’ll see order index numbers for DC comics in our May and June Diamond charts, they’re reflective of DC orders from everyone. We don’t get a true split until July.

DC, alone, saw DCeased Unkillables #3 in the top slot in our retail order subset…

…whereas at Diamond, the tiny number of books that Marvel had out were very good choices, as four of them made the Top 5 overall.

Here’s the pages for May — though, again, Diamond’s chart looks like the Overall as it still carried DC:

May 2020 DC Comics Sales to Comics Shops

May 2020 Diamond Comics Sales to Comics Shops

May 2020 OVERALL Comics Sales to Comics Shops

June 2020: DC rolls ahead

In June, DC announced it would be leaving Diamond altogether by the end of the month — and declared its last week would be a skip week, in order for retailers to have time to start up accounts with UCS and Lunar. In fact, because of the calendar, what that did was it kept DC from having a fifth week in July, as that month had three Wednesdays.

DC gets Dark Nights Death Metal underway, and its delayed 80th anniversary issues came out:

Meanwhile, even though Marvel had more issues out in June than in May, it wasn’t that many more, and it didn’t have the heavy hitters. So the DC Top Five does appear to be the Top Five overall.

Here’s the pages for June — and, again, Diamond’s chart looks like the Overall as it still carried DC. The main differences are in what shipped when.

June 2020 DC Comics Sales to Comics Shops

June 2020 Diamond Comics Sales to Comics Shops

June 2020 OVERALL Comics Sales to Comics Shops

July 2020: Three charts, one market

July’s split-distributor era started with a peculiar thing right off the bat: since July 1 was a Wednesday and DC skipped the last week of June anyway, it was effectively a five week month for Diamond and a four-week month for DC. Not that it impacted DC much, with “Joker War” beginning. Batman #95 was the leader when all cardstock were combined; from now on, our charts are defaulting to the fused numbers for such issues.

Over at Diamond, the month started with a big surprise, as Robert Kirkman and Image released Negan Lives #1, offering free copies matching retailers’ orders of Walking Dead #193. (It’s the third consecutive July surprise from Kirkman.) Copies were available for sale as well. Strictly by units, we project it would have led Diamond’s orders in July, edging past X-Men #10, the likely paid market leader:

Once the charts are merged, we find DC’s Top Three obtained industrywide, but Image and Marvel made it into the overall Top Five:

Some good news for Marvel was that it was up to about half its normal new release volume in July; while our market shares calculations only apply to just the new comics ordered within our retail order subset, it appears that Marvel and DC were nearly at parity.

Here’s the pages for July — and, from here, the pages will all be different, with information not found on the others:

July 2020 DC Comics Sales to Comics Shops

July 2020 Diamond Comics Sales to Comics Shops

July 2020 OVERALL Comics Sales to Comics Shops

A note that what we can’t do in all of this is project exact unit sales figures, or the size of the industry overall — because, as described above, we can’t know from month to month what portion of the universe the retail subset is. There’s also just more variables involved, to the extent that even knowing the sales of a single issue (like Jim Lee‘s Hollywood Reporter statement that Batman: Three Jokers #1 topped 300,000 copies) or group of issues might not be helpful . In the past, Diamond reported a number for each book — how many copies left its warehouses in the month — but even then, that differed from the numbers publishers saw, which included everything ordered from them and may have included UK copies in the bargain.

On the other hand, we have an enhancement in all this: even though the projections speak only to new comics, we’ve added a statistic to the box at left on every page detailing how many variants shipped, above and beyond whatever the “main cover” was. It may be no surprise that their numbers rebounded pretty fast!

Above all, it’s important to know — and our pages make clear — that this content is generated by Comichron, but using information from the distributors’ customers and making full use of the distributors shipping information. That means that, whatever else, our charts of this type will provide a listing of everything that came out in the month from each distributor. Our starting intention wasn’t to provide an “everything that shipped” list, but that’s what happened.

What’s next

Clearly, the last few months — and the next few — have been a work in progress for the comics industry, and that goes as well for Comichron. We’ve taken the pandemic months to dig more deeply into the sales of the 1960s, but also to make some changes to the website. The blog has been moved fully onto the site, now, in a WordPress interface; more enhancements are coming.

As for the sales projections, our plan for the retail order subset remains: when Diamond resumes, we’ll use the retail subset to project where DC’s titles would fall within it. Should Lunar or UCS provide reports similar to what Diamond was doing, we’ll merge the other direction. And if everyone gets on the same page figuratively, it’ll all be on the same Comichron page literally.

Further, should Diamond provide more information about the past four months at some point — now, or at the end of the year — we’ll backfill appropriately. Content on all Comichron pages has always been subject to change as more information becomes available.

Finally: the fact that we’re using retail orders and not shipments makes possible a change in when the charts come out each month. It was the case in the preorder chart era that the distributor charts appeared in the same month the comics were released, but they often captured comics that were delayed or didn’t come out at all. But we’re listing only what came out, and now that we know for sure what comics shipped in August, we’re already doing the math on that month. Stay tuned!

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