FAQ: Monthly Comic Shop Market
Distributor Sales Charts
What a tool created as an aid for comics shops
tells us about comics circulation history
by John Jackson Miller
If you're visiting Comichron for the first time, odds are you were brought here by a link to the monthly comics shop order data that has been part of this site since the beginning — and which I began generating monthly estimates for back in 1996. Here's some background on them and guidance on what they should and shouldn't be used for:
Q: When did comic-book distributors first start releasing sales charts?
A: Capital City Distribution began releasing rankings in its "Internal Correspondence" newsletter in the early 1980s. Capital was also the first to introduce the "order index number," reporting what the sales of all titles were relative to a single benchmark title, usually one of the best-sellers. Diamond Comic Distributors, which began running rankings in the late 1980s, later adopted the order index procedure, which it continues to use today in its reports.
The first Capital City chart with order index numbers, from October 1984, can be seen at right. Click to see an enlarged version.
Q: Why did distributors begin using the order index numbers?
A: It's important to remember that while the distributor sales charts in the internet age are available to the general public, they were first intended solely for the use of retailers in figuring out what their relative order levels should be. If the average retailer is ordering 50 copies of a title for every 100 copies of Batman and you're only ordering 10 copies for every 100 copies of Batman, you are probably missing out on demand that exists for the title.
Q: Why did distributors mess with order index numbers? Why not print the actual sales figures?
A: Comics distributors are the sales representatives of publishers and are obliged not to give up too much information. Also, in the days when there were multiple distributors, the distributors themselves did not want to reveal their competitive strengths and weaknesses.
Q: How does Comichron derive the actual number of copies sold to retailers?
A: For most of the distributor tables on Comichron, we've employed the same method everyone else has for years: with reports from one or more publishers on what they actually sold to distributors, the entire chart can be unlocked. I began my monthly decoding of the charts in September 1996, and have been working to gather the information needed to figure out earlier months.
Additional resources known to be dependable have become available in some circumstances, and those further advise the estimates.
Q: How accurate are the estimates?
A: Before February 2003, Diamond was reporting preorders, and in that era, the margin of error was higher. I used a basket of publishers' actual sales figures to derive a likely estimate for the Order Index Numbers — and found that there was significant variance because the publishers did not get their purchase orders at the same time relative to the moment Diamond calculated its charts. But after that date, Diamond switched to reporting final orders — and while that meant that the charts came out later than they did in the preorder days, suddenly, all the variance between publishers' reports vanished. This is why estimates computed by Comichron, ICV2, and ComicBookPage are often identical. The same math obtains everywhere now.
We continue after the break...
Q: What is included in the Diamond monthly charts?
A: Beginning in February 2003, the Diamond charts report the number of copies it shipped to retailers from its warehouses in North America during the calendar month. Sometimes, the books may actually arrive in the next calendar month, but they're invoiced based on the day they leave the facilities. So occasionally you'll see a January where the first week's sales actually are reported with December.
Note that some of the comic books Diamond ships are to vendors outside the comics shop market. This includes subscription box services like Loot Crate; because the services bought the comics directly from Diamond, the figures are included in the tallies. In cases were the majority of comics went outside the comics shop market, we usually note that in our tables.
Q: What is NOT included in the Diamond monthly charts?
A: This is important, because it is a topic often misunderstood. Not included are:
• copies shipped outside the calendar month, including most reorders
• copies sold outside North America; the UK market often adds 10% or so
• copies sold outside the comics shop distribution network, such as on newsstands, in bookstores, or by postal subscription; this also includes graphic novels that Diamond's sister branch, Diamond Book Distributors, sells returnably to book channel outlets
• copies that comics shops bought from anyone besides Diamond, such as other book distributors or direct orders from publishers
• and anything digital. There is no source for digital sales figures on individual titles.
Furthermore, since the early 2000s, Diamond has omitted from its comics sales charts those books which are promotionally priced — usually, anything below a dollar. This includes Free Comic Book Day comics. The comics are sometimes, but not always, still included for purposes of market share and overall market size computations. Just not the rankings: it is highly unlikely publishers are making a profit on these titles, and putting them in with regular comics tends to distort the rankings.
Click here to read a more detailed discussion of the issues involved with what is and isn't counted.
Q: When a publisher says the sales of their titles are higher than what are seen in the distributor charts, are they telling the truth?
A: Absolutely, because of the reasons stated above. Publishers see different numbers: more than just North America, more than just the calendar month, more than just Diamond. What the distributor presents is a subset of sales — a very large subset whose size relative to the whole will vary from product to product and from publisher to publisher.
In the modern era, it is not uncommon for a project to make the majority of its sales outside the monthly comic book charts. There are multiple examples of titles which might only sell 10,000 or 20,000 copies of the monthly periodical through Diamond, but which have existed long enough to generate a sizable library of hardcover and softcover collected editions, which sell not just through Diamond, but through book channel and digital outlets.
Q: Does the shipping calendar impact what portion of comic book's print sales Diamond's chart represents?
A: Yes. The fact that comics may ship in the first or last week of the month introduces volatility; a title shipping in the last week of the month is significantly handicapped. Two comic books with exactly equal overall sales might appear 10% apart or more in units if one shipped on the first week of the month and the other shipped the last week. The second book's shipments would all be counted in the next month's report, but reordered periodicals infrequently make the Top 300 so we wouldn't see them. (When Diamond shifted in 2017 to reporting the Top 500, more reordered data began to be captured, but it still reflects a small minority of items sold.)
For that reason, Comichron tends not to do cross-time analyses of titles based on the monthly data. The aggregate figures tend to be a better barometer of industry health. Read more about the volatility factor here.
Q: If the aggregate figures are a better barometer, then why do you publish the monthly sales of individual titles?
A: Because they're what we have—they're the building blocks on which the overall figures are based. They serve their original purpose, as an inventory control aid for retailers. And there is an audience specifically interested in how many copies are in circulation: the secondary market. Comichron's data establishes a minimum number of copies that made it to stores.
Q: Why do the Diamond charts sometimes skip entries, going from #300 to, say, #314?
A: Diamond (with the exception of a few months in 2013-14 when it released the Top 400) has always released the Top 300, but has also released Top 50 lists for Small Publishers (those with market shares below 1%) and Independents (non-Marvel and non-DC Publishers with shares above 1%). The Small Publisher list ended in 2018 after Diamond shifted to publishing the Top 500. There's also a Top 50 for Manga.
There is some overlap with the Top Sellers, but some of these lists yield some additional entries, which we add to the overall chart. However, the aggregate sums for each month remain based on just the Top 300, in order to ensure an equal cross-time comparison.
It may be assumed that any missing entries sold between the sales levels of the known items, and that the highest missing items are likely from the larger publishers.
Q: What is the dollar sales ranking and what does it mean?
A: Diamond also releases a ranking for each title that is based on the number of wholesale dollars — that is, what retailers paid Diamond — for each item. If an item has a cover price that is more than average, its dollar ranking might be closer to the top of the chart than its unit ranking — but it also might not, because the key is what retailers paid. An item which is sold at a deep discount, for example, would have a dollar ranking much further down the charts from its unit ranking; this happens often with graphic novels during sales, and occasionally on the comics charts where free or discounted overships are offered.
Even then, two books with identical cover prices and unit sales may see their dollar rankings diverge, because the retailers ordering any given item are at different discount tiers depending on their sales volume.
Q: What are overshipped copies, and why are they included?
A: Publishers often give retailers an additional incentive to try out a title by providing additional copies for free; they simply overship. Diamond counts these copies as shipped, which makes sense; they're not coming back, and the extra books are in circulation so retailers and collectors would want to know that. As noted above, the presence of free overshipped copies is usually obvious from the disparity between unit and dollar sales rankings, and while overshipped copies are counted toward unit market shares, they obviously don't contribute to dollar market shares.
Q: What does it mean when it says some issues' sales were reduced for returnability?
A: While the fact that retailers buy comics from publishers outright is the basic premise of the Direct Market and integral to what's made it successful for publishers and retailers alike, publishers often offer returnability on single issues or entire new lines as a means of getting retailers to sample those titles. In those cases, Diamond reduces the number of shipped copies by a figure, usually 10%, and adds an asterisk; this tells retailers that more copies are actually in circulation, but may not stay in circulation, because of returns.
After a title's returnability window ends, Diamond reports the book's final overall sales in its end-of-year report. From these we can see that the majority of returnable titles sell through that 90% level, and in fact many books have no net returns because of reorders.
Returnability reductions in the charts do not appear to count against dollar or unit market share; the reductions aren't "real," in the sense that they're just on the charts as an alert that those books might be coming back. Later returns would presumably be counted negatively against a publisher's market share in the months that the returns arrive.
Q: Does a comic book's performance on the distributor sales charts say anything about the profitability or prospects of the title?
A: The answer is different for every single book. The "cancellation level" concept has been part of comics mythology since the 1960s, when sales of an individual issue were all a project might expect to earn, apart from ad sales — but the idea has grown less and less relevant in recent decades. Comics projects make their money back in many ways, formats, and venues now, from graphic novel collections to digital sales.
The best-selling comic book of the latter half of the 1990s in North America was Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #1, for which initial Direct Market orders were ultimately a tiny portion of its million copies sold. Walking Dead #1 shipped only 7,266 copies its first month, placing 233rd — a small fraction of the story's eventual audience.
To take a more recent example, in 2017, the Ms. Marvel line made well over $1 million from its graphic novels, more than two thirds of which sold outside Diamond; that's slightly more than the comic book made. This underscores a fact about modern comics publishing that's been true since Cerebus started doing its "phone book" collected editions in the 1980s: once any comics title's graphic novel backlist is large enough, the financial burden on the periodical is reduced, and the role of the monthly shifts more toward creating new material for more collected editions for the franchise.
Initial Direct Market shipments certainly can be a strong leading indicator of a book's future success; the first issue of Watchmen placed fifth as a comic book in its first incarnation in comics shops, beginning its march to becoming one of the most reprinted comics stories of all time. But just as monthly sales, as mentioned above, are not the whole picture for publishers anymore, there have also been cases where comics which sold strongly as individual issues did not go on to longevity either as series or in reprint form, particularly in the early 1990s. So the answer, again, is "it depends."
—Updated September 12, 2018