Thoughts On Sales Numbers

By | Monday, November 01, 2010 1 comment
OK, the big news piece that I'm sure will be making (or has already made) the rounds by the time you see this is John Jackson Miller's latest sales analysis. As always, he provides an excellent analysis from some heavy number-crunching. The bottom line, if you haven't read it, is that "There's more sales volume 'bubbling under' than there used to be" and that many more comics are being sold than the typical Top 300 that we normally hear about.

But let me throw a wrinkle out there. It's this piece from Tom Brevoort in Friday's T&A over at Comic Book Resources...
As I understand it, in the panel that David was in speaking about digital comics, he said that our digital comics sales had been really successful and that as a result of that, beginning in January we'd be able to start pricing some of our upcoming limited series and other releases at $2.99.

What's noteworthy here is that the money Marvel is making from their digital sales -- which, I would like to emphasize, are NOT considered in the regular sales numbers -- is sufficient enough to at least partially subsidize their printed comics. Obviously, that doesn't speak to precise numbers, far from it, but it does strongly suggest that digital comic sales are reasonably healthy considering that their current digital comics initiative only began just over a year ago.

I'm not a subscriber to MDCU, but from what I can tell, their digital subscriptions are running about a year behind the printed versions. So digital sales obviously wouldn't directly correspond to print sales. That is, someone who regularly reads Fantastic Four in print is getting a different story from someone regularly reading digitally. Possibly with entirely different creative teams and/or overall thematic directions. Which means that, if a reader follows particular creators, their reading habits online are likely going to have a year-long lag compared against print.

However, if a reader is interested in following characters, then reading Amazing Spider-Man online, while a different story than what's currently available in print, is still, in effect, a "current" sale of the book. They'd read Amazing Spider-Man regardless of how "current" the storyline is.

Interestingly, this is not that different from what happens with trade paperback sales. Joe Average, standing in his local Barnes & Noble, doesn't care so much how "current" the latest story is, he just wants to read a good Captain America story. He'll pick up something off the shelf, often irrespective of when it was originally written. He's just making a financial 'vote' for the character, not the current-ness of the continuity. If you play the "wait for the trade" game, you've inherently bought into the notion that you're willing to hang somewhat behind the continuity curve.

The point of all this? That the numbers Miller was looking at represent essentially just the people who have, by and large, been reading pamphlet comics on a regular basis for some time. The digital readers, by and large, represent another set of readers ON TOP OF that. So while pamphlet sales have remained relatively flat on an individual title basis, we not only have more titles out there selling better -- that 'bubbling under' Miller refers to -- but we have a growing contingent of readers who are still interested in the Hulk and Thor and Black Panther and all the other classic Marvel (and I would have to presume DC) heroes, but aren't being counted in these numbers AT ALL.

Now, it might seem fairly self-evident that a reader buying pamphlet comics at the local comic shop is not likely to be the same person buying them digitally as well. And it might seem fairly self-evident that there's potential there to reach a wider audience since the distribution method inherently has a wider reach. But let me reiterate what Brevoort alluded to: DIGITAL COMIC SALES AT MARVEL ARE SUBSTANTIAL ENOUGH TO PARTIALLY SUBSIDIZE LOWER PRICES ON PAMPHLET COMICS. Not all pamphlet comics, obviously. And not the whole price of comics either. But that it's significant enough to justify not increasing all of their price points? I think that indicates there's a HUGE market in legitimate digital comics that Marvel only just started tapping into.

And with the color Nook on the way and increasing distribution of iPads, I think there's something big there. Really, really big. I don't think it's a death knell for comic shops any more than Amazon or eBay has been, but this is big. I think it signals a shift in how publishers, particularly the largest ones, are setting themselves up for how they earn their profits down the road. Or at least how they're trying to set themselves up. How long will it be before it's the pamphlet sales that are subsidizing the digital books?
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I agree that the print figures underreport readership, though I'm not sure how that problem will ever be resolved. I look at it as one more avenue beyond the direct market totals — alongside newsstand, bookstore sales, and postal subscriptions — that supplements the direct market.

As to the contribution that digital is currently making to the bottom line of individual comics, I know no more than has been reported. I do note that the $6-8 million figure ICV2 reported for 2010 is only about 1% again print sales of the industry in North America (and a little less than 2% the size of print sales in the direct market) -- so it is a notable figure and a net addition, but one with some ways to go before being really transformative. It's closer today to the size of, say, mail subscriptions; if your title has them, it's a help. Digital is another. The question is how big it eventually gets.

The good news moving ahead is that it's both easier and cheaper for publishers to add a new digital reader than a new postal subscriber, so the potential is there for big things.