Friday, September 14, 2007

Figure Skating

Heidi MacDonald posted a few pieces on comics sales charts at The Beat last week (One, Two, Three) that spawned quite a bit of discussion in their comment sections, with input from industry observers Dirk Deppey, Eric Reynolds, Paul O'Brien and Tom Spurgeon, among others.

As it frequently does in this context, the question of the usefulness of the available direct market sales data comes up. And not surprisingly, not everyone's convinced of it - the most vehement criticisms, in this instance, come from creator Brian Wood (DC Comics/Vertigo's DMZ, Oni Press' Local). Wood is arguing, in a nutshell, that the direct market sales index information provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, the sales estimates calculated from it by ICv2.com and others, as well as the frequent publication and analysis thereof, are wrong, harmful and - that's the impression - generally and wholesomely evil.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have all the respect in the world for Wood's work, his experience and his contributions to the medium and the market. And given that he makes a living creating comics, I can certainly see where he's coming from, as far as his attitude towards the public discussion of sales figures is concerned. That said, though, Wood's objection basically seems to be that he doesn't like what the available sales data says, and therefore everybody should stop reporting it and talking about it. Naturally, I don't think that's a very useful approach - or a very realistic one, for that matter. But let's look at Wood's points.

For starters, Wood makes a comment on reorders that seems rather fuzzy.
The life of a book does not begin and end with its initial orders, and even those IVC2 [sic] charts that claim to also include reorders, they only report some reorders and for inconsistent periods of time. Again, incorrect information.
Well, first up, it's not ICv2.com who put together the charts and decide what's included and why, but Diamond Comic Distributors. ICv2.com merely use the Diamond charts and index information to calculate sales estimates of those books included in the charts. (And, by the way, I agree that Diamond's notion of using a given month's issue of Batman as the "100%" benchmark for their index points is fairly asinine.)

Second, and more significant, the charts do include reorders. However, they're obviously the "Top 300" charts (or "Top 100," in the case of the "Graphic Novel" chart), so naturally they only include those reorders which actually register on these charts.

Which can happen in two ways. If the reorders ship in the initial month of a book's release, they're all counted and added to the book's initial sales. Let's take the July chart as an example: Wood's DMZ #21 was released in the second week of July. What this means, in terms of reorders, is that any and all copies of DMZ #21 reaching stores in the third and fourth weeks of July are added to those initial sales in the first week, as far as the chart is concerned.

If the reorder copies don't reach stores in the month of the book's initial release, on the other hand, the only way for them to appear on the chart is if there are enough of them in any given subsequent month to make the chart. Again using the July chart as an example, an estimated 2,354 units of World War Hulk: X-Men #1 appear in slot No. 291. The issue in question was first released back in June, so those are reorders, and they're evidently strong enough to place the book on the chart again in July. If the sales of reorders for World War Hulk: X-Men #1 had been fewer than 2,000 in July, it likely wouldn't have appeared on the chart, since the lowest-selling book on the Top 300 chart that month sold an estimated 2,086 units.

Obviously - and this is where I agree with Wood - this approach isn't ideal. It means that reorders which appear after a book's initial month of release but aren't strong enough to make the chart on their own are inevitably going to fall through the cracks. But while that's most definitely a limitation, it's arguably a minor one in most cases, because the same demand that keeps generating reorders for a title tends to result in additional initial orders for subsequent issues: If you're a retailer and constantly have to reorder copies of a given periodical without ever reacting to that by adjusting your initial orders for the next issue, you're doing something wrong. So while not all reorders may be tracked by the Diamond charts, the accuracy of the trends they show shouldn't be affected by that.

And, really, while the Diamond charts may not track some reorder activity, they're not hiding that fact, and there's nothing inconsistent or inaccurate about the information they do provide. The information is simply not as complete as we'd like it to be, in an ideal world. I believe it comes close, though, in most cases.

In another comment, Wood criticizes the term "actual sales" in the analysis of Diamond's periodical sales charts.
There is nothing “actual” about them at all. Still mostly North American pre-orders only.
Well, that's incorrect. What the Diamond charts "mostly" report is indeed sales to North American retailers, and not just preorders. As I've explained above, some reorders regularly slip under the radar of these charts, but that doesn't change the fact that they report sales - including most reorders, most of the time.

And, by the way, yes, I'm aware that's not the same as sales to customers. Information on actual sell-through would be very welcome to anyone with a faint interest in the overall market, I'm sure, for a variety of reasons. But in a market in which 99% of the product is non-returnable, it's simply not required when it comes to the question how well publishers and individual books are faring commercially in a given month, which is, after all, precisely what those charts are meant to track. Blaming the available sales charts for the system they provide data on, surely, is putting the cart in front of the horse.

I agree with Wood in so far as the term "actual" can be misleading in this context, though, because of all the qualifiers you need to understand the charts. But I don't think that mischief on anyone's part is involved. Rather, the term is owed to the history of the charts. Several years back, you see, Diamond did provide data on preorders only. That changed in March 2003, however, when they made the switch to reporting the sales of books as they actually shipped. To highlight the difference between the two approaches, the term "actual sales" was introduced. What it actually means, of course, is "actual sales through Diamond Comic Distributors to comics retailers in the North American direct market, not including reorders which shipped after a book's initial month of release and failed to make the chart again." There you go.

That about covers Wood's objections to the systematic limitations of the available sales charts. They're fair game, really: The limitations exist, and for the sake of transparency and full disclosure, they can't be pointed out often enough. Where we part ways, though, is in the conclusions he draws.

Wood says:
[A]nalysis of an incomplete picture can be a harmful thing. Consumers and retailers can see a monthly title dropping low in these charts, read some snarky one-line analysis about how bad its looking for a book, and maybe decide its not worth buying/ordering any more if its likely to be canceled. When the reality of the situation can be very different.
Later, he adds:
Seriously, everyone, the name of the game is perception, and most readers aren’t going to scour an article or a comments section looking for the grand big picture or the little caveats sprinkled around. They’ll breeze through, reading the title, looking at the charts, and walk away depressed that their favorite book is tanking, or whatever, never knowing they’re only getting part of the story.
I've had this discussion a few times in the past - a couple of times with Wood himself, I think -, and these kinds of statements never fail to annoy me in their glorious wrong-headedness. What the Diamond charts provide, at the end of the day, is information - nothing more, and nothing less. Is it incomplete information? Of course it is. But which publicly available sales data on pretty much anything can claim to be "complete"? It's not like Diamond are trying to hide the limitations of their charts, either - in fact, they've always been relatively upfront about them. And the same goes for most of the articles that frequently publish, process and interpret the information provided by Diamond.

Bearing this in mind, the gloomy image of hordes of customers and retailers, lemming-like in their sudden divorce from reason and experience, dropping supposedly low-selling titles left and right after "breezing through" a sales report does not seem to be a very likely scenario to me. Nor, by the way, do Wood's comments suggest a very flattering notion of his readers and their wits. And even if all those vague speculations were justified, for that matter, since when is the mere possibility of people misunderstanding information offered to them considered to be a valid reason against its dissemination?

As long as the origins and limitations of the available sales data are made clear in a given article, I don't see any convincing reason to view it as inherently "harmful" to anyone or anything. Rather, I regard it as a valuable, sober counterpoint to the publishers' own frenetic hype machines, which makes the direct market and its workings a little more transparent to everyone. And, honestly, if the sales reports help retailers - who, lest we forget, probably have their own experience and cycle sheets to draw upon - to get a better idea of how well a book is doing across the board, then surely that's a good thing in the long run.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Picture Story, Updated, and Now Updated Again, for, Like, the Second Time, It's So Hot

Breaking News: Major comics publisher says jump, major comics news sites ask how high.

Update: Well, there are no bounds, apparently. Right now, if you're klicking on this...

...you're getting this:

(Click on the images to enlarge them.) It's like that letter sent to the airport complaining about your missing luggage, and concluding with the observation that you just found it and they shouldn't worry about it. What would Marvel and DC do without sites like good, old Newsarama?

Update 2: The entire thing has now been removed from Newsarama. It's very exciting.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Under the Gun

Random revelation of the day: Writer Jason Aaron and artist Cameron Stewart's recent, highly acclaimed (and justly so, by the way, judging from the first two chapters) Vietnam War comic The Other Side goes splendidly with The Sisters of Mercy's Greatest Hits album, A Slight Case of Overbombing. Try it, if you get the chance.

Which reminds me that much too little has been said on the combination of comics and music. What's holding you up, Warren Ellis?

L for Lloyd

Back in June, Thomas and Björn of Comicgate talked to inimitable British creator David Lloyd about a variety of subjects, including V for Vendetta (both the comic and the film), War Stories and Espers - and, of course, Lloyd's most recent graphic novel, Kickback, which he was in Europe to promote at the time. While Lloyd seems happy with the reactions to the book, he's been less than impressed with its American publisher's promotional efforts.
Dark Horse, I’m sorry to say, didn’t actually put any publicity behind [Kickback]. Which was kind of crazy, because last year I had the highest career profile I could have had, because of the V for Vendetta movie. But unfortunately there was no publicity for me on Kickback.

So, since realizing that that happened, I’ve been trying to promote it myself. I try to make sure that it’s being promoted in every country where it gets published. Because there are lots of books coming out - especially in America - and if you don’t have a heavy publicity budget behind them, it’s very easy for them not to be noticed.
It's an entertaining and insightful interview, all told, and there are worse ways to spend your time. (There's also a German translation, if you like.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Subject to Appeal

If it wasn't blindingly obvious already, Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort shares one of the reasons why Marvel's recent slew of event books and crossovers have been met with rather more commercial success than the competition's.
The key to what Marvel does better than anybody else in the industry, and what keeps us on top, is creating stories that have a resonance with our readership. So regardless of the project, finding those touchstones is job number one. Bill Jemas used to ask, “What’s the metaphor?” whenever talking about projects, and while he tended to become dogmatic about his approach, there’s a definite validity to it. Civil War was a massive hit and appealed to the mainstream because the underlying metaphors connected as well with a civilian audience as with the faithful readership. While it’s a realm of fantasy, the Marvel Universe works best when it mirrors the real-world concerns of its audience.
Of course, that's only half the equation. After all, one of Marvel's current big successes are the World War Hulk series and its various spin-off titles and crossover stories - whose metaphorical qualities are rather moderate, unless you count that ancient and basic human fear of being run over by a steamroller.

No, what makes World War Hulk a hit, clearly, is the beautiful simplicity and accessibility of the premise. It's the Hulk beating up everyone else in the Marvel Universe! It's an immediately graspable concept, immediately appealing to both superhero comics and mainstream audiences.

Over at DC, meanwhile, the serpent keeps eating its own tail with byzantine exercises in navel-gazing like Countdown, which are having even the hardcore fans scratching their heads wondering what on earth the story is meant to be about.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Secret Defenders?

Is writer Joe Casey working on a Defenders revamp for Marvel Comics? Maybe. In a recent piece on his favorite superhero team books for Blog@Newsarama, Casey writes:
Y’know, someone really needs to bring back the Defenders, don’t they? It’s just time. Now, I’d imagine the book would need to evolve out of its 70’s nostalgia, but it could definitely be done. Maybe someday…
The appreciation's signature, then, includes a clue about an upcoming project.
Joe Casey
proud writer of many team books, such as Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (I and II), FF: First Family, Wildcats (vol. 2 and Version 3.0), The Intimates, Uncanny X-Men, G.I. Joe: America's Elite, KISS, Youngblood and the upcoming **** *********.
Of course, "**** *********" could mean anything, but the second word has precisely as many letters as the word "Defenders." And over at Comic Book Resources, promoting his upcoming book for Top Cow Productions with artist Kevin Maguire, Pilot Season: Velocity #1, Casey provides another tease.
And there's another top secret Marvel project on the horizon, too, one I feel like I've been working toward for most of my career.
If both pieces indeed hint at the same "mystery project," I'd say there's a good chance it's a new Defenders title. Which in itself wouldn't get my knickers in a twist by any stretch. But at this stage, Casey's name on a book ensures that I'm at least going to be interested: I'd be hard-pressed to think of any (native) North American mainstream comics writer more versatile or willing to reinvent themselves and their approach with each and every new project, in a way otherwise only managed by his British colleagues Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

By default, I'm looking forward to pretty much anything Casey has in the pipeline.

(Which, by the way, at present, besides the already mentioned Pilot Season: Velocity, also includes two Image Comics graphic novels called Krash Bastards and Nixon's Pals, a relaunch of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood and the Marvel limited series Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin - the latter two with his frequent collaborators Derec Donovan and Eric Canete, respectively.)