Thursday, November 29, 2007

Glee: Full

Important note to my readers in the United States and in the United Kingdom:

Amazon just informed me that my copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, which I'd ordered in December 2006, is on the way. For 22.45 Euros. In Germany. And it's currently... out of stock!

Take that, Mike Sterling.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Collection Business

Over in the comments section of the "DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales" column at The Beat, there's been a discussion on the sales of DC Comics' Vertigo sublabel. In a nutshell, while the imprint's average monthly periodical sales have hit an all-time low and are still trending downwards, people are wondering how well the collections of Vertigo's titles have been doing.

The problem with that is that data on comics collection or graphic novel sales is notoriously hard to come by. There's virtually no way to get comprehensive, consistent and reliable enough figures on bookstore sales, for example. And even though Diamond Comic Distributors, who provide reasonably reliable and comprehensive data on periodical sales to comics stores in North America, also offer information on collection and graphic novel sales, the nature of the collection and graphic novel market renders their reports all but meaningless in that respect.

Because, first up, unlike periodicals, collections and graphic novels tend to rely heavily on other markets, such as the aforementioned book market. Consequently, even in an ideal situation where every sale of every collection or graphic novel in the North American direct market is tracked by the Diamond charts, that's still not enough information to make a reasonably educated guess at those items' total sales.

Second, the situation, in most cases, is far from ideal. Collections and graphic novels obviously have a much longer shelf-life than periodicals: Whereas the vast majority of periodicals is already out of print by the time they arrive in stores, collections and graphic novels tend to remain available for months and often years after their initial publication. So while they may appear on Diamond's charts in the first month - or even in the first few months - of publication, at some point many books' sales tend to drop to a level at which they no longer register on the chart. (Especially since Diamond's "Graphic Novel" chart only covers the Top 100 books, in contrast to the Top 300 books included in their monthly periodical chart.)

Consequently, it's quite possible for a given book to keep shifting significant quantities in the direct market for significant periods of time without those quantities being tracked by the Diamond charts. The No. 100 title on October's chart, for instance, sold 1,482 units, according to ICv2.com's estimates. This means that books can sell thousands of copies over the period of a few months without ever appearing on Diamond's charts. Therefore, it's virtually impossible to extrapolate the total amount of copies sold of a given book even in the North American direct market alone, based on Diamond's charts. There are just too many sales that regularly slip under the radar.

Why am I telling you all this, now?

Well, we've now established very carefully and, I hope, with a workable degree of clarity, that the Diamond "Graphic Novel" charts are an insufficient basis for drawing conclusions on overall collection and graphic novel sales in the direct market and beyond. I think there is something they actually can provide accurate data on, though, and that's the question how the direct market numbers for different collections or graphic novels compare to each other in their first months of release. And based on that, to go one step further, I think they can also offer a reasonably accurate idea of how the total direct market sales of those books compare to each other.

With all that in mind, let's get back to those Vertigo collections. Below, you can see statistics on the first-month direct market collection sales of Vertigo's current series, as per ICv2.com's sales estimates, arranged according to the numbers of the most recent volume, from highest to lowest. What these statistics show, as indicated above, are (a) the first-month sales trends for each given title, and (b) how the individual Vertigo titles compare to each other in terms of first-month sales. (It only goes back to March 2003, because that's when Diamond started to report data on sales, rather than initial orders.)

Y: THE LAST MAN
03/2003: Vol.  1 --  4,761
08/2003: Vol.  2 --  7,901 (+66.0%)
03/2004: Vol.  3 --  7,303 (- 7.6%)
11/2004: Vol.  4 --  7,665 (+ 5.0%)
07/2005: Vol.  5 --  8,526 (+11.2%)
11/2005: Vol.  6 --  8,513 (- 0.2%)
05/2006: Vol.  7 -- 10,298 (+21.0%)
11/2006: Vol.  8 -- 10,794 (+ 4.8%)
05/2007: Vol.  9 -- 12,964 (+20.1%)

FABLES
07/2003: Vol.  2 --  6,524
04/2004: Vol.  3 --  6,478 (- 0.7%)
10/2004: Vol.  4 --  6,288 (- 2.9%)
03/2005: Vol.  5 --  7,289 (+15.9%)
12/2005: Vol.  6 --  7,136 (- 2.1%)
07/2006: Vol.  7 -- 10,732 (+50.4%)
12/2006: Vol.  8 -- 10,267 (- 4.3%)
06/2007: Vol.  9 -- 12,168 (+18.5%)

 

100 BULLETS
03/2003: Vol.  5 --  6,005
09/2003: Vol.  6 --  6,195 (+ 3.2%)
07/2004: Vol.  7 --  5,550 (-10.4%)
07/2005: Vol.  8 --  5,575 (+ 0.5%)
04/2006: Vol.  9 --  5,809 (+ 4.2%)
12/2006: Vol. 10 --  6,735 (+15.9%)
08/2007: Vol. 11 --  7,712 (+14.5%)

 

DMZ
06/2006: Vol. 1 -- 5,387
02/2007: Vol. 2 -- 5,489 (+ 1.9%)
09/2007: Vol. 3 -- 6,098 (+11.1%)


JACK OF FABLES
02/2007: Vol. 1 -- 6,046
10/2007: Vol. 2 -- 5,521 (-8.7%)

SCALPED
08/2007: Vol. 1 -- 3,502

THE EXTERMINATORS
08/2006: Vol. 1 -- 3,628
03/2007: Vol. 2 -- 3,252 (-10.4%) 
10/2007: Vol. 3 -- 3,339 (+ 2.7%)

HELLBLAZER
05/2003: Freezes Over   --  3,372
10/2003: Gates of Hell  --  3,617 (+7.3%)
03/2004: Son of Man     --  3,502 (-3.2%)
06/2004: Highwater      --  3,507 (+0.1%)
09/2004: Setting Sun    --  3,441 (-1.9%)
05/2005: Red Sepulcre   --  3,479 (+1.1%)
09/2005: Black Flowers  --  3,147 (-9.5%)
01/2006: Staring    --  3,312 (+5.2%)
08/2006: Stations --  3,196 (-3.5%)
11/2006: Empathy --  3,378 (+5.7%)
04/2007: Cheerful --  3,422 (+1.3%)
07/2007: Red Right Hand --  3,443 (+0.6%)
09/2007: The Gift       --  3,299 (-4.2%)

LOVELESS
05/2006: Vol. 1 -- 3,801
03/2007: Vol. 2 -- 3,164 (-16.8%)

ARMY@LOVE
10/2007: Vol. 1 -- 2,708

CROSSING MIDNIGHT
06/2007: Vol. 1 -- 2,510

AMERICAN VIRGIN
10/2006: Vol. 1 -- 2,953
07/2007: Vol. 2 -- 2,371 (-19.7%)

TESTAMENT
07/2006: Vol. 1 -- 2,953
01/2007: Vol. 2 -- 2,240 (-24.2%)

DEADMAN
03/2007: Vol. 1 -- 1,787

Conflating these numbers with Vertigo's performance in the periodical market, and starting with the easy part, it's safe to say that Y: The Last Man and Fables are perfectly healthy. As periodicals, they've been hovering around the 25K mark for years, outselling everything else Vertigo have been attempting by a league; and they've apparently seen some tremendous growth as collected editions, as far as the direct market is concerned, similarly outselling the rest of the bunch. Indeed, Y and Fables collections are now selling in substantially higher quantities than the rest of Vertigo's titles are as periodicals.

The periodical numbers of 100 Bullets and DMZ have been in a slow but noticeable decline, but they're still firmly in profitable territory. Add the steadily growing first-month direct market sales the collections of both series are experiencing, and there shouldn't be anything to worry about there, either. The Fables spin-off Jack of Fables, Vertigo's third-bestselling periodical, is a good performer in terms of collections as well, though maybe not as good as you'd expect, based on its performance as a periodical.

Scalped and The Exterminators, perhaps surprisingly, seem to be holding their own remarkably well as collected editions, despite performing rather poorly as periodicals. Sales of the long-running Hellblazer have been largely flat in both formats, meanwhile; neither periodicals nor collections appear to be selling in impressive numbers, but both seem to be doing well enough. Periodical sales of Loveless, on the other hand, have been in a worrying decline lately, and the drop in first-month sales between the first and the second collection of the series doesn't look encouraging, either.

As we're getting to the tail-end of the periodical and collection sales charts, the titles are the same on both lists. American Virgin, Testament and Deadman have all been canceled, and it's not hard to see why. Obviously, those titles were earning their keep neither as periodicals nor as collections. Army@Love doesn't seem to be faring much better to date, but Vertigo aren't willing to abandon it yet. The book will be on hiatus after issue #12, according to the publisher, waiting to be relaunched after an unspecified period of time. The idea, presumably, is to give the generally positive reviews and mainstream coverage some time to sink in.

Crossing Midnight, finally, represents a bit of an anomaly. The book seems to be performing very poorly where both periodicals and collections are concerned, but unlike the other titles selling in the same area - and selling better than Crossing Midnight, in some cases - it's still ongoing at this time. If there's a sales-related reason for that, it's not one that's evident in the available direct market charts.

If there's any real surprise in these numbers, it's the tremendous degree of growth Y and Fables (and, to a lesser but still impressive degree, 100 Bullets and DMZ) have apparently been experiencing in the last few years. Overall, however, it seems that the books doing well as collected editions in the direct market tend to be the same ones doing well as periodicals, the notable exceptions of Scalped and The Exterminators aside.

That shouldn't come unexpectedly, I guess - it is the direct market, after all, and consequently pretty much the same target audience. Of course, it's entirely possible for things to be completely different in the bookstore market. Judging from the numbers we have, though, the notion that collection sales have been increasing for Vertigo appears to be true for a select few titles only, and those tend to be the ones which are already doing well enough to be profitable as periodicals.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Horse's Mouth

At this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, Björn Wederhake and I had the opportunity to sit down with Dirk Wood, Director of Marketing at Dark Horse Comics, for Comicgate.

Among other topics, we talked about the state of the direct market, the dawn of digital comics, the apparent shortages of the 300 graphic novel when the film adaptation came out, and the status of the Star Wars license.

The interview's up now - you can read it in English or in German.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Draft Notice

Within the last couple of months, DC Comics has announced
  • the return of fan-favorite writer, controversial industry figure and time-and-time-again pariah Jim Shooter to the Legion of Super-Heroes series (interview at Newsarama),
  • the appointment of legendary creator and aggressive creators-rights advocate Jerry Robinson, who was crucial in rallying support and negotiating with Warner to grant Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster appropriate compensation and credit for the creation of Superman, as a "creative consultant" (press release at Newsarama),
  • and the signing of an exclusive contract with the company by fan-favorite longtime Marvel artist Mark Bagley, known as one of the fastest-working, most professional creators in the industry (press release at Newsarama).

Could they possibly be trying to communicate something?

Well, as I noted a while ago, DC don't seem to have many reliable, consistent high-profile creators in their stable currently - Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison aside, they simply don't have anyone who can be counted on to deliver a Top 10 book consistently and monthly.

Then there's the latest round of lawsuits filed against Time Warner by the Siegel estate surrounding the creation of the Superman/Superboy characters, which is again bringing a lot of attention to the company that they'd probably rather avoid.

Finally, two of the most prominent complaints currently aimed at DC by fans are concerned with the publisher's frequent failure to get their books out on time and with their supposedly regular creative teams involved.

Bearing all this in mind, those announcements seem to be saying two things:

One, if you're a popular creator, come to us, or come back to us. It doesn't matter whether you've burned bridges in the past. We need you, we want you, and we're going to take good care of you.

Two, if you're a fan, don't worry about late books or fill-in issues anymore. We've learned from our mistakes, and we've got it covered.

Of course, this leaves one major concern: What about the top-down approach of editorially-driven storytelling that's currently dominating their line? It may be necessary to coordinate all those large-scale events, sure. But I doubt it's very attractive to the kind of creator DC is in desperate need of at this point.

If they're serious about a new round of high-profile talent hiring, I'd expect the DC Universe's major franchises to become much more creator-driven and self-contained after next year's Final Crisis series.

Chart Breaker

Brian Wood, the author of DMZ and Local, isn't angry about sales numbers, after all. Good for him. It doesn't stop him from making incorrect claims about them, however. Let's do another fact check.

At his weblog, Wood responds to John Mayo, who writes a monthly sales column for Comic Book Resources. Wood states:

And just to further beat you all with the point we've been making all this time, that these sales charts are fiction - they would tell you that this book has sold, to date, significantly less than half of the actual amount.

To support his point, Wood cites a royalty statement for one of his books, noting the discrepancies between it and the estimates derived from the Diamond charts.

There are a couple of problems with that line of thought. First up, Mayo doesn't claim that the numbers he uses refer to total sales. On the contrary: His columns come with all the appropriate disclaimers and qualifiers. So if anyone reads them and comes away with the assumption that he's talking about total sales, it's certainly not his fault.

Of course, Wood is actually on the record saying that he doesn't trust people to be able to read and understand the existing sales reports properly and make their own judgments about them. So his complaint doesn't come as a great surprise at this stage. Still, I think it's worthwhile to set the record straight on this stuff. (For anyone who's interested, I addressed the question what information Diamond Comic Distributors' charts represent, how they do it and which sales are on the charts in detail here, so I won't go into that again.)

Second, on a related note, I'm not sure why anyone, including Wood, would expect the Diamond numbers to match the numbers from Wood's royalty statements. As we've just established - and Wood agrees on that, evidently -, the Diamond charts do not reflect total sales, whereas Wood's royalty statements presumably do. As such, it's eminently pointless to compare the two. We know that the North American direct market isn't the only distribution channel, so it's no great surprise that the total number of books sold is larger than the number of books sold through Diamond only. If Wood's comparison says anything relevant to the topic he's discussing, I'm missing it.

Another one of Wood's comments seems to be more aimed at the column I write for The Beat, although he doesn't come out and say so.

I never see how one-liners like "wow, this is on it's last legs" or "another failed launch" or "predictably mediocre" or "the losing streak continues" or the classic one-word: "declining" or "solid" actually contribute anything meaningful to the situation. Do you?

Well, I do, obviously. I think these recurring phrases are useful in describing and identifying certain recurring sales patterns. And I think that's meaningful, in a purely functional sense. Of course, whether or not the discussion on direct market sales, comics sales or comics in general is meaningful in a broader sense is open to debate. (And, for the record, I don't recall writing something as gleeful as "wow, this is on its last legs." I frequently use the other comments Wood is citing, though.)

In the discussion thread of his blog post, Wood adds:

Thankfully, we don't see blog posts about [the New York Times bestsellers list], saying, wow, Book X is slipping in the charts!  Harper Collins is totally fucked! :)

Well, that's probably because Book X generally isn't a series and the New York Times bestsellers list doesn't suggest actual sales numbers. Otherwise, I'm sure we'd see quite a few blog posts about that.

Later on, in a Blog@Newsarama post, Wood summarizes his misgivings again.

[T]hese top 100 and top 300 sales charts are just full of incomplete data that gets misrepresented, intentionally and unintentionally, as gospel in the subsequent analysis. [...] If we’re going to have analysis, even snarky analysis, it might as well be based on fact, not fiction.

So far, I've always assumed that Wood, as a seasoned creator and someone with quite a bit of experience in the industry, may be privy to information I don't have, so I've been more than willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt on many of the vague blanket statements he's been making. Unfortunately, I can't help but observe that he's yet to identify a single concrete case of those numbers or their subsequent interpretation and analysis being wrong. Instead, he keeps bringing up limitations of the available data that are already well-known to anyone dealing with it, and he keeps criticizing the data for not saying what he wants it to say. While that's fair enough in principle, it doesn't support his larger point of the data and subsequent analysis being wrong.

If Wood really thinks that the available sales data is "fiction," and that it's being "misrepresented," or "intentionally" misrepresented even, as he says in the passages quoted above, he's failed to back these claims up with anything approaching fact or even the hint of an explanation so far. To be honest, looking at comparisons like the one with the royalty statement, which are deeply flawed at best, I'm beginning to wonder whether he even knows what he's talking about.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Links, zwo, drei, vier

Here are some pointers to insightful places on the interwub you may want to visit if you've got some (okay: a lot of) time to kill, for your convenience.

o Blogger Andrew Hickey on comics writer Grant Morrison's work: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

o Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort on the history and evolution of Marvel Comics covers: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

o Comics letterer and designer Todd Klein on the logos of Marvel Comics' X-Men series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Update.

o Blogger G. Kendall on X-Men and other comics in the 1990s.

o Former DC Comics/WildStorm editor Scott Dunbier on comics and life.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Fair Share

Belated notes on the Frankfurt Book Fair:

o Missed the panel discussion on "The International Comics Market 2007" with, among others, Mile High Comics' Chuck Rozanski, because I was too stupid to read the program. Unfortunate.

o Didn't miss the panel on "Comics in Bookshops - Graphic Novels as Bestsellers" with a bunch of German (and Swiss) booksellers and publishers. Wasn't very enlightening, though. What's a "Graphic Novel"? What does "bestseller" mean in this context? Are comics a medium or a genre, and what's the difference, anyway? The participants used a lot of terms and buzzwords without really being able to define what they meant, and so clarity was lost and not much in terms of new information was to be learned.

o Saw Scott McCloud's presentation "Comics: An Art Form in Transition," and found that everything they say about him is true. In about an hour's time, McCloud clicked himself through more than 600 projected images while giving an involving, highly condensed lecture on the possibilities of the medium, his own background and the history of the universe in general - a crash course through his books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, essentially. McCloud never missed a beat, and it was a thoroughly intriguing and entertaining 60 minutes.

The event was announced as a "PowerPoint presentation," but live comics is probably closer to the truth. Amazingly, McCloud doesn't just have a lot to say on sequential art - he's become sequential art. My Comicgate fellows Björn and Daniel conducted a pretty sharp interview with the man on the final day of the Fair, which hopefully should be up soon.

o Attended the "Catalonia and Its Artists" panel, with an illustrious mix of creators including Max, Albert Monteys and Pascual Ferry. Additionally, there was an eye-opening exhibition on the history of Catalan comics at the Frankfurt Museum for Communication. To someone like myself, who's mostly concerned with the Anglo-American branch of comics and not much else, the discussion and the exhibition served as a gentle reminder that what most people in that sphere mean when they talk of "comics" tends to be defined by a very, very, very narrow focus, even if they're aware of the Asian or European branches. The wealth of material out there that I'll probably never even hear of is awe-inspiring, really.

o Also at the Museum for Communication: "Erlesene Comics - Comiclesung ohne Bilder," in which a bunch of fine ladies and gentlemen from the German comics scene gave a reading of select comics, effectively turning them into impromptu audio plays. Among the many highlights were a crappy, unintentionally comical old German spine-chiller from the long-running Gespenstergeschichten series (read by Tobi Dahmen), Will Eisner's haunting Spirit story "Life Below" (marvellously brought to life by Jan and Stefan Dinter), the Karl Marx piece from Action Philosophers (dramatized by Comicgate's Björn) and two unpublished short stories by German cartoonist Oliver Ferreira (read by his friend Mawil). A splendidly entertaining affair, all told.

o In terms of extracurricular activities, a lot of fun was to be had, as well. On Friday, Dark Horse Comics' Dirk Wood, Matt Parkinson and Lance Kreiter, a.k.a. Tiger & The Scorpion, played the Spritzehaus pub, covering a bunch of hard rock classics. As a very pleasant surprise, David Lloyd showed up, bought everyone a beer and stuck around to chat with us about all kinds of comics stuff.

o For the rest of the Fair, pretty much whenever you walked past the Panini booth, Mr. Lloyd, who'd come to Frankfurt to promote the German release of his graphic novel Kickback, was sitting there, signing books, drawing sketches or just talking to people - an utter professional, a perfect gentleman and a terribly nice bloke if I've ever seen one. He was kind enough to draw me a Night Raven sketch.

o Also briefly talked with Dirk Schwieger, who won this year's Sondermann Award for "Best Newcomer" with Moresukine, which is now available as a very nice-looking printed edition from German publisher Reprodukt. Congratulations!

o The best part of the whole thing was the people, really. Got a chance to say hi to a lot of people from all over the world I'd never met, or whom I'd only known from the internet, and everyone turned out to be great folks. A special thank you goes out to Comicgate's Thomas, Björn and Daniel, who welcomed me with open arms, and of course to Frauke, who let me crash on her couch for the duration of the Fair.

For more detailed Fair reports and pictures coverage (in German), look here. For even more pictures, go here.