Thursday, November 29, 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'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'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.)

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%)

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%)


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%)


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

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

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

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

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%)

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

10/2007: Vol. 1 -- 2,708

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

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

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

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.


Midweeker said...

One point that wasn't made here is that these figures don't include UK sales.
Diamond UK don't release sales figures for anything they sell, unfortunately, but traditionally, Vertigo books have always done very well over here. At various points over the last 15 years, I've been told by DC staffers that a disproportionate amount of their Vertigo sales come from the UK, up to 50% of total sales on both issues and trades.
When you add in the UK editions of these books, published by Titan over here, I suspect that even the lower selling books may be being pushed over the 5K mark.
Just as an example, we sell around about 15 copies of a new Avengers trade in the first month, and we sold around the same of the last Hellblazer TP, The Gift.

Reboot said...

Isn't this Statement of Ownership month? Why not check a couple of Vertigo titles (not Fables or Y, since they seem to be doing well anyway) vs. a couple of random DCU titles and see how they compare. The numbers there will include everything...

Marc-Oliver said...

DC don't print Statements of Ownership.

markus said...

This sounds too much like a just so story which happens to coincide with the data. No proof either way, of course, but first months TPB sales data strikes me as a ridiculously lousy indicator for a couple of reasons and these tie into a couple of differential effects which should be there but are apparently not:
- No apparent effect of material. Simply, 100 Bullets reads better in trade, Hellblazer and DMZ not so much.
- Tight-continuity series (like 100 Bullets) ought to have fairly linear sales, stuff like DMZ gives more opportunities to pick and chose. For 100 Bullets the opposite seems true.
- The data say nothing at all about the all important aspect of TPB sales, the behaviour over time. At the very least we'd have to analyse data on something like the first six months of the first three volumes to gauge whether a series is an evergreen (i.e. slow decline) or has mostly substitute sales (i.e. sharp decline after all the trade-waiters have their copy).
- Different series will have different DM-Bookstore splits. E.g. Deadman ought to be an easier sell in the superhero-friendly direct market, whereas DMZ could sell like crazy if offered next to the usual output from America's political class. Similarly, some creators have suction in the DM (e.g. Carey), others in the BM (e.g. Testament).

Ultmately, I end up thinking this is an interesting exercise in aggregate, but unlike the monthly numbers there's just too many known unknowns here to make responsible statements about the health of a specific (future) title based on first month TPB sales to the DM.

Joe Willy said...

I think Statement of Ownership is only needed for news stand and subscriptions- not direct market titles.

Ned said...

Marcus pretty much covered everything I would have said, so kudos to him. I can only add that it would also be informative if we could see sales totals from years down the line as creators or titles gain renown for other works. I can't think of any good Vertigo-specific examples off the top of my head, but I imagine sales of "Channel Zero" were revitalized a bit each time people discovered how good a writer Brian Wood is, and decided to seek out his previous work. After all, that's what I do every time an author joins my list of favorites.