Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bookscanning, and Other Windmills

In his “Tilting at Windmills” column at Comic Book Resources, prominent retailer Brian Hibbs presents his annual analysis of the Nielsen Bookscan chart for comics sold through the book market, now updated for 2008.

As usual, Hibbs’ analysis is dissected controversially—Heidi MacDonald responds (also mind the gigantic comments thread, where numerous observers and insiders chime in), then Tom Spurgeon, then Dirk Deppey, then MacDonald again.

I’ve got little to add to the sprawling general discussion, but Hibbs briefly addresses Vertigo sales in his original piece:

What we don’t see in the Top 750 BookScan numbers are things like “DMZ" or “Scalped," where the running memes have been that the lack of periodical numbers in the Direct Market are being “made up" somehow in other channels. This does not appear to be the case!

Hibbs essentially makes the point that I’m frequently criticized for making in my column on DC Comics sales, although I actually take pains not to make it.

The question of Vertigo’s paperback sales is a classic absence-of-proof case for most series. There is no proof in the available numbers that (a) Vertigo series sell better in the book market than in the direct market or that (b) most current Vertigo series sell well anywhere at all.

But just because the limited numbers we know don’t show it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there, of course, which makes Hibbs’ statement problematic.

Looking at Scalped, for instance, things are quite ambiguous, mainly because first-month paperback sales in the direct market don’t seem very healthy (all the sales figures below are estimates calculated by Milton Griepp of ICv2.com, as usual):

08/2007: Vol. 1 -- 3,502
02/2008: Vol. 2 -- 3,022 (-13.7%)
10/2008: Vol. 3 -- 3,524 (+16.6%)

Now, again, the standard disclaimer: These are just sales in the first calendar month of each of those books’ release, which in some cases just means one week of recorded sales. Because collections remain on sale for months and years after, however, these figures are obviously meaningless as an indicator of total sales.

What the figures do show, however, are the trends for each individual series, as well as how the various series compare with each other.

that said, while there’s a little bit of growth here over the three Scalped volumes released, the numbers are still in the same area as those of, say, The Exterminators, a series Vertigo cancelled due to low sales in July 2008.

Periodical first-month sales of Scalped don’t look much better:

12/2007: Scalped #12 --  7,048 (- 3.8%)
01/2008: Scalped #13 --  6,993 (- 0.8%)
02/2008: Scalped #14 --  6,903 (- 1.3%)
03/2008: Scalped #15 --  7,004 (+ 1.5%)
04/2008: Scalped #16 --  7,071 (+ 1.0%)
05/2008: Scalped #17 --  6,927 (- 2.0%)
06/2008: Scalped #18 --  7,020 (+ 1.3%)
07/2008: Scalped #19 --  7,221 (+ 2.9%)
08/2008: Scalped #20 --  7,034 (- 2.6%)
09/2008: Scalped #21 --  7,029 (- 0.1%)
10/2008: Scalped #22 --  6,964 (- 0.9%)
11/2008: Scalped #23 --  6,910 (- 0.8%)
12/2008: Scalped #24 --  6,777 (- 1.9%)
6 months: - 3.5%
1 year  : - 3.9%

Along with Young Liars, which sells in the same area, Scalped is currently the lowest-selling monthly Vertigo series. But clearly, there must be some reason why DC Comics chooses to keep it around, despite the fact that neither periodical sales in the direct market nor paperback sales in the direct market nor the Bookscan report suggest that it really sells anywhere.

Now, I indeed think that it’s very unlikely Scalped sells significantly better than those figures would suggest.

But at the same time, I also think it’s very possible that Scalped paperbacks sell better by just the small amount that’s needed to keep it afloat through those channels, in ways that we just can’t track—by, for instance, shifting 4,000 units in the book market through 2008 (which wouldn’t make the Bookscan Top 750) or by consistently selling 300 units in the direct market every month (which wouldn’t make the Diamond Top 300).

For all we know, Hibbs’ suggested conclusion that the decline in Scalped periodical sales isn’t made up for through other channels may be correct—it wouldn’t be the first time a publisher was holding on to a title for other reasons than just sales. But for all we know, it might just as well be incorrect.

In the case of DMZ, Hibbs stands on even shakier ground. In terms of the first-month numbers of DMZ paperbacks in the direct market, there is a very clear upward trend:

06/2006: Vol. 1  -- 5,387
02/2007: Vol. 2  -- 5,489 (+ 1.9%)
09/2007: Vol. 3  -- 6,098 (+11.1%)
03/2008: Vol. 4  -- 5,392 (-11.6%)
08/2008: Vol. 5  -- 6,143 (+13.9%)

For DMZ periodical sales, on the other hand, things look quite different:

01/2006: DMZ #3  -- 14,503
01/2007: DMZ #15 -- 13,340
01/2008: DMZ #27 -- 10,662 (-3.3%)
02/2008: DMZ #28 -- 10,463 (-1.9%)
03/2008: DMZ #29 -- 10,266 (-1.9%)
04/2008: DMZ #30 -- 10,038 (-2.2%)
05/2008: DMZ #31 --  9,911 (-1.3%)
06/2008: DMZ #32 --  9,760 (-1.5%)
07/2008: DMZ #33 --  9,684 (-0.8%)
08/2008: DMZ #34 --  9,561 (-1.3%)
09/2008: -- 
10/2008: DMZ #35 --  9,240 (-3.4%)
11/2008: DMZ #36 --  8,851 (-4.2%)
12/2008: DMZ #37 --  8,823 (-0.3%)
01/2009: DMZ #38 --  8,457 (-4.2%)
6 months: -12.7%
1 year  : -20.7%
2 years : -36.6%

These figures show a very noticeable decline, and it’s not inconceivable at all that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the paperbacks will outsell the periodical in terms of first-month direct-market numbers.

Now, I don’t know whether one “makes up” for the other—my knowledge of Vertigo’s production and distribution costs is not profound enough to make any such claim.

Given the clear rise of first-month paperback sales along with the clear decline of first-month periodical sales, however, it’s plainly not as cut and dried as Hibbs suggests. Even if we ignore book-market sales altogether for a second and just focus on the direct market, the notion that the growing paperback sales are “making up” for lapsed periodical sales in the case of DMZ seems very possible, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. I share Hibbs’ deep skepticism when it comes to certain creators’ unsubstantiated claims that the available numbers are completely off when it comes to Vertigo sales. I also agree that the direct market still seems to be the most significant channel for Vertigo; the Diamond and Bookscan charts strongly suggest that much, at least.

But the bottom line is: A book’s absence from any of these charts may be evidence that there aren’t a lot of sales through a given channel, but not proof. There’s just too much going on below the radar of both the Diamond and the Nielsen charts.


Brian Hibbs said...

Which is why I said "appear to"!

BookScan for DMZ in 2007 (all rounded):
v1 2800
v2 2800
v3 1600

v1 2200
v2 1700
v3 1500
v4 2400
v5 1700

SCALPED in 2007:
v1 700

v1 1200
v2 1000
v3 500

Obviously, this is ONLY the stores that report to BookScan; it also is for all 12 months of the year (or whichever fraction of that that a given book had been released)


Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


Thanks for sharing the numbers.

Purely in terms of the logistics, how do you get by these figures if they're not in the Top 750? And why didn't you address them in your column when you're specifically addressing DMZ and SCALPED sales?

Brian Hibbs said...

As I said in the article, I have the whole thing, and have for the last 2 years -- all 17k+ items. But that's too wide of a picture to write about.

I'd STILL be writing the column until May or so if I tried to analyze (or give details about) all 17k items!


Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Well, sure. I'm not sure why you didn't use the actual figures of the books you mentioned, though, rather than to leave it at the fact they're not in the top 750.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marc,

I think the points you make here are very interesting and convincing (and I'm sure you wouldn't have been quite so "frequently criticized" if your sales charts comments had always been as well-balanced as this). Just one little additional question: Why didn't you mention the non-US sales? Surely they could be another major factor here, as they aren't included in any of the numbers discussed, and anecdotal evidence as well as common sense suggest that Vertigo books, being stylistically and thematically closer to European comics, sell much better in Europe than in the USA.

Heinz Hochkoepper

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


I've heard anecdotal reports that titles with a clear British slant, such as HELLBLAZER, are doing disproportionately well in the UK, but that's the extent of it.

I'm not aware of any reports or evidence that Vertigo sales in particular are better in Europe than the sales of other North American comics.

Anonymous said...

Well, as I said, I think common sense suggests this, since people outside of the US just aren't as interested in superheroes. At my LCS here in Berlin I've been told that Vertigo books generally outsell most superhero books.

Heinz Hochkoepper