Monday, June 4, 2012

The ‘New 52’ and DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales: The Long View

In September 2011, DC Comics relaunched its line of superhero comic books. Eight months later, the numbers have settled down. Time to take a look at the big picture.

When the first issues of DC’s much-publicized “New 52” relaunch debuted last year, retailers greeted them enthusiastically. “To quote one comic store owner,” a gushing Forbes piece said in September, “‘The New 52 is the biggest game changer in comic books we’ve seen in 30 years.’”

Eight months on, the sheen is off.

As of April 2012 (the respective “DC Month-to-Month Sales” column should show up at The Beat any day now), sales have settled into familiar patterns, and six of the lowest-selling “New 52” titles were cancelled at issues #8. A Nielsen survey among initial “New 52” customers finds that 93% of participants were male, 95% were current or “lapsed” comics readers and 98% were aged 18 or older. And a recent article at The Wall Street Journal suggests a “failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public's obvious fascination with men in capes.” It doesn’t even mention the “New 52.”

From “game-changer” to “failure” in eight months?

Let’s look at some long-term month-to-month graphs, based on the first-month comic-book sales estimates provided by, which, in turn, are based on the chart and index information provided by comics distributor Diamond.* (Please click on the graphs to enlarge them.)

Starting with average sales, September 2011, the month when 51 of the “New 52” debuted, marks the high point in the 110-month history since March 2003 that we have consistent data on. Prior to the “New 52,” the peak month was May 2006, which had the launch of the weekly 52 series and the conclusion of the high-profile mini Infinite Crisis, with an estimated 59,505 units sold of the average DC Universe title. In September 2011, the first month of the “New 52” relaunch, it was 67,411 units—a whopping 40,000-unit increase per title versus August 2011; so, purely in terms of initial interest by retailers, the relaunch indeed delivered.

The “New 52” boost to the average number did not prove to be very sustaining, however. Between April 2005 and December 2007, average DC Universe sales never fell below 37K units. But by March 2012, they were down to an estimated 33,229 units, less than half of the September figure.

In April, there’s a slight improvement, to be fair. Thanks to the conclusion of various low-selling titles in March, average DC Universe sales went up to 35,264 copies. And, with six of the “New 52” titles being replaced with new launches in May, that trend will probably continue. Overall, the DC Universe figure is well ahead of the weak first eight months of 2011, but broadly in line with the figures from 2008 through 2010.

Zooming in on the last three years, average DC Universe numbers ranged from 41,218 (July 2009) to 24,321 units (January 2011). The 2012 numbers, between 37,145 units in January and 33,229 in March, lie in the upper half of that spectrum, and they’re well above the figures from January through August 2011, which never cracked 30K.

In December 2010, the low-selling WildStorm imprint ceased publication, and its last remnants—a number of licensed TV and video-game adaptations that were absorbed into the DC Universe line—largely ended with the “New 52” relaunch. Consequently, DC’s overall comic-book figures are noticeably up over the last three years in 2012, despite DC Universe and Vertigo figures being relatively consistent.

With DC Universe dollar sales, the picture is similar. Prior to the “New 52,” the high point was, once again, May 2006, with $9.1 million. In this case, though, the new record was not set in September, but in October 2011, with $11.5 million. From October 2011 through April 2012, the number dropped to $6.9 million, which is within the established spectrum and would not have been unusual in the period from 2005 through 2010.

(The reason dollar sales did not peak in September is twofold. For one thing, Justice League #1, the flagship of the relaunch, did not come out in September, but on August 31; for another, 10 additional, non-“New 52” DC Universe titles came out in October that were not on sale in September.)

The low point for DC Universe dollar sales was April 2003, with $3.1 million. Overall, the imprint did not crack the $6-million mark until May 2005 and has largely remained between $4 and $8 million since; within that spectrum, though, it’s been fairly erratic, thanks to the “event”- and gimmick-driven nature of the comic-book direct market.

Viewed over the last three years and the relatively weak first half of 2011 in particular, the “New 52” has certainly given DC’s periodical department a much-needed boost, in terms of dollar sales. Even if the initial increase turned out to be a fairly short-lived spike, the March and April 2012 figures suggest that the publisher may have raised its bottom line to a level comparable with 2009 and 2010 again.

Looking at unit sales, the DC Universe imprint is still in one of its stronger periods. Among the 110 months covered by these statistics, October (3.7 million units) and September 2011 (3.4 million) rank at No. 1 and 2, respectively, and though there has been a steady decline since, April 2012 (2.1 million) still ranks at a solid No. 34. The low point in the chart’s nine-year history, to date, is March 2009 (1.1 million).

In the more recent context of the last three years, the April 2012 performance holds up especially well. There was a four-month period from July through October 2009 during which total DC Universe unit sales ranged from 2.2 to 2.3 million, but those four months aside, the “New 52” relaunch—beginning with August 2011—elevates the figures above the rest of the period since April 2009. The low points during this period were January and May 2011, with 1.3 million units each.

The number of new DC Universe comic books is fairly erratic from month to month, but has grown overall since March 2003. Prior to September 2007, for instance, the imprint never cracked the 60-title mark; the record month for this period is November 2006, with 56 new periodicals.

Starting with October 2007 (69 titles), however, the DC Universe imprint has frequently crossed that mark. The high point, to date, is August 2011, when—presumably in a rush to clear the decks for the “New 52” relaunch—there were 80 new periodicals. The overall low point is March 2009, with 36.

All combined, the DC Universe, Vertigo and (prior to 2011) WildStorm imprints saw their lowest number of new comic-book releases in January 2004 and May 2011, with 59 new DC Comics periodicals each. The record number, to date, is October 2007, with 96 new comic-book releases.

And while there is a perception—partly put forward by DC Comics representatives—that the DC Universe imprint now publishes fewer titles than before the relaunch, that’s not quite true. In fact, the “New 52” has increased the number of DC Universe titles in the market. Between October 2011 and April 2012, the number of titles has ranged from 67 (in December, February and March) to 60 (in April), which is higher than in the vast majority of months in the last nine years.

Among the 110 months covered by our statistics, October 2011 through April 2012 all rank in the Top 20, in terms of the number of new DC Universe titles released.

September 2011, the month when the relaunch happened, is an exception, with only the 51 new “New 52” titles on sale; that’s because all other DC Universe releases were delayed for marketing purposes, however.

So, in the grander scheme of things, DC’s current numbers are solid, if not spectacular. Viewed over the 110 months we have consistent data on, April 2012 is No. 63 in average DC Universe unit sales, No. 34 in total DC Universe unit sales and No. 30 in total DCU dollar sales. Compared with DC's boom period from about 2005 through 2007, these numbers are low, but they hold up well against weaker years like 2003 or the first half of 2011. All told, the “New 52” seems to have stabilized DC’s sales right in the middle of the spectrum.

Whether or not that's good or bad, given the massive logistical and promotional efforts and incentives that went into the “New 52” relaunch (limited returnability, deep discounts, multiple variant-cover editions) is a matter of interpretation. The good news is that DC managed to boost and stabilize its line after a very tough couple of years. The bad news is that DC took its best shot and it bought them a reset to 2010, basically.

Pick your narrative.

Tomorrow: Vertigo and WildStorm.

(* Post script, in response to a question that was raised in the comments: Diamond only reported 90% of the sales of some of the “New 52” titles, as they sometimes do, to compensate for the fact that they were made returnable by DC if retailers met a specific quota. Since Diamond’s way of accounting for the incentive seems fairly arbitrary, I’ve re-added the missing 10% for those books to get a more accurate picture. The same goes for any other cases in the past years in which Diamond applied the same principle.)


Esteban Pedreros said...

I got bored trying to do the math, but since you do this every month it might be easier for you.

What's calling my attention is the fact that it seems that the Best Selling titles of DC are selling at least 2 times what their best selling titles were selling prior to the relaunch, but their lowest selling titles are sinking like stones.

Could you compare the sells removing the top 5 or top 10 selling comics published by DC?

I think that they are actually doing far worse now, and that should complicate things for them if they have to enter a dynamic where they have to launch 6 to 10 titles every 6 months.

Optimous Douche said...

It's a bubble that was inflated by a PR blitz, plain and simple.

I would actually like to see the TRUE ROI from back in September of last year. Yes, they increased sales, but they also spent a ton on media and advertising.

Optimous Douche - Ain't It Cool News

BBNETMAN said...

From a reader perspective - I bought all #1 of the new 52 titles. As of now I only read about 10 or so and that will be soon going down to about 5. The main reason is that even at the start some of these titles did not seem like they had a true focus on being "the New 52" and the stories and concepts were average to below average. Aquaman has been great, but I am biased there because I have been waiting for a good Aquaman story (and art) for a long time. Batman is a good read as is All Star Western. But too many of the other titles just seem to not be holding my attention and I get to the point that I really do not care about reading them. DC did have a few good hits but they, in my opinion have a majority of misses. I just wonder what happened in the planning and focus department.

JJ said...

A couple thoughts:

Is returnability taken into account in this number crunching? (Diamond reports a lower number than actually sold due to potential returns. So your analysis above may need some re-analysis with those titles re-adjusted upwards.)

Obviously, this would be very difficult (impossible) to add in.

Obviously not part of it, as Diamond doesn't (can't?) provide those numbers.

I'd be curious as to how many titles were sold before Sept 2011, and how many titles were sold after Sept 2011.
(What's the "n")

Obviously when comparing averages, a couple of very low selling titles could drag everything down significantly. Same with a high selling title.
I think that the best way to show that would be to calculate the standard deviations, and to add the SDs to the charts above.

I'd be curious to see what the overall industry numbers would look like when added to these charts. If the entire industry was decreasing at 5% a year, then even a

(or Market Share)
The graphs above use Unit sales or $s as their focal point.
I'd be curious what the Market Share (as expressed in % of market share) looks like. (This analysis would go hand in hand with the Overall industry comment above.)

The reasoning for this is that sometimes raw numbers don't tell the full story. If the market share was previously 20%, but it's now 40%, that's a significant jump. And that % jump could have been achieved with lower total sales numbers.

Of course a lot of the sales had to do with the PR blitz. And DC and Marvel both should be doing more PR blitzes. And not to mainstream comic buyers, but to non comic buyers. It should be part of the business.
Look at the movie industry as an example. Commercials, trailers, talk show appearances... the entire movie industry lives off of hype and PR blitzes. Comics should be doing the same.

TOP 10 VS TOP 100 VS TOP 300
As Esteban wrote, and as you also mentioned (and as I'd be curious with the SD calculations); I think that the low selling titles may be skewing the numbers. And as we know, those low selling titles tend to get cancelled. And once it's known they're getting cancelled, their numbers dip even more. I'd be curious to see the analysis for just the top 10, or top 25 comics.

Anonymous said...

I was extremely supportive of the New 52, and was buying over half the titles. But too much is changing just for the sake of changing. Wonder Woman's mythos being the biggest casualty. Followed by the divorcing of Superman and the de-aging and re-sexualizing of Alan Scott GL.

I can handle change for the sake of dusting a few characters off (Marvel does it every time they update the Punisher's origin to stop him from being 120 years old). But at what point do the characters become someone you don't even recognize. Wonder Woamn has turned into Conan the Barbarian with boobs. Superman is now a brooding de-powered cry baby with no parents and no missus. Alan Scott has no kids, no rich WW2 history fighting Nazis....the list goes on. But without me.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

@JJ: "Is returnability taken into account in this number crunching?"

Yes! I did re-add the missing 10 (or, in the past, 20) percent that Diamond subtracts for returnability for all of these figures.

Thanks, that was a good point. I should have mentioned that right away in the post. I've gone and added a note.

John Jackson Miller said...

I don't think it's 10% across the board. As I understand it, the ratio has been tinkered with month to month and even for specific issues, based on what Diamond already knows about reorder levels on the over-shipped books. I grant that that is tricky to work with.

Something to be said about longer-term cross-time comparisons is that in 2007 we were doing better numbers, but with a somewhat larger number of comics shops. That I think makes the extent to which we're beating the early 2000s noteworthy, as there were even more stores then. My guess is that on average copies per shop, the numbers stand up fairly well.

Ken Raining said...

I would echo JJ's thoughts about market share. To my mind, the biggest story of the New 52 was DC having all the titles in the top ten two months in a row at the beginning of the year. Essentially, DC was able to tie Marvel in dollars despite Marvel selling many more comics at a higher price point (essentially working harder for the same result). If DC can weather the AvX storm (a big if), then the relaunch has to be considered at least a partial success. Also, as you've pointed out on the Beat, several DC books are selling much better then they have historically. I don't think the New 52 is the game-changer they hoped for, but at this point I'm not sure that game-changer exists.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

@John: "I don't think it's 10% across the board. As I understand it, the ratio has been tinkered with month to month and even for specific issues, based on what Diamond already knows about reorder levels on the over-shipped books."

Thanks for weighing in.

I've had no reason to doubt that the 10% figure is consistent from month to month, at least. The sales patterns of the 41 (or 37, since December) returnable titles seem in line with the titles not affected by returnability, and April's MEN OF WAR issue even shows a tiny increase over March, as one might have expected, presumably thanks to Jeff Lemire's involvement. So as far as I can tell, there's nothing grossly unusual in the figures, as compared to the books the adjustment doesn't apply to.

It's still entirely possible that Diamond tinkered with it, of course, but I'd be surprised if they did so in a major way.

That said, returnability will no longer apply in May, so I'm curious about those numbers. We'll be getting a clearer picture then.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

@Ken: I agree market share is an angle that's worth covering (as is the number of comics stores, as John says), but it's one that's of less interest to me, personally; at the end of the day, I'm more interested in the actual size of the pie and its pieces than in whether it's DC or Marvel that got most of it.

What these figures tell me -- and while I haven't done the math on Marvel, I don't expect theirs to be much different -- is that the fundamental failure to attract genuinely new readers with this particular type of 20-page superhero comic book persists.

I think that's something the industry needs to draw its conclusions from.

Ken Raining said...

Well, I certainly agree with you there, Marc. Having a bigger piece of an increasingly shrinking pie is nothing to crow about.

Joe Dy said...

I think basically, the new 52 gave DC an opportunity to indeed change the game but they just didn't deliver on the goods. At the end of the day, content is king and their content just wasn't up to snuff.

On writing. There have been gems, but they are few and far in between. In the end, a lot of it succumbed to editorial mandate and creative compromises. You can practically smell the bureaucracy in some of them.

On art, some have been really good like Francis Manapul's Flash but think about it, this was DC's chance to show a greater audience a new visual experience in comics and what did most people see? Rehash of outdated 90s design principles, 90s art style and quite frankly, save for a few exceptions, suspect artwork. And it seems Rob Liefeld has a lot of influence because he's getting a lot of assignments even though everything he touches turns to crap.

On marketing. DC failed to push its other properties. Specific books could have been aimed at different targets but DC chose to do omnibus marketing. (Which means, the whole line marketed as a group)

Change for change or shock value shows disrespect for reader intelligence. Even new readers could tell that some of the changes were done just to shock and not to progress the story.

In some books there was a step down in quality. Some of the new books actually cam at the expense of better books. JLI was a mess compared to Booster Gold and Justice League Generation Lost.

And DC hasn't learned. Choosing to court the media than fix their content. Let's face it, this Alan Scott thing is a PR stunt. They've actually done a lot of gay character stories in the past, and done them VERY well, but this one was just for shock and attention. And now a lot of media is reporting Green Lantern is gay, but showing pictures of Hal Jordan. They failed to take into account that the general public doesn't know there are several earth based Green Lanterns. James Robinson is a great writer but with media attention on his book, you can bet there will be a lot of meddling.

They made several dubious or confusing deals as well like making their digital content Kindle exclusive, and forcing mattel to change their successful "classics" line to reflect the new 52.

In the end, they started off well but dropped the ball.

John Jackson Miller said...

Marc-Oliver -- if I recall correctly, I got directly from them that there were deviations from a straight-line number, at least early on. (It makes sense -- if you knew from the reorders already placed for the next month that a book had sold out, you could assume you'd get fewer returns.) I'd have to look at my notes. In any event, no, I don't know how you would account for that across the board, or whether you should at all.

Anonymous said...

It was a given DC would have a huge spike with renumbering their line. This reboot was pure snake oil sold to people who didn't know or remember history. Dan DiDio banked on short attention spans and he got his short term spike. I think P.T. Barnum would be proud.

The subsequent fall was predictable even if reboot cheerleaders didn't want to hear the ugly truth.

It was clear from the very beginning this was a poorly planned and shoddy event.

I think this was Dan DiDio's reaction to the failure of Countdown, Final Crisis, the disaster that was World of New Krypton and Grounded.

He drove those events and I think then decided to try extreme measures to fix his own mess.

When DC first rolled out the reboot they used Superman as their scapegoat. The reboot apparently had it's genesis in fixing their flagship character.

The problem however was Dan DiDio refusal to accept that World of New Krypton which then morphed in to Grounded was awful. Superman wasn't even in Action for two years pre reboot. He wasn't in Superman,his own title, for a year. Then after the WoNK mess ended, Superman walked across the country for a year.

Even after JMS quit the title DC refused to end the arc forcing Chris Roberson to write to JMS's outlines. Readers complained and sales dropped like a rock.

Meanwhile the Superman family was almost non existent. But don't let pesky facts get in the way Mr. DiDio.

This has been a failure on par with DC's Implosion of the late 70s. I can only hope DC Entertainment is taking note and there will be a reboot in the DC offices sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

This has been a failure on par with DC's Implosion of the late 70s. I can only hope DC Entertainment is taking note and there will be a reboot in the DC offices sooner rather than later.

I agree! I read about two issues of JLI before I couldn't take it anymore. Dan decided it was all or nothing, and he seems to have developed a strong dislike for older hard core fans (which tended to be the ones buying the second tier books) and now the lapsed fans are leaving again because of quality issues... 1 year in sales will be lower than they were...

idlprimate said...

I'm always startled by how small the circulation of the biggest mainstream comics are. an industry hanging on by its fingernails.

Likewise, I thought Vertigo was a much bigger or more popular branch of DC. Many of their titles are well thought of and stay in perpetual TPB publication

Anonymous said...

Now that we have the sales estimates from May, I'm curious to see if your overall conclusion would change it's tune.

By my calculations, the DC 52 (just counting the "DC 52", and not the Annuals) sold more in month 9 than they did in month 4. The average was 46k vs 43k.

Was this due to the Court of Owls x-over, or the new titles launching, or trimming the deadweight titles, or the numbers went up because they were non-returnable, or all of the above?

In either case, I do like the new publishing paradigm. 52 titles. If one doesn't work, cancel it and bring something new in.

Anonymous said...

I guess I've never sat and done the math, but I'm a little surprised that all this hype boils down to an publishing event that's grossing about US$7 million per month. I work on construction projects that can run to over US$200 million, so I'm amazed at all the hype over so relatively little gross income, and just how variable that income is from month to month.

I, for one, was pretty turned off by the New 52 concept when I heard about it, and I was buying comics when they were two for a quarter.

Don't even get me started on the visuals - have you seen what the did to Power Girl? Awful.

Sounds like what DC needs is better management. These guys couldn't even handle a mid-size building renovation project.