The Comics Are All Right: The Truth is In the Numbers

There’s much been written and buzzed about lately about how the comic book industry is full of doom and gloom, a broken system that needs to be torn down before being corrected. It’s presented as an over simplified problem with blame focused squarely on the main comic distributor Diamond Comics, and as a conspiracy by the big two, Marvel and DC Comics, to squeeze out smaller publishers making it difficult for them to publish. The reality is further from the truth.

The comic industry has issues, don’t get me wrong. From publishers and creators through distribution to stores and fans, everything can be improved, but in reality that will always be the case as marketing, business, technology, and more evolve.

I’m about data and coming up with solutions. I’ve decided to begin a weekly column looking at the reality of the comic market both good and bad, and offering actionable solutions, not just griping.

I thought a good first place to begin would be with the actual numbers and where the industry lands. All of the numbers presented are based on the estimates reported by ComiChron, an excellent website to check out if you’re a data geek. I want to emphasize these are estimates though, something I’ll tackle later on, and begin by saying when numbers, especially the sales numbers, are used as fact, we begin our argument on a weak footing. What I like to think of this as is trends, not hard numbers.

Myth #1: The Industry is Decreasing in Sales

I remember the 90s comics driven by crazy covers (that got crazier as months went on) and driven by shock events. There was quality, but you had to dig for it. I myself began to work in comic shops around 1996 a time I absolutely loved and I had the responsibilities of ordering, estimating what we’d sell, and more. It was tedious then, before computers made things a bit easier. I remember also comic sales dipping as the comic crash caused by numerous factors occurred (a topic for another article).

At its height in 1993, it’s estimated there were $850 million in sales with a bust that continued until roughly 2000 when the industry dropped to $275 million, a drop of 68%. But since 2000, the industry has seen pretty consistent growth with estimated sales of $1.03 billion in 2015 (including digital) and $940 million in just print. That’s almost $100 million more in print than in 1993.

sales-estimates-in-dollars

Myth #2: That Increase is Mainly Due to Increased Cover Prices

This one is sort of true. We can see from 1991 that the average cover price of comics has steadily increased.

comic-cover-prices

If comics had followed inflation the average comic which was about $1.78 in 1991 should only be $2.79 in 2015. In reality, things were about $1 higher.

And units did decrease. It’s estimated that 130 million units were sold in 1996 dropping to a low of 66.9 million in 2001. Today, things have improved with 2015 seeing the most units sold since 1997.

comics-unit-sales

Myth #3: All of Those Units are Major Publishers

The above data of units is what is estimated by Diamond. There’s lots of different distribution avenues now for comics and graphic novels that are not reflected in the charts people are all too quick to quote. Raina Telgemeir’s three graphic novels have over 3.5 million copies in print as an example. Add in Kickstarter, webcomics, Etsy, Patreon, selling direct to stores, and more, and all of these numbers quickly fall apart.

But, the argument really is that the direct market and Diamond have been a hindrance for small print comics. Well, the data would beg to differ.

ComiChron estimates the top 300 comic unit sales and the overall comic unit sales, those are represented by the orange and blue lines. The difference between those numbers should be comic sales that aren’t in the top 300, we can call them 301 and up. Using those numbers we see a steady increase in unit sales of those not in the top 300 represented by the gray.

comic-unit-sales-not-300

Since 2009, those unit sales have gone from 3.5 million to 8.8 million. That’s over 100% increase. While I can’t verify all of those are indie/small publishers, we can see this sector is growing, and growing steady.

Here’s that little gray line blown up.

comics-not-300

During this same time period, the top 300 comics saw a 19.08% increase. The non-300 saw a 150.85% increase. The direct market is working against those books? The numbers beg to differ.

Overall, doom and gloom? I see an industry on the rise after a crash and correction and while it has faults (which will be discussed in future articles), right now it’s showing slow and steady wins the overall race.

In the next article, I’ll discuss the actual distribution of comics and how it’s evolved over recent years.

12 comments

  • Agreed with the general message — the comics are all right, relatively speaking!

    Note on price: I have $1.78 in 1991 equating to $3.10 today, via BLS’s CPI calculator: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=1.78&year1=1991&year2=2015

    The other key to remember about inflation is that the “average 1991 comic book release” was more likely to be on cheaper paper — and more likely to be from a major publisher, and Marvel and DC were both priced lower than the other players. Without getting into creator compensation, those factors alone makes apples to apples harder.

    Overall unit sales is going to be a pretty bumpy figure — I could only get it in multiples of a million.

    • Yeah, I may have gotten the inflation numbers wrong. I went to a website, but beyond that, I have no idea how to double check that data.

      Yes, creator compensation is something I will discuss in the future. Not all comics are the same when it comes to that, which is key.

      And totally get the numbers in the millions. Facebook is similar in the numbers it spits back to me, it’s usually in the millions when you get to that level. Love your site (clearly!).

      • Thanks! I’ve been meaning to bring together some of my charts when I commemorate 20 years of monthly reports, but this saves a step.

        I’ve never been too big on Facebook data in any field — a “like” is some ways from a confirmation of a purchase — but I fully get that we don’t have anything else to go by. I have a bunch of older demographic data from the major publishers that theoretically came from survey research, but it’s all from advertising kits and calculated to make the average reader look as young as possible.

        • Yeah, I make sure to emphasize that a “like” is not necessarily a buyer. I look at it as trends and the possible audience. They’re folks who have indicated they have some interest in comics and would be good to do outreach to.

          And interestingly it’s more than just “likes.” They also look at what individuals interact with, so someone can neer like a comics page, but click on articles about comics, and they’d eventualy fall into the group.

          • Understood. Just always feels a few steps removed, like measuring economic activity by counting cars in Wal-Mart parking lots. You can assume they’re there to shop, but after that things get fuzzy. But when there’s nothing else, it’s worth a try…

            • (On this score, I’m curious if anyone has ever yet figured out how to connect the gate attendance at a comics convention to the spend in the dealer room. All I know from dealers suggests very little pattern at all. And that’s when we theoretically know that the people there are interested in what we’re selling!)

              • I know there’s been some of that through surveys. I believe EventBrite released something? But, you do have some data with credit card purchases through Square and Paypal potentially. It’s just getting that data….

                • That would give you enough to do correlations, but I think there’s too many impossible-to-measure variables to build a model from. How do you quantify “other events competeing for con-goers’ attention”?

            • One thing that was interesting is, I can’t say who I did this with, but I did my Facebook data, then worked with a comic publisher to look at a set of their purchasers through a survey, then we purchased data and appended it with customer data and all three data sets were really close. It wasn’t an exact match, but it was within a couple of years for age and gender was close too.

  • I just gave this a 2 star rating when I meant to give it 4! It’s late! I am sorry!