The Comics Are All Right: Marvel, Diversity and the Comic Market Part 1

Much has been discussed these last few days about diversity and comic sales. In an interview with ICv2, Marvel‘s David Gabriel discussed the last year and the perception that there’s been a shift in the comic market and sales are lagging. Though clickbait articles have spun Gabriel’s comments into “Marvel blames diversity” or “Marvel blames comic buyers” he said nothing of the sort. Here’s the actual exchange with an emphasis added:

Now the million-dollar question.  Why did those tastes change?
I don’t know if that’s a question for me.  I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers.  What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity.  They didn’t want female characters out there.  That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.  I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.

Gabriel was just repeating “what he heard” from retailers and if you read the full interview you’ll see that his thoughts on the subject are much more wishy-washy without much of an answer. This isn’t about defending Gabriel, this is about answers and reality.

The comic industry absolutely needs to do a better job of inclusion in creators, content, and engaging audiences. Publishers are dominated by hetero-white male creators. Other industries have recognized this and found success. Fox (yes Fox) has acknowledged this. Jordan Peele’s Get Out has so far made $167.6 million worldwide on a $4.5 million budget, a 37.24 multiplier (so far). There’s an audience hungry for diverse entertainment from diverse voices. And all of that is being planned to be discussed in the second part (and third, fourth, etc. if needed).

We’re not about clickbait here, so lets discuss the reality of the comic market, Marvel’s sales, and diversity in 2016 using facts and the data we have. First up, lets look at the industry as a whole.

Here’s the reality according to the numbers.

Fact: 2016 had more UNITS shipped by Diamond than 2015

Fact: 2016 had less revenue in due to an average lower cover price (ie the hold the line at $2.99 dropped the average). The industry lost roughly $9 million or about $3000-$4000 per shop.

Fact: January 2017 had the most units shipped for a January in 20 years.

Fact: February 2017 was 5% more units shipped than February 2016. If the end of 2016 sucked you’d see a big downturn in units shipped about now. That’s not happening.

All of this data is based on the excellent reporting of ComiChron based on Diamond’s estimated shipping numbers. Now, what’s shipped isn’t what’s sold, far from it. But, you’d think stores are smart enough to order about what they can sell and if a series begins to tank orders will adjust over time and we’d see a rapid decline eventually.

What’s reported so far is Diamond Comic Distributor’s estimated sales. Diamond is the primary distributor for comic shops, so this is some of the prime data that we’d want to look at to see the “health” of how shops are doing. Again, I stress as I always do that this data is estimates and not perfect in any way.

diamond-data-2016

But what’s the year to year like? Below we see the gains and losses for 2015 and 2016.

diamond-data-2016-year-to-year

That’s a bunch of red in 2016 compared to 2015.

  • All comic sales are down in dollars
  • The Top 300 is down in dollars
  • The combined top 300 comics and TPBs are down in dollars
  • The average price of the top 300 weighted by orders is down

It’s not all bad though.

Comics not in the top 300 increased compared to 2015 selling 820,000 units more. Trade paperbacks too saw a massive increase in dollar sales.

Unit sales have increased as well.

  • All comics increased by 1 million units from 2015
  • Top 300 comics increased by 180,000 units

Trade paperback sales are up. Non top 300 comic sales are up.

The problem is pretty clear from the data, even though there’s more comics being sold, they’re returning fewer dollars, and there are two data points that back that up.

Dollar sales for the top 300 comics is down nearly $9 million and add in the 11 cent decrease in cover price the picture is obvious. More is being sold at a lower price which is causing a pinch of dollars.

If I sell 1,000 units at $3.96 I make $3,960 but if I sell 1,025 units at $3.85 I make $3,946.25. Even though I sold MORE comics, I’m making LESS money.

It’s unknown exactly how many shops there are in the United States but estimates has it between 2,000 and 3,000 shops. $9 million split that way equals some serious dollars.

shops-loss

To emphasize how big of a shift just 11 cents a cover makes. If 2016 sales had 2015’s cover price the dollars sold would have increased $15.871 million in 2016 compared to 2015.

That’s a lot of money per local comic shop that’s vanished. Take into account some shops are doing well, that means there’s potentially a bigger loss for other shops. Those numbers above represent a month’s rent at least for some shops gone. Even with margins, these numbers show shops absolutely should be feeling a money pinch compared to 2015 and that there’s something that needs to be corrected.

It’s pretty clear cover prices are a major problem for the 2016 comic market. But what about the myth that diversity is the problem? We’ll discuss that in the next article. Stay tuned for part 2!

 

The Comics Are All Right is a regular featured column looking at the positive and negative in the comic industry using data and measurable statistics.

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10 comments

  • Lower comic prices aren’t the problem. I reckon the reason median comic prices have decreased is because retailers get better sell through to customers with lower prices so they buy more of the lower priced comics. If not for the $2.99 pricing, I expect DC sales numbers would be a lot worse and with Marvel underperforming at the same time, it does not paint a pretty picture.

    January 2017 was higher because of Marvel’s 10% linewide free overship. February 2017 numbers were bumped up by $0.25 issues such as The Walking Dead #163 (750+K).

    Number of books released:

    February 2017
    Marvel – Comics – 104
    Marvel – GNs – 36
    DC – Comics – 82
    DC – GNs – 33

    February 2016
    Marvel – Comics – 80
    Marvel – GNs – 32
    DC – Comics – 78
    DC – GNs – 28

    February 2015
    Marvel – Comics – 79
    Marvel – GNs – 28
    DC – Comics – 94
    DC – GNs – 26

    When output increased by 17% (02/17 vs 02/16) but unit sales only increased by 5%, that means retailers are selling less copies per title. At low sales levels per title, every single unsold copy posts a bigger risk to one’s bottom line.

    Also note that December 2016 saw some massive targeted free overships from Marvel. Based on unit and dollar rankings, I calculated estimated free overships at around 400K, iirc. Without the overships, the Top 300 Comics for 2016 would actually be down from 2015.

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    • Except you’re looking at two months. Again here’s the facts for the entire year:
      2016 shipped more units than 2015
      The average cover price dipped
      That’s $9 million lost in 2016 compared to 2015
      That’s $3k to $4k per shop

      That’s actual data we can work with.

      And I’d read this about overships/returnability http://blog.comichron.com/2016/09/ignore-asterisks-most-returnable-comics.html

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      • Returnability is different from free overships. Diamond adjusts numbers on returnable comics down by 10% hence the asterisk. The free overships are already included in Diamond’s reported numbers.

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        • Understand they’re different, but returnable you’re still seeing sellouts for some and new printings. We have no idea what was actually returned, for all we know it all sold.

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          • This:
            http://www.comicsbeat.com/marvel-month-to-month-sales-chart-january-february-2017-two-in-one/

            Probably means most are not selling out.

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            • Or it’s normal attrition?

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              • Yep. Standard attrition. The continuing decrease in numbers post-overship suggest retailers didn’t under order and imply most of the overships didn’t sell out.

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    • And for another take on what $2.99 vs $3.99 means http://blog.comichron.com/2016/12/the-difference-dollar-makes-what-2016.html

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      • I’ve already read that article, too.

        “There’s no attempt here to engage issues of whether additional sampling prompted by lower prices may help sales on graphic novels or the rest of the line; that’s a reasonable proposition, but difficult to test. I also am not exploring the added marginal costs to retailers of handling the additional cheaper books. But as we get further into the “what if?” game of 2016, it’s worth knowing how much of a difference a dollar in the right place might have made. In this case, the answer is likely not to be decisive for the industry at large; individual stores on the edge may be another story.”

        Of course, you do also have this linked from that article:
        http://www.comicsbeat.com/why-are-the-comics-retailers-worried-about-mass-store-closings/

        Personally, at $3.99 monthly, I would’ve tried DC Rebirth titles. At $3.99 double shipped (or $7.98/mo per title)? Forget it. The higher prices? Probably drive more people towards places like DCBS and Midtown with comics at 35-40% off instead of their LCS.

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        • I’ve read that article and I think Todd’s analysis is flawed in that it’s a small sample on hearsay. Talking to local shops myself they’ve had a record year and those are shops that have made sure to diversify from Marvel and DC, embrace shop events like themed nights, advertise, and engage. What you’re most likely seeing is what happened with record stores where stagnant stores stuck in the old ways went out of business and those who are active remained.

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