Comic Book Publishing Follies

Sun, January 27th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

2007 – THE YEAR IN THE BACK OF THE CATALOG

Yes, everyone does a year end look at trends. Want an opinion of what sold well for DC, Marvel and the rest of the guys in the front of the Diamond catalog? It's not hard to find one. Want to hear about how well the collected edition of 300 sold? Personally, I'm waiting for the annual BookScan list to get leaked, but that's just me, but you can find discussions about that elsewhere, too. What I'm going to look at are the independent publishers who dwell in the back of the Diamond Previews catalog, a section many comic shopkeepers skim over, or even skip entirely. And because there's been enough gloom and doom this week, I'm going to glance over the sales estimates and try and pick out the high points for the various publishers. What is the best that a publisher has been able to do? What could you reasonably expect to do if you jumped into the back of the catalog? Call it a benchmark. Call it a series of high water marks. Let's start with the monthly issue, or "pamphlet" as some people call them.

SINGLE ISSUES

[Note: there's a case to be made for bumping the Diamond estimates up by 10-20%. These numbers also aren't likely to include reorders, if the book got hot after it hit the shelves, so bear that in mind as well.]

When looking at what's actually selling in the back of the catalog, I'm taken back to the 1950s and early 1960s. If you were to take a look at John Jackson Miller's 1960 sales estimates for comics, you'd see an awful lot of licensed comics as top sellers. #1 is "Uncle Scrooge"; #2 "Walt Disney's Comics and Stories"; #5 "Mickey Mouse"; #9 "Looney Toons"; #14 "The Lone Ranger"; #14 "Casper"; and while I don't see a ranking for "Tarzan," it's probably only because Miller couldn't find a record for it. Licensed comics used to be the biggest sellers.

Guess what? You throw the front of the Diamond catalog out of the sales picture, you see a lot of licensed books at the top. For that matter, you throw DC and Marvel out and you still see a lot of licensed books. Dark Horse does well with "Star Wars" and "Conan". Remember "Aliens" and "Predator" were good to the Horse, even before the franchises crossed over. In the back of the catalog, you see IDW, Dynamite Entertainment, and Devil's Due doing a lot of business with licensed properties.

The bestselling single issue in the back of the catalog for 2007? "Angel After The Fall" #1, moving an estimated 47,563 copies in November for IDW, over 9,000 copies of a second printing in December, and I'm hearing about a third printing being available soon. Yes, the "Buffy" fanbase has discovered comics, and this is one to watch for 2008. So the best-seller is a licensed book. And I suppose you're going to ask me what the best selling comic for an original character is?

The second bestselling single issue for 2007 was "The Boys" #9, from Dynamite Entertainment, clocking in at an estimated 32,570 copies. I know, I know. "The Boys" was originally published by Wildstorm/DC, moving to Dynamite when upper management at DC decided the content was a wee bit too provocative for their tastes. Remember the name of this book's writer, Garth Ennis, he'll be popping up again before long. You might not think that counts as a back of the catalog book. Too bad, I don't think Dynamite is apologizing for it, and #9 was not the first issue they published, so this isn't a first issue spike, either. Still, I'll concede that much like "Angel" is an abnormally good seller for IDW, "The Boys" is way out ahead for Dynamite. Both publishers will peak in the low 20K's for their better selling licensed books, and these two are the big dogs of the back of the catalog.

Moving on to the publisher with the next highest bestseller, we come to Archaia Studios Press, who struck gold with the very popular "Mouse Guard" Series. "Mouse Guard: Winter 1152" #1 moved an estimated 19,656 copies in August of 2007. "Mouse Guard" came out of nowhere during the 2006 convention season, and harkens back to the days of "Bone" and "Cerebus," but we'll get to the old guard soon enough. You want an undisputedly indy, original creation? "Mouse Guard" has no corporate fingerprints. (You probably won't find it at Wal-Mart, either, if such things bother you.)

Next up, we have veteran licensers Devil's Due, who hit highest with "GI Joe vs. Transformers" #1 #1 in January with an estimated 17,269 copies. The GI Joe license is up for renewal soon, and various publishers have been bidding on it. Suffice it to say, Devil's Due loses a lot of numbers if Marvel/IDW/Dynamite gets their hands on said license.

Next up we have Avatar, which seems to be picking up some steam recently. You may have heard of a writer named Warren Ellis? Avatar's top two titles of 2007 are both penned by him. While the series has been selling extremely steady numbers, issue #3 of "Black Summer" moved an estimated 16,532 copies in October. That would be the #2 or #3 best selling original property, depending on how anal you want to be with "The Boys." The other Ellis title, the less sensationalistic "Doktor Sleepless" was estimated at 10,607 copies in July.

Next we have another original property, Aspen's "Iron & The Maiden" #1 from August, clocking in at an estimated 15,408 copies.

Moving right along we find UDON topping out in January with an estimated 15,225 copies of "Street Fighter II" #6. Chalk up another one in the licensed category.

Next we have the end of an era, with the last issue, #90, of the long-running "Strangers in Paradise" jumping up to 14,992 in June.

The numbers are going to start sliding more quickly from here, as we go to a licensed book from Oni, a publisher that doesn't do as many monthlies as they used to. "Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen" #1 moved an estimated 12,802 in July.

Zenescope moves into an odd space with the next slot. Specializing in provocative updates of fairy tales and the like, I'm not sure if public domain properties are exactly the same as licensing, though they'd have to be similar, but I do know that "Grimm Fairy Tales: Return To Wonderland" #1 was estimated to move 12,119 copies in June.

The eleventh highest-reaching publisher for a monthly was Burlyman Entertainment. Not the highest volume publisher out there, but Geof Darrow and the Wachowski's were good for an estimated 11,946 for "Shaolin Cowboy" # 7 in May.

Then you've got Steve Rude, who decided he'd put Nexus out himself. (If you want a job done right, after all…) Rude Dude's "Nexus #99 "Space Opera" (yes, that's right, #99 is the first new issue) was estimated at 11,009 copies in June.

Next, we've got another fellow who's been hanging around the back of the catalog for a while. Old fogies out there may remember Jim Balent from his days on Catwoman, but his "Tarot: Witch Of The Black Rose" is nearing 50 issues, and #47 was estimated at 9,642 copies for Balent's Broadsword imprint in November.

Our next publisher is the most famous brand name in the entire catalog: Virgin. (Insert your own fanboy joke here, go on, it's easy.) You really don't know if Virgin has a ton of sales in other channels, but I expect their best seller might have moved a large amount of copies in the UK that I'm not going to hear about. That Ennis guy from "The Boys" authored a "Dan Dare" revival for Virgin and the first issue was estimated at 9,434 copies in November, which is the publisher's best showing to date. "Dan Dare" is an original comic character from the 1950s, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to throw this one in the licensed column.

Dropping a thousand copies or so, we now come to NBM and "Tales From The Crypt" #1, which was estimated at 8,126 copies in June. Again with the licenses.

With another sharp drop, we come to BOOM! "Warhammer: Forge Of War" #1 gets estimated at 6,720 copies in the month of June. Remember, BOOM! has plenty of original work, but that's a licensed book leading the way in initial orders for them.

Just below that licensed game adaptation, we have something that may not be entirely reflective of reality. Slave Labor sells a lot of comics through channels not named Diamond. They sell new printing of comics that are several years old and have cult followings, like "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac." I can only tell you that their highest charting book was "Gargoyles" #3, licensed from Disney and estimated at 6,504 copies in February. With Slave Labor, I actively doubt that's their best selling title, and it may not be a remotely accurate number. Slave Labor is their own critter.

With the eighteenth highest charting publisher, we move on over to the art house side of things with "Optic Nerve" #11 from Drawn and Quarterly, hitting for an estimated 5,831 copies in April. Like Slave Labor, I suspect this number might be a little low, as D&Q will have some other channels, though not to the extent of Slave Labor.

Here's a blast from the past. Is it licensing if a publisher adapts a film based on their comic? That's a grey area, but the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie Adaptation" #1 paved the way for Mirage with 5,206 copies in April.

Let's not get into the legal disputes Harris has to deal with, but "Vampirella Quarterly Spring 07" sprung for an estimated 5,189 copies, again in April, to round out the 20th best performance

Your favorite back of the catalog publisher isn't here? Then they probably didn't have a topping 5,100 copies in the estimates. And that should probably make you a little nervous, because unless they have some alternate sales channels, that's really not a lot of books, especially if you're splitting the revenue between several people.

Trends: Licensing seems to be doing better than original works, but then again, if you're reading this, you've probably heard of "Transformers" and "GI Joe," but you may not have heard of "Shaolin Cowboy" or "Black Summer." It's easier to sell a product the customer is already familiar with, than it is to introduce them to a new good, and the comic shopkeepers who bother to dip into the back of the catalog are well aware of this. Not all of them, but that's a full-fledged trend.

The "name" creators moving books in large ways were writers in 2007. Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis being the biggies. Is it an anti-authoritarian UK thing? More likely, it's easier for a writer to produce extra work, than it is for an artist. Ennis and Ellis are also two of the highest profile scribes not tied down to an exclusive contract. Want to kill off some independents? Keep the big guns tied to exclusives and/or busy with your books.

If you're looking at this market with an eye towards your original property, there doesn't seem to be a lot of material selling over the 10K mark, and that should give people some pause.

Looking to 2008: Keep an eye on that "Angel" series. Anything with a third printing is likely to have the monthly issues start creeping up in initial orders. The big fight for best selling back of the catalog book will be between "Angel" and "Project Superpowers." "Project Superpowers" is the Alex Ross project from Dynamite Entertainment. Reviving and reinventing a number of public domain Golden Age heroes, a little birdie tells me their $1 zero issue was ordered in the range of 120K+, and I'd expect Alex Ross for a buck to move briskly, though we'll see what the "normally" priced issues bring. I'm inclined to think Ross will rule in the direct market, but when you start talking third printing for "Angel," I start smelling a contest.

Keep an eye on that "GI Joe" license. There's a movie coming out, and you know after "Transformers" did well, Hasbro is going to want to get paid for that license. And the winner could be looking at some mainstream dollars for it.

Keep an eye on Avatar. They work with both Ennis and Ellis, and have done some licensed work in the past.

If "Project Superpowers" can retain over 50% of the orders for that zero issue, the indies are going to start looking a lot more attractive to top flight artists, depending, of course, on their risk tolerance.

And finally, 2008 is the year of the old school reboot. New series from indy legends Dave Sim, Jeff Smith and Terry Moore. With Sim and Smith, they've been out of the indy circuit for a while, but have moved a ton of books in the past. What level of readership can the reclaim and will their blast-from-the-past names convince more retailers to crack the back of the catalog?

GRAPHIC NOVELS

In the current publishing economy, I'd be remiss if I didn't also discuss the sales of graphic novels, but I have to establish some ground rules for these numbers. Graphic novels tend to get reordered with much greater frequency than single comic issues. You could sell 1,000 copies a month, maybe show up at the bottom of the Diamond chart 3 times, thus selling 12,000 copies while the observer can only see that you've sold 3,000. That's why the BookScan numbers for graphic novels, imperfect as they may be, are a lot more accurate a reading for graphic novel sales for the bookstore world, than the monthly Diamond estimates are for the direct market world.

What you can say about these monthly Diamond charts is that they indicate heat. These are, by and large, books the comic shopkeeper thinks will be moved relatively quickly upon arrival. Most retailers aren't going to order a year's supply of a graphic novel when it debuts, rather they'll order what they think will sell, perhaps with one left over, and if/when that goes, they'll order more. That said, let's see how hot the best book of the various publishers was in a given month.

The hottest back of the catalog graphic novel, at the time of release for 2007 was "Mouse Guard Vol 1 Fall 1152." A hardcover, no less, it had estimated initial orders of 7,604 copies in May for Archaia Studios. There's a lot of DC and Marvel graphic novels that don't sell 7,604 in their first month, so call that pretty healthy, and that would be an original property, not a licensed product, even though it was only the #8 graphic novel for what was a very big month for the format.

Coming in second, also debuting in May of 2007, would be the first tpb of "The Boys," with an estimated 7,339 copies. If, again, you want to be anal about "The Boys," this is a back of the catalog release of material originally published by Wildstorm/DC. And, again, I don't think Dynamite is likely to apologize for that. They're probably quite content.

Next, you knew manga was going to show up pretty soon, didn't you? TokyoPop got all the way up to #3 on the August chart when "Fruit Basket Vol 17" was estimated at 6,665. Manga isn't at the levels it is at the mall, but it continues to creep up the charts.

Speaking of which, "Naruto Vol 13" was the #2 book in March with an estimated 6,287 copies. Viz is much bigger in the Borders/B&N marketplace.

Then Mr. Ennis pops up again. Remember where I said that Avatar was picking up some steam? They had the #1 graphic novel for December, Ennis' "Chronicles Of Wormwood: The Last Enemy." You can debate whether 48 pages constitute a graphic novel or a one-shot, but Avatar moved an estimated 6,023 copies at a $7.99 price point. Similarly, Avatar's other star scribe, Mr. Ellis, moved 4,424 copies of "Crecy," another 48 page unit listed with the graphic novels at a $6.99 price point in July.

You knew IDW would have to do alright with "30 Days Of Night" with a movie coming out. The Diamond chart peaked with 4,851 in October, but I expect the heavy action on that occurred in the malls, as the book's been popular in the comic shops for a few years, now.

November saw Oni's biggest initial order score with "Scott Pilgrim Vol 4 Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together" estimated at 4,683 copies.

Hey, it's time to talk Disney, just like 1960. Sort of. Gemstone's "Uncle Scrooge Adventures: Land Of The Pygmy Indians / War Of The Wendigo" was estimated at 3,354. Again, we're talking 64 pages and a $8.50 price point, and I would understand if you were starting to think the line had blurred between a graphic novel and the old Dark Knight/Prestige format that showed up on the comic book sales chart.

Chris Ware is a big name in literary circles, but not so big in the direct market. Ware's "Acme Novelty Library Vol 18" was estimated at an initial 3,346 copies for Drawn and Quarterly in December.

It's been a few slots since manga popped up, and now ADV Manga charts with initial orders for "Yotsuba Manga Vol 5" coming in at 3,204 in October.

Then you've got the Del Rey manga line, which reached its 2007 apex with an estimated 3,135 copies of "Negima Vol 13" in February. Yes, there are a ton of players in the manga game.

Remember Zenescope from the single issue list? Their "Grimm Fairy Tales Vol 2 TPB" was estimated at 2,670 copies in October, with all the manga pushing them a bit lower in the publisher pecking order for the graphic novel category.

Devil's Due turns up next, not for "GI Joe," but for their "Dungeons & Dragons" license, which yielded "Forgotten Realms Vol 5 Streams Silver," hitting for an estimated 2,524 in August.

We're not done with manga. No, sir. Digital Manga Publishing is the next publisher on the hit parade with an estimated 2,909 copies of Hideyuki Kikuchis "Vampire Hunter D Vol. 1" shipping in November.

Back in the licensed realm (although you could consider manga a form of licensing, just as easily as translated original), Udon's "Street Fighter Vol 3 Fighters Destiny" was estimated at 2,608 copies ordered in March.

Heard of Top Shelf? In 2009, they'll start publishing Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentleman," which will likely put "The Boys" to shame in terms of properties migrating to the back of the catalog. For 2007, however, their pinnacle in the direct market was an initial order of 2,541 copies of "Owly Tp Vol 04 Dont Be Afraid," in the month of December.

Then there's another mainstream publisher, only this one isn't putting out manga. Scholastic maintains an interest in the direct market with the colorized editions of Bone, in this case, "Bone Vol 5 Rock Jaw Master O/Eastern Border Color Ed" generating initial orders of 2,342 copies last January.

Wondering where Fantagraphics has been? The short answer is probably "at a discount on Amazon," but in terms of the direct market, their flagship comic strip reprint project peaked for 2007 with "Complete Peanuts Vol 7 1963-1964" fetching estimated orders of 2,167 in April.

Why haven't we been talking about webcomics as graphic novels? Let's talk about them now. Phil Foglio switched his "Girl Genius" out of single issue comics to webcomics, but he'll still do a collected edition in print. To whit, I must site Studio Foglio as number nineteen for the peak selling publishers with "Girl Genius Vol 6" garnering 2,116 orders for the August period.

Finally, August also brought the final volume of "Strangers in Paradise," "Strangers In Paradise Vol 19 Ever After," in a virtual tie with "Girl Genius" at 2,109 copies ordered.

That's your top 20 publishers by best graphic novel orders in a month.

Now if you wanted to compare that to Diamond's Top 100 list for graphic novels in 2007, you'd find some interesting things. While I don't have total sales estimates on these rankings, look at where back of the catalog books fall, will reveal something about how that market works.

#15: THE BOYS VOL 01


#26: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT


#38: MOUSE GUARD VOL 1 FALL 1152 HC


#74: FRUITS BASKET VOL 16


#78: NARUTO VOL 13


#83: DEATH NOTE VOL 1 (Viz)


#91: NARUTO VOL 1


#92: NARUTO VOL 14


#95: DEATH NOTE VOL 12


#97: FRUITS BASKET VOL 17


#99: NARUTO VOL 15

Mouse Guard might have had the most heat for the month it came out, but "The Boys" had some very significant reorder activity, as did "30 Days of Night," flying largely under the radar. And those are the only three back of the catalog books in the top 100 that weren't manga.

While "Naruto" Vol. 13 was also the highest graphic novel in a given month for Viz, "Fruit Baskets" Vol. 16 wasn't the highest monthly charter for Tokyo Pop, so reorders would have been a factor here.

How many copies did "The Boys" sell? Hard to say, but likely well over 13K. CBR's own John Mayo has an estimate of 13,847 for a cumulative number.

And this is just the direct market side of graphic novels. Manga is much more popular in the traditional bookstore market, as would be something like "30 Days of Night," with a movie coming out.

Trends: Manga is creeping up the charts. This means more comic shopkeepers are biting the bullet and dealing with it. Many may be using a traditional, returnable, book distributor to try things out, but 5K+ copies ordered on a non-returnable basis, is not a trivial amount.

While the top 100 list doesn't have as much back of the catalog material, on a month-to-month basis, you see the indy's competing on a much more even footing with the front of the catalog offerings, for top sales. It might mean there's less re-ordering with the back of the catalog. It might mean that those indy titles would be more prevalent with a top 200 annual list.

Forecast: Just because you're an indy, doesn't mean you shouldn't be jumping into the trades. Expect more of it, but there could be a shakedown coming. There's only so much shelf space, and only so much backlist that the direct market can support. I expect that a series of graphic novels will have a much better shelf life than a one-shot.

If Avatar continues to have success marketing the old 48 page Prestige format as a graphic novel, expect more people to follow suit. The price point is good for the amount of material, and not out of line with their monthly titles (at least prior to the latest Warren Ellis bump). I'm sure some people would say it's the format of the European graphic album, as a cynic, I'd say if I were putting out a 48 page comic and wanted to hype the sales, I'd get a lot higher sales ranking off being on the graphic novels chart, than the "regular" comics chart. If I were feeling really cynical today, I'd ask if that graphic novel was really a "Chronicles of Wormwood" Annual?

Watch for more writers to take a dip in the indy pool, as the trades are moving in similar numbers to mid-tier Big 2 offerings, so the royalty incentive may be there. For artists incentive, you need to wait and watch for a Project Superpowers collection, likely in Q4 2008.

The Direct Market Back of the Catalog Book of the Year: Has to be "The Boys." It performs as a monthly and as a trade paper collection. "Angel" would give it a run for money if there were more issues out, but The Boys has made more money for more retailers, for the year.

The Direct Market Back of the Catalog Man of the Year: Garth Ennis. "The Boys" ruled the land, but you saw him authoring the top offering for Virgin, in "Dan Dare." His "Chronicles of Wormwood" graphic novel did very well for Avatar, taking the top spot on the December chart. While not matching the Warren Ellis numbers on his monthly Avatar books, he's still one of their better performers. The man is spreading it around and people are buying. In honor of his finding a new home for his jilted title and working with multiple publishers without a trendy exclusive contract, I think I'm going to have to start calling him "Little Orphan Ennis." You just don't know where his next script will be crashing for the night.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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