Tilting at Windmills

Thu, February 19th, 2009 at 11:58pm PST | Updated: February 20th, 2009 at 9:32am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

LOOKING AT BOOKSCAN: 2008

“There are none so blind as those that will not see"

Oh, will I or won’t I?

For the sixth year in a row, I’m going to try to figure out something that can only vaguely be seen and perceived: the size and shape of the sales of books through the book store market, as seen through the prism of BookScan.

Some preamble:

“Direct Market" stores (also known as “your Local Comics Shop") buy much of their material for resale from Diamond Comics Distributors (though, not, by any means, all – many DM stores are also buying from book distributors). DM stores seldom have Point-of-Sales (POS) systems (though this is rapidly changing), and, because we buy non-returnable, what we track is in our side of the industry is what sells-in to the store, not what sells-through to the eventual consumer. In a very real way, this means that the DM store owner is the actual customer of the publisher, as opposed to the end consumer.

The bookstore market, however, buys their material returnable, where they can send back some portion of titles that don’t sell. Because of this, sell-through is the data that is tracked and trended. Bookstores that have POS systems are able to report their sales to BookScan, a subsidiary of Nielsen.

Each week, BookScan generates a series of reports detailing the specific sales to consumers through its client stores. I have several well trained spies who have, for several years, provided me with access to the BookScan reports.

If you go over here you can find a copy of the 2008 BookScan Top 750 year end report for the comics category.

(For points of comparison, try these links [not all of which may work any longer]:

For the last three years, what I’ve been given is the actual end-of-the-year total report, as opposed to 2003-2005 where I only had the report for the last week of the year. The effective difference for a casual chart reader is probably very little, but it does change some of the value in the percentage changes year-to-year. Please bear it in mind when comparing this year’s report to the previous ones – comparing 2008 to 2006-2007 is probably as close to apples-to-apples as it can get, as is 2003-to-2004-to-2005, but comparing the ’06-08 data to ’03-’05 isn’t going to be necessarily as valuable, and any analysis I can make of comparative growth is going to be off by some factor, possibly a significant one.

The biggest and most obvious difference when doing straight comparisons will be in the lower ends of the chart. This year, the “worst selling" book in the Top 750 is about 4300 copies (it was ~4400 copies in ’07). In ’03-‘05 there would be 200 or more items that didn’t have YTD sales in that amount.

Also of major note is that for both 2007 and 2008, I have the full and entire BookScan listing, down to books that have only one copy sold YTD. However, I’m not going to provide that entire list because that’s too much data, even for a data-junkie like myself. I’ve cut the list off at 750 items because that’s what we’ve reported in the previous five years. Still, I have the deeper data, and I’ll add a quick summary section for it a bit further down. Presuming I continue to get that much data going forward, I should be able to tell you a few things about “The Long Tail." In 2008, I possess data on more than 17,500 items! We’ll talk more about this later.

This is not a list of every book that sold through every book store – the report is limited to those stores that report through BookScan. According to BookScan, more than 7500 venues are now reporting to them, but this still leaves many venues that don’t. Like I said in my first analysis:

But who are the retailers who report to BookScan? According to the list that I have, there are over 7400 potential BookScan venues. This list includes almost 300 independent bookstores, as well as chain retailers, B. Dalton / Barnes and Noble, Borders / Waldenbooks, Tower Music and Books, Musicland, Deseret Book Company (Mormon bookstores), Follett Stores (University bookstores), Hastings, Costco, K-Mart, and Target. BookScan also tracks online sales from Amazon.com, B&N.com, Borders.com, Buy.com, Fatbrain.com, and Powells.com.

That’s still a fair number of places that sell our product that aren’t represented – beyond traditional book retailers who don’t report to BookScan (Say, a number of indie bookstores), and mass market retailers like Wal-Mart. This also doesn’t track any number of other channels -- like library sales, or other specialty markets like, say, LGBT stores, etc. This Publisher’s Weekly article [from 2003, I wish they’d check in on this story for the 2009 reality!] (you’ll have to subscribe to read it, sorry) says the following:

BookScan generally claims to represent between 70% and 75% of sales in the industry (Wal-Mart and some of the supermarket chains are among those who decline to report.) But a comparison with in-print figures supplied by publishers reveals that the numbers are more likely to represent about 65%, even after deducting for unsold books and returns.

For BookScan's top ten nonfiction titles published last year - a list that include mass-market favorites like Phil McGraw's diet books as well as indie hits like Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - no title had BookScan sales comprise more than 75% of total sales. For some of the books that had strong special-sales, they ran as low as 25%.

Frankly, I haven’t bothered to ask BookScan for a client list every year, so it is pretty likely that the number or percentage of reporting stores has increased significantly since 2003. However, I’m also going to continue to assume that the Publisher’s Weekly article is still accurate to the extent that these numbers are unreported by some potentially significant degree, and don’t, in any way, represent all “book stores" selling comic book material.

Also, remember that this analysis represents RETAIL SALES. This absolutely doesn’t include anything like Library sales, or School Sales, or things like book clubs and so on. Those are not RETAIL SALES. This is all about “person with an extra $20 in their pocket," so don’t conflate anything else from this.

There’s also a certain amount of miscategorization going on. As an example, every volume of the manga series “Love Hina" can be found in my full copy of the sales report, except for volume 2. In the Great Big Database there’s apparently an error and “Love Hina" volume 2 isn’t listed as a “graphic novel." Conversely, a few prose books always sneak on to the list – “Bloody Crown of Conan" makes its sixth annual appearance as a not-comic. I do not know what the actual extent of miscategorization might be and how it would impact any of the general data analysis!

Really, what I’m trying to get across to you is that this really is entirely unreliable data in terms of the absolute and total number of books sold, and is only able to give the broadest outline of what’s happening in book stores, based upon the data-set that I’m being given, which is in no way comprehensive. I still think that’s better than having no information, so I persevere in writing this each year.

As always, I strongly encourage you to look at the BookScan numbers on your own and make your own conclusions – I’m trying to be balanced and fair, but, of course, I have huge bookshelves worth of biases I’m dragging around with me, and your analysis might be more correct than my own.

Again, I want to stress that I’m doing my primary analysis on the Top 750 items: the reason for this is that is all that I was able to get in the first four years of this analysis, and otherwise the percentage changes I’m discussing will be even more wrong than they would be otherwise. Assuming I still get this information next year I may switch to a “full analysis" mode – having three consecutive years of it – but for the moment most of my attention is being paid to the top of the charts. In both 2007 and 2008 the Top 750 represents more than half of the total of the full list! While there are significant sales below the Top 750 (at least $98 million in 2008), the Top 750 probably represents the majority of items you’d be able to “easily" find on the shelf of a bookstore in America.

Story continues below

OK, that’s the boilerplate out of the way, let’s start looking at the data.

Here’s the big picture for the Top 750:

Year Total Units Growth Total Dollars Growth
2003 5,495,584 $66,729,053
2004 6,071,123 10.5% $67,783,487 1.6%
2005 7,007,345 15.4% $75,459,669 11.3%
2006 8,395,195 19.8% $90,411,902 19.8%
2007 8,584,317 2.3% $95,174,425 5.27%
2008 8,334,276 -2.9% $101,361,173 6.5%

The sum of the Top 750 in 2008 is down 2.9% in pieces from 2007 – down even a little from 2006 sales. (though the nearly 20% of growth in 2006 was almost certainly overstated because of the difference in reporting methodologies between 2005 and 2006. Read 2006’s report for more detail. My estimate was that it was probably closer to 10-12%) – dollars, however, were up by 6.5% in 2008.

There’s a clear slowdown in the growth of the bookstore market in 2008, and a good chunk of these results come from the softening of the manga category (more on that in a bit) – the raise in dollars comes largely from higher priced books, and more Western-generated comics being sold.

The open question here, however, is how much of this contraction in pieces comes from slowing consumer demand, and how much comes from cutbacks at stores like Borders, as they try to dig out of their financial hole?

John Jackson Miller calculates that, in the Direct Market, dollar sales of books were up by roughly 4%, a slower rate of increase than the bookstores. JJ didn’t say anything directly about pieces, however. Further, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, because the dataset that JJ is capturing in the DM tops out at 100 books a month (just raised to 300 books/month in December 2008)

Looking a little bit wider, into the whole of the BookScan report over the last two years where I have more data past just the Top 750:

Year # of
listed items
% Change Total Unit Sold % Change Total $ Sold % Change Av. Sale
per title
Av. $ per title
2007 13,181 ----- 15,386,549 ----- $183,066,142.30 ----- 1167 $13,888.64
2008 17,571 24.98% 15,541,769 1.00% $199,033,741.57 8.02% 885 $11,327.40

In other words, there were nearly 25% more books listed in the entirety of the 2008 BookScan chart than in 2007, and sales in pieces rose by 1%, with sales in dollars rising by just over 8%. Of course, one would hope that when one increases the number of SKUs (“Stock Keeping Units," or, in normal English “number of titles") that the number of pieces and dollars sold would increase in rough parity with your expanded SKUs. That it isn’t doing so would seem to suggest that there are more graphic novels and reprint collections being published than there is shelf space or customer dollars for. Further, the bottom of the chart seems to be increasing at a faster rate than the tops of the chart.

I would certainly expect that trend to continue, if not accelerate, into 2009.

The book selling the most pieces in 2008 was “Watchmen," with 308,396 sold. In the last six years, we’ve never seen a number of copies sold as great as that – that verges on triple the sales of previous years. That makes “Watchmen" the #1 dollar book, as well, with more than $6.1 million dollars sold, if they were sold at full retail. Given that last year we were dizzy over the $2.1 million sold of Frank Miller’s “300," this is nothing short of insane. If we assume that BookScan is only capturing 65% of book store sales, and we add Direct Market sales, and presumed sales into libraries and schools and whatnot, the paperback of “Watchmen" almost certainly sold far north of half-a-million copies, and $10 million dollars! Not so bad for a 22 year old book! And the movie hasn’t even been released yet…

“Watchmen’s" success stretches through the Top 750, with the hardcover edition coming in at position #67 (for nearly 24k copies and another million dollars sold), and “Watching the Watchmen" coming in at #342 and nearly 8k sold. The “Absolute Watchmen" slipcased hardcover also sells nearly 4k copies into the book channel, at #854 on the chart.

One can only imagine these numbers will be higher in 2009 once the movie and the DVD drops.

The second best selling title of 2008 was “Naruto" v28 with nearly 104k sold. This is markedly up from 2007’s 80k copies sold of Naruto v13 (the best selling book in 2007), showing that my ability to read a future trend is murky at best. Last year I supposed that “Naruto" was beginning to wane, but this is clearly not the case. In fact, every single volume of “Naruto" (through v33) charted this year, for a grand total of nearly 971k copies sold, and $7.7 million.

“Naruto" v1 sold about 36.5k copies, while the lowest selling volume (v12) sold about 12.5k copies.

Still, the 27 volumes of “Naruto" combined sold 1.18 million copies in 2007, versus 971k over 33 volumes in 2008, so there is a weakening in there. At a pure guess, it would seem that bookstores are racking the first half-dozen or so volumes, and the most recent dozen or so, and not stocking the ones in the middle.

There are six volumes of “Naruto" in the Top 10 in 2008 (v26-31, inclusive). The other three members of the Top 10 are “Batman: The Killing Joke HC" (62k), “The Complete Persepolis" (54k), and “Death Note" v1 (just under 50k)

In terms of gross dollars, obviously “Watchmen’s" $6.1 million is big winner, but there are two others: “The Complete Persepolis" ($1.3 million), and “Batman: The Killing Joke" ($1.1 million). The “Watchmen" HC comes close at $948k, but doesn’t quite make it. There were five “million dollar books" last year – none of those five repeated that trick this year. Last year’s #1 dollar book (Frank Miller’s “300") did under ten percent of the business it drove in 2007.

It might be worth noting that eight books in the Top 750 are listed with Alan Moore as author. Collectively those eight books sold $9.3 million, or not that far from 10% of all of the dollars sold of the Top 750!

If we assume that the article referenced above is correct, and that BookScan represents 65% of the sales through bookstores (and that might be significantly low), it might be surmised that the total dollar volume of comics in 2008 through bookstores might be around $267 million.

Historically, I’ve arbitrarily divvied the Top 750 list into one of five categories: Humor, Manga, DC, Marvel, and the ever-wonderful Everything Else. While such categorization is horrifically subjective, I did it so to try and track the distinctions between “traditional" bookstore material (e.g., humor books like “Garfield" or “Far Side"); Direct Market-driven material (i.e., Marvel, DC, and most of the “Everything Else" group); and Manga.

This year, however, I am bowing to the inevitable and giving up on the “humor" category, because it only came in at 4 items this year. It is virtually certain that this is because most of those kinds of items (typically strip collections like “Calvin & Hobbes," etc.) have been recategorized to not appear on the charts I receive. I will now throw whatever comes into this category into the “Everything Else" section. That will throw the percentages off a bit, but I think it will make intent a good deal clearer.

So, here’s the year-to-year comparison between my categories:

For Manga:

Once again, the largest section of titles, by far. In 2008, Manga continues to dominate with 514 spots (out of 750) on the charts for 5.6 million pieces, and $53 million in retail dollars.

Here’s a year-to-year comparison chart for the Top 750:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 447 3,361,966 $34,368,409
2004 518 4,603,558 $45,069,684
2005 594 5,691,425 $53,922,514
2006 575 6,705,624 $61,097,050
2007 575 6,837,355 $61,927,238
2008 514 5,624,101 $53,033,579

Just to get a little meta here, over the years several manga-related blogs copied out this section (and just this section) of the report. If you’re reading this in a report not on Comic Book Resources, I strongly urge you to go to the source link and read the preamble to this article – several facts about reporting methodology change from year to year, and may change your perception of the numbers!

Despite still being the dominant “kind" of comic on the BookScan charts, manga is down substantially in 2008 – placing the lowest number of titles since 2004, and placing dollar and piece sales more in line with 2005.

It isn’t just within the Top 750, either, here is a look at the entire BookScan charts:

Year # of
listed items
% Change Total Unit Sold % Change Total $ Sold % Change Av. Sale
per title
Av. $ per title
2007 6231 --- 11,323,487 --- $108,770,537 --- 1817 $17,456.35
2008 7842 20.54% 10,173,091 -11.31% $100,800,283 -7.91% 1297 $12,853.90

While average sales and average gross dollars are well over the average of the entire market, total pieces and total dollars sold dropped precipitously – this is despite (or perhaps because of) an escalating number of manga books hitting the market.

So, the question is: why is manga declining overall? Obviously one key reason might be the overproduction of manga titles beyond the rack space that is available to them. If one has one hundred linear feet in which to display a category of items, and one hundred and fifty feet worth of books are made available, then clearly something has to give. There simply does not appear to be the physical room to display all of the comics produced each year. But this would appear to be as true for “Western" comics as it is for the “Eastern" manga. Yet manga appears to be suffering a far greater contraction.

There are a couple of possible reasons. One contender might be that key buyers at the large bookstore chains are not (I think) the same people that they were in 2007. Different buyers are naturally going to bring a different emphasis. Another possibility is that the “rising tide" of cultural acceptance of comics-driven material has made “Western" comics more attractive to book buyers. “Western" comics generally have higher price points than manga. If one is looking at a bottom-line oriented analysis of dollars-per-square-foot, that $19.95 copy of “Watchmen" looks a lot more attractive than the $7.95 “Naruto," presuming they’re selling an equivalent amount of copies from roughly the same amount of rack space. This is, of course, what pushed comics off of the “newsstand" – bottom-line oriented numbers crunchers say that a rack of sunglasses generated more dollars-per-square-foot than a rack of comics, so the comics went away.

Further most (not all, but most) Manga is deep in the number-of-volumes per series. “Naruto" now has more than thirty-eight volumes in print, with many more to come. A bottom-line oriented look at what to stock and what not is going to say “Well, ‘Naruto’ sells very well, but to stock it all takes something like seven linear feet – maybe we don’t need to stock this thing which is somewhat similar to ‘Naruto,’ and also takes another four feet to display." “Western" comics tend to be more self-contained, and, even in multi-volume series, take up less rack space due to thinner volumes.

I also think it may be possible that manga has begun to hit some of the audience truths that Western comics have known for a long time. Historically, for the periodical comic, it was generally understood that the younger portions of the audience were only onboard for, say, four to six years – they started reading comics at age eight, they continued until twelve or thirteen, then they discovered girls or sports or cars or drugs, or whatever, and they stopped reading comics altogether at that point. The modern Direct Market allowed the production of work that appealed thematically to adults, and brought people back to the form once they became of college age, keeping them as customers for another twenty years or more. What I suspect is possible is that some of the longest term readers of modern manga production may now be starting to “age out" of material aimed at younger readers, but have not made the jump (or found the properties that engage them) as older readers.

Still, regardless of the return to 2005 levels of sales, 68% of the Top 750 are manga volumes. Manga represents 67% of pieces sold within the Top 750, and 52% of the dollars. It is still the clear category leader. Looking at the full list of 2008 titles, manga represents 65% of pieces sold, and just over half of the dollars sold, while being about 45% of the number of items tracked.

The winner of 2008, just as it was in 2006 and 2007, unquestionably is “Naruto." With 33 volumes in print in 2008, “Naruto" racked up about 971k copies sold, for $7.7 million, or nearly 10% of all manga sold, and about 8% of the dollars. That’s a big percentage, either way you look at it.

This, however, is down from 2007, where “Naruto" collectively sold 1.18 million copies over 27 volumes.

“Naruto" v28 is the top performer in the category for 2008, with nearly 104k copies sold. “Naruto" volumes are six of the Top 10 items, and eleven of the Top 50, twenty-two of the Top 100. The “worst selling" volume of “Naruto" (v14 with 12.5k copies sold) places at #164 in the overall BookScan listing. This is far below last year (v10 at about 28k sold)

“Naruto," of course, isn’t the only success story in the manga category: “Death Note," “Fruits Basket," “Warriors Manga," “Pokemon," “Vampire Knight" and “Bleach" all place into the Top 20 best-selling manga titles.

As is typical, most of the time if a series charts into the Top 750, all volumes of that series chart there – of the 514 “manga" titles that I have identified, there are approximately 130 different properties represented. Again, the most popular titles appear to be squeezing the less popular titles from the racks.

One thing I note this year is that several series that dominated in previous years (examples: “Love Hina," “Chobits," “FLCL," “Inu Yasha") have largely been pushed out of the Top 750 – some volumes are there, but no where near the volume of previous years.

Breaking down the manga portion of the chart by publisher, Viz takes 300 of the 514 manga spots, making them the clear dominant player. Of the data set we’re looking at, Viz charted 3.7 million pieces, for just over $33 million – that’s down about 900k pieces and $6m from 2007.

58% of manga in the Top 750 is published by Viz, and they’re almost 45% of the number of pieces sold of the whole Top 750 (manga or not) – that’s a breathtaking performance. Viz’s mean “average" title within the Top 750 sold 12,497 copies per book. Their median title sold about 8200 copies.

Viz’s strongest performers are (in rough order) “Naruto," “Death Note," “Pokemon," “Vampire Knight" and “Bleach." 71% of the Top 100 Manga titles are one of those five properties. Viz also did well with “Rosario+Vampire," “Fullmetal Alchemist" and “Absolute Boyfriend," all of which had a volume chart over 20k copies.

Tokyopop is the #2 manga publisher, with 125 titles charting in the Top 750 –Tpop brings in 1.2 million pieces, $12.1 million retail dollars. They’re about a third of Viz’s size in the BookScan Top 750. Still that’s “one third of ginormous," so there’s nothing to cry about there. Further, I’m led to understand that Tpop does really well with some of their titles (like “High School Musical") in the school and book fair markets, neither of which, of course, are included here.

Tpop’s strongest performers in the bookstore market are “Fruits Basket," “Warriors’ manga, “Kingdom Hearts," “Chibi Vampire" and “Hack G U V." Tpop’s best seller in 2008 was Fruits Basket v19 with about 49k copies sold. Outside of the titles listed above they have nothing that sells over 20k. Their mean average is 9600 copies sold, while their median title did about 7200 copies.

Coming in at #3 is Del Rey, with 62 books charting, for about 455k pieces and just a hair over $5 million retail dollars. Mean average of about 7300, median of about 6200. Their average numbers are up a bit from 2007, and they have at least three BookScan charting titles that aren’t manga: the “Dresden Files" HC (their 2nd best selling comic), the “Essential Batman Encyclopedia," and the perennial not-comic “Bloody Crown of Conan." Their best selling title in 2008 was the manga-ish adaptation of Dean Koontz’s “In Odd We Trust," with 25,588 copies sold.

#4 is Dark Horse, but they only place 12 manga books for 73,522 pieces and $892k retail. Mean average about 6100, median about 5200. Best seller was “Blood+" v12 coming in at 11,212 copies sold. Six of the twelve Dark Horse books placing are “Hellsing."

No other manga publisher manages to place more than three titles in the manga category of the Top 750. DC’s CMX places none (ugh!) – someone needs to explain to me how/why CMX is still dropping a half-dozen or more books a month?

The best selling of the remaining 15 titles (and the only one over 10k) is “Vampire H" v1 from Digital Manga Publishing at 12,081.

Viz and Tokyopop combined represent 87.5% of the total number of pieces sold of manga in the Top 750 in 2008. This is down from 95% in 2007, but it is still incredibly lopsided – more lopsided, in fact, than the Marvel/DC hegemony in the Direct Market.

Looking at things more generally, manga as a whole represents 3 of the Top 5, 13 of the Top 20, 37 of the Top 50, and 69 of the Top 100 for 2008 – those are all down from 2007. There are six manga titles (from all publishers) that sell 50k or more copies in 2008 (only one beats 100k), forty-three beat 25k, and one hundred and sixty-three beat 10k

It will take a much more edumicated person than myself to divide out the chart by Japanese genre (shonen, shojo, josei, etc) – if you do so and come to any meaningful conclusions, drop me a line and let me know!

Let’s move on to the Western publishers…

For DC:

2008 was a banner year for DC, in the bookstores. They placed 71 titles in the Top 750, with total unit sales of 1,015,864, and $19,805,098 in retail dollar sales.

Here’s a year-to-year comparison chart:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 74 336,569 $6,151,258
2004 39 179,440 $3,135,983
2005 42 298,484 $5,440,001
2006 59 551,160 $10,246,082
2007 58 487,467 $9,953,976
2008 71 1,015,864 $19,805,098

DC more than doubled their performance in the bookstores in 2008. And while “Watchmen" accounts for a lot of that, as well as the trickle down impact of “The Dark Knight" in the theaters, it seems clear that their new bookstore partnership with Random House’s distribution has yielded amazing results for them.

As noted towards the top of this article, “Watchmen" (and Alan Moore more generally) is, by far, the story of the year here. “Watchmen" sold more than 308k copies in 2008, up from 45k in 2007, 37k in 2006, and 17k in 2005. Last year my best guess for this year’s number was in the 80k range. Wow, I was stupendously wrong! Given that the film opens in March, and will probably be on DVD before Christmas, I’ll guess they’ll post 400k in the 2009 chart. Even if the film flops. If it hits big? I guess it is even possible they’ll break three quarters of a million through BookScan numbers…

Looking past just the Top 750 down into the long tail shows a less astonishing spike, but it is still massive growth nonetheless:

Year # of
listed items
% Change Total Unit Sold % Change Total $ Sold % Change Av. Sale
per title
Av. $ per title
2007 1644 --- 1,181,218 --- $22,033,212 --- 719 $13,402
2008 2057 25.12% 1,719,330 45.56% $33,609,704 52.54% 836 $16,339

See, that’s how increasing your title count is supposed to work: with your pieces and dollars also rising as well.

Even putting the Big Story of “Watchmen" aside, DC clearly had an excellent year, which shows the value of having a distribution partner who is excited about your product actively promoting it to their retailers. Ah, I can but dream, as a Direct Market retailer, of such a thing!

DC also scores remarkably with various iterations of Batman – their second best-selling book of the year is “The Killing Joke" (with 62k copies), their third is “Dark Knight Returns" (40k copies), their fourth is slightly surprisingly “The Long Halloween" (32k), and their fifth is the brand-new (only one month of release!) “Joker" HC (28k). “Batman: Year One" (26k) and “Arkham Asylum" (18k) are also in the top 10 for DC books – now, clearly this is an impact of “The Dark Knight" being such a successful film, but this is a very rare time that we can actually see the impact of a film trickling down into multiple (and perhaps contradictorily) versions of a character. Certainly the first Christopher Nolan Batman movie didn’t move these kinds of numbers, nor did any of the Spider-Man films, so one might assume that it is down to Random House doing a good job of convincing bookstore buyers to stock these books.

If you want an example of how I feel that distribution changes alone helped move DC books this year, I might point to “V For Vendetta." In 2006, and with a film in theaters, and a DVD release as well, “V For Vendetta" sold some 80k copies through the BookScan reporting venues. In 2007, with that bounce gone, “V" sold “only" 19.5k copies. In 2008, it is back up (between two editions – you have to look down the charts a bit to find the just released “New Edition") to just over 26k copies. Now, of course, some of that might be “’Watchmen’ runoff," so let’s find a better example. Ooh, here’s a really good one, one that you really, really wouldn’t expect comics “civilians" to be interested in: “Infinite Crisis." In 2007, BookScan tracked 9661 copies of “Infinite Crisis" selling. In 2008? Hang on to your hats: 13,329!

DC’s second best seller in 2007 was the “Heroes" HC (25k). In 2008, that’s only about 9200, but they also moved about 12k of the softcover release. The volume 2 HC didn’t even make it to 10k, showing, I think, the bloom is off that particular media rose. Having said that, those still are all three within DC’s best-sellers for the year, so it’s nothing to scoff at either. Further, I’m thinking that most (if not all) of the creative costs for the work were paid for by someone in the television business, since these are all repackaged webcomics – with the probably safe assumption that licensing fees are cheaper than the creative costs, this could have still been one of DC’s more profitable publications of 2008.

In terms of dollars, DC has seven books that gross them over half-a-million dollars this year (they had three in 2007): “Watchmen" SC, “The Killing Joke," “Watchmen" HC, “Long Halloween," “Dark Knight Returns," “Absolute Sandman" v3, and the “Joker" HC. That “Sandman" listing shows you exactly why they do those absolute editions.

Looking at it by “imprint," 29 of DC’s 70 placing titles are Vertigo (seven “Sandman" [including v3 of the Absolute HCs], seven “Fables," all ten volumes of “Y, the Last Man," and single entries with “Pride of Baghdad," “Preacher" v1, and “V For Vendetta" (as noted, in two editions)). 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!

Wildstorm places seven titles, but none of them are “Wildstorm U" – The aforementioned “Heroes," in three flavors, LOEG v1 & 2 and “Black Dossier," and “World of Warcraft" is it. “WoW," in particular looks a little depressing at just over 5k copies. With eleven million subscribers, you’d expect this to hit at least five digits.

The remaining 35 titles are branded as DC. However two of them (the two editions of “Watchmen") aren’t properly “DCU." There are sixteen “Batman" titles, seven “event" comics tracking (All four volumes of “52," “Infinite Crisis" and “Identity Crisis" and, somewhat implausibly, v1 of “Countdown to Final Crisis"), four “Superman" books (counting “Superman/Batman" as a Superman title), three “Green Lantern" titles, and two “Justice League" titles (v2 of the Meltzer run, and one volume of the Alex Ross “Justice" series).

These titles tracking (especially, to me, “52" – this is a year after original release, remember) says that the oft-repeated line that the bookstore environment isn’t interested in superhero comics, especially ones tied to “continuity," is demonstrably wrong. At the end of the day, “52" or “Infinite Crisis," works that are the very definition of “insider baseball," outsell substantial amounts of work aimed at a literary audience.

Not one of the now-cancelled Minx titles makes the Top 750, nor do any of the strangely uncancelled CMX titles. Like I said last year, there’s a lot of conventional wisdom that suggests that things like the Minx and Vertigo books sell oodles and oodles better in the bookstore market than the do in the DM, but I have to tell you, now that I’m looking at a second year of the “full" BookScan list, I can guarantee you that this is simply false. Now that I can see into the Long Tail, what I can tell you is that, while the bookstore market can (and does) sell more copies of the “top" of the “bookstore-oriented" material, on anything else the DM beats them handily.

Now, of course, the DM and BookScan accounts are not the grand total of all venues possible – there are also library sales, book clubs, academic sales, and probably another dozen channels that I’m not thinking of – it is entirely possible that these works could be doing gangbusters in those channels, and we’ll never have any way of knowing, but I can state, pretty unequivocally, when it comes to comparing the two primary retail sales channels, the DM is absolutely selling more copies of most Western-originated comics. It isn’t even close.

The mean average DC title sold about 14k copies, while the median book was about 7k copies. DC has two titles this year that top 50k, and eight that top 20k.

For Marvel:

It is a back-track for Marvel in the bookstores for the Top 750 in 2008. They placed 38 titles for 303,639 units and $6.4 million dollars in retail dollars.

Here’s the year-to-year comparison chart:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 73 455,553 $8,428,962
2004 50 227,985 $3,756,764
2005 26 153,317 $2,459,027
2006 33 294,852 $5,702,307
2007 37 376,918 $7,599,057
2008 38 303,639 $6,446,359

A down year for Marvel in the bookstores, but, perhaps, that is to be expected without the freshness of a “Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" to buoy them this year, nor a wide success like “Civil War." Those books both did well enough for Marvel this year (being titles #1 & 3 in sales), but neither was new in 2008, and neither generated the kind of big numbers they have to be wanting.

The “long tail" for Marvel looks a little better: it is essentially flat (ignoring the fact they have an inventory of nearly 27% more titles)

Year # of
listed items
% Change Total Unit Sold % Change Total $ Sold % Change Av. Sale
per title
Av. $ per title
2007 1230 --- 1,034,023 --- $19,947,737 --- 841$16,218
2008 1559 26.75% 1,032,394 -0.001% $20,128,825 0.01% 662$12,911

Marvel’s number one book for the year, like last year, is “Stephen King’s Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" HC. The difference is that in 2007, Marvel sold nearly 52k copies, while in 2008 it is just a hair over 30k. Perhaps more surprisingly, the second “Dark Tower" collection (“The Long Road Home") comes in at roughly half of that – with about 8900 copies of what appears to be a Barnes & Noble exclusive cover, and about 7400 copies of the “regular" edition: just over 16k combined. For some strange reason the “regular" version is credited to Stan Lee, ha! This does not appear to be a well that can be gone to twice, and may possibly explain why the upcoming first hardcover of “The Stand" is going to be a Direct Market exclusive (The Direct Market sold nearly 10k of “The Long Road Home").

For the number two position, it is “Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: The First Death," a title so long that it truncates badly on the charts. This sells just over 17k copies. Two other “Anita Blake" hardcover volumes chart in Marvel’s Top Twenty – volume 2 of “Guilty Pleasures" with just over 10k, and v1 of “Guilty Pleasures" for about 7400 copies (down from about 22k in 2007). The softcover of v1 of “Guilty Pleasures" shows deeper in the Long Tail with about 3600 copies sold. That latter surprises me a little: I had thought that, traditionally, once a cheaper paperback was printed, hardcover sales would go away, but that did not seem to be the case with this one.

Coming in third is “Civil War," and is Marvel’s first superhero title placing, with a bit over 15k copies sold. In 2007 it sold some 33k copies through the BookScan reporters. Four other “Civil War" related titles (“Road to…," “Iron Man," “Amazing Spider-Man" and “Captain America") also make the charts.

In the fourth position for Marvel is the second hardcover for “Marvel Zombies" (nearly 13k) – “Marvel Zombies" seems to be working for Marvel in the bookstore channel, as all four hardcovers are in their top twelve best-sellers. Even the “Marvel Zombies/Army of Darkness" one, which I can’t barely give away in my store.

Finally at number five, we get our first appearance of Iron Man, in the form of “Marvel Adventures: Iron Man" v1 (about 12.5k). Before you read any “holy cow, kids comics can really sell!" message into that, I want to observe that this is more a function of availability than anything else. The book I personally would have promoted to coming-from-the-theater-to-read-more crowd would be the “updated" origin in “Iron Man: Extremis" – but that title spent the majority of the year out of print. For that matter, “Essential Iron Man" v1 was OP for a chunk of the year (though I find that “civilians" absolutely expect movie-based properties to be in color) The next closest-in-tone book “to the movie" really is “Marvel Adventures: Iron Man," so that’s what people bought. “Ultimate Iron Man" is completely contradictory to the film, so even Orson Scott Card’s name on it didn’t help it sell many copies as reported by BookScan – those are way down deep in the Long Tail selling under 2700 copies each.

Reprint books reprinting 1970s/80s storylines (“Demon in a Bottle," “Armor Wars," “Many Armors of Iron Man," “Iron Man versus Dr. Doom" and so on) are well regarded stories within comics, but generally overpriced for the casual reader, typically coming in at $24.99. Most of the rest of the Iron Man backlist are minor Iron Man stories at best, so given that the only full-sized color TP closest in tone to the film was pretty much unavailable for most of the year, its really no surprise that movie fans turned to the “kids" book. “Extremis" does chart with under 6k copies, but had it been fully available, I would have expected them to shift 25k or more of them. All in all, a bare five Iron Man related titles make the BookScan Top 750.

The other Marvel property with a film this year was “The Hulk," and “World War Hulk" is there in Marvel’s Top Ten with about 12k copies. Three other Hulk projects make it into the BookScan Top 750, but none of the rest even make 8200 copies. At the end of the day, that’s a pretty insignificant bounce from either film. One of the Hulk titles is the first volume of “Marvel Adventures Hulk" for just over 5k copies.

One thing that I find interesting about Marvel’s placing titles this year is that twenty of the thirty-eight books are hardcovers. On DC’s side that was fourteen of seventy titles.

Without a movie to bolster things, Spider-Man effectively vanishes from the charts – other than the above noted “Civil War" Spidey tie-in, there’s just a single entry from “Ultimate Spider-Man" (v19, with about 6600 copies) – that’s a big drop in general for the “Ultimate" line, with the other three placing “Ultimate" books generally doing under 5k each. As an “entry point" “Ultimate" titles seem to have lost their cachet (which is unsurprising when you approach twenty volumes of the anchor title) – there are no other Spider-Man titles listed in the Top 750 whatsoever.

Another thing worth noting: not one of the “Marvel Illustrated" line of adaptations of classic literary work places until deep, deep into the Long Tail – the best selling one doesn’t even manage to shift 500 copies. One presumes that in the school and library markets those books might be moving at a decent clip, but when it comes to retail sales, there’s no market interest whatsoever that we can detect.

All-in-all, Marvel’s core superhero product seems to be largely unloved in the bookstore market to me in 2008 – if anything you could come up with most of the numbers they seem to hit probably primarily from Amazon sales from “Direct Market customers without a Direct Market store." I think it is reasonable to say that Marvel needs to closely reexamine their backlist, both from what they have in stock (and when!), as well as how they’re trying to position it within the Bookstore market. What these numbers seem to be saying to me is that in 2008, Marvel became even more of a Direct Market-oriented publisher than they have before, and that any other market is, at best, an after-thought.

The median average of a Marvel book on this years chart is 7991 copies, and the mean is 6900. Marvel has no books over 50k, and only one over 20k, and without Stephen King, they wouldn’t even have that much.

For Everything Else:

As I mentioned more towards the top of this piece, I’ve given up the pretense of keeping Humor as a separate category that we’re looking at. “Calvin & Hobbes" and other classic strip collections seem to have been moved entirely away from the numbers that I’ve been receiving the last two years. Presumably we could still add another at least $8-10 million in sales to “comics" as a category (or, at least, insomuch as the percentage of sales that BookScan reports represents that category accurately. Which, like I said, it probably doesn’t), if those numbers were included as well.

Before y2k, “Humor" was the comics chart, taking much of the top spaces in dollars and in pieces. This material may still be selling as well as it ever did, or it may not, but what I don’t have is access to the overwhelming majority of those datapoints any longer.

So this year I’m going to perform some pretty ugly surgery on the historical record, and simply move forward from here on out as though they had never been separated before.

So, to remind you of what things once were presented as, here is what “humor" looked like for my first five reports:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 125 1,246,141 $16,095,800
2004 108 829,279 $11,460,533
2005 35 428,941 $5,904,947
2006 34 357,424 $5,060,097
2007 8 54,093 $1,990,296

And this is what “Everything Else" used to look like in those first five reports:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 32 95,355 $1,684,624
2004 36 230,831 $4,360,522
2005 39 435,178 $7,733,180
2006 48 486,135 $8,306,366
2007 72 828,484 $13,703,858

So what we’re going to do from here on out is crash these two charts together, which makes it instead look like this, with 2008 added at the bottom:

Year # of placing titles Unit sales Dollar sales
2003 157 1,341,496 $17,780,424
2004 144 1,060,110 $15,821,055
2005 74 864,119 $13,638,127
2006 82 843,559 $13,366,463
2007 80 882,577 $15,694,154
2008 127 1,390,672 $22,076,137

127 items are “not Manga, DC or Marvel" and combined they sell a smidge under 14 million copies, for over $22 million in sales, in 2008. Thus, the best performance in six years of imperfect data. I think this, more than anything else, shows the growing overall cultural acceptance of comics as a medium than any other thing we could point to. As a very general rule this is where you’re finding work that isn’t generated solely to product or exploit a trademark, or to raid a vast foreign library of already created works. Sure, there’s some of that here in this section, but the majority really is work that was created to be “comics for comics sake." Well, or at very least, that’s what the Top ten looks like.

The best selling book in this batch is “The Complete Persepolis" with nearly 54k copies sold. That’s high enough sales to make this edition the eighth best selling comic of 2008 of any genre as reported by BookScan. There’s also the two component parts of this edition: v1 “Story of a Childhood" and v2 “Story of a Return" which sell about 42k and 13k respectively. Altogether, that’s 109k copies sold of Marjane Satrapi’s story that BookScan tracked as sold in 2008. That’s twice what it shifted in 2007.

I continue to find the difference between v1 and v2 of “Persepolis" to be odd behavior – purchased separately, v2 does only about one third of v1. This is consistent behavior from previous years as well, and I just do not understand it. Is it that many venues are only stocking v1, or is it that consumers read v1 and think “that’s enough," or is it that there’s not enough awareness that there is a v2 in the first place? One always expects a drop between volumes, but a two-thirds drop is statistically strange. We see similar behavior on “Maus," which we’ll discuss more in a minute. I just don’t get it.

Either way, the complete version of “Persepolis" moves $1.3 million dollars worth of books, keeping it in a rare and stratified crowd. “Persepolis" had a film version released on Christmas day of 2007, and we would typically presume that much of the bounce for the comic came from the film. Curiously, though, the film only grossed $4.4 million domestically. Between the complete and “incomplete" versions, “Persepolis" the comic shows $2.05 million in sales via BookScan. Adding in non-BookScan sources, one imagines that the comic in 2008 may have grossed as much, or more, than the film did during its domestic theatrical release. I suspect that this is one of the very few times that this could be true.

The second best-selling comic in this section is Jeff Smith’s “Bone." V1 “Out of Boneville" moves over 49k copies via BookScan reporters; making it the Eleventh best-selling comic overall in BookScan 2008.

What’s more is that all eight volumes released to that point chart, and even the “worst selling" (v6, “Old Man’s Cave") still shifts nearly 25k copies. “Bone" is nothing short of a phenomenon in the bookstores, and my understanding is that retail sales are but a fraction of what “Bone" ends up selling through schools and book fairs. All told, “Bone’ takes six of the Top Ten spots in this section, and shifts 266k copies of the color editions. Jeff also manages to sell nearly 13k of the complete black & white “Bone One Edition." Those are crazy good numbers for the color collections, and they are up dramatically from 2007 sales where they had 6 volumes collectively sell 161k copies.

The next best-selling title that isn’t “Bone" or “Persepolis" is art spiegelman’s “Maus." The first paperback sells nearly 30k copies, up 50% from last year. This is enough to place it as the seventh best-selling title in this section. V2 sells about 18k (also up about 50% from 2007), again leaving me to wonder where that 40% of the audience went between volumes. The boxed set of the two paperbacks sells a bit over 11k, about where it was last year, and the “Complete Maus" hardcover moves nearly 7k copies, more than twice last year’s sales.

Finally, the end of the Top Ten is brought up by Mark Millar’s “Wanted," with over 25k reported sold by BookScan. Obviously the movie had a little something to do with that.

Last year’s number one book was Frank Miller’s “300," and it sold about 72k copies in 2007. In 2008 that drops back to barely over 6k. That’s a pretty severe drop – even in 2006 it sold over 22k copies.

Since I didn’t do it up above, here’s a quick look at the Long Tail for this “category":

Year # of
listed items
% Change Total Unit Sold % Change Total $ Sold % Change Av. Sale
per title
Av. $ per title
2007 4076 --- 1,847,821 --- $32,614,656 --- 453 $8002
2008 6113 49.98% 2,616,954 41.62% $44,494,930 26.43% 662 $7279

Going a little deeper into the 2008 chart, the rest of the Top Twenty looks to be pretty diverse – “Artemis Fowl" (24k), the only sorta comics “The Arrival" (22k), the not-at-all-comics “Marvel Encyclopedia" (21k), a “Babymouse" book (v8,“Puppy Love") (20k), the first two volumes of “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer Season 8" (v1: 19k, v2:18k), the “Dresden Files" hardcover (19k), and “A People’s History of the American Empire" (19k).

It is probably worth noting that all ten “Babymouse" volumes chart within the Top 750. While not quite as huge as “Bone," this is another very solid success with juvenile readers.

Other things worth calling out with sales over 10k copies include three Star Wars books from Dark Horse (“The Force Unleashed" with 17k, and two “Clone Wars Adventures" volumes at 12k for v1 and 10k for v2 – considering how well we’re doing at my store with “Clone Wars Adventures," this seems really low for the bookstores), two “Transformers Animated" volumes from IDW (v1 is 13k, v2 is 11k), and “Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (12k).

For original material, there is Lynda Barry’s “What It Is" (13k), Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home" (12k), and Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet" (11k) All solid performers.

There are only a couple of publishers who place five or more titles into the Top 750. The largest of these is probably Dark Horse who place thirty-four non-Manga books. These include 14 “Star Wars" books, 7 titles based on Joss Whedon properties (Three Season 8 “Buffy" books, v1 of the “Buffy Omnibus," and three “Serenity" volumes), 4 “Indiana Jones" titles, 4 volumes of “Hellboy," and 2 books from Frank Miller (“300" and v1 only of “Sin City" – the bloom is really off Miller’s Dark Horse books!). Also placing from Dark Horse is “Umbrella Academy" (7600 copies), the latest “Penny Arcade" book (only 5900 copies) and “Savage Sword of Conan" v1 (5700)

Scholastic’s Graphix imprint continues to do well with things that aren’t “Bone" – “Goosebumps" lands three placing titles as does “Babysitter’s Club" and “Magic Pickle." They’re joined by a single volume of “Knights of the Lunch Table." Again, I imagine these do much better to schools and libraries and book fairs as well.

Image hits eight placing books, with the first seven volumes of “Walking Dead" charting, as well as 7k copies of the Tori Amos anthology “Comic Book Tattoo." “Walking Dead" is really starting to grow in the bookstore market

IDW has seven books placing this year: The two “Transformers" that were mentioned before, nearly 5k copies each of the first “30 Days of Night" and Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend," both hardcovers of the “season six" “Angel," and almost 8k copies of “Presidential Material," the flipbook biographies of John McCain and Barack Obama.

In terms of “art comics" or “literary comics", we can see these items: “American Born Chinese" (just under 10k), “Black Hole" (8800), “Best American Comics 2008" (7400), “Johnny, The Homicidal Maniac" (7200), “Squee" (5200), “Blankets" (5k) and “Shortcomings" (4300) – nothing else makes the Top 750. It isn’t that books by Clowes or Hernandez or Tomine or Crumb or Bagge don’t chart, they do, but deep, deep in the long tail. Generally speaking none of these author’s books (or “other books" in the case of Tomine) has BookScan tracked sales of over 1000 copies, and usually it is much less than 500.

(One thing to note about “JTHM" and “Squee" is that they have appeared on each and every Top 750 since 2003. These are truly perennial titles.)

I understand the argument that the BookScan numbers don’t represent everything, most things or, maybe, even more than some things, but there has to be a certain amount of proportionality that is accepted. If we can show “Fun Home" selling 12k this year and “What It Is" selling 13k and “Persepolis" selling 109k combined, then the proportionality of “Love & Rockets New Stories" #1 only showing 719 copies via BookScan should probably be taken at face value. It is, of course, entirely possible that the are a small handful of single bookstores that don’t report to BookScan that are selling wildly greater numbers in such a way that maybe BookScan is under-reporting proportional numbers by 50% or more. Certainly, even in the Direct Market, a store like my own completely destroys any national bell-curve of sales on that. But in the absence of actual public and non-anecdotal evidence, I think we’re forced to conclude that outside of, maybe, 20-30 titles, “art comics" simply don’t sell in any appreciable number outside of, perhaps, the very few stores that choose to specialize that way.

Once we’re in the long tail, I can find you 100 books without even trying where my one little DM comics shop is selling 1% or better than the reported national BookScan sales figure.

Some last few notes on the “everything else" category: “Watching the Watchmen," Titan Books’ book on the making of the comic, comes in at 7756 copies – this is higher than I would have thought, actually, consider how poor its sell-through has been here at Comix Experience.

For the first time that I can remember, Archie makes the Top 750. With “Sonic" comics both times, but 7k and 5300 is nothing to sneeze at.

“Mouse Guard" moves almost 6200 copies with its new publisher, Random House imprint Villard. ASP sold 8400 copies of the HC in 2007. Kind of similar-to-“Mouse-Guard" title “Redwall" sells 16 more copies than “Mouse Guard." Also kind of similar “Mice Templar" only manages to sell 251 copies for the year. Image needs a better sales manager in the bookstore market!

The P. Craig Russell adaptation of “Coraline" sells about 6k copies. That could explode in 2009, or it could be eclipsed by the straight prose version.

“Willie & Joe: The WW2 Years" by Bill Maudlin from Fantagraphics sells 5485 copies. The sum of all of the books by any Hernandez brother combined is 5829 copies. Go figure.

In the “Out of Nowhere" category, I’d place Christine Feehan’s “Dark Hunger" (5345) and Shannon Hale’s “Rapunzel’s Revenge" (5238).

Sixteen “everything else" books sold over 20k. One sold over 50k.

And that’s pretty much what BookScan in 2008 looks like to these eyes.

How does it look to you?

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

TAGS:  bookscan, graphic novels, book stores, comics retailing

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