Tilting at Windmills: Dissecting the 2012 BookScan Numbers

Thu, February 14th, 2013 at 11:58pm PST | Updated: February 15th, 2013 at 1:09pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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"There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics"

For the tenth (!) year in a row, I'm going to try to figure out something that is hard to exactly perceive and understand: 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, and in increasing numbers). A relative minority of DM stores have Point-of-Sales (POS) systems so, because we buy non-returnable, what we track 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 at the end of each year.

If you go over here you can find a copy of the 2012 BookScan Top 750 year end report for the comics category.

(For points of comparison, try these links [I can't guarantee the non-CBR links will always work, this being the internet and all]:

2011: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2010: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2009: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2008: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2007: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2006: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2005: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2004: BookScan Report and My Analysis

2003: BookScan Report and My Analysis)

For the last seven 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 of the final 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 2012 to 2006-2011 is probably as close to apples-to-apples as it can get, as is 2003-2005, but comparing the '06-12 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 2600 copies. (It was about 3200 copies in 2011) In '03-'05 there would be many items that didn't have YTD sales in that amount.

Also of major note is that starting in 2007, 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 nine years. Still, I have the deeper data, and I'll summarize it as we go along. As long as I continue to get that much data going forward, I should be able to tell you a few things about "The Long Tail." In 2012, I possess data on more than 23,000 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 report 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, book clubs or other specialty markets like, say, LGBT stores, etc. This Publisher's Weekly article [from 2004, I wish they'd check in on this story for the 2012 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 changed significantly since 2003, but I do know that Neilsen now claims that BookScan represents "80%" of all book sales. 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.

One big piece of news for next year is that, starting January 1st, 2013, WalMart will start reporting to BookScan, adding back one of the larger holes in retail sales. This may not have a significant factor on the comics charts, but it might, so watch this space!

There's also a certain amount of miscategorization going on. As an example, for the last ten years the prose novel "Bloody Crown of Conan" appears on my list, while other books (see; "Dork Diaries" in a few paragraphs) might appear one year, and disappear another. I do not know what the actual extent of miscategorization might be and how it would impact any of the general data analysis! There's simply too many data points to possibly connect them all together in the time I have to assemble this column.

I've done the best I can to try and root out any items "of significance" that should be on the chart that I'm given -- for example, I have to have "The Complete Persepolis" and "Maus" manually pulled for me because they are actually classified as (I believe) "Memoir" rather than comics. Because this relies on me thinking of things to get them on to the list -- each item apparently only has one classification -- there's almost certainly comics material missing that I didn't catch. I could not find/think of any 2012-released title that was mis-listed, and would have made the top 750, but that doesn't mean that I didn't miss one or more. If you can think of a book I might have missed, please email me, and I'll try to track down the sales for it, and update my listings for the future!

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 possible 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. There's some more comics-specific discussion on why and by how much BookScan numbers might be off right here.

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. Every year I write this and hope and pray that we'd get three or four competing analyses of the data dump, but that never happens. Maybe this year? (probably not)

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. The Top 750 represents more than half of the total of the full list, and has consistently for years. While there are significant sales below the Top 750 (about $55 million in 2012), the Top 750 probably represents the majority of items you'd be able to "easily" find on the shelf of a bookstore in America. I'd love to analyze the full "long tail" list, but I'm afraid that this might take these little essays to triple their current size, and keeping your attention just through this seems hard enough to me! Maybe if Jonah paid me by the word…

Story continues below

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

2012 Overview

An initial overall note on this year's chart: I continue to cut out anything that clearly wasn't a "comic" (though such definitions are sometimes difficult to make). For instance, the #1 book of the year (and more on that below) is once again not really a "comic" -- it has words, it has pictures, but they don't work together in the way I'd think we'd commonly agree is "comics." However, it's just close enough that I decided to keep it. Much less controversial (I'd imagine) is my decision to remove prose-driven books like "Marvel Avengers: The Ultimate Character Guide," which, while nominally about comics or comics culture, is factually a encyclopedic prose book with pictures. That specific title's sales would have qualified it to be the #6 best-selling item on the 2012 list, so clearly there is an enormous market for this kind of material -- it just isn't the "comics" market as I would define it.

In all, I removed 63 items from the Top 750 that didn't match my personal definition of "comics," to make room for 63 items that I think are comics. However, if there was a legitimate question about it, like our #1 book, I erred on the side of keeping it.

One thing to consider for 2012 is that this represents the first year entirely without the Borders book chain. The final Borders stores finally closed down in September 2011. Borders, all by itself, was once approximately something like 15% of the bookstore sales market we've been told. Borders, perhaps more importantly, really originally broke the manga category in America.

Here's the big picture for the Top 750 in 2012:

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%
2009 7,634,453 -8.4% $93,216,014 -8.0%
2010 6,414,336 -15.9% $85,266,166 -8.5%
2011 5,696,163 -11.2% $79,961,951 -6.2%
2012 5,696,163 -4.53% $89,918,354 12.45%

Well, that's certainly a mixed message.

On the one hand, it's the lowest number of units we've been able to track over ten years; on the other hand, it's the fourth largest year in terms of dollars sold. Now, as we'll see in a little bit, a really insanely large amount of that can be put on the shoulder of one book ("The Walking Dead"), so it's hard to say this is a "healthy" result (even if it's pretty awesome for Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard!) for the market as a whole.

What we really can see is that while the top end of the market is looking better -- in some cases, amazingly, crazily better -- the problem is that the midlist, and the bottom, has become simply brutal for sales. A huge part of that has got to be the loss of Borders -- having physical display space for books clearly are (if not the) major factor in the ability of mid- and bottom-list books to sell. Amazon is, assumingly, better than anyone else at selling a major hit like "The Walking Dead," but I imagine that they are mediocre, at best, in selling material that people don't already know that they want/aren't already popular. The bookstore market for comics material, as measured by BookScan reporters in 2012 is down by more than a third of the units sold at its peak in 2007.

(It may or may not be worth mentioning that the comic book store market ended 2012 up 14.26% on graphic novels, and that's with extremely strong periodical sales [up 14.94%] as well, so the matter isn't "weak product" -- it looks to this observer to be clearly "fewer outlets = lower sales")

2012 was a strong year for media tie-ins -- not only was "The Walking Dead" doing extremely well ( 10.5 million people watched the third season's mid-season finale), 2012 also featured box office smash motion pictures for the third Christopher Nolan "Batman" film, as well as Joss Whedon's "Avengers" flick -- the first made just over one billion dollars, while the latter scored over $1.5 billion.

There was also (technically) "Men in Black 3," as well as "Amazing Spider-Man," "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," "Dredd" (Based on "Judge Dredd") and "Chicken With Plums." That's a lot of films! Most of those, however, didn't really sell any books.

Manga took another significant plunge in sales this year (down another $6 million in sales from 2011) as a category, and is the largest factor in this year's unit sales drop. Without that, both stats would have been positive.

As I noted, I primarily write about the top 750 because a) that's all the data I was initially leaked back in 2003, b) it's a "manageable" chunk of data, and c) "as above, so below" -- the top 750 represents about half of sales. However, since 2007, I've received the "entire" database, which now gives us a solid five years of data to track. I've taken to calling this "the Long Tail." Here's what the sales of all comics sales BookScan tracks in this category looks like:

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
2009 19,692 12.07% 14,095,145 -9.31% $189,033,736.31 -5.02% 599.52 $11,327.40
2010 21,993 11.68% 12,130,232 -9.31% $172,435,244.86 -8.78% 552 $7,840.32
2011 23,945 8.88% 11,692,058 -3.61% $175,634,490.77 1.86% 488 $7,334.91
2012 23,365 -2.42% 9,562,236

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, bookscan

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