"Comics (Art + Industry)" or "Why do bad books sell so well?" by Michael Lagocki

Guest post by Michael Anthony Lagocki
Samax and I tend to talk about comics a lot. Increasingly, about the business of comics as much as the pop culture aspects. In a recent convo about the state of the industry, he asked me to share some perspective on American comic sales with you. So wrap your hands around a cold can or glass of your favorite beverage, and let's do this...

I enjoy following comic sales, watching the month to month numbers that books are selling through the nation's largest distributor, Diamond Comics. These numbers are available in a few different sources, but the clearest and most reliable source I've found is Johnathan Jackson Miller's excellent site - comichron.com

You can check out that site yourself, and if you do, you'll find endless analysis of what's selling, and how it compares with sales of years past, what trends are happening, monthly rankings, etc. Pretty cool if you're a geek for this stuff. For those slightly less obsessed, I'll give you some cliff notes on where things are at now...

  1. Marvel and DC dominate everything. It's kinda disgusting. They account for something like 90% of total comic sales. There are three sales forces for comics in this industry right now: Marvel, DC, and Walking Dead. That's actually true, not a gag. Walking Dead books are ridiculous in the sales department. All the collections sell really well, and the individual issues are still climbing (the special #100 issue sold well over 300k copies, making it the highest selling single issue of ANY comic in nearly a decade).
  2. Sales overall across the industry are actually pretty good right now. While individual issues sell nowhere near their early 90s highs, the difference is made up by escalating cover prices and the boom of graphic novels. The fans and small presses might be getting screwed, but the big two are doing alright.
  3. But... sales are inflated. The preponderance of special "variant" covers is skewing all the numbers. See, your retailer knows he can get a pretty penny for that super rare Jim Lee variant cover. But to get it, he needs to order waaaaaaay more of that normal cover issue than he needs. The result? Retailers are hoarding boxes of unwanted comics. So yeah, you can sell that variant for $150, but you have 75 useless copies of the new issue of Nightwing in the closet to show for it (my comic shop refers to these books as "firewood"). Marvel even takes this practice to new heights, making you order ridiculous copies of one book to qualify for the variants on a completely different title. Anyway you slice it, "fake sales" don't really help anything. It's a bad practice, not unlike some of the junk that was going on during the speculator boom of the 90s.  All that said, there are bright spots. 
  4.  The graphic novel shelf is much more honest. With almost no collectible speculators in GNs and trades, the numbers more closely reflect what fans are actually buying and reading. A good example of one of those bright spots is GhettoManga fave Brandon Graham whose KING CITY trade actually did pretty big numbers on the GN charts. Incidentally, yes, those numbers are available at comichron.com as well.

So what are the best selling books in the industry? You can probably guess. Batman and Justice League are the best selling ongoings. Marvel takes up several top ten spots each month, but it's almost always with new #1s or some big event mini-series. Most of the Marvel books peak very quickly and don't build. DC has taken a more long term approach while Marvel is in it for the quick hit. Walking Dead is the only book not published by the big 2 that makes a regular dent in the charts (though Brian K. Vaughn's new title SAGA seems to have some real life in it, outselling many Marvel and DC staples).

It's a cutthroat market definitely, and no one's totally figured it out, but it's good to see that some things are working. And I'm thankful that comics still have a bit of that wild west mentality that allows a lone creator in his garage to get his work into shops. Image in particular does good work in this realm, creating lots of opportunities for creators to publish through a major label. Even Diamond Distribution has at least a stated policy that they are dedicated to keeping to doors open to all levels of creators to get their work out there.

It's a turbulent time for sure, and comics has always been a tough business to be profitable in. But our independent spirit serves us well. We'll be around for awhile.
Michael Lagocki is one-fifth of the mighty GhostWerks crew, and one of the architects of ArtLoveMagic, an art activism collective dedicated to overcoming Evil with good art.


B_Steelo said...

THAT'S one to grow on!

samax amen said...

LOL! Yup!

samax amen said...

lots of good discussion on this fb thread:

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