The financial health of the comic book industry is cyclical. Sales will be strong for a few years, followed by a few years of poor sales. Then the industry will rebound – though sales will typically NOT reach the previous upswing – and then will dip again. Rinse and repeat.
A lot of subjective analysis focuses on how the industry today has worse sales numbers than two or three decades ago. There is speculation, albeit well educated, that publishers are artificially inflating sales by constantly relaunching titles with new #1 issues and relying on events that “will change everything”. They’re capitalizing on speculators’ greed and readers’ fear of missing out. In other words, today’s sales numbers would be even lower if people only bought what they enjoyed or actually read.
This makes intuitive sense based on a few observations, but I decided to review at the data – starting with sales numbers from September 1996 (the beginning of reliable, consistent sales data) to March 2020 (the end of reliable, consistent sales data). I compiled the total units of the monthly Top 300 comics sold, and overlayed the number of titles breaking 100k in sales each month, and how many of those are #1 issues. I noted “special circumstances” such as events and gimmick issues (the Spider-man Obama cover, for example), but couldn’t determine an objective method of accounting for them.
The data is displayed in the graph below. Blue dots represent the Top 300 monthly sales in millions shipped. The green bars represent the number of issues breaking 100k each month. And the brown bars represented the number of those titles breaking 100k that are also #1 issues. The trends are more apparent than expected. Raw data was extracted from Comichron.com
Stable, but cyclical Top 300 Sales
In 1996, the Top 300 books were shipping over 10 million copies every month. By 2000 and 2001, the Top 300 were shipping 5.5 million, a 50% decrease. Through 2007, the Top 300 rebounded to 7 million shipped monthly. We see another drop to just over 5 million in 2011. Another rebound in 2016 to 2017 or 7.5 million shipped monthly. Then a downward trend to about 5.5 million by early 2020.
So overall, sales since 2000 have cycled around 6 or 6.5 million each month, with two peaks and three valleys. The cycle lasts approximately ten years. Does this mean we should expect another peak in 2025? Only time will tell. Regardless, I think we can confidently say the next peak, or any future peaks for that matter, will not match the historical peak in the 90s.
Top 300 Sales Cycle Corresponds to Number of titles selling over 100k
On the surface, this is quite obvious. If the number of comics sold in a given month increases, chances are the number of titles surpassing 100k in sales also increases. But what’s less obvious is the top-heaviness of it all. A large percentage of the monthly increased sales goes only to those too books, and not to the rest of the catalog.
Increased Top 300 Volatility Month-to-Month
The scatter plot clearly shows the cyclical sales of the Top 300 across the last two-plus decades, and it also clearly shows increasing volatility of the Top 300. Up until early 2001 or so, the “grouping” of the scatter plot was tight, meaning little change month to month. For example, in 2000, month-to-month sales typically differed by less than 5% (positive or negative). But as the years progress, month-to-month swings of 15% are common and swings of 20% aren’t uncommon. In early 2005, we saw a -24% change followed by a +18%, +15%, -10%, -3%, and +21%. This series of big swings wasn’t a one-time event. 2014 saw a -3% change followed by +25%, -21%, +23%, +7%, and -20%. 2016 saw a series of +10%, -5%, +34%, +1%, +9%, -19%, +17%, and -13%. A similar series can be found in nearly every year since 2000, with the highest volatility in the last six years.
This volatility is due in part to “gimmick” releases and speculation. A prime example is the inclusion of data from Loot Crate. I’m some instances, Loot Crate would order 400,000 issues, and then nothing the next month. This extra money helps diamond and the publisher, but not the stores.
I also include stunt covers (Obama spiderman for example) as a gimmick because speculators inflate sales then do not buy the subsequent issues.
Monthly sales have become overly reliant on Number One and special/gimmick issues
When looking at the last three years, you can see how dependent comic sales have become on new #1 issues, anniversary issues, events, and mini-series. In June 2016, 11 titles broke 100k, nine of which were #1s or event books. June 2018, eight broke 100k, five of which were #1s.
But looking at the numbers from 20 years ago, you see a much healthier relationship. There were just as many, if not more, titles breaking 100k copies, but the vast majority were on-going titles. Take the months in 1997, for example. With the exception of April, each month had only a single #1 issue, yet each month saw double-digit number of titles breaking 100k. 1998 saw lower sales, with only eight or nine titles breaking 100k each month, but still there was only one #1 issue in those months.
You see similar comparisons in the down years. In 2019, five or fewer titles broke 100k each month, and all but one instance were #1s or an event or a big anniversary issue. In 1999 and 2000, two to four issues a month were breaking 100k, and with the exception of two months, all of those titles were on-goings.
On-goings just don’t sell like they used, and probably won’t again
Today, unless the book is a “special” issue, or can be marketed as one, the chances of it selling high numbers is low. Whereas 25 years ago, regular on-going issues sold a lot. let’s elaborate further by looking at the initial run of Witchblade, say issues 1-50, published between 1995 and 2001.
The run was written by Christina Z, with pencils by Michael Turner, Randy Green, and others. It was consistently a top-20 book. Some months it was in the top-10 and some just outside the top-20. During this run, nearly 2.88 million copies were sold, and truthfully, it may be over 3,000,000 copies depending on how well I translated Diamond’s index reports into actual sales numbers. This means this run sold an average of 75,000 per issue, with four issue overs 100k, including its top selling issue at 134,571 in October 1997.
A top-20 book in the current sales era, The Flash run written by Joshua Williamson, for example, averages 50,000 copies an issue when you account for the sales gimmicks we’ve discussed. That’s basically one-third fewer copies being sold now compared to 20 years ago.
And consider this, in the late 90s, you would routinely see six or seven non-DC and non-Marvel titles (Witchblade and Spawn, for example) in the Top-50. Today, The Walking Dead is the only non-DC and non-Marvel title to accomplish the same, and that book has called it quits.
This skewing of the numbers has several ramifications.
First, you can’t believe any of the numbers for today’s top selling books. They’re propped up by speculators and gimmicks such as over-hyped events and relaunches. Yes, there were gimmicks like variant covers and one-shots in the late-90s, but those were exceptions. Today, they’re the rule.
Second, readers are less inclined to try books that aren’t events or stink of FOMO, so every book outside of the top-5 or top-10 suffers. High quality books languish in the sales pit, because readers do not have room in their budget to try something new when you have to buy that third variant cover of an event you’re only reading because you don’t want to be left out.
Third, books that sold in the late-90s REALLY sold. There were more readers. More real competition amongst titles and publishers. I think this means we need to give more credit in terms of sales to creators from that time period. Looking at the data, Christina Z is most likely the top selling female writer in the industry based on her 3-million copies of Witchblade and hundreds of thousands in her extended bibliography. The customer base just cannot support those same numbers today – certainly not on a per issue basis – and this is evident when you sample the sales data for writers such as Gail Simone. She is a prolific creator, writing for the Big Two and smaller publishers, but her numbers sit around 40k an issue, with some not breaking 30k.
Fourth, the industry, today, is weaker as a whole. In the late-90s, DC and Marvel products were responsible for roughly 50% of sales. Today, their market share is over 70%. It may show that DC and Marvel are the only publishers who can afford to print books. It may show DC and Marvel are purposefully flooding the market. Perhaps, I’ll analyze that in the future. Regardless, it is not a healthy distribution.
Fifth, and most importantly, when speculators finally realize comic books are not a good investment, and when readers finally wise up to Fear Of Missing Out and ask themselves “why am I buying books I don’t enjoy”, the industry will experience a serious correction – one that will see many casualties from stores to publishers to creators to grading services to conventions. That’s going to be a very rude awakening.