Today's entry will only be of interest to those of you who read my blog who are interested in the behind-the-curtain aspects of the comic book industry. It's true that some people (including myself) probably concern themselves too much with how the magic trick works rather than just enjoying the magic trick unto itself (kind of how a lot of people are obsessed with weekend movie box office totals), but that's a topic for another day.
BookScan is a tracking operation for bookstore sales of books sold, meaning not just how many they ordered, but rather how many copies they actually sold. BookScan's data tracks sales information from just "regular" bookstores, not comic bookstores (Diamond Comics has their own top sellers listings for direct market stores they service, but they only have order numbers, not sell through numbers unfortunately). Not all bookstores (or places that sell books) report their sales to BookScan (for example Walmart and supermarket stores don't), but there is a huge amount of the existing bookstores both big box (like Borders) and independent that do, and from this information we can get a pretty good picture of what is selling and what isn't (libraries, schools, and book fair book sales are also not included within BookScan's numbers).
Every year for the past several years, Brian Hibbs, who has owned the excellent Comix Experience in San Francisco for over twenty years, has combed through the BookScan numbers and shared his analysis of how comic book graphic novels have performed in the book store marketplace. Brian has a column he does monthly for Comic Book Resources called Tilting At The Windmills (http://comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24818) in which he discusses topics of interest to the comic book industry. Brian Hibbs also has two book collections of his Tilting At The Windmills columns out, which should be required reading for anyone who owns or wants to open a comic book store. His latest column at the aforementioned link is his extensive look at the BookScan numbers for 2009. Yes it takes a long time to read, but I don't think it's a boring read, rather it's a very thorough analysis by Brian Hibbs of what these numbers have to say about the present and possibly the future for the comic book industry.
Following are some of my thoughts after reading Brian Hibb's analysis of the BookScan 2009 numbers (and as a note to those of you who haven't read Hibb's column yet, while he has sales info on books that have sold just one copy (!) in bookstores, he is "just" looking at the top 750 books):
In the direct market comic store landscape, Marvel almost always (probably at least 95% of the time) beats DC in terms of market share in dollars and unit sales. In "regular" bookstores, the reverse occurs, and this has never been more true than in 2009. To illustrate: DC had 93 titles (graphic novels) in the top 750 with total unit sales of 1.2 million equaling 24 million retail dollars compared to Marvel's mere 34 titles in the top 750 with unit sales of just 227,000 equaling 5 million dollars. Simple math shows that DC is beating Marvel by 21 million dollars in bookstores and yes, a lot of DC's big showing over Marvel had to do with the Watchmen trade selling WAY more then it ever has because of the movie (being the exception to the rule that movies don't always do a lot to affect book sales), but even if the Watchmen trade was removed from DC's books on the BookScan list, DC still would be strongly outperforming Marvel outside of comic book stores (and actually even in comic bookstores, DC's graphic novels sell more generally overall than Marvels).
I'm spotlighting the above, not for the sake of "DC is stronger than Marvel / Hulk is stronger than The Thing" sense (even though I do think that DC is stronger than Marvel), but as a preamble to my observations on why this is so.
While Marvel still does a better job in comic book stores producing superhero comic books that outsell DC superhero comic books (and I'm talking about the periodical format, not the collected format) month after month, year after year, they really have very few graphic novels that a retailer will sell over and over again and or can be recommended to people without reservations. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful of Marvel trade paperbacks that are in the "evergreen" category (meaning they have a long shelf life and sell repeatedly): Marvels, Marvel Zombies, Daredevil Born Again, Astonishing X-Men, and Millar & Hitch's Ultimates. They do have trades that come out such as New Avengers, Captain America, and the Ultimate Spider-Man collections that sell multiple copies in their initial release cycle, but they don't generally keep selling and thus become shelf warmers.
Conversely, DC / Vertigo, for example, besides the obvious like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, V For Vendetta, Killing Joke, Kingdom Come, and Batman Year One, also have Preacher, Sandman, Y The Last Man, All Star Superman, Fables, etc. Seriously, any comic store retailer could think of a lot more DC / Vertigo trades of which they do regular traffic with whereas with Marvel just thinking of even five titles on which they do regular traffic with can be challenging.
What does this say to me at the end of the day? The obvious answer is that DC is better at producing graphic novels that stand the test of time and aren't hopelessly convoluted and that Marvel doesn't worry about the long term entertainment value of any one project, focusing on the short term dollars that they generate from their numerous spin off and one shot periodicals they produce (they have a LOT more periodical titles coming out monthly in comparison to DC). I find it incredibly frustrating that I have a hard time thinking of great stand-alone graphic novels with iconic characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk, and other Marvel characters that I can introduce to a Joe or Jane off the street or someone who is getting back into comics as examples of being the best definitive representations of those characters. Even though the Civil War, House of M, and Wolverine Old Man Logan (and whenever they do a Secret Invasion collection) did well, ultimately those event books had lame endings and are hard to recommend to people that you want to be return customers based on your recommendations. Having said that though, the upcoming Kick Ass hardcover, will be the break-through, cross-audience, easy to recommend without qualifications Marvel collection to just about everyone (well except kids and those adverse to ultra violence) that will sell like a strong DC / Vertigo collection does whether the movie is any good or not (which if it's anywhere as entertaining as the trailers suggest, does look like it will be good).
The other point of interest I wanted to touch on that Brian's analysis of the BookScan 2009 numbers revealed is the decline of manga, which has been happening at a very accelerated rate. Certainly a powerhouse title like Naruto, with its forty-seven volumes and counting, still places all of its backlist amongst the top tiers of all graphic novels, but as Brian shows, the newest volume of 2009 sold considerably less than the newest volume sold of 2008. And wow, TokyoPop is quite the pale shadow of its former head-of-the-pack manga publisher here in the U.S. Manga hasn't been the growth sector of the comic industry that I thought it would be a few years ago.
What happened to manga? Well the audience and interest level for manga and anime is still out there, but largely that audience has gone to accessing their favorite series online (mostly illegally) because it costs too much to get the whole series, they can often access the newest chapters before they are published here in the U.S., and because that audience aren't as tied to owning the physical object as people that buy "regular" comics are. Additionally, libraries carry a lot of manga as this has brought many young people into the reading fold (which of course is great) and bookstores let customers read the manga volumes in their stores (and certainly the huge returns manga publishers saw after their initial sales bonanzas is proof that that model doesn't turn most people into buyers).
Pleasant surprises for me as a person who also enjoys graphic novels that aren't of the long john variety that I got from the Bookscan numbers (although I do like superhero comics contrary to my emphasis on alternative comic works here on my blog) was seeing great books like Logicomix, Crumb's Book of Genesis, Fun Home, Persepolis, Maus, Scott Pilgrim, Walking Dead, and Cooke's The Hunter (actually I thought that book would have placed higher in BookScan than it did) do so well outside of comic book stores. Some of these books, such as Scott Pilgrim and Walking Dead, actually sell more copies at comic book stores, but the success of the other books I've mentioned shows me that if more comic book stores actually stocked those graphic novels they would find that they have an audience for them (unless they just shelved them amongst their superhero titles causing them to get lost in the mix).
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