By the Numbers

Publishing and Sales Figures for the Comic Book Industry
The following figures are from a variety of sources including Nielson Bookscan, DIAMOND DIALOGUE, Diamond Comics Distributors, Capital City Distribution’s INTERNAL CORRESPONDENCE, Cold Cut Distribution, The Standard Catalog of Comic Books (SCCB), 3rd Edition and help from John Miller at the COMICS RETAILER, and Milton Griepp from http://www.icv2.com. I’d like to point out that the SCCB lists the creator of my own VESPERS® color comic book from 1995 as somebody else, an inaccuracy, but we’re going by the numbers here, so anything else is irrelevant.

The average cover price for the Top 300 comic books in July 1987 was $1.59 ($10.59 for the Top 20 Graphic Novels and Trade Paperbacks). In February 2005, that reached $3.13 ($15.36 for the Top 100 Graphic Novels and Trade Paperbacks). That is significant to note as the Direct Market’s market share numbers are by dollars and not by copies sold, so the approximately $200 million+ worth of comic books in 2004 is actually only half the number of copies of the $200+ million worth in 1987. While that product’s life cycle may be on its declining arc, while waiting for innovation, the emergence of the graphic novels and trade paperbacks is ever growing, with sales hitting $165 million in 2003 (a 50% growth from the previous year) to $205-$210 million in 2004. Bookstores and other specialty shops accounted for around $140 million of that number, while the comic specialty shops accounted for only $65 - $70 million of those dollars. However, the comic specialty shops maintained over 90% of the sale of most of the $200+ million in comic book periodicals that year.

In 1993, with the Top 300 comic books at an average cover price of about $2.00, the industry reached a peak of approximately $850 million. This boost in sales was the result of the fabulous 1992 public relations effort by DC Comics for their “Death of Superman” story line, said to have generated a $30 million day in North American comics’ shops, the invention of Image Comics. Although, seemingly unaccredited for it, I believe the Mr. T public relations effort for MR. T & THE T-FORCE also helped.

This flooded the market with new speculators creating another glut and bust (see The Comic Book is Dead, Long Live the Comic Book). By 1997, Marvel Comics was in bankruptcy and industry sales dropped to approximately $425 million with an average cover price of $2.50. Sales continued to decline down throughout the late 1990s, to about $275 million in 1999, about the same as in 1989. According to the COMICS RETAILER, the absolute low point was in January 1998, when comic periodicals, manga, graphic novels and trade paperback generated only $17.4 million dollars in sales.

I’ve created a few charts and tables for this article, primarily to analyze the data, but also for you, the reader to explore. There’s an enormous amount of information presented together here for the first time ever, and I found it very insightful.

The Timeline Chart depicts the comic book movies from 1987 through 2004, along with a market share analysis of several publishers with some sustained history. I’ve created the chart on a more granular level for a better understanding and/or recognition of any anomalies. My next analytical project will be bookstore and newsstand where I believe the movie release make a real influence, as they attract more of the mainstream.

The Market Share History Chart displays the direct market dollar market share for 38 publishers, not the 38 top publishers, or the 38 best publishers, just 38 publishers where I could find some consistency and history to analyze. Unfortunately, while Capital City Distribution’s INTERNAL CORRESPONDENCE magazine (www.icv2.com) listed up to 150 publishers from 1987 through 1993, Diamond Comic Distributor’s DIAMOND DIALOGUE (www.diamondcomics.com) typically only listed the top 20 or 30 suppliers. I wanted to see more of the publishers with less than 1% share because they are typically the independent publishers with room for growth.

As the Timeline Chart indicates, even with the onslaught of comic book movies, the direct market hasn’t seen an overall improvement of comic book sales. Anticipating a strong demand for BATMAN products during and after the 1989 release of the BATMAN movie, Marvel Comics flooded the direct market with products reaching about 45% and 47% market share in 1990 and 1991. That success walked out the door in 1992 when seven artists left Marvel Comics and started Image Comics, taking a chunk of that market share with them. The Timeline Chart also shows some growth from the other consistent publishers at the time. Dark Horse, Viz, Fantagraphics and Antarctic Press all showed growth in market share during that time. If fact, although Marvel Comics’ attempt at total domination through exclusive distribution created disastrous upheaval (resulting in their bankruptcy restructuring in 1996), the significant negative effects were felt by the superhero publishers, Marvel, DC and Image. As the numbers indicate, each publisher lost market share during that period, while Dark Horse, Viz, Chaos, Fantagraphics and even Antarctic Press either all held steady, or increased market share. The release of the X-MEN movie in 2000 improved Marvel’s market share, although DC Comics was still #1. It wouldn’t be until 2002 and the release of movie SPIDER-MAN that Marvel Comics finally regained the #1 position. However, the addition to dollar shares of graphic novels and trade paperbacks, and their higher price tag makes it difficult to really judge. It appears that these major motion picture events have little if not any influence on comic book sales in general, or specifically, at least in the direct market.

There is, however, an impact on the intellectual property’s products outside the direct market. For example, Frank Miller’s the first edition of SIN CITY: THE HARD GOODBYE (ISBN 1878574590) sold 2,975 copies in the bookstores in 2004, but has sold 1,870 in Q1 2005, along with an additional 13, 250 units of the 2nd Edition (ISBN 1593072937). The March 2005 direct market orders of the 2nd Edition were 7,750.

The Pulitzer Prize winner MAUS A SURVIVORS TALE, by Art Spiegelman (ISBN 0394747232) is an anthropomorphic story of the holocaust. First published in 1986, this masterpiece sold 17,580 through bookstores in 2004, and difficult to find on the shelves of a direct market shop.

In 1987, the top three selling comic books in the Direct Market were X-MEN, X-CALIBUR and X-FACTOR, with Marvel’s market share being about 36%. They may not be the top three comic books today, but they are in the top five. DC Comics held the next three spots with WEIRD, GREEN ARROW and BLACKHAWK, and a market share of about 26%.

In 2002, with the release of the first SPIDER-MAN movie, Marvel Comics claimed a staggering 81 of the Top 100 comic books, and 30 spots in the Top 100 graphic novels, thus regaining the #1 position in market share for the first time since 1997. Fortunately, Marvel Comics had the driving force of a mega blockbuster movie to help them out of aftermath of bankruptcy, usually for any smaller company a hole too deep to climb out, unbeknownst to the investors that typically initiate such a strategy, usually to get out of a contract or two and avoid paying large debts. This is something clearly depicted within the Timeline Chart, and Market Share History.

NOW Comics in 1987 through 1990 on a steady growth arc, but a clear decline from over 1% share to .20% in 1994, after a bankruptcy restructuring, even with new investors, $2 million in goodwill and capital, and the record-breaking MR. T & THE T-FORCE released in 1993. The Marvel Comics bankruptcy crushed Marvel’s longtime hold on market share, but only the millions invested, and the blockbuster movie SPIDER-MAN was able to regain its original crown. As I mention in How to Self-Publish Your Own Comic Book, restructuring through bankruptcy will be more expensive in the end, than investing in the company as a whole. It doesn’t work. Comico is another example on the table, Market Share History, where we see Comico grow from 1.5% market share to 2.15% from 1987 to 1989, and then drop to 0.37% in 1990, and ultimately to 0.09% in 1994. What do these numbers mean? They mean that fewer stores are ordering the products, for whatever reason, including the fact that less people are buying the products because they’ve since moved to something else. In a sense, you’re starting over again, but now with added baggage.

In Marvel Entertainment’s 2004 Q2 report to shareholders, they’ve indicated that their publishing group is expanding advertising and promotions with an “increased emphasis on custom comics and in-school marketing.” They will also continue “its long-term focus on expanding distribution to new channels, like the mass market, and expanding its product line to target new demographics.” If they plan to reach out to new demographics, let’s hope it’s not while wearing spandex, because it’s obvious the mainstream market is not looking for just superheroes. Manga, graphic novel and trade paperback markets continue to grow, showing real opportunities.

Maybe book publishers will finally get the picture.

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Tony C. Caputo has written professionally for 20 years, with his 136-page graphic novel entitled VESPERS®, being the first in a new series. His non-fiction instructional books include HOW TO SELF-PUBLISH YOUR OWN COMIC BOOK (Watson-Guptill) and VISUAL STORYTELLING: THE ART AND TECHNIQUE (Watson-Guptill), with an introductory essay by Harlan Ellison.

He has ten years as a successful entrepreneur in both the entertainment and technology arena and has helped build five companies within the past fifteen years. He’s also written articles, white papers and business plans and is a speaker and trainer at conferences about Internet technologies and Visual Storytelling. 

More about Tony C. Caputo at http://www.visualstorytelling.com and http://www.tonycaputo.com. You can contact him at info@tonycaputo.com.