Friday, September 28, 2007

Lots of numbers here

-I've been following the debate on the Beat regarding the utility of sales charts, including Brian Wood's somewhat shrill claim that they are a destructive force in the comics market (he's mostly talking about Vertigo titles, including his own DMZ). Heidi made an especially useful point today, based on conversations with retailers at Diamond's recent Baltimore summit. The retailers she spoke with claimed that they made their decisions based on what happens in their store, rather than what Paul O’Brien and Marc-Oliver Frisch report every month on the Beat. The one caveat to this is speculation that "bad" retailers might let these charts influence them.

I'm a little skeptical of this possibility. It's unclear what we mean by "bad" stores here--stores that only stock Marvel and DC? Stores with very little product on the shelf, especially graphic novels? Stores run by fanboy types who want their sales to reflect their own prejudices? I've shopped in a variety of stores I would consider "bad" in the last couple of years (at least they seemed "bad" to me on the day I visited them), including a few that actually stocked titles from the Fantagraphics/D&Q side of the spectrum. What they all seemed to have in common was a shared sense of complacency, bordering on torpor. Some of them catered to a very limited customer base: you could tell they depended on sales to subscribers, only ordering a handful of copies for the shelf (in one store I visited, most of the floor space was dedicated to the cheap bins--the only part of the store anyone else was browsing at the time). Other stores primarily catered to non-comics readers--people seeking kitschy pop culture items or toys or or RPGs or even (believe it or not!) baseball cards. Some of these stores were marginal, in the sense that a couple of fairly minor bad breaks would probably put them out of business. Others were well-established institutions with large, dedicated customer bases; these stores also could probably be taken out with a few bad breaks, but that's kind of the nature of the industry.

Nothing in the operation of these stores suggested that their owners altered their orders based on anything they read online. A few of them appeared to be owned and operated by people who have probably never heard of the Beat,, or maybe even Brian Wood. Others were run quite professionally, in perfect harmony with the existing clientèle's needs (and thus of limited use to me, an casual shopper not tuned into their frequency). These weren't stores run by grudge-holding Comic Book Guy types--they were either completely divorced from the larger comics-reading world, or they were too attuned to their established customers' needs to let any potential Vertigo money pass them by.

I think the much stronger argument would be that sales charts might prevent stores from pushing marginal DC/Marvel titles to their customers. In other words, why bother recommending Crossing Midnight to a Fables fan if you're pretty sure the former will be canceled soon? In my experience, "bad" stores don't make these kinds of recommendations--it's the better stores that actually go out on a limb by suggesting material that their customers may end up rejecting. (Besides, some of the "bad" stores probably only order enough copies of Crossing Midnight to satisfy their subscription customers, so there wouldn't even be a shelf copy to recommend.) And, needless to say, any readers who pay attention to the sales charts may very well reach this conclusion on their own, thus robbing Crossing Midnight (or whatever) of additional sales.

But there's nothing wrong with this kind of pessimism if the retailers/consumers are correct in their suspicions. Wood's argument (as I understand it) is that existing data does not factor in reorders. Frisch counters these arguments at his own blog, but I think there's another issue in question: how large can these reorder numbers be if they all fail to reach the top 300? The lowest ranked book in the top 300 falls somewhere between 1200 and 3000 copies sold; over the last year, the average has been 1897. That's certainly high enough to make a significant impact on overall sales--assuming that these marginal books were actually hitting somewhere in the four figure range for reorders. I have no idea if that's true or not, but consider this: Wood's title, DMZ, has been in the 14,000-12,000 range for the last year or so. Actually, that's misleading--it started at 14,704 for #10 and has steadily dwindled to 12,175 for issue #22, mostly at a steady pace until #20, at which point orders declined somewhat sharply. For DMZ to make up the gap between #10 and #22 on reorders, it would have to sell another 2529 copies--about 17% of the initial sales. For these reorders to equal 2500+ and still not show up in any iteration of Diamond's top 300, they would have to be spread pretty liberally across several months. That would be kind of a neat trick.

Admittedly, Vertigo titles aren't highly perishable commodities like regular DC or Marvel titles, which rely more on dedicated fans who tend to miss issues only by design. I don't doubt that demand for Vertigo back issues persists a bit longer than for superhero titles. But they're not like issues of Eightball either; there are new issues coming out every month or so. The further one gets from the first month of release, the less demand there should be for a particular issue. If one waits several months to buy a back issue of a title, that means there are even more issues to buy before being caught up. At this point, Vertigo's increased shelf life is surely offset in part by its much-ballyhooed trade program.

Even more important is Diamond's discount policy. Discount rates are significantly lower on reorders, thus encouraging retailers to lay in enough copies to meet demand with their initial orders. This goal isn't always achieved, of course; otherwise retailers would never reorder anything, ever. But, as Frisch himself points out, if reorders were really such a significant chunk of overall sales, retailers would begin to account for this increased demand in their initial sales. After all, it's in their financial interest to do (both in the sense of maximizing discount as well as keeping potential customers away from competing stores). So it's logical to assume that declining initial sales for Vertigo titles such as The Exterminators, Crossing Midnight, DMZ, Army@Love, etc., etc. reflects decline in the actual demand for these titles among customers of comics shops throughout North America. And these aren't statistically insignificant drops in sales; as Frisch shows, they're steady, month-after-month declines. It's just too much to think that these numbers are so compromised that we can't take them seriously.

-Which brings up the question of what, if anything, Vertigo should do about the situation. I'm going to assume Frisch is right in arguing that reduced monthly sales are not sufficiently offset by increased TPB sales (though not everyone believes this--check out the comments on the DC sales thread for alternate theories). Frisch suggests streamlining and consolidation of resources, allowing Vertigo to focus its promotional budget on a few worthy titles. Maybe that's what they had planned for the long run; maybe Vertigo launched a bunch of under-promoted titles in the last year as some kind of gladiatorial challenge or initiation by fire or something. There might be something to that, actually. One wonders if Vertigo's editors just aren't all that confident in any of their new titles, thereby leading us to the current what-shit-sticks-to-the-wall? scenario. Unfortunately, none of the shit is sticking (with the exception of Jack of Fables, which probably wouldn't have stuck without the success of its parent book Fables). With Y the Last Man near completion and 100 Bullets not far behind, Vertigo is running out of books that break five figures in monthly sales.

In a comment left at the Beat, retailer/critic Randy Lander expresses hope that Brian Wood will save the imprint, with increased sales for DMZ and a successful launch for Northlanders (his upcoming book about Vikings). I have no idea why the former would happen, unless the disparity between pamphlet and sales trades is truly monumental. Diamond's sales charts indicate DMZ is losing readers, and (as mentioned above) I see no reason to doubt this. Compare it to Vertigo's two heaviest hitters. Fables and Y the Last Man sell at a much, much more consistent rate, and they're both garnering double the sales of DMZ, at least in initial orders. (There's no data for Y in the August charts because it didn't ship that month; see July's chart for the most recent data on this title.) DMZ is in no danger of cancellation, of course, but it's not a flagship title. (It's not really logical to compare TPB figures based on Direct Market numbers, since so many of the sales are to bookstores. But if you're interested, the last DMZ trade launched at 5489 in DM sales, whereas the latest Fables collection did 12,168. The last Y the Last Man collection was in the same area.)

This doesn't mean that Northlanders won't be a Fables/Y level hit, though. If it's an appealing comic, that would certainly help; I'm not prepared to offer any judgments on that, because it really doesn't sound like my sort of thing and I'm not a typical Vertigo reader. As far as buzz goes.... Okay, take this with a grain of salt, but I tried entering "Northlanders" into Ask Cerebra, and I only got 12 results. By comparison, a search for "Tomine Shortcomings" yielded about 30 hits related to the upcoming graphic novel. Maybe this reflects a bias on the part of the blogosphere, but I'm positive that it also reflects on Vertigo's promotional efforts for Northlanders thus far. Which is kind of a bad thing, since orders for the first issue are due pretty soon. I think.

Let's assume a very, very rosy scenario for Northlanders, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 a month, with a matching number of TPB sales over the first year. Obviously there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the book will continue in its monthly format. But what about a more realistic scenario--about 10,000 a month, with initial TPB sales being somewhere around 75% of that. (The second volume of DMZ did somewhere around 6000 in initial orders in the Direct Market according to ICv2. The sales of the issues it collected ranged from 15,212 to 14,640, according to Frisch. I assume that bookstore orders were no higher than DM numbers.) Is there really any value in continuing to produce the monthly book, aside from the usual "amortization" justification? Why not release it as a series of original graphic novels?

OGNs have been a mixed bag for Vertigo. Pride of Baghdad (written by Y the Last Man creator Brian K Vaughan) shipped 10,734 initially. The following month, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall sold an astounding 15,289 to the Direct Market. Those are major triumphs for the imprint, and indicate that Vertigo can sell OGNs if the creator appeals to enough readers. Better yet if the OGN is a spinoff of an existing series, even if it doesn't exactly tie into the main narrative. Less popular creators like Mike Carey/John Bolton or Gilberto Hernandez* have had modest success with OGNs at Vertigo; the former sold 4244 copies of the poorly-reviewed God Save the Queen**, while the latter sold 3452 of the seldom-reviewed Sloth (and we're talking initial sales only, naturally). Those are probably higher sales those titles would have garnered had they been collections of serialized comics. Less successful was Rick Veitch, who presumably still has some cache with Vertigo readers from his Swamp Thing days. His OGN, Can't Get No, sold only 2908 copies in initial Direct Market orders.

I'm not sure what the threshold is for Vertigo to cancel a book these days. Seems like it's gotten lower here recently, but how low can it get? Still, Vertigo isn't exactly ready to abandon the pamphlet format, either. It's pretty clear that the imprint's OGNs seem to succeed the most when they can build off buzz generated by monthly titles. Launching a series of OGNs featuring a new property would move the imprint into unprecedented territory. It might eventually happen, but the time doesn't seem quite ripe to go in this direction yet. In the long run, Vertigo could use a few more bestselling OGNs like 1001 Nights of Snowfall so as to condition its readers to buy more OGNs featuring recurring characters. That might be a step toward launching a series of OGNs with a popular creative team (Vaughan would be a good choice, but his TV gig might limit his work in the comics medium). In the short run, Vertigo could probably stand to take Frisch's advice. I think Brian Wood would thank them for doing so.

*In the Direct Market in the early 21st century, at least. I have little doubt that Hernandez will be better remembered than Vaughan or Willingham in 30 years. Assuming that our desperate struggle for existence will allow us to time to think about old comic books at all.

**BTW, Vertigo promoted the hell out of God Save the Queen, didn't it? How many bloggers got a review copy of that book, anyway? (And why didn't I get one? Is it because I keep calling for DiDio's ouster?) I remember reading dozens of reviews, ranging from lukewarm to outright hostile. Probably not what Vertigo was hoping for, though the timing was late enough that it probably didn't hurt their initial sales. Then again, it probably didn't help increase reorders, either. I kind of wonder if it might have made Vertigo gun shy about promoting a new book by soliciting a massive number of reviews. Maybe they should try that trick again, only with a better book.


brian said...

"including Brian Wood's somewhat shrill claim that they are a destructive force in the comics market"

Despite Heidi and Marc's claims, I've not once said that. The charts are what they are, and are not harmful in and of themselves. The problem is in the analysis and the conclusions jumped to within, and the only change I've ever really called for is to label them better, with more responsibility. Not to get rid of them like Marc's says I've said.


Jamaal said...

I think you make some great points about the possibilities of Vertigo shifting its publishing strategy.

However, I wonder if a new strategy would result in an increased reliance on bookstores to sell the trades. If they can take advantage of DC's new publishing agent to maximize opportunities in that market, it could make up for the losses in the direct market. If Sloth and God Save the Queen were marketed by Random House, maybe the orders would have been higher (assuming that the books did poorly in the traditional bookstore market).

My personal problem with the charts, and the interpretations that result is that they create an incomplete picture of the industry, and aren't particularly helpful in any real economic analysis. How can we judge an industry by sales alone without accurate information about profit margins, or any of the other information that economists use to judge the health of individual businesses or industries? These analyses wouldn't pass muster in an economics 101 class.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Interesting analysis, Dick. For me, it always bugs me when people get caught up in sales, just like how people are supposed to care about the box office receipts of movies. I'm more interested in talking about whether stuff is any good. But this sort of discussion seems to be taking place among industry insiders here, so it's not totally pointless.

As for anecdotal evidence, I'm a pretty regular reader of several Vertigo books, and I've recently stopped buying DMZ, Army@Love, and Ex Machina (not Vertigo exactly, but close) in monthly format, preferring to wait for trades. I already do that with Fables and 100 Bullets, and I figure I can save a little dough that way. I hope that doesn't bring about cancellation of some of my favorite books...

You mention the possibility of more Vertigo OGNs, and it certainly seems like they're going in that direction, with Cairo, Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm, Incognegro, and others. Or were you referring to the possibility of starting a new series, but having it be just OGNs, rather than monthly? That would be interesting.

On a more personal, and probably obnoxious note, I mentioned both Northlanders and Shortcomings on my blog (with a full review of the latter, or at least the three issues of Optic Nerve that make up the story), and I didn't show up in the Ask Cerebra results! What the hell? Does Kevin Church not consider me worthy of inclusion in his search engine? Bastard. (Kevin, if you read this, that was a joke. Please don't get mad at me. Like Mark Wahlberg in The Big Hit, I can't stand to have people dislike me. I'm not a hitman though).

Dick Hyacinth said...

Matt: I've seen a lot more about the MF Grimm GN in the mainstream press than on sites dedicated to comics. That's hardly a bad thing, but you certainly can't expect a repeat of these things for the other books you mentioned.

I was speculating on a line of OGNs, kind of like Tokyopop's OEL line. I'm one of the people who thinks the pamphlet is living on borrowed time (at least for the mainstream publishers), but Vertigo really seems to get more out of their GNs which collect monthlies. DM readers love serialized stories, so I think that a series of OGNs might work at some point down the line. I don't really trust Vertigo to launch such a thing right now. Maybe if Levitz gave them some more money for marketing....

Matthew J. Brady said...

Okay, I get what you were talking about, and it's definitely something worth discussing. I just read Jason Thompson's Comics Journal interview today, and he talked a bit about the early days of the manga explosion in the U.S. It was fascinating, because Tokyopop and Viz both flirted with publishing manga in monthly format before they hit upon the idea of collected digest format, and look what happened with that.

On the other hand, I've read some stuff by prominent indie creators like Becky Cloonan and Corey Lewis saying that they are starting to like the monthly format, and want to try to stick with that, since completing a 200-page graphic novel is exhausting, and it's nice to have something out on the shelves regularly (if I remember what they were saying correctly). It's an interesting conundrum, since they can have their work published more often (and maybe get paid more?), but readers might be more likely to buy something in the longer format. Of course, monthly comics usually get collected...

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