Friday, February 12, 2010

The 2009 Annual Report on Graphic Novels

... at least, that's what it should be called. Every year, Brian Hibbs at Comic Book Resources performs an analysis of graphic novel sales, as reported by Bookscan:

For the seventh year in a row, I’m going to try to figure out something that can only vaguely be seen and perceived: the size and shape of the sales of books through the book store market, as seen through the prism of BookScan.

Some preamble:

“Direct Market" stores (also known as “your Local Comics Shop") buy much of their material for resale from Diamond Comics Distributors (though, not, by any means, all – many DM stores are also buying from book distributors, and in increasing numbers). DM stores seldom have Point-of-Sales (POS) systems (though this is rapidly changing), and, because we buy non-returnable, what we track is in our side of the industry is what sells-in to the store, not what sells-through to the eventual consumer. In a very real way, this means that the DM store owner is the actual customer of the publisher, as opposed to the end consumer.

The bookstore market, however, buys their material returnable, where they can send back some portion of titles that don’t sell. Because of this, sell-through is the data that is tracked and trended. Bookstores that have POS systems are able to report their sales to BookScan, a subsidiary of Nielsen.

Each week, BookScan generates a series of reports detailing the specific sales to consumers through its client stores. I have several well trained spies who have, for several years, provided me with access to the BookScan reports.
Mr. Hibbs then goes on to give an unbelievably exhaustive review of the data, with this caveat:
... Really, what I’m trying to get across to you is that this really is entirely unreliable data in terms of the absolute and total number of books sold, and is only able to give the broadest outline of what’s happening in book stores, based upon the data-set that I’m being given, which is in no way comprehensive. I still think that’s better than having no information, so I persevere in writing this each year.
Some highlights:
The sum of the Top 750 in 2009 is down 8.4% in unit sales, taking the retail sales in the book channel back to near 2005 levels.

... More worrying, perhaps, is that gross dollar sales had its first drop [about 8%] since I’ve been able to track this information, taking dollars to their lowest level since 2007.

Obviously, a certain amount of this can be blamed on the general level of the economy, and more specifically, problems at the largest brick and mortar retailers like Borders.

... The majority of the decrease comes from the manga category ... and the main reason that the dollar drop isn’t even worse appears to be a greater number of Western-created comics selling, at higher price points.
and this:
The book of 2009 is the same as the previous year: "Watchmen." The big story, however, is that while "Watchmen" in 2008 was the biggest TP sale we’d ever seen before (nearly triple was the best seller of 2007), for 2009 "Watchmen’s" sales broke even that record. "Watchmen" sold 424,814 copies in the BookScan report.

That’s kind of crazy.

..."Watchmen," the movie, was released early in the year – March 9, 2009 – and yet, breaking conventional wisdom, as "Watchmen" often does, it appears to have continued to sell significantly past the movie’s release date. That is a rare thing, something we’ve never really seen in either the book market or the [direct market]...

Clearly those stellar unit sales also makes "Watchmen" the number one book in terms of dollars sold, as well – nearly eight and a half million dollars, or, if you really want to be scared, nearly 5% of all of the dollars for the entire BookScan list in 2009 (all 19k+ items)!

And that’s just the paperback.
Bone was another big seller, which is great, as was the Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style book, Dork Diaries. (I'm ashamed to say I haven't heard of or read this. It appears to be Diary of a Wimpy Kid for girls, with illustrations that mash up Jeff Kinney, Manga, and Bratz.) Hibbs includes these details about kids' comics:
The 21st best-selling book is Jennifer Holm’s "Babymouse" v9, another comics series aimed at kids – it comes in at 15k. Ten volumes of "Babymouse" make the chart, in fact. It isn’t big as "Bone" (what is?), but it shows there is a thriving market for “comics for kids." In point of fact, there are sixty-three books in the “Everything Else" section that are primarily aimed at children. You might not have heard about Babymouse, or the “Lunch Lady" series, or "Dragonbreath," or "Stone Rabbit BC Mambo" or "Black is For Beginnings" or "Club Penguin," but kids clearly have, and they’re selling well. In fact, I suspect that if you were to sort the entire list out by “intended audience," comics aimed at Young Adults or younger would actually dominate the listings. It might also be worth noting that most of the titles that I just mentioned haven’t been carried by Diamond, whatsoever.
The Beat (lately of Publisher's Weekly, if I'm remembering correctly) performs more meta-analysis, largely centered around this bold statement:
The success of Bone and Babymouse (and the manga blockbusters, of course) is still a testament to the number of younger readers who are the potential audience for comics. Once and for all, can we send the idea that the industry isn’t training a new generation of readers off to the glue factory? Yes, it was a close call, but we made it through. Now whether the kid will pick up the weekly buying habit is another matter; the readership is clearly there — the question is how and if comics publishers can successfully tap INTO that readership.
They may be right--we do appear to have made it through. But I think the bigger takeaway is that Marvel and DC, which, when I was growing up, were companies who did nothing BUT sell comics to kids, apparently no longer are able to sell anything to kids. The revolution of the 1980s took full hold of these two companies, and today they are really just publishing for an adult-only audience.

The big takeaway is that comics for kids, while hopefully thriving, are entirely in the hands of Book publishers and Manga publishers, and not at all in the hands of the people who brought us Spider-Man and the Super Friends.

No comments: