For Black Friday, I thought I’d reprint this piece about comics sales from back in 2009 — it first ran on Comixology.

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Comics are a relatively small part of the media landscape. But how small? Or how large? How does the sale of a popular comic book compare to the sales of, say, a popular book or DVD? I wasn’t sure…so I thought I’d use this column to try and see if I could figure it out.

Caveat and a half: Pretty much all of this stuff starts as guestimates made with inadequate data. By the time a non-expert like me starts talking about it…well, it’s not pretty. I think the following is useful to give some sense of the scale of the comics business compared to other entertainment industries, but any individual number should be taken with a grain of salt roughly the size of New Jersey.

Comics Sales

Marc-Oliver Frisch’s occasional column at the Beat seems like the easiest place to go for information about mainstream comics sales., at least through the direct market According to Frisch, in July of this year, the biggest seller was Marvel’s Reborn #1, which sold about 193,000 units. DC’s Blackest Night was second with sales of around 177,000 units. According to Frisch, these are fairly huge numbers, partially pumped up with variant edition covers and first issue excitement. A less hyped comic in the middle of its run – Action Comics #879 – had sales in July of 38, 324 units. Vertigo and Wildstorm titles are also in the area of 11,000 to 8000 units a month, apparently. Tiny Titans, a book for kids that’s near and dear to my heart, only sold 8, 576 units – but, again, this is through the direct market only, and I assume most of Tiny Titans sales are actually through bookstores (that’s where I get my copies., anyway.)

As far as smaller press numbers, Kim Thompson, co-owner of Fantagraphics wrote me that sales are “really all over the map. A Peanuts will sell 15,000-20,000, other classics and well-known cartoonists in the 4,000-7,000 range, then all the way down to 2,000 and less for more obscure, or unsuccessful, stuff… And of course some long-time continuing books have sold a lot more than that, Ghost World at 150,000+, Palestine at 60,000+, etc.”

Brian Hibbs does his best to figure out the Bookscan numbers at the end of each year, and says for comics sales through bookstores there’s about 8.3 million units sold per year, for somewhere around $100 million in sales for the top 350 books. Watchmen was the highest seller, with over 300,000 copies sold. (Though I saw a NYT article that put Watchmen graphic novel sales at 1 million…perhaps counting Direct Market and online sales as well?) Naruto v. 28 was next with over 100,000 sold. All volumes of Naruto together sold around 971,000 copies, for a total of $7.7 million.

For some other numbers to throw into the mix: Brigid Alverson, who blogs over at mangablog wrote me in an email that “first printings [for manga] seem to be in the 10,000 range for smaller publishers; Yen does 25,000 for titles like Haruhi.” The folks at the Anime News Network say total sales of graphic novels in 2008 were $395 million. Manga sales accounted for $175 million of that, which is the largest single chunk (the rest being divided among super-heroes, humor, adult, etc.) They also point out the huge success of Naruto, which is so overwhelming that it’s comparable to other media products that are not comics. Like for example:

DVD Sales

Sales figures for DVDs seem a whole lot easier to obtain…as in, I googled for about 5 seconds and got actual complete information organized in a handy chart. It’s almost as if our culture cares more about DVDs. Or as if the companies aren’t embarrassed to release the information. Or something.

Anyway…the biggest seller the week ending September 6 was State of Play, which sold 344,745 units. And again I say, that’s in a week. So that means that a successful DVD sells, very unscientifically, more than 6 times as much as a successful floppy comic in a given month.

Watchmen the movie, a bit further down the list, is an obvious point of comparison for comics. It sold 56, 814 units in the week; still higher than any comic has done in a long time, probably, but not necessarily by many orders of magnitude. Of course, this is 7 weeks into the DVD release, and overall it’s sold more than 2 million units in that time. (Again, as best I can figure Watchmen the graphic novel seems to have sold between 300,000 to 1 million units in all of 2008.)

Total DVD sales for 2008 were $14.5 billion. That’s about 36 times greater than graphic novel sales for the year, if my numbers are right.

Music

CD sales are in free fall due to the recession and that wonderful, magical whatsit we call the Internet. People still buy an awful lot of albums, though. According to the ever-erudite Ben Sisario at the NYT, the biggest seller in 2008 was Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter, which sold 2.87 million copies. Again, Watchmen, the biggest comic hit, seems to have sold less than half that, and possibly less than a quarter of that. Total music album sales (including CD, download, and LP) were 428 million. Meanwhile, over a billion songs were downloaded. The same article says that concert ticket sales clocked in at $4.2 billion in 2008.

Books

Sales of books in June were $942.6 million according to the Association of American Publishers. 2008 book sales for the year were 24 billion. I presume graphic novels are included as a part of that; if that’s correct, they’re about 1.6% of the total sales for the year…which is quite a bit smaller than I would have guessed.

Also to my surprise, big-event books appear to actually outsell big-event CDs and DVDs. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold more than 8 million copies on its first day on sale in the U.S., which makes Lil’ Wayne’s 2.8 million albums over a year look pretty puny. And, of course, 8 million copies is just about the total bookstore sales for all graphic novels in all of 2008, according to Brian Hibbs’ figures. Obviously, Harry Potter is exceptional…but Dan Brown’s most recent book was also selling in the hundreds of thousands on its first couple of days. Breaking Dawn, the last Twilight book, sold 1.3 million copies on the first day.

Nothing You Didn’t Know

There’s no really startling revelations here of course. Despite big comic book derived movies and the growth of graphic novels and manga, most people in the U.S. would rather watch a movie or listen to a CD or even read a book than pick up a comic. Perhaps with the recent shake-ups at Marvel and DC that will change, and comics will start selling on a scale with other entertainment options. But, if the figures here are even close to correct, there’s a long way to go before that happens.
 

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