Funnybook Babylon

September 13, 2007

Sales Figures: Threat or Menace?

Filed under: Articles — Tags: , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 9:33 am

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Numbers make everything appear more concrete. We can all have positions on subjects or opinions about issues, but with data that could be interpreted to confirm our conclusions, our complaints as fans magically transform into sober critiques by objective analysts. This behavior is most prevalent in our cultural industries, where fans are constantly struggling to find tools to assess the quality of and understand the product in an objective manner. We all want to say more than “I don’t like that movie/book/comic because it didn’t appeal to me.” We want to be able to judge the product in a manner that is superficially fair and disinterested, especially if the facts just happen to correlate with our deeply held beliefs.

For the comics industry, these facts are handily provided at least once a month. Diamond, which holds a virtual monopoly on the distribution of comic books to the “direct market” releases its sales figures on a monthly basis, for the presumed purpose of giving retailers the information necessary to make buying decisions. Since retailers are unable to return much of the product that they order from Diamond, the charts give guidance on how they should allocate their purchases in a given month.

There are a lot of problems with these charts, even when exclusively used for their “intended” purpose. Many commentators have criticized the charts for a variety of reasons, ranging from the inaccuracy of the figures used to the fact that it underestimates the size and diversity of the audience (since the numbers are exclusively from the direct market). Even if one discounts these criticisms, it is hard to understand why anyone would think that these charts are a valuable tool for any business purpose. If one is a retailer, the charts provide an incomplete picture of general consumer demand, since they focus on what competitors are ordering more than what consumers are purchasing. For a product with a broad and (potentially) diverse base of consumers, information that does not address the demographic (or geographic) profile of the different segments of the market is pretty useless. There is a real problem with the asymmetry of information in this industry, which encourages short-term planning and businesses planned around hyperbolic discounting.

So why do these charts remain attractive to the nascent comics journalist? The most obvious reason is that it provides some indication about the health of the industry, of the publishers, and individual titles. Moreover, comic fans (which all of us are, regardless of whether we consider ourselves press) want to feel like insiders. It’s a way of elevating oneself beyond the traditional fan, who can only rely on his/her opinion. The insiders have the facts on their side.

In a sense, this is not so different from the obsession that movie fans have with box office figures, which provide an illusion of transparency for the film industry. In the end, both serve as portions of a publicity campaign for the most powerful stakeholders in the industry, because the appearance of dominance breeds future success. Fans want to feel that their preferences reflect the zeitgeist. If someone enjoys the World War Hulk crossover, their enjoyment may be confirmed by the knowledge that it’s also a big seller.
We all love us some Hulk!
Fans also argue that the charts give them an indication of whether their favorite title is performing poorly, which could inspire grassroots action to save the book. If a title like Blue Beetle is selling in low numbers, fans could circulate petitions, or try to convince others to purchase the book. A less frequently mentioned corollary of this argument is that it allows fans to use the numbers as a tool to criticize the quality of the book.

One of the most important reasons for the continued importance of these charts is that journalists (and those who claim to be so) still take them seriously. Most, including Comic Book Resources, The Beat and ICv2 inform the reader of the flaws and limits of the data, but still rely on them to identify trends in the industry. But if the data is flawed, is the analysis meaningful at all? I know some can say that it’s better than nothing, but if the data leads to false conclusions, using the data is actually far worse than nothing.

Should sales charts even exist for any aspect of the entertainment industry? They are used as a tool in the comics industry to reinforce the dominance of Diamond as a distributor of comic books, and the dominance of the mainstream publishers. The exclusive deals offered to some publishers result in preferential treatment and distort the marketplace to the extent that real consumer preferences get ignored. Beyond that, any use of sales figures as a proxy for assessing the health of the industry ignores the fact that Marvel and DC are less publishers than intellectual property farms. We still don’t have intimate knowledge about the financial structure of any of the secondary or tertiary publishers. Further, the focus on direct market sales does not address the most significant problem facing retailers. Most are actually pretty capable of serving their existing customers, but the only way they will remain viable is if more stores develop long-term business strategies, as discussed
by Tom Spurgeon in his recent editorial for The Comics Reporter.

In the end, Diamond sales figures matter, but any conclusions that are drawn from them should be taken with many grains of salt. Although analysis of the health of the industry, publishers, and specific titles is important, as long as publishers and distributors have no incentive to make this information public, they will be inherently flawed. Any conclusions about economic trends based on incomplete data can only be speculative. But that won’t stop anyone from using the data the next time they are in a message board debate.

4 Comments »

  1. Brian Wood made some excellent commentary on the Trade Paperbacks and Collected Editions sales charters. The original post was taken down, but PW Beat has the text of it here:

    http://pwbeat.publishersweekly.com/blog/2007/09/07/sales-charts-and-the-chamber-of-secrets/

    Ironically enough it is below a listing of sales data.

    Comment by Sigma — September 13, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  2. Thanks for the comment. I was partially inspired to do this article by Wood’s remarks. He makes some excellent points, but I don’t know if I entirely buy the premise of his argument. He doesn’t really believe that its necessary for fans to evaluate these numbers at all, even if they are accurate.

    When I read fan reaction to monthly numbers on Newsarama, I’m inclined to agree with him. On the other hand, I think that the numbers could be helpful in reflecting the health of the industry (assuming that they are ever accurate and complete), which is the position that Pedro’s always taken with me. So I’m kind of torn. On one hand, fans do use them as an excuse to cheerlead for their favorite ip custodian, but on the other, Pedro’s argument (which would have been on Mr. Woods’ site, and is now in Limbo) is very compelling when made by Pedro.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — September 17, 2007 @ 9:27 am

  3. Just as an addendum –

    The August figures really make me wonder why we still think this stuff is important. Beyond the fact that the use of the Batman title as a sales index is completely arbitrary, with a sales figure based on unverifiable “inside information”, Countdown seems to have experienced an unexpected sales bump. Given the critical roasting that the series has received from many, many sites (including the beautifully written Downcounting!), why is this happening?

    According to Jim McCann at Brian Michael Bendis’ board, the reason is that Diamond reduces the sales figures for returnable items by a certain percentage (just what that percentage is, I don’t know). This probably means that the series has been doing better than we all thought for the last few months, and partially explains its continued strength.

    You have to wonder whether this is the only Diamond policy that distorts the numbers, or whether it makes sense to treat them as some kind of honest broker with an incentive to disclose accurate information (especially when they are a privately held company with far fewer incentives to disclose than a publicly held one).

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — September 17, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  4. […] anyone looking at the August sales charts (shh — don’t tell Jamaal!) might notice that Countdown has experienced an unexpected sales bump. In an even more shocking […]

    Pingback by Downcounting - A Guide for the Perplexed: #33, “Let’s Make a Deal” | Funnybook Babylon — September 18, 2007 @ 1:59 am

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