Marvel Fails at Bookstore Market

Dave Carter at Yet Another Comics Blog posted Amazon’s top 50 graphic novels as of Friday. I thought I’d kibitz.

The first thing I noticed was that the #1 seller isn’t really a comic, by my definition, but at this point, I doubt I can redirect the Wimpy Kid bandwagon.

More significantly, it takes until #39 before you see a Marvel comic, and that’s a Stephen King tie-in, so it barely counts. There is no Marvel superhero title on this list, while DC has *15*. (And that’s only the superhero books they put out; they have additional Vertigo titles listed.) Let’s say that again: there is no Marvel superhero collection or graphic novel in the top 50 Amazon sellers.

Are all of Marvel’s audience picking the periodical format as their preference? Do Marvel’s collections sell better in the comic shop direct market? Have readers gotten tired of Marvel not keeping their books in print and so don’t bother? I’m stumped.

Also, Tumor, a Kindle-only release, shows up very high for something with a restricted audience. In an earlier post, Dave discusses why manga doesn’t rank as highly as you might expect — he speculates (and I agree these reasons sound plausible) that it’s a combination of younger audience and lack of discount.


42 Responses to “Marvel Fails at Bookstore Market”

  1. jon jordan Says:

    Something to think about here is that Amazon really isn’t that good of a gage to success of book. While DC does do better with sales on actual hardcover books and trades, the amazon numbers are not representative.

    Typically with event he best selling authors Amazon accounts for less than 10% of the sales.

    With comics in the trade and hardcover format most are probably bought at comic stores and brick and mortar stores like Barnes and Noble.

    I would put more stock in the list being run by Diamond for truer numbers. The latest previews has Deadpool at #3. Of course DC still has 6 of the top ten.

    I think you are probably right about marvel fans buying the comics and not trades.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Do you know of somewhere I can read more about Amazon not being representative of book sales? I suspect I’m biased, because I do most of my shopping there these days, so I’d like to see more facts about it to educate myself.

    I looked at the latest NY Times “Graphic Books” Bestseller List for comparison, and once again, Marvel superheroes don’t show up in hardcover, although the publisher appears at #7 with a Halo video game tie-in. DC has half the slots with their superhero books. In softcover, we finally see a ranking! Civil War is #6, while DC places 3 superhero titles and another 4 non-superhero.

  3. Geoff J Says:

    Am shock Empowered sells more than just out HC of New Avengers volume whatever.

    Maybe the marvel zombies are all using in stock trades.com?

  4. Johanna Says:

    That’s not a bad theory. True Marvel Zombies who need to buy most if not all of the comics Marvel makes would certainly look for the best price possible, especially as cover price keeps going up. And they would want issues, not reprints.

  5. Ali T. Kokmen Says:

    “Do you know of somewhere I can read more about Amazon not being representative of book sales? I suspect I’m biased, because I do most of my shopping there these days, so I’d like to see more facts about it to educate myself.”

    For what it’s worth, Publishers Weekly ran an article recently (at http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6671785.html ) summarizing the 2008 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Report, which credits Amazon.com with 14% of all book purchases, which tops all other book outlets. (Barnes & Noble, for example, ranks at 12.5% of all book purchases.)

    (There’s no indication as to the degree to which the report reflects sales of books in special markets such as, presumably, comic book stores.)

    So (if one chooses to accept these figures are accurate,) one could either say that Amazon.com is the venue that sells more books than does any other venue–or that far more books are sold in all non-Amazon.com venues than are sold by Amazon.com itself. Depending on what one is trying to argue, of course ;-)

  6. Johanna Says:

    Ha ha! Thanks for putting that in perspective.

  7. Adam Says:

    Yeah, I find it hard to believe that Amazon couldn’t be considered representative.

    Most of the boards I frequent like the Bendis board have members that constantly state that they purchase either from Amazon, DCBS or their sister site, InStockTrades.

  8. James Schee Says:

    Very weird. I was surprised that even popular books like Captain America weren’t on there. The latest volume even under performs in other categories like superhero it was #32, 5th in comparison to other Marvel books and 39th in Comic Strips.

    Even at Barnes & Nobles top sellers there were more manga, but still no Marvels in the top 50 besides Stephen King.

  9. Marc-Oliver Says:

    Well, as the source you link to states, Amazon’s lists are updated hourly, so all they reflect – at best – is how many copies a book were sold in one hour, comparatively to other books.

    So even if someone would watch these charts 24/7 for the next year, they wouldn’t tell us much, because it’s entirely possible for a book to be No. 1 with 500 units sold in one hour and be No. 1 again with 5000 copies sold in the next, because, say, a minor TV show recommended it.

    The NEW YORK TIMES charts are more representative because they cover a week apiece rather than just an hour. But the same basic problem applies: They only show what books sell in comparison with each other, with no indication of the absolute numbers involved – which can fluctuate quite drastically from one week to the next.

    In theory, a book can top the NYT chart for six weeks in a row and drop to the No. 2 spot in week seven, and still sell more copies in week seven than in all the previous six weeks together. From looking at the chart, we wouldn’t know it. That’s an extreme example, but on a smaller scale, this is happening all the time.

    This kind of data is interesting in a number of ways, but in the end, all the Amazon and NYT lists offer are a series of snapshots, each of which is taken with a different lense and from a different distance, to the point where we’ve got no idea how big or small the objects in focus really are.

  10. Alan Coil Says:

    For about the last 5 years, trades have often been sold for 50% off at most of the smaller cons. As Marvel seems to go to trade almost as soon as possible, it is quite likely that a larger portion of their sales happen to comics shops instead of Amazon. Then the retailer marks them down 50% at the cons to at least get their investment back, with the fans loving the discount prices. They don’t have to wait much longer this way, perhaps just a month or so.

  11. Johanna Says:

    Those books, Alan, I suspect come from Marvel’s quantity sales. I’ve heard that retailers can buy caseloads at an extreme discount. That they can sell them for 1/2 price and still make money indicates just how cheaply they’re getting them.

  12. Mark Says:

    FWIW, and this is strictly anecdotal…but the last few times I have been in a nearby Hastings, all of the TPB and HB comic related books on the discount shelves were Marvel. Which indicates to me that they don’t sell well enough to keep at full price.

  13. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Kibbles ‘n’ Bits, 8/3/09 Says:

    [...] § Johanna wonders why Marvel isn’t selling more GNs on Amazon. [...]

  14. Jenn Says:

    I think it does have to do with most collectors buying the comics instead of the gns for Marvel.

    Also, manga doesn’t rank on Amazon because that is not where fans buy their manga. Most purchase at cons and bookstores. Of those purchasing online, most use anime/manga dealers like Rightstuf.com instead…

  15. Paul O'Brien Says:

    It occurs to me that the people buying collected editions of Marvel superhero comics are very likely to be people who regularly visit their local comic store to buy single issues. So they don’t have a huge incentive to go looking for online stores. To be honest, I’m more surprised that there are so many DC books in that list. (On the other hand, I’m not at all surprised to see Empowered in there, because it’s precisely the sort of product that some people might feel more comfortable buying anonymously.)

  16. Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes Says:

    [...] eyes Marvel’s lackluster showing on Amazon.com’s list of Top 50 graphic novels. [Comics Worth Reading] Blackest Night [...]

  17. RCheli Says:

    I think it comes down to this: there are just too many Marvel trades out there. If you were to buy a representative Spider-man trade, which one would it be? How about X-Men? Or Captain America? There are just too many to choose from and it can be daunting. It also would be hard for me to give you a Spider-Man or X or Cap trade where it is THE story that they HAVE to read.

    With DC, I can think of plenty. For Batman, I’d always suggest Year One. If they’re adventurous, Dark Knight. I can think of trades for Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, etc., too.

    Also, slightly off topic, but I was in Borders last week and saw Fables Vol. 1 and Sandman Vol. 1 on their “buy-one-get-one-50%-off” table. Smart move on DC’s part.

  18. Torsten Adair Says:

    I haven’t worked at the store level in two years, but B&N stores do sub-categorize DC and Marvel. (Manga, media(small), graphic novels (catch-all), superheroes (very small) are the others.)

    From what I remember at my store (not representative, as I strove to offer an incredible selection)… Marvel and DC sold about the same amount of dollars.

    I followed the BN.com GN listings during the Holiday season over on livejournal (http://torsten-adair.livejournal.com/), and the only Marvel titles which hit the top 1000 were Dark Tower, Marvel Chronicle, and Marvel Encyclopedia.

    Currently, the bestselling non-licensed Marvel title is a bargain edition of “Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys”, charting at #61 on the GN bestsellers list on BN.com. The next Marvel superhero title? Civil War at #128.

    The only new collection I am buying is the upcoming “Wizard of Oz”. Otherwise, I purchase the Visionaries trades, and maybe a premiere hardcover from the 1980s.

    Manga ranks well on BN.com. Fruit Baskets, Naruto, Vampire Knight, Full Metal Alchemist…

    I also think that Marvel doesn’t have the mainstream “hook” that many DC superhero titles have. Why buy the latest New Avengers title if there’s nothing to interest the casual reader? Civil War and Zombies and Planet Hulk sold well because there’s a hook. Initiative? Brand New Day? Secret Invasion? Thor?

  19. Chris Says:

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the book distributors. DC Comics uses Random House while Marvel is using Diamond.

  20. Nick Says:

    “Have readers gotten tired of Marvel not keeping their books in print and so don’t bother? I’m stumped.”

    That’s probably closest to my view, if not exactly it. To put it simply, the reason why I buy so few Marvel volumes is this:

    Their practice of putting out omnibus volumes after doing so many paperback volumes puts me between a rock and a hard place. I hate the omnibus books; they’re too big, too heavy, and not at all comfortable to read. So I don’t buy them. Yet, they make buying the individual paperback volumes appear prohibitively expensive in comparison, so I end up being disinclined to buy those also. That’s if they’re even available at all.

    I realise this is perhaps a bit of a ‘special snowflake’ option, and don’t think to suggest for a moment that many (or any) others share my view.

    Perhaps the more prosaic reason is that Marvel just don’t appear to publish as many books that I’m interested in; and when they do, they’re ones like Incognito or Criminal, in the Icon line.

    Aside from a couple of Daredevil volumes, I think the only Marvel TPB I’ve bought this year has been the Power Pack Classic one, and that I bought largely for nostalgia reasons: over here in the UK it was the back-up strip in the Thundercats comics I read when I was younger.

    Looking at what Marvel TPBs I might buy in the future, ‘the works of Ed Brubaker’ seems to cover most of them. Though I’ve yet to buy any Captain America for reasons stated above, and the same reasons apply to most of the Daredevil volumes I’ve not got yet (including some Bendis ones which appear to be OOP, dangnabbit).

    Oh, wait, I tell a lie. I have bought two other Marvel TPBs this year, two volumes of Grant Morrison’s Flash.

  21. Johanna Says:

    Um… DC publishes the Flash, not Marvel. Other than that :), I enjoyed reading your explanation of what you’re looking for. It’s from these kinds of stories that maybe trends can be seen.

  22. Nick Says:

    Oops, that’ll teach me not to proof-read before submitting. I blame my brain fart on the fact that I mostly read non-Superhero DC books, so my brain jumped to the conclusion that as the Flash is a superhero book it must’ve been from Marvel and not DC. How embarrassing. I shall have to give my brain a strong talking to now lest it happen again.

    In the meantime, I’ve remembered another example of Marvel putting me off buying their products: Runaways. First in digest, then in omnibus, and now also in TPB form. Was buying it from the very start so have a bundle of digests, yet stopped buying as the TPB is clearly superior to the digest, yet I’m loathe to replace all my digests with TPBs, but I’m also loathe to have a mixed collection. So apparently the solution I went with is not buying any of them.

    I think the main message I have here – and this goes for DC and everyone else as well as Marvel – is that publishers should identify the best format to put their TPBs out in, and *stick with it*. Chop and change too much, or have too many options, and you’re just giving me reasons to say “I’d rather spend my money on something else, actually.”

    Or, to boil it down to five words: it’s the paradox of choice.

  23. vernon wiley Says:

    As a comics retailer, I would say that Marvel’s trade program is so horribly chosen, that one only needs to look at their Previews catalog to see what books they offer month to month to understand it. Among them are selections I can’t imagine very many readers getting excited about, let alone wanting to read. My other focus would be on their “hardcover” editions that supplant the cheaper, more accessible trade paperbacks. By the time the hardcover either sells out and there’s a paperback offered, the interest is greatly diminished. DC is also pretty guilty of this, as well.

  24. Hsifeng Says:

    vernon wiley Says:

    “…By the time the hardcover either sells out and there’s a paperback offered, the interest is greatly diminished.

    “DC is also pretty guilty of this, as well.”

    So are many publishers of novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, etc, that aren’t comics. ;)

  25. Susan Says:

    Speaking as a librarian, Marvel makes me want to pull my hair out. The company website is *completely useless* for finding older material. We need individual volume titles and/or ISBNs to be able to order books, and I haven’t yet found what I needed using their site. This is not good customer service.

    We had a lot of trouble with the bindings of *Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane*. That’s one of the few non-manga titles I’ve been able to get kids to read, but I won’t order it at my new school because I know from experience the binding won’t last, and the margins aren’t big enough to successfully tip the pages back in.

    And years ago, when I was still reviewing for School Library Journal, we got books from CrossGen (see, I said it was a long time ago), DC, and Image, but never any books from Marvel, even when the column chair requested them. I don’t have any SLJ or Booklist issues at hand to flip through, but my faulty memory suggests that Marvel is still under-represented.

  26. John DiBello Says:

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the book distributors. DC Comics uses Random House while Marvel is using Diamond.

    I believe Chris has come the closest to what make likely be the deciding mark. Certainly Diamond is servicing and selling Amazon, but the connection between the sales reps and the buying/merchandising/editorial at Amazon given to the powerhouse publisher/distributors like Random House (DC), FSG (Drawn & Quarterly), Boom! (Simon & Shuster) or TokyoPop (HarperCollins), to name a few, are going to be the proverbial eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. I don’t know and don’t intend to misrepresent Diamond’s work with Amazon, but I do know big publishers and distributors spend substantial face time and much not-in-person communication about marketing, promotions, publicity and sales spikes in ways that specifically affect the trade bookstore (non-direct) market. The situation is even more dramatic at independent stores around the country.

    Random House reps call on every major indie store in the country…does Diamond? Do Diamond reps call on Tattered Cover, Elliott Bay, The Strand, Prairie Lights, Regulator, 57th Street Books, Learned Owl, Vroman’s, Diesel, not to mention college bookstores, regional wholesalers and news jobbers? Random House does.

    It’s just my opinion, but Marvel willingly gives up a substantial percentage of the trade bookstore market by having their books distributed to the trade market not by a book publisher/distributor, but by Diamond. No offense at all meant personally to Diamond reps, who have a tough and unenviable job–but there’s places they can’t get into the way a major publisher’s rep does and can.

  27. Johanna Says:

    Thank you so much for that insightful analysis. I appreciate knowing more about that aspect of the business.

  28. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Aug. 4, 2009: What’s the impetus? Says:

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  29. Alex Says:

    Their books are poor quality, both in content and production. They are poorly designed and marketed. Is is a surprise when they sell poorly too?

  30. Bruce S. Says:

    I have to second Alex’s comments. I’m a casual comics reader. I was a huge Marvel fan in my teens, but gave up collecting years ago. In recent years I’ve started picking up misc. superhero trades & reprint collections, almost exclusively DC. The DC books are professionally designed and packaged, and look like something an adult might enjoy. What’s more, the stories are self-contained. I don’t need to be familiar with the entire history of DC to understand what’s going on in a Batman trade paperback. The Marvel books I’ve seen look cheesy, with amateurish “pow! zap!” comic-booky graphic design. And maybe this is a problem with Marvel in general, but even the self-contained stories seem to require a great knowledge of Marvel’s convoluted continuity and cast of characters. Fans who discover Spider-Man or Iron Man through movies and pick up a paperback are going to be totally lost trying to figure out references to clones, secret wars, Avengers, characters who used to be dead but aren’t anymore, etc. etc.

  31. Torsten Adair Says:

    I heard that DC sent a free copy of Watchmen to every Random House account which didn’t order graphic novels, with a note explaining the book and why they should sell it and other DC titles.

    I got a free copy in a similar way, back when it first came out. DC (or maybe Warner Books) had sent out press copies of Watchmen, Ronin, Dark Knight Returns, and the Shadow to various media outlets. My brother worked at a university NPR station, and brought home the box.

    Then there was the experiment where DC Comics and the New York Public Library selected some YA titles (Books of Magic, Sandman…) to see how they would circulate in libraries. (Circa 1997)

    Working now at B&N HQ, I see all sorts of free books from publishers. Yen, Image, Dark Horse, DC are readily seen. Marvel less so. (It could be someone else grabbed them, but I can’t recall seeing ANY in the two years I’ve been here.) Heck, I even get books from Icarus! (Which also offers free downloads on their NSFW website.)

    Keep in mind, Diamond Book Distributors is not the same as Diamond Comic Distributors. DBD also gets kudos for distributing many small press publishers which wouldn’t get proper attention from other distributors.

    If DBD is doing such a lousy job with Marvel, are Image, Dark Horse, Oni, IDW, Top Shelf also underperforming?

    Marvel’s website is problematic, but there are much worse websites (such as Image).

    Marvel is cheap…at the recent BookExpo, they had writers and artists signing comicbooks, while most other publishers in the Diamond pavilion were handing out books. (And there were certain BEAs where Marvel had almost no presence, like in 2001, during the first Free Comic Book Day. You know… the same weekend that Spider-Man broke box office records? A table with a few books. No display, no Marvel employee, no literature for attendees to read. Not even an appearance of Spider-Man, and it was in NEW YORK CITY!) Yes, DC wasn’t there this year (heck, Random House almost wasn’t there!), but in years past, DC has not only had major talent, a major booth, but they handed out GNs to passersby like free newspapers!

    Keeping books in print… if it doesn’t sell, why keep it in print? I’m stumped at some titles getting printed (Ms. Marvel in hardcover?). Marvel does a better job with publishing kids digests, whereas the Johnny DC titles are almost invisible (yet DC has a stronger media presence thanks to Cartoon Network).

    Okay, that’s enough. I think it’s more what’s in the books than how the books are marketed. If the fans want it, they’ll find it, and the retailers will respond.

  32. David Oakes Says:

    According to the latest sales chart at The Beat:

    “[Marvel] beat DC by 51% to 29% in units, and 45% to 27% in dollars.”

    I thought at first this would belong in the Alternate Covers thread – those units are nuts! (And woe to anyone who is not the Big Two, eh?) But I wonder if DC is so far behind, and seemingly content to stay there, precisely because they are doing so well in bookstores? Is Marvel the winner of a game no one else is bothering to play?

  33. Johanna Says:

    Now that’s an interesting question. Many other non-superhero publishers have bailed on (or deemphasized) the direct market because they’ve had no choice — their readers are elsewhere. DC isn’t — and hasn’t been for years — just a superhero publisher. But Marvel… that’s all of what they do, and while they’re quite successful at it, is everyone else moving on?

  34. Hsifeng Says:

    Johanna Says:

    “But Marvel… that’s all of what they do, and while they’re quite successful at it, is everyone else moving on?”

    How does this take into account the Soleil translations? Are those books too small a % of Marvel’s business to count?

  35. Johanna Says:

    I haven’t ever seen any, nor have I heard anyone talk about them, and the section in Previews seems to be shrinking. I’m not sure that experiment has much of a future.

  36. Dave Carter Says:

    Late to my own party. See what happens when I go on vacation for a week–suddenly you’re all talking about one of my posts!

    One thing to point out is that, while the Amazon bestsellers list is indeed updated hourly, it doesn’t rank just what was purchased in the past hour. Rather, it’s some sort of weighted average of books purchased over the past several days, with more recent purchases weighted higher. This was best illustrated back in April when Ivory Madison’s Huntress collection shot up to the top of the chart when she sent out a bunch of review copies using Amazon; there was only one bug purchases, but the title slowly fell down the chart of the course of the next several days.

  37. The Weekly AGGROgator – ComicsPlusBlog Says:

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  39. Torsten Adair Says:

    Considering the debate over sources… Brian Hibbs’ annual BookScan numbers (70% or so of the total market surveyed) confirm Johanna’s original hypothesis: Marvel’s top seller was #67 (Dark Tower: Treachery, then #129 (Halo), then finally Civil War at #155.

    Johanna… publishers aren’t ignoring the Direct Market… it is a non-returnable market, after all! Take a look at the monthly Top 300 Graphic Novels list on ICV2.com, and you’ll see that comics shops are selling manga, as well as many other titles (Sonic? Toon Books? Boom/Disney?)

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