Juggling the BookScan Numbers

Every year, Brian Hibbs analyzes the BookScan graphic novel and manga sales numbers; every year, the usual suspects point out the gaps, oversights, biases, and other things to keep in mind. I wasn’t even sure I’d bother commenting this year, until I found my 2007 roundup (scroll to the bottom) and realized that I found it amusing to see how repetitive it all is.

This year, Tom Spurgeon sums up all the things to keep in mind before taking Hibbs’ analysis as gospel. Here’s my summary of his summary (but go read his, because he says it very well):

  1. Hibbs wants to defend and support the Direct Market comic shops over bookstores, and often makes it “us vs. them”.
  2. Hibbs doesn’t take into account all the valid criticisms about his approach made year after year.
  3. Hibbs mentions the flaws in the numbers but goes on to use them as if they were fine.
  4. He doesn’t take into account sufficiently the bigger economic picture or the nature of the books he’s using as data points (especially when it comes to manga, an area he doesn’t seem to know or care much about, in my opinion).

Hibbs has responded at his own blog, taking the classic online perspective, “if you don’t like it, do your own version!” (A position I, as an internet old-timer, support as well, although in this case, Hibbs has the advantage of being more widely read on the subject.) He goes into more detail about his motivations (he wants the data available for anyone, like him, who likes tracking sales data), and his perceived audience (as we all guessed, the direct market retailer like him, and those interested in that business). He doesn’t really address the manga problem, though, only admitting that he pretty much copied some of his comments on the subject from last year’s column.

What He Doesn’t Know About Manga

That manga thing is particularly egregious to me. For example, Hibbs says that he’s surprised that Chobits (previously published by Tokyopop) isn’t still a top-seller, but he doesn’t seem to realize that Dark Horse is going to be rereleasing it as a Omnibus next month. Perhaps there are licensing issues in the publisher transfer. Certainly there’s little incentive for Tokyopop to market or push a title that a competitor now has.

Morever, saying “finished manga series don’t keep selling as well as the new ones” is sort of like being surprised that Hawkman collections don’t sell any more. (I picked a character who used to have a series but doesn’t any more, in case that point isn’t clear.) It’s serial storytelling. A large portion of the audience, whether for superheroes or manga, has been taught to get involved only in active, continuing projects, focusing more on “what happens next” than great stories.

His bias against manga is obvious early on, when instead of clearly pointing out that Naruto volumes take 13 of the top 20 slots for the entire year, he wants to talk about how its sales aren’t quite as strong as last year’s because it took a few more volumes to achieve the same immense numbers (“971,119 copies and nearly $7.8 million in dollar sales”). Later on, he uses its success to predict doom for manga as a whole. (“”Naruto” is selling an increasing percentage of manga, as a whole. The category is in trouble, and perhaps it could be characterized as “freefall”.”) Naruto is an amazing success, something to be emulated, not feared.

I agree with him that overproduction is a huge issue for this category, with many more books produced than can be shelved, but I think that’s a sign of demand perception. Obviously, someone thinks there’s an audience for all this. However, he says manga isn’t priced high enough, using the example of “$7.95 Naruto”. Does he know that all Viz titles are now at $9.99 or above; their growth Signature line is $12.99; and other publisher prices start at $10.99? It’s not clear. I tend to think he’s not aware of rising manga prices, since it would support the point he’s trying to make, so if he knew, I would think he’d mention it.

Tokyopop, Yen, and CMX

When he comes back around to Tokyopop, he talks about how bad its sales were in comparison to boom years a while back without seeming to know that Tokyopop went on near-hiatus for a while and has radically cut back which titles and how many copies it publishes, plus it lost several key licenses. When a publisher, like Yen Press, does well, showing growth and having potential best-sellers, he says relatively little about them. (Well, nothing unusual about that. I’m not praising the bits he gets right here, after all.)

When a publisher he’s familiar with, like CMX, doesn’t show up at all, he doesn’t seem to know why. I can speculate: the books don’t appear in bookstores. Everyone I know gets those titles through online ordering (which may or may not be reflected in these numbers; Amazon apparently is, other specialized sites are not) or through the direct market, which isn’t included but is the parent company’s strength (since they’re a part of DC). It’s a vicious cycle: bookstores don’t stock the titles, even the well-recommended ones, so readers seek them out elsewhere, so bookstores don’t see the demand.

Marvel Flunks Out of Bookstores

There’s a lot more to be said about Marvel’s atrocious bookstore performance than Hibbs goes into, but that would seem to be bashing one of his key products. Marvel doesn’t do much of anything beyond superheroes, meaning no variety to attract more customers. (The books they do manage to place high in the charts are property extensions, Stephen King and Halo.) Marvel can’t keep books in print, especially key books (like the second or third in a series, meaning people can’t continue with it). Even when people are interested in Marvel’s superheroes, there’s no obvious jumping-on point and the books don’t match the films that interested them. (In many cases, the movies are based around much older storylines that don’t read well as reprint comics to modern customers.) Marvel doesn’t work far enough ahead to suit seasonal bookstore and publishing schedules.

DC’s big properties are clearly based on the comics — how many reviews of Watchmen did you see that didn’t compare it to the book source material? — while Marvel’s aren’t. DC uses a real book distributor, while Marvel uses Diamond. (There are retailers that sell more books than Diamond does in some cases.) In short, Marvel fails at the bookstore market. They simply don’t seem to care.

Great Observations

I’m not commenting on everything he said, but I think one of the best lessons is near the end, where he talks about independent comics that had film adaptations. Whiteout sold, according to his figures, an additional 46 copies because of its movie. Now, that’s overly simplified math, but the learning I take from that is that people only want to buy comics after seeing the movie if it’s GOOD. Why would someone want to reread the story of a film they didn’t like or didn’t even care to see? (See also Surrogates, which sold less than 5000 extra copies.)

The even better take-away? As Heidi points out, there are plenty of comics for kids, and they do very very well. That audience just doesn’t shop the direct market; they’re in the bookstores. So don’t worry about the future of comics, unless you own a direct market shop.

18 Responses to “Juggling the BookScan Numbers”

  1. Brian Hibbs Says:

    “Hibbs has responded at his own blog, taking the classic online perspective, “if you don’t like it, do your own version!””

    Is that really a bad position after 7 years of doing these things? There’s 5250 data points on line, right this moment, and no one, ever, has done a thing online with them other than me.

    I want to modify your tone, though, Johanna — what I’m really saying is “please, someone else do something with this, pretty please”, because I know my analysis isn’t as good as other people can do. I even state it directly in the column, and have for years :)

    >>>Hibbs says that he’s surprised that Chobits (previously published by Tokyopop) isn’t still a top-seller, but he doesn’t seem to realize that Dark Horse is going to be rereleasing it as a Omnibus next month.<<<

    I never used the word "surprised", for what that's worth. And I did, actually, know about the DH version, though I'd completely forgotten about it when writing this.

    You're right on this one, though, I did not do enough research, and I should have pointed out (since I just looked now) that both LOVE HINA and CHOBITS are completely unavailable via (the one source I can easily check: B&T) book wholesale and at retail via Amazon. That's a mistake on my part. I will correct that next year when (if?) the DH edition charts.

    "Morever, saying “finished manga series don’t keep selling as well as the new ones” is sort of like being surprised that Hawkman collections don’t sell any more."

    Like, say, Y, THE LAST MAN then? Or hell, PREACHER for that matter, since it entered the charts this year?

    Or if you want me to keep it to manga, how about DEATH NOTE?

    "Naruto is an amazing success, something to be emulated, not feared."

    I think that's an epically (and willfully) big misreading of my analysis to make, but I do think that NARUTO's, mm, "cool off"? is a pretty big story, because in terms of percentages of sales, to an extent, where NARUTO goes, so does the general market for manga.

    "However, he says manga isn’t priced high enough, using the example of “$7.95 Naruto”. Does he know that all Viz titles are now at $9.99 or above"

    No, I don't say that "manga isn't priced high enough", I say "If one is looking at a bottom-line oriented analysis of dollars-per-square-foot, that $19.95 copy of "Watchmen" looks a lot more attractive than the $7.95 "Naruto," presuming they’re selling an equivalent amount of copies from roughly the same amount of rack space. This is, of course, what pushed comics off of the “newsstand" – bottom-line oriented numbers crunchers saying that a rack of sunglasses generated more dollars-per-square-foot than a rack of comics, so the comics went away." those are different things.

    And of course I know the price of manga, Johanna — I sell them after all. That doesn't stop NARUTO from, in fact, being $7.95.

    "There’s a lot more to be said about Marvel’s atrocious bookstore performance than Hibbs goes into, but that would seem to be bashing one of his key products."


    Oh, Johanna, seriously, when have I EVER not been willing to take Marvel on?

    I didn't say much more, because there really isn't much more to be said — as I noted, next year I am unlikely to even break Marvel out in their own section, their performance is so shitty.


  2. Johanna Says:

    No, “do your own version” is not a bad position to take, and I’ve added a line to the post to make that clear. Thanks for reminding me — I’d meant to do that originally but forgot to go back. And thanks for clarifying the tone here. I found your response to Spurgeon enlightening in conveying that approach.

    Interesting you bring up Y the Last Man. I’ll be very curious to see if it becomes a perennial or fades out after a couple more years. Death Note, in contrast, was widely considered one of the best manga of the past decade (a sentiment I disagree with, but there it is all the same), so it’s not quite the same thing. It’s the difference between All-Star Superman (Death Note) and Electric Mullet Superman (Love Hina), if that comparison’s clear.

    Naruto went to $9.99 with book 46 in October 2009, so only one of the volumes that would show up in your numbers was at the higher price, with most of those from this year $7.95, as you say. But I think my point still stands. You say that higher-priced comics, of whatever kind, are better for retailers (an understandable point), and I say that manga prices in general have increased across the board over the past couple of years. I think that’s a relevant thing to mention if we’re talking about cost per shelf slot.

    And yes, I knew I’d get called on the Marvel comment, but it’s still true that I would have liked to have seen you be as harsh on Marvel (given all the points they get wrong) as you were on manga. :)

    Thanks very much for stopping by and responding.

  3. David Oakes Says:

    “So don’t worry about the future of comics, unless you own a direct market shop.”

    Or, you know, you actually like the type of material supported by the DM.

    I think it is great that comics – by which people want to mean TPBs and OGNs – are selling in book stores. Regardless of format and outlet, comics selling to a casual reader base can only help the market and increase the odds of anything being published in 20 or 10 or 2 years. But while it is not “Bookstores vs DM”, neither is it “Bookstores == DM”.

    I don’t enjoy Manga. I have read it – from Akira to Naruto – I continue to take suggestion from people whose taste I have enjoyed in other formats – from Iron Wok Jan to Hikaru No Go – but I have yet to find anything that lights my fire. I can appreciate “Art” books like Black Hole and The Rabbi’s Cat on an intellectual level, but they don’t “do” anything for me. And I simply don’t like Ultimate Spider-Man or Infinite Crisis, and I read Watchmen – multiple times – two decades ago, thankyouverymuch.

    I suspect that if I tried a little harder I would find the titles I like in Bookstores. Hellblazer, like most Vertigo, seems to stay in print. But I have never seen an Incredible Hercules on the shelf at Borders, even if Marvel says they put one there. And Super Human Resources?

    So yes, I am worried.

  4. Johanna Says:

    I don’t see Super Human Resources at any of the local direct market stores. Maybe it’s there and I just haven’t noticed, but I suspect there’s an even better outlet for you than bookstores or DM — conventions and other direct-from-publisher outlets. That’s where I go to find new or out of the ordinary comic works.

  5. David Oakes Says:

    I will fully cop to having better luck with my local shops than most. But doesn’t that make “the future of comics” even more sad and precarious? That rather than depend on the Long Tail of a Big Box Store vs the zero margins of a specialty shop, that I have to hope that the creator of a comic I will like will be willing and able to attend a once a year convention? (Not to mention that there are fewer conventions than comic book shops, and most of the local ones are run by shops or at least supported strongly my dealers.)

    Yeah, still worried. I have better odds reading random webcomics and hoping for collections.

  6. Johanna Says:

    As Tom Spurgeon said, it’s not A or B — it’s A and B and C. We have multiple outlets available to customers, based on what they’re seeking and how they prefer to get it.

  7. Sean T. Collins Says:

    I can’t imagine having Diamond as their bookstore distributor helps Marvel either, regardless of whatever content or marketing issues are ladled on top of that.

  8. Jim Ottaviani Says:

    Johanna and Sean: Diamond Book Distributors (as opposed to their better know Diamond Comic Distributors, which serves only the direct market) is a real book distributor. Really. I’ve worked with them for years. And while there have been some glitches, they’re the third distributor I’ve worked with since I started publishing and have done a better job for me/G.T. Labs than the previous two. By far, on just about every measure you can think of.

    While that’s not a good basis for concluding anything about their overall performance, I’d say it trumps, well, yours. :) And I’m a pretty small fish in the pond so I would bet Marvel gets better than average treatment and far more than average attention by Diamond’s staff.

  9. Sean T. Collins Says:

    Jim: I’ve heard otherwise re: Marvel, though of course not through anything even remotely resembling an official channel, so take it with however many grains of salt you care to. I would imagine that the size discrepancy you mention cuts both ways, though, in that a company of that size would have certain greater expectations for bookstore performance that an outfit like Diamond might or might not be able to meet.

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

    […] criticisms; Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics; Hibbs, responding to Reynolds; and Johanna Draper Carlson. [Tilting at […]

  11. Jim Ottaviani Says:

    Hi Sean: “Heard otherwise” with regards to what? It’s easy to verify, and I just did: Diamond Book Distributors (DBD) lists Marvel as one of their publishers and Marvel lists DBD as their distributor.

    I agree that their size might cut both ways with regards to service, but I’d bet that the benefits outweigh the costs since Marvel is such an important client of both Diamond distribution branches.

    Given all the above, I think Occam’s Razor suggests that there are more likely explanations for Marvel’s underperfomance in the book trade.

  12. Johanna Says:

    I appreciate hearing about your good experience with Diamond Book, Jim. But while they may handle small publishers well, I’m not sure their experience and performance can compare to a dedicated book company in that area. Maybe I’m just overly suspicious, given their background and history. And yes, you’re right, there are many other problems with Marvel’s book system to also point fingers at. :)

  13. Sean T. Collins Says:

    Jim, I wasn’t questioning whether or not Diamond is Marvel’s book distributor–I’m the one who brought that up! I was questioning how well they handled that task.

  14. ken Says:

    We were available through Diamond. And we are currently soliciting a second print through both comic stores and booksellers.

    I have a handful of trades left so if anyone wants one, they can contact me at the email below.

    Thanks for your interest. Love the blog, Johanna.
    Super Human Resources

  15. Jim Ottaviani Says:

    Thanks Sean, Johanna: I agree that there’s a lot we don’t know about how well DBD does for larger companies. (Or other small companies like mine, for that matter.)

    But relative to past performance of well-established distributors who have handled my list, DBD has done fine. And since they have a separate staff from their Direct Market branch, it’s hard for me not to see them as dedicated to this area, especially after almost 10 years in the book trade.

    Marvel’s been in business long enough to have seen a number of distributors come and go too, and its presence (or lack thereof) in bookstores is not a new thing for them to consider. So given all the other things we know, such as how quickly most Marvel books go out of print, I’d bet against distribution being their biggest problem area.

  16. Johanna Says:

    Fair enough, Jim. You certainly know more than I about how they work in practice.

  17. James Schee Says:

    Interesting articles all the way around. Still just reminds me of what a friend of mine who used to be a statician for a Major League Baseball team once told me though.

    Numbers can be looked at in so many ways that they can really be meaningless in the end. Because you can find a stat that will support anything you already believe to be true if you know how to look for it.

    Oddly I’ve got some extra money for the first time in a long time. (new job doing taxes has been lucrative) Yet I have no idea what comics I might want to get. I know DC & Marvel are likely into some never ending crossover, so snooze. Yet I’m too much out of the Indy loop to get any of that either. (am behind in some manga, but would prefer something self contained)

    Off to google I guess to see what’s out there.:)

  18. Tommy Raiko Says:

    With regard to Hibbs’ comments on manga, it occurs to me that though he may not be expressing himself in a way that’s necessarily compelling (especially to folks who love and track manga more passionately than he does,) he’s not really saying anything all that controversial either.

    I mean, ICv2 reported that sales of manga had contracted over 2008 (http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/14239.html ), and I doubt anyone will be really surprised if that trend is borne out in 2009, which is the data informing Hibbs’ recent comments.

    Hibbs may be being overly dramatic to say that “the [manga] category is in trouble,” but it’s not as if other industry observers aren’t saying (or at least implying…) the same thing.




Most Recent Posts: