At Heidi McDonald’s “The Beat”, her crack team of analyzers go over the monthly estimated order numbers from all the publishers selling through the “direct market” (known to you and me as Comic Book Stores). I enjoy the articles for what they are: Educated guesses about trends of what comic shops have bought. These numbers don’t catch the actual sell through at the stores, mail subscriptions or newsstand sales (such as 7-11s or Border’s or whatever).
The best selling titles for March of 2010 topped out at around 135,000 for DC and 113,000 at Marvel. This got me thinking about comic sales, and why they seem to be so, so low. Interest and awareness of comic characters is higher than I can ever recall, so why the low numbers? Have trade paperback sales eaten into monthly circulation? Is the overall impenetrability of the major titles discouraging to new readers? Is $4 too much for a ten minute read? Do people download them for free? Is print media DOA? Let’s look at historical comic sales trends before we use Heroesonline to save the comics industry!
With some internet digging, here are some comic sales factoids (courtesy of The Comics Chronicles), gleaned from the Postal Service Statement of Ownership and Circulation, which used to be run once a year in the back of most comics:
In 1960, the best selling comic was Uncle Scrooge, moving on average 1,040,000 copies per month. Superman topped out at around 810,000 copies.
Batman’s television debut in 1966 saw his eponymous title rocket to the number one spot with nearly 900,000 copies sold on average. Marvel’s best selling title was Amazing Spider-Man at number 16, which turned about 340,000 issues, edged out by the Catholic Guild’s Treasure Chest by over 8000 units!
The 1970s saw a dramatic decline in comic sales, marked by numerous price hikes, from 15¢ in 1969 to 40¢ by 1979. In order to make more money, both major companies started to up their output. In order to bolster sales and beat out Marvel, who had finally surged ahead in the ’70s, DC increased their line dramatically in the famous “DC Explosion”. This was followed by the infamous “DC Implosion” in 1978, leading to the sudden cancellation of 20 titles. Over the next ten years, the newsstand market steadily declined to the point of effective nonexistence.
Concurrent to this, comic sales rebounded, primarily through the direct market of specialty comic book stores. Things seemed good for the next 15 years, until the the speculators market of the 90s. What followed was an industry-wide implosion that we’re still dealing with the effects of today. We’ll get to that over the weekend, as well as how digital distribution just might be the new “newsstand”!
 From their inception in the 1930s through the 1980s, a comic’s print run was was significantly higher then it is today, up to 100% of the eventual sell-through. Newsstand distribution allowed for the return of unsold items, where a vendor would “strip” the cover from the book and send it back to the distributor for refund or credit. Cancellation of titles seems to have occurred when they fell below that 50%-ish sell-through.