The Middle Ground #89 | Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Comics, as everyone is fond of saying as they quote Jack Kirby, will break your heart. It’s true; you don’t have to look far to find something truly depressing about the industry – not the medium, never the medium, which is as fine as any and better than many – that just makes you want to shake your head in mild despair, whether its creators having little control over their work or receiving little to no reward from their publishers even as their creations appear in much-hyped movie trailers filling up the internet conversations. But what truly broke my heart recently was looking at the sales figures of indie books in the Diamond sales chart.
Every month, when Diamond releases its sales ranking, we all gather around and make noise about whether DC or Marvel have the highest market share (This month, they both do, depending on whether you count units sold or dollar share; everyone wins, right?), but as Paul Mellerick’s breakdown of the non-Marvel and DC books on the December chart shows, the real story isn’t how those two publishers are doing, but how everyone else is:
126 indie books charted this month, slightly up on last month with less Marvel or DC books charting this month. The bottom book sold 3,105, way lower than last month’s 4,330. In total those books sold approximately 1,067,927, a bit down from last month’s 1,099,699 with more titles. Average sales are 8,475 per book, down from last month’s 8,940.
The average U.S. sale for an independent publisher is less than nine thousand copies. That’s just… horrible. That Marvel and DC between them make up more than half of the top 300 comics sold in America is pretty stunning when you stop to think about it (Yes, I know, they’re Marvel and DC, but still), but then seeing that 57 Marvel and DC books outsold – or, more correctly, were out-ordered by retailers; I know that the Diamond chart doesn’t track actual end-customer sales – the top-selling independent book in December (The Walking Dead, if you’re interested) just underscores how insanely biased the direct market is towards those two publishers.
That it only takes four independent books before you’re looking at sales lower than 20,000 is both sobering and a sign of how completely screwy the Direct Market is; the DM has never been a meritocracy – Just look at the number of truly great comics cancelled because they never found enough of an audience to be profitable enough to keep going – but the idea that Angel and Faith has less of an audience than re-orders for the six-month-old Ultimate Fallout #4 (which placed at #98 on the chart, with Angel at #113) just seems insane to me. Similarly, that Dark Horse’s Star Wars books can sell close to 10,000 copies considering the size and success of that franchise in other markets and formats seems breathtaking, same as IDW’s Transformers or GI Joe. Looking at how poorly the single issues of such franchises perform in the Direct Market feels like one of the most compelling arguments for the insular nature of the DM, as well as for the need to open it up before everything collapses into a black hole of failure that it can’t recover from (Cue those who think that it’s there already).
Some of this is selfishness on my part, of course; the idea that Memorial didn’t break 8000 copies in the U.S. with its first issue doesn’t feel as if it’s the start of a series of mini-series, or that Dungeons and Dragons – Not joking, dear reader, probably the most enjoyable team book being published these days – is probably not a million miles away from being unprofitable at under 8,000 copies aren’t things that make me happy as a reader who wants to read more of this kind of thing. But even moreso, there’s just this disbelief that this is how small the market for non-Big Two comics actually is, in the U.S. comic store industry. There are an estimated 3000 (approximately) comic stores in the United States, according to Diamond; with average sales on an independent comic being 8,475 for December, that’s less than three copies per store.
Like I said: Just another thing to break your heart.