Dec 12, 2011

JMS vs. Steve Wacker: The Glaring Flaw Behind Comic Fans Analyzing Sales Figures

So I'm sure by now everyone's seen the war of words J. Michael Straczynski had with Marvel editor Steve Wacker and Marvel writer Mark Waid on JMS's Facebook. It's summarized here on Bleeding Cool. Essentially, JMS posted a heavily biased graph of sales of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN since his departure that's shown it's gone down since he left.

In addition to this omitting certain issues, Wacker and Waid pretty much school JMS on this point, leading JMS to delete the thread and call "abuse" on several people. As anyone who's ever read a JMS interview knows, it's somehow never his fault when he does something wrong.

But this goes toward the built-in problems when it comes to analyzing sales figures, which a bunch of online comic fans just love to do. There are so many reasons we shouldn't be analyzing these sales lightly. I'm not saying we shouldn't analyze them at all, but there are certain factors that people should always keep in mind. Here's a list of them, with me focusing on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. This is just to keep the post focused; you can apply most of what I say to just about any other title.

1. The ICV2 sales are specifically for preorders. Every time you see sales discussions on the 'net, you can bet that the sales figures being discussed are from ICV2. The reason for this is rather simple: it's the only information you can get publicly. You're not going to get Marvel to release their sales stats, and you won't get DC to do it for theirs, and so on and so forth. ICV2 is all there is. And that's a problem, because all ICV2 has are preorder numbers. That is, these are the numbers that the comic book shop retailers are projecting to sell to their customers. So, if they order 40,000 copies of FLASH, it doesn't mean they sold 40,000 copies of FLASH; it means they were projecting to sell 40,000 copies of FLASH. On the other side of the coin, it's possible that some comics were underordered, as some copies of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN since Dan Slott started his run have been. They went to second printings, so they actually would have sold more than the retailers ordered. In other words, they sold out, necessitating a second printing.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 655-659 necessitated a second printing.

In other words, folks, these numbers simply aren't accurate. Some titles are underordered, some are overordered, and I would bet that precious few of them are specifically 100% accurate.

But it's all we have, so it's what people discuss. But this should always be taken into account. Every single statement made about the ICV2 charts should be assumed to be prefixed with "According to the preorder numbers..."

2. Fans tend to isolate a particular book without looking at the entire market. Some fans (mainly those who just genuinely hate the direction a book is going) like to point at a book's declining sales, and then leave it at that. For example, you may look at this chart from November 2006 and see that AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sold 118,833 copies. Then you can look at this one from August 2011 (I'm intentionally picking one from before the DCnU, as that's another can of worms altogether), and see that one of the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues sold 71,235 copies and that the other sold 57,533. The fans in question may point to this as proof that the current direction of the book is not working. There is, after all, an almost 50,000-unit drop.

But that fails to take into account one simple thing: the entire market has had a downward shift in demand. In November 2006, the highest-selling title, CIVIL WAR #5, is recorded to have preorder numbers of 272,603. In August 2011, the highest-selling, JUSTICE LEAGUE #1, is recorded to have numbers of 171,344. Want more? In May 2011, the highest-selling, FEAR ITSELF #2, sold 96,318 units. That's not a lot in comparison to the November 2006 figures at all.

Think about it this way. If Coke were selling a billion cans in November 2010, and then saw that they were selling only half that in November 2011, are we to automatically assume that Coke did something wrong and that it's time to spruce something up, perhaps switch to a new New Coke formula? Of course not; the first thing we should look at is how the entire soda industry is doing. If Pepsi sales also fell significantly, then Coke isn't doing anything wrong — for whatever reason, people are just drinking sodas less and less. Sure, it may be time for Coke and Pepsi to embark on new marketing campaigns, but their actual individual products aren't to blame.

In this case, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was actually the highest-selling title of August 2011 that wasn't tied into a big companywide event. It's preceded by JUSTICE LEAGUE #1, two issues of FLASHPOINT, an issue of ULTIMATE COMICS FALLOUT, and an issue of FEAR ITSELF. In contrast, in November 2006, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN finished fourth, but is actually the third bestselling issue of the month (and it was tied into a big event) that's not the big event itself.

Sales went up on DC books without the Marvel sales going down. When you can increase your units while all the other units are held constant (known in economics as ceteris paribus), you know what you did worked. This is how you know the DCnU worked (unless they severely overordered the second issues). However, this doesn't actually show that DCnU is going to work for all titles, just that it worked as a whole. It's also worth noting that you know it worked at least for three months. It may go down next month, for all we know.)

What does this prove? That there are many factors going into sales, and that...

3. Some issues will sell better than others, whether because it's the first part of a storyline, an anniversary issue, or a tie-in to a big event. This is just a fact. Sometimes it's because it's the first issue, and sometimes it's because it's kicking off a new storyline, and sometimes it's because it's tied into a big event. The November 2006 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was tied into CIVIL WAR. The August 2011 issue that sold 71,000 copies kicked off Spider-Island, while the one that sold 57,000 copies (still at #9 on the charts) was part 2. Part 1 outsells part 2. That makes sense, right? Yes it does, and should be taken into account.

4. If you heavily market something, expect it to sell. In July 2011, the highest-preordered comic was AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #666, the prelude to Spider-Island. This issue was heavily marketed, and had preorder numbers of 135,568.

Nevertheless, it's not even half (well, almost, but not quite) the sales of CIVIL WAR #5 way back in November 2006. The number 2 comic in July, CAPTAIN AMERICA #1, received comparatively little fanfare (they were probably banking on the success of the movie) and sold 96,926. Not bad, if you think about it.

In June 2011, with preorder sales of 159,355, the highest-selling book was ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #160, featuring the heavily publicized "Death of Spider-Man," which even made mainstream news. And of course, nothing this year got more publicity than the DCnU, so in August 2011, the highest-selling title was JUSTICE LEAGUE #1, with 171,344.

JUSTICE LEAGUE has other factors going for it, too, including...

5. Superstar creators sell. Here's where JMS wins some points. By all criteria, he counts as a superstar writer, in that his name alone can sell a book. Practically none of the post-JMS Spider-Man crew, with the possible exception of Mark Waid, can make that claim. It should be noted that being a superstar doesn't guarantee quality, but it almost always guarantees sales. JMS leaving the book was always going to make sales go down, unless they replaced him with someone with the same drawing power. Dan Slott is making his way up the ladder, and I cannot wait for him to get there.

This is partly why JUSTICE LEAGUE is the DCnU's bestseller, aside from being the most heavily marketed. Not only does it have a superstar writer in Geoff Johns, but it also has a superstar artist in Jim Lee.

Of course, BATMAN is outselling ACTION COMICS, while ACTION has a superstar writer in Grant Morrison. My theory here is that this is because Greg Capullo is on BATMAN, and since Jim Lee is the head artist of DCnU, it's bringing in a lot of 90s readers who are effectively causing Capullo to reach superstar artist level once again.

On the other hand, it could just be because he's Batman, and...

5. Characters sell. No two ways about it; the more popular a character, the better he'll sell. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and Green Lantern — those are the big ones at the moment. This should surprise absolutely no one. So don't say anything like "If BATWOMAN is so good, then why isn't she outselling FLASH?" (Conversely, Batwoman actually is outselling Spider-Man right now, but pretty much all of DC is outselling everything right now.)

6. Other formats — and factors — may affect buyer behavior. I bought only five single issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN during Brand New Day, but I've bought every single one from Big Time. Yet, I have read at least half of the Brand New Day output because I bought the trade paperbacks. The thrice-a-month schedule of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN at the time was too much for me to buy at a regular basis, but the twice-a-month schedule of Big Time is just right for me. The sales figures do not record the people who are waiting for the TPBs, and as such, it is very misleading. Right now, for example, I'm going to trade-wait the SCARLET SPIDER series. It doesn't mean I won't be supporting the title; it just means that for the format I'm supporting it in, it won't reflect in the chart for monthly single issue sales.

(I should note at this point that the monthly to thrice-monthly to twice-monthly shift was exclusive to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and there's virtually no way to compare sales across the three eras. I would think that coming out twice a month hurts a single issue, in much the same way that thrice-a-month prevented me from buying the single issues, but I don't think that's ever been proven.)

Then there is the big new X-factor when it comes to comic book sales: day-and-date digital. We have yet to see the kind of effect it will have. The automatic inclination would be to think that it would hurt print sales, but who knows? Maybe with the higher number of people the format reaches, it'll get more people wanting their own print copies. It's too early to tell right now.

It should also be noted that 2008 was the year that the global recession hit. Although a direct connection hasn't been proven (an important point everyone must learn: correlation does not mean causation), there is a correlation, meaning that this was when comics sales started to severely go down. I'd assume that the recession severely affected comics-buying, as that'd be sensible, but again, if I can't prove it, I'm not saying it.

In conclusion, what should we take away from this? Simply, there is such a thing as context, and context matters. We can speculate as much as we can on how much the quality of the book affects sales — and no one has ever been able to prove it does (in movies and hardcover novels, it doesn't at all) — but based on the very limited data we are given, we should never forget that we do not have, and are incapable of seeing, the whole picture. Only the companies themselves have access to their own sales figures; in terms of the others, they'll have to play the game as well as they can. This is what we call information asymmetry, and it absolutely prevents us from coming to final conclusions about the data. No one should take their analysis of the sales figures to be authoritative, because, frankly, we don't have that information.

And neither, apparently, do the writers, even the "superstars" who will write a story where the protagonist's true love sleeps with his worst enemy, only to complain about editorial interference afterward, then continue to write the book for several more years until editorial "forces" him to write another story again.

Which, of course, is never his fault.

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