FAQ: Monthly Comic Shop Market
Distributor Sales Charts
What a tool created as an aid for comics shops
tells us about comics circulation history
by John Jackson Miller
If you're visiting Comichron for the first time, odds are you were brought here by a link to the monthly comics shop order data that has been part of this site since the beginning — and which I began generating monthly estimates for back in 1996. Here's some background on them and guidance on what they should and shouldn't be used for:
Q: When did comic-book distributors first start releasing sales charts?
A: Capital City Distribution began releasing rankings in its "Internal Correspondence" newsletter in the early 1980s. Capital was also the first to introduce the "order index number," reporting what the sales of all titles were relative to a single benchmark title, usually one of the best-sellers. Diamond Comic Distributors, which began running rankings in the late 1980s, later adopted the order index procedure, which it continues to use today in its reports.
The first Capital City chart with order index numbers, from October 1984, can be seen at right. Click to see an enlarged version.
Q: Why did distributors begin using the order index numbers?
A: It's important to remember that while the distributor sales charts in the internet age are available to the general public, they were first intended solely for the use of retailers in figuring out what their relative order levels should be. If the average retailer is ordering 50 copies of a title for every 100 copies of Batman and you're only ordering 10 copies for every 100 copies of Batman, you are probably missing out on demand that exists for the title.
Q: Why did distributors mess with order index numbers? Why not print the actual sales figures?
A: Comics distributors are the sales representatives of publishers and are obliged not to give up too much information. Also, in the days when there were multiple distributors, the distributors themselves did not want to reveal their competitive strengths and weaknesses.
Q: How does Comichron derive the actual number of copies sold to retailers?
A: Most of the time, we employ the same method everyone else has for years: with reports from one or more publishers on what they actually sold to distributors, the entire chart can be unlocked. I began my monthly decoding of the charts in September 1996, and have been working to gather the information needed to figure out earlier months.
Additional resources known to be dependable have become available in some circumstances, and those further advise the estimates.
Q: How accurate are the estimates?
A: Before February 2003, Diamond was reporting preorders, and in that era, the margin of error was higher. I used a basket of publishers' actual sales figures to derive a likely estimate for the Order Index Numbers — and found that there was significant variance because the publishers did not get their purchase orders at the same time relative to the moment Diamond calculated its charts. But after that date, Diamond switched to reporting final orders — and while that meant that the charts came out later than they did in the preorder days, suddenly, all the variance between publishers' reports vanished. This is why estimates computed by Comichron, ICV2, and ComicBookPage are often identical. The same math obtains everywhere now.
We continue after the break...
Q: What is included in the Diamond monthly charts?
A: Beginning in February 2003, the Diamond charts report the number of copies it shipped to retailers from its warehouses in North America during the calendar month. Sometimes, the books may actually arrive in the next calendar month, but they're invoiced based on the day they leave the facilities. So occasionally you'll see a January where the first week's sales actually are reported with December.
Q: What is NOT included in the Diamond monthly charts?
A: This is important, because it is a topic often misunderstood. Not included are:
• copies shipped outside the calendar month, including most reorders
• copies sold outside North America; the UK market often adds 10% or so
• copies sold outside the comics shop distribution network, such as on newsstands, in bookstores, or by postal subscription
• and anything digital. There is no source for digital sales figures.
Click here to read a more detailed discussion of the issues involved with what is and isn't counted.
Q: When a publisher says the sales of their titles are higher than what are seen in the distributor charts, are they telling the truth?
A: Absolutely, because of the reasons stated above. Publishers see different numbers: more than just North America, more than just the calendar month, more than just Diamond. What the distributor presents is a subset of sales — a very large subset whose size relative to the whole will vary from product to product and from publisher to publisher.
Q: Does the shipping calendar impact what portion of comic book's print sales Diamond's chart represents?
A: Yes. The fact that comics may ship in the first or last week of the month introduces volatility; a title shipping in the last week of the month is significantly handicapped. Two comic books with exactly equal overall sales might appear 10% apart or more in units if one shipped on the first week of the month and the other shipped the last week. The second book's shipments would all be counted in the next month's report, but reordered periodicals infrequently make the Top 300 so we wouldn't see them.
For that reason, Comichron tends not to do cross-time analyses of titles based on the monthly data. The aggregate figures tend to be a better barometer of industry health. Read more about the volatility factor here.
Q: If the aggregate figures are a better barometer, then why do you publish the monthly sales of individual titles?
A: Because they're what we have—they're the building blocks on which the overall figures are based. They serve their original purpose, as an inventory control aid for retailers. And there is an audience specifically interested in how many copies are in circulation: the secondary market. Comichron's data establishes a minimum number of copies that made it to stores.
Q: Why do the Diamond charts sometimes skip entries, going from #300 to, say, #314?
A: Diamond (with the exception of a few months in 2013-14 when it released the Top 400) has always released the Top 300, but it also releases Top 50 Lists for Small Publishers (those with market shares below 1%) and Independents (non-Marvel and non-DC Publishers with shares above 1%).
There is some overlap with the Top 300, but the Small Publishers list in particular yields some additional entries, which we add to the Top 300. However, the aggregate sums for each month remain based on just the Top 300, in order to ensure an equal cross-time comparison.
It may be assumed that any missing entries sold between the sales levels of the known items, and that the highest missing items are likely from the larger publishers.
Q: What is the dollar sales ranking and what does it mean?
A: Diamond also releases a ranking for each title that is based on the number of wholesale dollars — that is, what retailers paid Diamond — for each item. If an item has a cover price that is more than average, its dollar ranking might be closer to the top of the chart than its unit ranking — but it also might not, because the key is what retailers paid. An item which is sold at a deep discount, for example, would have a dollar ranking much further down the charts from its unit ranking; this happens often with graphic novels during sales, and occasionally on the comics charts where free or discounted overships are offered.
Even then, two books with identical cover prices and unit sales may see their dollar rankings diverge, because the retailers ordering any given item are at different discount tiers depending on their sales volume.
Q: Does a comic book's performance on the distributor sales charts say anything about the profitability or prospects of the title?
A: The answer is different for every single book. The "cancellation level" concept has been part of comics mythology since the 1960s, when sales of an individual issue were all a project might expect to earn, apart from ad sales — but the idea has grown less and less relevant in recent decades. Comics projects make their money back in many ways, formats, and venues now, from graphic novel collections to digital sales.
The best-selling comic book of the latter half of the 1990s in North America was Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu #1, for which initial Direct Market orders were ultimately a tiny portion of its million copies sold. Walking Dead #1 shipped only 7,266 copies its first month, placing 233rd — a small fraction of the story's eventual audience.
Initial Direct Market shipments certainly can be a strong leading indicator of a book's future success; the first issue of Watchmen placed fifth as a comic book in its first incarnation in comics shops, beginning its march to becoming one of the most reprinted comics stories of all time. But not all comics which sold strongly as individual issues went on to longevity either as series or in reprint form, as we found in many cases in the early 1990s. So the answer, again, is "it depends."
—Updated Oct. 17, 2017