Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #7 by Drew Barth

Looking at Numbers

Not too long ago I received an email from Diamond Book Distributors about the top selling graphic novels of 2018. These are the kinds of lists I love to see because there’s always a direct comparison between what’s considered to be a critical favorite and a commercial favorite. In comics, those sorts of things typically end up lining up, namely in the case of series like Saga or Monstress. While I was going through the list, though, I noticed something kind of odd. No Batman, Thor, or anything from DC or Marvel.

Diamond Books is actually a subsidiary of Diamond Comic Distributors that works with independent publishers to distribute graphic novels to non-direct market venues. More or less, they work with Image, Dynamite, Aftershock, etc. to get their work into chain bookstores. But it’s only the graphic novels and collected editions; all monthly issues regardless of publisher still go through Diamond Comics. And in comics, they all only go through Diamond.

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(But Diamond as a distributor for comics has a monopoly over the industry due to them being the only distributor that works in a way that’s conducive to the comic market. More or less, their business practices work on a much quicker timetable compared to many larger distribution platforms like Random House or Simon & Schuster. Where traditional distributors have payment deals for publishers that may delay payouts for six months or more, Diamond works in one to two months—something beneficial to an industry that needs to know how well a series that is printing month-to-month is doing. So while I don’t like the idea of a monopoly in the industry, they have remained the most viable option in town. Plus, with their persistent and transparent sales numbers, we can get good ideas about what is and isn’t selling. Hence, the lists they’ve put out recently.)

Anyway. Because there are two distinct distribution branches to comics, we can actually see how certain series are doing both inside and outside your local comic shops. And these are two completely different kinds of places in which comics are being sold. A reader who trade waits (someone who reads a series through the trade paperback collections and not the monthly issues) may be more inclined to get their comics from a bookstore due to things like memberships, discounts, coupons, or location. It may be incredibly difficult to get to a comic shop on a weekly basis in most parts of the country, so when we look at a list that works exclusively on the bookstore level, we’re better able to see what access does to the comics involved.

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When looking at just the top ten from each list, we’re seeing a snapshot of what was big at the time. Of course the top selling book in comic stores is going to be The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin, George Pérez, and Ron Lim due to the release of Avengers: Infinity War. Although that graphic novel has been selling consistently well for years now, it’s the film that would help push it to the top spot. And there’s always mainstays like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’sWatchmen that have stayed in the top selling category for actual decades now.

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In terms of more recent material, Saga continues its reign as one of the best selling comics of this decade due both to its popularity and readers’ propensity for trade waiting on the series. With the announcement of Saga going on hiatus earlier last year, the sales of its ninth volume were absolutely going to increase to the point where it was just behind The Infinity Gauntlet. But that’s just in comic shops. While volume nine sold well there, volume eight ended up reigning in bookstores. Why? It could be any number of reasons. It could be that the release of volume eight coincided with one of Barnes & Noble’s buy-two-get-the-third-free sales or simply because it had more time on the shelves than volume nine did. Many of the factors aren’t really shown in-depth in any of these lists, but it’s still interesting to see how different sides of the retail world differ in a series like Saga.

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Then we have a series like Deadly Class that just had the first few episodes of its TV series on Syfy premiere not too long ago. While the first volume of the series sold well—coming in at #35, enough to beat the likes of Darth Vader and a Spider-Man/Deadpool crossover—it only did so in comic shops. It doesn’t even crack the top fifty in among independent titles in bookstores. And we can tell the increase in Deadly Class sales is due to its new TV series as it jumped up nearly a hundred spots from the previous year’s list. This kind of information goes a long way to show the industry what sells best where. In the months leading up to the Deadly Class series premiere, I couldn’t get through many monthly issues without seeing an ad for the show somewhere. But then I wouldn’t see Deadly Class trade paperbacks that often when going down the graphic novel aisle at Barnes & Noble. The difference could be from bookstore retailers knowing that this particular series doesn’t sell as well as others and instead give their limited shelf space to what they know will sell better—all the while comic shops still sell it well due to the series being perhaps more familiar to the comics crowd.

All of this to say that comics is a strange business. It’s difficult to tell which series is going to sell well outside of those that provide the basis for films and TV series. Well, I mean good writing is always going to help a series, hence the reign of Saga throughout both lists. But when doing the number crunching we can still see how Marvel and DC still control the vast majority of comics out there. Smaller presses are finally making more of an impact—Image on its own has roughly 10% of the market now—and yet it still feels like such a small portion of the overall whole of comics. Although these lists don’t take into account other publishers like Drawn + Quarterly or Top Shelf and BOOM! Studios only works with Diamond to get their books into comics shops, there’s still things to be learned from watching these lists to see what people are reading. But then why are these specific graphic novels popular? What makes these stories resonate with readers that they would make it onto these lists?

Is that a part two I hear on the wind? I think believe that’s a part two I hear on the winds from the future. Get excited.


drew barth

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.