The Myth of the Sell Out Announcement

If you pay attention to comic book news, and I’m guessing that you do if you’re reading this column on iFanboy, you’ve seen the all-too-familiar “sell out” announcements from publishers.  Whether it be Marvel announcing that Fear Itself #1 sold out and is going back for a 2nd printing, DC announcing that Flashpoint #1 has sped off the shelves, or Image Comics announcing that five of its comics sold out in a matter of a few weeks, these announcements seem to happen quite often.

Generally, the tone of these press releases is celebratory. After all, the concept of “selling out” is meant to convey that demand for the product was so robust that it exceeded the publishers’ own expectations. And while that’s certainly true, there are dynamics in the direct market (for comic books) that make the concept of “selling out” a lot less impressive than the PR agents would have you believe.

 Five Recent Image "Sell Outs" 

Let’s focus on Image Comics for a moment. Image (probably my favorite publisher soup to nuts these days) puts out a diverse catalog of creator-owned titles.  Image has generated a tremendous amount of buzz behind many of its newer books, whether it be Chew, Skullkickers or Morning Glories.  Most recently, Image announced that five books sold out and were going back for additional printings:
Continuing the recent trend of releasing new series to rave reviews and instant sellouts, Image Comics has announced that BLUE ESTATE #1, GREEN WAKE #1, NONPLAYER #1, UNDYING LOVE #1 and the second printing of THE INFINITE VACATION #1 have all sold out at the distributor level and are going back to press. 

Taken together, the five titles are an almost perfect example of the diversity of creator-owned comics showcased by Image on a weekly basis: BLUE ESTATE is a crime comic that leads readers through the tangled web of mistaken identities, backstabbing conspirators and dubious alliances; GREEN WAKE is a riveting horror tale set in a town plagued by a string of grisly murders; NONPLAYER is a sci-fi/fantasy epic that takes inspiration from mutli-player online roleplaying games; UNDYING LOVE is a horror/action series set in modern day Hong Kong that mixes Chinese folklore with vampire mythology; THE INFINITE VACATION is a high concept sci-fi love story set in a parallel reality, where an app that allows users to answer the age-old question of "what if" has changed everyone's lives forever. … (continued)

Let’s be clear, publishers and creators would much rather have their books sell out than have the majority of copies sit on store shelves.  But a sellout is only as potent as the initial print run.  Let’s take a quick look at the recently released April numbers from Diamond, to illustrate the point:
  • Blue Estate #1 – 5,296 copies
  • Green Wake #1 – 4,209 copies
  • Nonplayer #1 – 8,869 copies
  • Undying Love #1 (2nd Printing) – Unavailable
  • The Infinite Vacation #1 – 7,786 copies
Not all Sell Outs are created equally
You’ll note that the Undying Love #1 was actually the 2nd printing (so in essence, it’s now sold out twice), and didn’t make the Top 300 in the April Diamond numbers. But more importantly, take a look at the variance between the other four issues. All released in April. All from Image. All touted as sell outs. Yet, the reported sales ranged from 4,209 copies to 8,869 copies. There’s a HUGE difference between selling 4,000 copies and 8,000 copies, particularly for an Image creator. Remember, creators pay Image a flat fee to produce and distribute their book, whether it sells 1,000 copies or 50,000 copies. That’s why someone like Robert Kirkman is making a small fortune at Image, whereas some of the small releases are actually losing money for the creators, at least until they hopefully turn a profit on trade sales down the road.
Why each of these comics sold out, even though orders were vastly different
The comic book direct market isn’t like a typical retail ecosystem, for many reasons. One of the major differences is the lack of returnability.  The majority of periodicals sold in conventional outlets are returnable; and distributors and publishers have to accept that unsold inventory as it’s returned.  The direct market, via its agreement with Diamond, is not allowed to return most comics.  If a store owner orders 50 copies of a particular comic, and only sells 10 copies, the store owner is stuck with the 40 unsold copies. The publisher already got his money for the 50 copies, and has nothing left to worry about. As a result, store owners have to be VERY careful not to over-order, because they pre-pay for their inventory.

Where a publisher can get into trouble is if they overprint the comic beyond what the store pre-orders are for a particular issue.  Diamond’s pre-order system and final order cutoff are designed to stop that from happening.  Think of the final order cutoff process as effectively a “print on demand” for comic books.

What happens, sometimes, is that retailers are too conservative with their orders (better to be safe than sorry) and realize that they could’ve sold more copies than they ordered.  But rather than calling up Diamond and saying, “send me another 10 copies of Blue Estate #1 this week”, they are told by Diamond, “Sorry but we don’t have any additional copies of Blue Estate, it’s sold out.” So they have to wait for Image to order a second printing of the comic, and get their incremental orders filled that way.

Credit to Image Publisher Eric Stephenson for his honest assessment of the “sell out” process:
Stephenson also urged direct market retailers to take a closer look at the orders: "We set our print runs based off the orders we receive at final order cut-off, but more and more frequently, we're finding our overprint estimates aren't matching demand. Selling out is nice, but honestly, it's not helping anyone when the books aren't on the stands. Going back to press takes time, and I'd just as soon have the books available."
A lot of comic buyers are impulsive, and want the issue when it’s first available.  2nd printings are nice, but it’s not as good as having all the copies a store can sell, on the day of release.  But we won’t ever see the day when we have a perfect matching of demand with supply, because no one wants to, or can afford to, be left holding too much unsold inventory.  This problem, though, is particularly frustrating for the smaller press creators.  I can guarantee you that the creators behind Blue Estate and Green Wake are not getting rich (or even paying the mortgage payment) on what they make from those 1st printing sales.  So while a press release touting a “sell out” may seem like great news, recognize that all it really means is that someone in the process guessed wrong on the end customer demand. Nothing more, nothing less.


Jason Wood is a mutant with the ability to squeeze 36 hours into every 24-hour day, which is why he was able to convince his wife he had time to join the iFanboy team on top of running his business, raising his three sons, and most importantly, co-hosting the 11 O'Clock Comics podcast with his buddies Vince B, Chris Neseman and David Price. If you are one of the twelve people on Earth who want to read about comics, the stock market and football in rapid fire succession, you can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Yeah, I’ve met these announcements with groans every time they come out since Marvel cottoned on to this idea years ago. However, I notice the big two have been dialing it back of late. (No more random issue of a random series Sells out announcements.)

  2. Kudos on the bolded statement on the very end.

    This is a constant source of frustration. I shop at the best shop in a major city. And I’m there frequently on Wednesdays, even at opening time, and stuff I’m looking forward to is already “sold out”…. If it never even went on the shelf, how is that so?

    I don’t want to commit to a subscription on something I’ve never seen. And I don’t want to commit to a subcription on something with varying quality, shifting creators, etc. I keep my subscriptions to a minimum.

    I’ve had to tradewait on Morning Glories only because my retailer would never have enough of them.

    And it’s looking like possibly the same on “Infinite Vacation” – got lucky to have found the 2nd issue.

    Anything that’s creating a solid buzz and a possible creative triumph (like “27” – I never had a chance at getting one of those)…. you’ve either got to pre-order it, or you’re screwed and have to tradewait. But, it seems to me I don’t start hearing reliable positive buzz on titles until after the pre-ordering window is gone.

    Both sides need to figure out a way to create some more wiggle room in the orders so empty shelves at 10am on Wednesday don’t happen.


  3. i don’t understand how those print run quantities are possible. Its very difficult if not impossible to print specific odd numbers like that in commercial printing on the kinds of presses and parent sheets that would make it affordable to do a run. There are some mystery copies that are being thrown out or used internally or something. In all my years experience working with printers i’ve never heard or seen that. 

    @citizenmilton  –i feel you’re pain. I skip lots of things because i know i won’t be able to find it. They’ll carry #1s and maybe #2s but no more. I often rely on sites like this to turn me on to new things or read the reviews to make decisions. I hate walking into a store cash in hand and being basically told that i’m “part of the problem” for not ordering something 3 months before i’d heard of it. Eff that noise. Broken system hurts everyone. 

    Great article Mr. Wood. Love these business side things you’re doing. Please keep it up! 

  4. Let’s be clear, publishers and creators would much rather have their books sell out than have the majority of copies sit on store shelves.”

    How about:  let’s not assume that.  A sold-out comic means a LOSS OF REVENUE to the creator and publisher.  It means orders and sales cannot happen until a second printing, and a second printing means another print bill to pay off.

    I believe what publishers and creators want is healthy orders and the stock on hand to fulfill them.  If i were a creator, I would want my comic consistenly available. 

  5. @wally Everyone involved gets comp copies which factors into those weird numbers

  6. @gobo –yeah but that’s what i’m saying. That counts towards the print run. So basically you print 4500 things, but only put up 4209 for sales, give the balance as comps. Weird numbers. I’ve never seen it done that way in other publishing areas. 

    also from what i hear Marvel makes their creators buy their own books. is that true?

  7. @north72 In the article I clearly agree with you. A sell out is better than no one wanting your comic (which happens quite a bit), but it’s still suboptimal to having better fulfillment at the outset.

  8. Re: the reported sales being odd numbers.

    You have to remember that while Diamond represents the vast majority of issue sales, it’s not wholly inclusive. Publishers also hold back some stock for convention sales, promos, comps, etc…

  9. @Wood  –oh wait a sec. Those are reported sales? I thought it was print run. Two very different things. 

    I’m interested in knowing what the ratio of overprinting to preorders is. I’m sure each publisher/title is different. 

  10. I can’t wait for day and date digital distribution across the board.

  11. @TheInnKeeper  I begrudgingly(?) jumped on the digital bandwagon, and I LOVE IT!! Digital supply will eliminate the need(HYPE?) for multiple print runs.

  12. Digital will also reduce the need for such detailed, far-in-advance solicitations that “spoil” big stories, and ensure suffucient supply to meet demand no matter great or how small!

  13. I’ve never paid any attention to sell out announcements. When they have hit my radar, I’ve pretty much thought “That’s nice”

    It’s also a nice reminder that I can’t get my media whenever and where ever I want it. I want to live in that world sooner rather than later. 

  14. those numbers are from Icv2, diamonds are here:

    diamond releases only rales rank, not actual numbers. the numbers posted on the internet are reverse engeneered from the rankings and some math wizardry and some estiamtes of numbers, so at leastpart of the stray numbers are just errors in calculation. There are no direct market print run numbers available. There are some that are required by postal code for some comics. Only a few do it now. Those are real numbers from the publisher that include free copies, comps, destroyed, and returned.

    Digital is the way for books like this. they don have to be ordered, no store has to take a risk on them and they can be as available (when its easier to make them right now its not easy to turn print files into the various kinds of proprietary digital formats, and since none have won yet, thats several different versions)

    its worth it though and as software eventually does for app development what it did for desktop publishing, small publishers and individuals will be able to do it as easily as doing print files. and unlike marvel and dc, they dont have to worry about the impact on the direct market, since the direct market isnt really carrying a lot of these books.

  15. While these numbers may represent sales to retailers, they don’t represent sell-through at retail. So while the publisher may have sold all of the copies of a particular print run, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t still copies sitting on a retailer’s shelf somewhere. Especially since retailers can’t return unsold copies for credit.

    I’m surprised that more of these small press books aren’t print-on-demand. 

  16. I sold out when I went to work for the feds!

  17. What a LOT of people forget these days is the economy and it’s effect on luxury hobby purchases.  Nowadays, retailers HAVE to be very tight on what they order, as extra copies of something that do not sell inhibit how a retailer can spend dollars on a new untested item.  Publishers as well are effected by this cash flow, as while they may feel a particular comic is under ordered, taking a chance on having thousand of copies of unsold inventory inhibits their ability to keep publishing.  In a better economy, we all have extra dollars to burn, so the effect of something not moving as well as planned isn’t as drastic to the bottom line.   

  18. On a side (but related) point, has anyone heard of what the Harvard Book Store are doing? This is not the university btw, but a book shop in the area. They have a high-tech printer (not sure of the brand) that means they sell books on demand. You order a book from them and they print and bind it that day and send it out to you on bike courier. (the whole thing was featured in a recent issue of Monocle magazine)

    For me, this is relevant because I am not the biggest fan of digital releases, they are alright but I prefer the real books, and I know I am not alone. I wonder if the Harvard Book Store model would be viable for comic sellers. If the shops could make a deal direct with the publishers then Diamond could be cut out of the equation entirely. It appears to me that they are the ones who no one would be sad to see gone.

    Anyway, very interesting article. The business of comics is unlike anything I know of. So disfunctional.

  19. @har13quin  –yeah those POD machines are in a few bookstores (mostly university) across the country. They are pretty cool and are basically custom retrofitted high end laser print/copy machines with proprietary software and binding /sorting contraptions attached. With purchase+installation and training they are over $100k a piece. Not really a great option for comic shops, but maybe in a few years if the technology gets there and it all gets cheaper, it could be really cool. 

  20. @abstractgeek: Great point on digital being a boon to small press creators. As it is, it seems like no comic store in America is making any money off “Blue Estate,” what with the tiny print run, so why would it hurt to release it digitally concurrently? That wouldn’t sting your LCS, because he/she doesn’t have it in stock anyway!

    I called into the podcast with this very question a few episodes ago, bewildered why Image wouldn’t want to sell me digital copies of “Non-Player” and “Jake Ellis,” because I can’t find any of those titles in stores. Don’t tell me that it takes a lot of effort to shape the pages for digital distribution, because they already exist in that form for at least half of the production process.

  21. @WilliamKScurryJr  —i do agree with you. Now if they do it where it zooms into panels and stuff…that takes production, but i’d be MORE THAN HAPPY, with a PDF or something compatible with iBooks that i could download for a nominal fee. As long as i can maually zoom in to read i’m fine. 

    There is NO time or extra expense involved with that solution. Today i put a brand standards guide for one of our clients that originated as a print piece onto a company iPad as a pdf. Took all of 2 minutes to make the pdf and transfer. Flipping through it in ibooks.. totally awesome. 

    what really is needed is publishers and creators that are brave enough to try something new instead of trying to do things the same way that the big 2 have been doing it.  

  22. @har13quin  That “print on demand” model sounds attractive to me, since I also prefer paper to digital. But they have to control costs and still provide quality. As wally noted, $100K for a machine is too much. This could give LCBS’s a shot in the arm though. I would be more willing to pay for a printer paper copy that is on-par (or really close) to the “real” printed comic than a digital version.

  23. another thing to consider with print on demand besides the quality control factors, is that there is a low quantity threshhold for it where its no longer profitable. When you’re getting to 100 or 200+ pieces you can start to find cheaper options by doing a formal print run on a digital press. It has a lot to with time+consumables+plus the ways you can set up and print on a larger sheets of paper. If all you want is 50 copies POD rules all. 

    It would be amazing if shops had a POD machine that was Best Buy affordable and you could walk in and have an entire pull list printed for you on the spot. Amazing. Maybe in the year 2000……. 

  24. I saw this strip this morning and it fits in way to well to what this artical is about. My appologies if posting a link is fround upon… I promise it’s not spam

  25. Coming next will be the concept of pre-orders. If you don’t get your pre-order in for certain titles, you won’t have a chance to get it type of mentality like what goes on in the video game industry.

  26. @IroncladMerc  –would love to see an article about the pre-order guilt complex. 

    Pre-orders only seem necessary in video games if you want to make sure you can buy it at the midnight release event. If thats not a big deal to you, then you just need to wait a day or two for restocking. I’ve never had a problem getting any A-List game. 

  27. pdf may seem like an easy answer but its a more complex issue. First is the drm issue. we can debate drm for hours, but many owners of intellectual propety know they cant eliminate piracy though they can make it harder. Drm makes it harder for an average person to copy things. my dad and brother and sister dont know what a torrent is, or where to find one. They dont know how to rip a dvd. but they all know how to borrow a cd from a library and copy it, they also know how to make copies of theirs for other people. they also know how to download a pdf and email it to everyone they know. Whether or not any of that impacts sales is debatable (some even argue it can help) but i understand the desire to error on the side of caution and making piracy harder. torrent downloads are also iffy. ive never seen a scanned one that looks as good as a pdf made from print source files. thats why i wont watch camcorder bootleg, but the ones made from screeners are perfect and a fine free substitute for paying money. Also i think the digital publishing experience is better with the app style over pdf. its also a value add that can justify higher prices. replication of print is not the future of digital publsihing.

    Image is not a company in the sense that Marvel and Dc are. They have a minimal staff and make only a flat fee on the books. They dont have the infrastructure to sell things directly, nor do they really have the money to create one. I may be mistaken, but i think most of the digital production on image books is done by the creative team (keepin mind this is image proper, mcfarlane and top cow function more like traditional publishers themselves under the image banner) The current app model (at least on the ipad) apple handles the $$ issues and comixology or or whoever does the digital conversion to work in the app. There is a bottleneck as those companies also dont have the manpower to keep up with the ongoing releases. Comixology is beta testing a program that will let publishers (even small creators) do it for themselves. Apple is rumored to be working an a tool that makes robust digital publishing as easy as print is now. Once these things are in place, the creators of green wake can easily do it themselves. Now it would cost them money which a book selling only a few thousand cant really afford.

    anyway you look at it just be patient, the books that sold out will go into a second printing and eventually a trade. and they will eventually be available digitally, and they will eventually be available digitally day and date. transitional periods are rough, people who take big chances can reap big rewards, but more often they go belly up.

  28. sorry to hog this discussion but another point i want to make is that a lot of the difficulty finding these issues is good old fashioned speculator greed. when 27 #2 came out a local retailer had a copies on his shelf on wednesday. i asked when the #1 second print was coming out because id rather read that first than buy number 2 and then buy 1 and not like it. he said if i want a 1st print of 2 id better buy now, because whatever he didnt sell that day was going on ebay. every one of thes sell outs is easily available on ebay for an inflated price. when certain websites regularly promote specualting on low print run image number 1s (you know it may be the next morning glories or chew or walking dead) then people who dont want them grab them to flip them. Then they sell out in the stores and at the distributor level, and then the prices go up. the speculator market wised up some and switched to small print run books with a little hype. the guy who runs the website mostly responsible joked at c2e2 that for $500 hed run a story about your low print run guranteeing a sell out , added attention and a second printing. the creator of skullkickers joked it was the best $500 he ever spent.

  29. Very nice article.

  30. @abstractgeek  –you raise good points, however i’m not a fan of the outright apologizing for how helpless comic publishers are in terms of digital, or how helpless creators are in adapting their workflows or learning new technology or marketing strategies to stay valid in the 21st century. There are more ways than ever to learn how to do things in media. Eventually needs to be now. Comics are the last ones to the digital party which is sad.

    Marvel and DC are backed by two of the largest media empires in the world. They can have whatever they want, they just have to make it a priority. 

    I will give you the DRM and iPad apps bottleneck. I struggle with that everyday at work and with our clients. But to be fair, if you’re an indie creator that no one’s heard of, with a book and characters no one cares about yet or can’t find in a store, whats the harm in getting a few new fans via a torrent or passed around PDF? I think we’ve seen it does work on a level.

    Whenever i see indie creators trying to sell and market a comic in the same way as an Avengers book, i just think its so foolish and so short sighted. 

  31. To be fair Marvel and DC are not BACKED by huge media companies, they are OWNED by huge media companes. publsihing has small budgets and resources compared to other divisions. i work for a big media company and corporate synergy is a myth for boards of directors and stockholders. divisions compete for resources with each other and the divisions that produce less that 1% of the revenue get scraps. disney and warner are better served by investing in movies and tv. they only reason publishing division are still around is that they are pretty profitable because they are cheap to produce compared to the money they make.

    that only reinforces how great an opportunity this is for small publishers and creators. check out the double feature comics from four star studios. perfect example of guys doing it themselves, taking great advantage of what print cant do. it helps that they have someone familiar with app development. i am also a graphic designer, and ive been doing it long enough to remember the transition to digital (ah type galleys, wax machines and rubylith how i dont miss you). it wasnt until quark and photoshop got to the 2.0 and 3.0 versions that desktop publishing really came into its own and im sure the next generation of digital publishing tools will do that too. i have taken baby steps into app development and its tough stuff, but since i want to be employed in the future, i know its too my advantage to learn how to do it.

    i kind of feel for small and self publishers. most of them go into it because of a desire to MAKE comics, but they forget that after they make them they have to SELL comics. which many dont want to do or really don even understand how to do. creatives are often not great at business, so again this is an opportunity for anyone with the right skill set and the willingness to do the hard work

  32. @abstractgeek  –yeah i get the corporate synergy thing. Believe me i know. I’m in the same place as you with transitioning to digital as a designer. its rough. 

    There are some indie creators out there experimenting with new marketing and technology approaches to sell comics. Really you can’t be an artist…you also have to be an entrepreneur as well with an eye to new ideas. I think the indie guys that try to go direct market are just soooo soo foolish. Even a success in that world is still a failure for them in terms of making a profit. The Kirkman model is the extreme exception, not the norm. 

    I really do believe that the change and embracing of digital will happen in the indie world. They have nothing to risk and everything to gain.  

  33. its really the same as it was with the beginning of the direct market. marvel and dc were very comfortable in the independent distribution system. they sold their books to the dm, because they will sell anywhere but they didnt court it or create material for it until, aardvark vanahiem, pacific, first, comico, eclipse and warp showed that the dm was not only viable but desireable. then marvel and dc stuck their toes in, then waist deep, then dove in and took over as all the pioneers of the dm went out of business.

    seriously there is a need for someone who can provide marketing assistance to these creators, and even, people who can convert their comics to apps. where there is a need there is money, maybe not a lot at first, but there is opportunity beyond just creating comics. in a weak economy there is growth in such things. the direct market wasnt originally big distributors, it was small time guys selling comics and running small conventions that saw an opportunity and created an entire business model. they reinvented and saved the industry. and that opened up so much more. more comic shops, bags, boards, boxes, expensive collectibles, targeted marketing. shifts like this are difficult but someone eventuall nails it and makes $$ and others follow.

    sorry to get things so off topic. so back to topic (sort of) so what will the next image sell outs be? drums? shinku, graveland empires, its a comic sellout lotto!

  34. On a related note, Moon Knight #1 sold out!

  35. @player1  Yes, it’s funny. After not getting a lot of these press releases since January we’ve gotten a bunch from Marvel in the last week.