Truth or Dare: Will the Real Comic Book Sales Numbers Please Stand up?

It’s no surprise to see another interview with Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson, given that it’s Image’s 20th anniversary, and that the company is having a bit of a renaissance when it comes to their publishing slate and the overall industry support of creator owned comics and Stephenson has been quite outspoken on his blog recently.

Today, Stephenson spoke to comics industry website ICv2 about the state of Image’s business, which has been on upswing, with Image moving to a solid #3 position in the comic book industry with 8% of the dollars market share according to ICv2.

For those not in the know, ICv2, as an industry publication, works with Diamond Comic Distributors to break down the monthly sales numbers from the various publishers. Whenever you see us citing market share or sales numbers, more often than not, ICv2 is our source for those numbers.

What I find interesting about this interview is that we get a view behind the curtain of a publisher which is something that we, as readers, fans and industry analysts usually don’t get to see. Given that there is one distributor, Diamond, one would believe that the numbers published by Diamond and then indexed by ICv2 would be accurate. But in the interview, Stephenson argues that isn’t the case:

It’s confusing to me. We get initial orders [from Diamond] and those are not broken down by U.S/U.K., it is all one lump. That is how that information is delivered to us. And that number alone is typically different from what you have when [ICv2] reports the numbers. Then we have what we call the FOC (Final Order Cut-off) numbers and that’s what we base our print runs on, and those are, again, higher than what you have on your site when you list the numbers.

Stephenson also adds:

Just looking at the example of The Walking Dead, it’s pretty substantially different from what you’re listing the numbers as, and we’re not going into months’ worth of numbers, because over the last several months, we have typically sold out of the entire inventory of The Walking Dead in the first couple of weeks that it’s out. So that is for a single month. Sounds like you’re not getting much in the way of reorder information or our full numbers.

So while ICv2 falls back heavily on the U.S. monthly focus, it’s clear from Stephenson’s comments that there’s more to the story here from what Diamond is reporting to publishers and what ICv2 is reporting publicly. The interview further reveals, for example, The Walking Dead #95 was reported by ICv2 with 35,000 in sales, when in reality after Final Order Cut off and other factors, the issue sold 37,000. Additionally Stephenson pulls back the curtain on the Saga, Image’s most recent hit, for which the first issue has entered it’s fourth printing and is approaching 70,000 in sales.

For those interested in the publishing business, do go and read all 3 parts of the interview. Stephenson reveals that digital is accounting for double digit percentages of their sales in some cases, which he believes is helping, not hurting their print business. He also sheds some light on the affect of the demise of Borders, the creator owned movement and what it means on how things work at Image, and given the way the market is shaped today, the importance of pre-ordering books.

Aside from the interesting information about Image Comics, the first part of this interview continues to beg the question about how broken the comics industry actually is. With one distributor and questionable reporting on sales, can we ever really get an accurate view or picture of how the various publishers are performing?


  1. I’ve heard Bendis talk about this before on Word Balloon interviews….kinda interesting but a weird business thats for sure.

  2. Shouldn’t the Big Two just suck it up and make all unsold issues returnable? How damaging would that really be for them?

    • In the past returnability nearly killed the comic market. At a time when spiderman was a top selling book, at 300,000 copies a month, it was shipping over 500,000 copies a month. it is very hard to be profitable in those circumstances. make no mistake, the non returnablity of the direct market saved comics. In the past non returnability was a good thing as the direct market had a viable back issue business. and i don’t mean speculation and high markups, i mean just having back issues of most titles so that new readers could get caught up. I worked in comics retail in the 80s and 90s and selling out was a bad thing on any big title, it meant you had a harder time getting new readers unless books had very clear new starting points. Today, books are tailored (or cancelled and restarted) to jumping on points, and the trade paperback and digital markets have largely made back issues unnecessary, so stores with back issues are stores with stock thats largely a loss.

      returnable product is often sold at a smaller discount to distibutors (and then retailers) to offset the added risk for publishers. going from a 50-55% discount to a 30-35% discount would mean a lot of stores would no longer be profitable enough to stay open. unless cover price is increased to bring more money to retailers, which then makes the consumer pissed.

      basically somewhere in the equation SOMEONE has to take a bullet and eat the cost, be it publisher, distributor, retailer or consumer. Consumers feel like they arent getting enough value for their dollar (and really they arent). distributors and retailers are already surviving on thin margins, and publishers, especially corporate ones have to meet certain minimum profitability standards, or it’s financially in the interests on the parent company to just cease publishing operations and invest that money in a more profitable part of their business.

      to get all star trek on you, its a kobiashi maru, a no win scenario. The only way not to lose is to change the conditions of the test, and no one has really figured out how yet, though digital is pretty promising at this point.

    • @abstractgeek So, you’re saying we need a Kirk to solve the problem? In seriousness, that was an awesome reply that helped me better understand my query. Thanks!

    • we do need a kirk, someone with the insight to think outside the box, to do what no one else has thought of. it really is the only way to beat a no win situation, to change the situation to one you can win rather than just trying the same things.

      or if the newest star trek movie is to be believed (alternate timelines can be tricky) we need someone to have sex with a hot green chick, and have her fix the situation.

      i volunteer for that mission

  3. I heard on my local news station that the comics companies all together made over 600 million dollars last year which is double what they were making in the 90’s.

    • I’m amazed a local news station would report on this. Was the story mainly about the success of The Avengers movie? Also, that can’t be true. Can it?

    • The total dollar sales are higher than they were in the 1990s–just about double seems to be close–but the total number of units sold is about 25% lower*. This is most likely because cover price has risen sharply since the 1990s and people buy way more trades.

      This guy compiles the Diamond reports** for year-to-year comparison:

      *Based on reports, like those mentioned in the above article, whose veracity is questionable.
      ** See above.

    • The reason my local news reported this was because of FCBD and the Avengers movie. They went to a comic shop and did interviews. They were talking about how much comics companies make and how FCBD was trying to get kids into reading. It said that some libraries were participating in FCBD as well.

  4. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Never trust sales data from any source in any field. I used to handle gaming sales numbers and the sources were always wildly different and of course companies would want the ones that made things look the best and their competition the worst. Even if they are not trying to be deceptive the numbers are usually skewed or wrong anyhow since they rarely reflect actual sales data and instead original order amounts or any number of other metrics.

  5. If the numbers don’t jibe, who’s getting screwed?

  6. I have learned a while ago not to trust ICv.2. Their digital numbers a few months back were proven to be total BS.

    The Tiki

  7. While this is interesting stuff, hearing a reported 35k was actually 37k isn’t that shocking of a difference. Which leads me to believe those charts are still a fairly decent way to get a picture of how sales are going, even though there’s a margin for error.

  8. Heck of a way to run a railroad. It would be funny save that creator’s livelihoods and the work we all so much enjoy depend to a substantial degree on those numbers. I suspect this may further push things towards digital. Presumably companies can have real time sales data, and that would probably be an advantage to the companies that learn how to use that data in allocating resources.

    • I doubt ICv2 numbers affect creators livelihoods. I’m sure companies, like Image, keep their own internal numbers of how many issues of a bok they ship out the door; which then translates into the check they write for a creator. I can’t imagine creators or publishes get their own internal sales numbers from an outside company.

    • The publishers get accurate sales numbers, of course they do, it’s the numbers that are released to the public that are inaccurate.

    • That was exactly the point I was making…

  9. Comichron Comichron (@comichron) says:

    The numbers Diamond releases publicly are what it says they are: the number of copies that moved from its warehouses to locations in North America in the calendar month. Nothing more. Here’s a primer of what things are NOT included:

    So one of the things that happens is that if a comic book comes out on the last Wednesday of the month, its orders will naturally be lower than the final North American total for a book, because a greater percentage of its shipments have not been included. They WILL be included — in the next month’s totals that Diamond reports. But unless those orders are above what the 300th place title is doing (which happens only occasionally for the very top sellers) you won’t see them reflected on the charts.

    That said, Diamond DOES report them — in its aggregate tables when it figures up the market shares. I do an estimate of the “overall” figure for how much in dollars Diamond shipped each month, and you can see the need for it: The market shares within the Top 300s alone are completely different than the overall ones. The combined Top 300s for comics and trades last month had a full retail value of $28.1 million, but all the stuff that wasn’t on the charts added another $7.9 million. That’s all the stuff bubbling under 300th place on the two charts.

    The system for reporting this material is close to what it was when Milton Griepp (now at ICV2) invented it in the early 1980s for his distribution company; Diamond adopted it in the early 1990s, and I have been tracking it monthly since 1996. It was originally only intended to show retailers in insular markets and new retailers what the ordering levels were nationally (hence, the order index numbers — if your store orders 100 Batmans, then the average store is ordering X of something else).

    As such, it’s the wrong tool for telling a publisher what it sold; they get more complete information, including Diamond’s UK sales (which other publishers do see broken out, and which is, as Milton says, about 10% the size of U.S. sales). It’s also a blunt tool when it comes to telling how an individual title is doing over time, for the ship-week volatility reasons I mentioned. It’s why I don’t do a lot of cross-title comparisons on my site. These tables were invented for retailers — it just happens that publishers got interested in how they were doing relative to each other (I have internal publisher documents showing sales departments doing their own math, just like Milton and I do now, on the distributor tables back in the early 1990s) and then the Internet came along and suddenly everyone started following them.

    The Diamond numbers mean one thing and one thing only — what rolled in the trucks in a given timeframe. That is a useful metric because it has been tabulated absolutely the same way across time — the current method turns 10 in February — and so it gives us an exact picture of a large portion of the market. But what is in that picture changes from month to month, and is not the whole scene. A look at the relative sizes of the other portions of the print market in 2011 can be seen here:

  10. I think there si some confusion here about who has what numbers. Icv2 does not work with diamond as the article suggests. Diamond doesnt publish sales numbers, they publish sales RANKINGS. basically what is the top seller, the second top seller etc. they also publish percentage ranking based on the sales of Batman. Thats an arbitrary choice but based on the idea that batman is pretty consistently a top seller, and comes out fairly consistently. If you can get a firm slaes figure on one book, you can reverse engineer the numbers for other books. But there are a lot of guesses and assumptions in this process. Its not very good or accurate, but it does give a decent overall figure, and everybody that knows actual numbers agrees its always low, but the rankings are always correct.

    The thing is all that info is just for the consumer. diamond has actual real numbers of everything and so does every publisher and even every creator who gets a royalty statement. marvel, dc image, idw boom etc all know exactly down to the last copy what has sold (to stores at least and thats all they are concerned about) Thye dont know what each oher is selling but the they dont have to. Publishers dont need icv2. they never have. they only people who give a shit about the tcv2 or any of the other people like comichron that track/make up numbers.

    the publishers, distributors and creators have the real numbers, and they are the only ones who actually need them. marvel, dc image and diamond could easily release actual numbers, and they do when it benefits them, but mostly it doesnt. very few business give out that kind of data. WE want that data so we can cheer when our books are doing well, and try to support them when they are doing poorly. i al;so supect much of it is so people can use it to “prove” they are right. look at how many DC fans looked at the new 52 sales and basically said “see i told you dc was better! look at these sales, marvel sucks and marvel fans can suck it” which was followed by marvel fans saying “see i told you it wouldnt last, even rebooting everything couldnt put dc on top for long. dc sucks and dc fans can suck it” when sales dropped months later.

    we dont need this info.

  11. Comichron Comichron (@comichron) says:

    If we’re making the numbers up, Abstract — then how come ICV2, CBR, and we are coming up independently with the same figures? We’re all going to different publishers for their numbers of copies shipped in the month. It’s reproducible, by different parties. In the scientific method, that counts for something.

    Your description of the method — getting one or two numbers and plugging them in — was accurate for the time before 2003, but as my blog post says, things changed when Diamond went to final orders. Previously, we were all going to different publishers for their purchase orders — which were not run at the exact moment that Diamond computed its ratios, and were cranked out at different moments for all publishers. Now, I dealt with this by getting data from multiple publishers amounting to more than a third of the issues on the table each month — but even so, on the charts you see on my site from before 2003, the margin of error was about five or six copies for every Order Index Point — or as much as 600 copies. But as soon as Diamond went to Final Shipment reporting for the whole month in 2003, everything squared up across the board, the margin of error collapsed, and all the different outlets’ estimates converged.

    Based on my conversations with the distributor, the numbers I already know from the publishers, and years of monthly tracking — I am confident of the estimates. I always say when I’m not sure of an estimate — and I publish the “fine print” on every page, regardless. But as I said above, it’s reproducible — if you doubt the math, there’s an easy remedy. It just takes footwork and a spreadsheet.

    • @comichron I think i overstated an issue with methods, i shouldn’t have implied they are wild guesses, i shouldn’t have said “make up numbers” they as you point out are estimates based on available data, and they are remarkably consistent but also most of the people with actual numbers do agree the estimates are lower than the actuals. maybe its in the math maybe the numbers you get arent as accurate as you hope. i dont know. perhaps saying the numbers are accurate representation but not exact. good enough for us to get an idea of trends and stores to get an idea of whats selling, but not accurate enough to base royalty statments on if you are a creator or publisher, but then again creators and publishers dont need to, they have the real numbers

      I think i let my frustration with the fact that people continully treat these numbers as actual numbers from diamond or publishers instead of what they are, maybe thats a nitpick on my part. real numbers are real numbers estimates are estimates. they each i work in the dvd business and i see the videoscan numbers every week, and i also know our internal numbers and again they arent the same. then again they really dont need to be. we and those we do business with have the numbers we need.

      thats really my frustration is that so many people seem to think they are entitled to this information and how they use it. i would love to know what ifanboys numbers are, like how many hits, how many podcast downloads, how many uniques, how many registered users, how many paying users. but they are under no obligation to share that and i have no right to it. even if they did or somehow we could get estimates, it would be inappropriate for me to the go “suck it newsarama and comic geek speak, i fanboy is the best”

      i apologize if i made it sound like you were pumping out bullshit. You clearly explain you methods and the possible errors. People dont always read the fine print (i dont, god know what i signed away when i joined this site) and misunderstand or misuse the info they get. I think your site is a great resource, especially where you track the numbers for older books based on the old statement of ownership info, which no one else does, as far as i can tell.

    • Comichron Comichron (@comichron) says:

      Not a problem. The thing is, I am using the actual numbers to baseline the charts — the numbers are just for a subset, and not whole figures. The Diamond numbers will always be lower than what publishers shipped to everyone everywhere, and will always be lower than what creators see on their royalty statements. That doesn’t make them wrong, just incomplete.

  12. Comichron Comichron (@comichron) says:

    (I do agree with your explanation of returnability, by the way. Other magazine industries dearly wish they had our system. The Direct Market, for its faults, has created by far the healthiest segment of the magazine market.)

  13. one other thing, slightly off topic but it concerns the interview with stephenson in general. While im glad stephenson is spreading the good word about image, im a little dismayed that he has taken a page from quesada and didio by spinning things, and misrepresenting things to further his points.

    Sandman was not a weird deal between dc and neil gaiman. It was work for hire done by a writer at the beginning of his career with no clout whatsoever except that he was really good. Gaiman has been very clear about the genesis of the book. he and mckean were hired to do black orchid. dc wanted to get gaimans name out there before the very time consuming book came out and he did sandman, which was basically a reimagining of the dc owned kirby sandman, without being or needing kirbys sandman. all work for hire, page rate and royalties. years later gaiman asked that he get creator credit (and the expanded royalties that come with it ) since it really wasnt kirbys sandman, it was something new. Dc agreed. gaiman has no ownership and no control over the character. his desire for the character to only be done by him is respected by dc and karen berger (much the way alan moores desire was respected by paul levitz) because gaiman is close to berger and has kept a good professional relationship with dc, and continues to do things like write the introduction to annotated sandman etc. note that gaiman merely asked, he didnt threaten or boycott or call them liars and thieves publicly. years later dc asked him to write something new for sandman. gaiman asked for his royalty to be increased on sandman so his pay would be closer to the very lucrative pay he gets for writing novels. dc declined, and gaiman chose to spent the time writing a new novel. again no boycott, no internet complaining. he just said no thank you and moved on. he made more money, they didn’t, they also didn’t set a precident which could have cost them much more than a new sandman would have gained.

    as far as his statements on watchmen. he says if image was around back then, moore and gibbons would have had an avenue to publish a creator owned watchmen. apparently stephenson has forgotten that there were plenty of creator owned options back then. first comics and comico were around, moore already was working on miracleman with eclipse. dark horse was just starting and cerebus and ninja turtles had already proved the viability of self publishing and sim had already branched out into publishing creator owned titles. even marvel had the fully creator owned epic imprint at that time. They had options but with the exception of marvel those i doubt those options would have allowed watchmen to become WATCHMEN. those companies wouldn’t have had the resources to get watchmen into bookstores and keep it in print, and promote the book to the level it needed to become the juggernaut is has become. If image was around back then they would have had the similar problem. Image didnt get a decent representation outside the direct market until walking dead. years after marvel and dc had really built hat business.

    he also nicely brushes away the fact that mcfarlane, top cow, extreme and to some extent skybound all use work for hire policies not unlike marvel and dc, where the creator of the actual book doesn’t own his work, its owned by the company (not image but mcfarlane inc, top cow extreme studios etc). He is quick to take a strong moral stand against marvel and dc over their issues with kirby and moore. yet he is silent about mcfarlaines struggles with gaiman and tony moores struggle with skybound. The image partners kicked out liefeld. Shouldnt stepenson support the ouster of mcfarlane and kirkman unless they treat gaiman and moore fairly? or would that just get him fired the way quesada and didio would get fired if they publicly supported kirby and moore. Is it ethical to only stand up for ethical behavior when it wont hurt you?

    i love image comics, i think books like saga and fatale are among the best books published. I want to see more great stuff from image and im glad they are getting so much press, but i am bothered that they attack marvel and dc for being unethical, but then turn a bllnd eye to ethics when it suits them. at least marvel and dc dont pretend they are anything but what they are.

    i know image is very popular as a company among creators and fans, and mine is an unpopular and probably minority opinon, and im certainly not calling for any kind of boycott or anything. I just think we need to look at these fairly complex issues a little more closely and honestly and not in the standard “good guys vs bad guys” that it usually comes down to.

  14. wow, im writing a lot today. i really should be working. i think im writing so much today because i reaaaallly dont want to be working right now, but ill pay for it by staying late to catch up on all the work i should be doing.

  15. By the way, Comichron, or should I say John, I greatly appreciate your site. It’s format is so much easier to read than icv2 in my opinion, and it fascinates me to look at the stats for the comic industry. For example, no one has pointed out that Batman has finally exceeded Justice League for DC’s number one title! That’s awesome!

  16. Comichron Comichron (@comichron) says:

    Thanks! HTML and tables don’t really cooperate very well — putting more than one table in a page as I do usually requires some jujitsu with the style sheets — so the presentation is something I put a good deal of time into. Glad you like it!

  17. How does Diamond get away with being the only distributor? I thought monopolies were illegal.

    • marvel, dc, image, dark horse, idw and the premier publishers are all exclusive to diamond. They offer a smaller discount to diamond (and there for more $$ for them) than they did when there were more distributors, but since diamond services all comic shops who want those books (i.e. ALL comic shops) they make up for it in volume. There is nothing to prevent anyone from starting a distributor and carrying all the non exclusive books and all the books diamond doesnt carry. and this has been tried, the problem is those books dont generally generate enough money to keep the doors open on any distributor. and most stores would rather deal with one distributor, as its less work and the more they order from diamond, the higher the discount.