Monday, April 26, 2004


Grotesque Anatomy links to the online incarnation of Brian Hibbs' column Tilting at Windmills, which examines the comics industry from a retailers' standpoint. If you're interested in the business side of things, it's a must-read.

In his February column, Hibbs discusses, and links to a file he's posted of BookScan's top 750 "graphic novels" (an unsatisfactory term for "books of comics," but I don't know of an alternative) for the last week of 2003, along with those books' total sales for the year. (I know that I've seen links to this specific column, but don't remember where; my apologies to whoever you are.) This is a great service Hibbs has performed for industry-watchers. I played around with these numbers a little and came up with some stuff that may be of interest.

Note that, as Hibbs points out, these figures only include bookstore sales, not sales in comics shops, or by retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. Nor do they include all bookstores. They include a greater proportion of chain bookstores than they do of independent bookstores, so they probably understate the bookstore sales of independent comics by a greater proportion than they do those of Marvel and DC or manga. Moreover, I noticed a few anomalies: e.g., Yu Yu Hakusho vol. 2 is #40 on the chart, but vol. 1 isn't on it at all; similarly, Card Captor Sakura: Master of the Clow vol. 6 is #190, but no other CCS titles appear, even though almost everything else by CLAMP is on the chart (including both volumes of Man of Many Faces). This makes me suspect that some items were either not counted by BookScan for some reason, or were omitted from the chart, so we can't necessarily draw any firm conclusions from the absence of a specific title or volume.

1) The big story of 2003, of course, was manga's conquest of the GN sections of bookstores, and this chart certainly reflects this. Here, one has to read Hibbs's column with care. He sees these figures as indicating a need for caution on the part of retailers in the direct market, and he's undoubtedly right. But for manga itself, it's very good news. Yes, many titles didn't sell well. But this is normal, or should be. Most new products are unsuccessful in any industry, including entertainment industries. For the entertainment industry in particular, companies need to keep taking risks to remain vital in the long term. Marvel and DC stopped taking risks twenty-some years ago, and have been steadily shrinking ever since. Certainly, this poses difficulties for the DM retailer, faced with the prospect of laying down five dollars or more a copy for the first volume of an unknown series, which (s)he may not be able to sell and can't return. But this shows that the DM's current set-up is ill-suited to manga (and, I would argue, is dysfunctional in general, but that's another story), not that manga itself is in trouble.

Hibbs suggests, based on anecdotal evidence, that popular manga titles such as Chobits and Love Hina are likely to stop selling once the series has been completed, rather than being perennial "backlist" titles, though he admits he can't point to anything in BookScan's figures to support this. Of course, it's too early to say how sales of particular series will hold up in the long term; but the BookScan figures argue against Hibbs's view. Chobits vol. 1, for example, which was first published in April 2002, sold 1476 copies in the last week of 2003 (nearly double the sales of Watchmen, Hibbs's primary example of a perennial), placing it #34 in sales for that week; and Love Hina vol. 1, which first appeared in May 2002, sold 1234 copies, placing it #47 for the week. I don't know any reason why these books would sell so strongly over a year after they would published, only to immediately stop selling once the overall series had been completed. In fact, Chobits finished in Oct. 2003. Hibbs says he hasn't sold more than a couple of copies of Chobits or Love Hina since those series were completed, and I don't doubt him; but judging by these figures, that's not true for the bookstore market as a whole.

There are a couple of other, indirect, pieces of evidence against Hibbs's thesis in these figures. If Hibbs were right, then you'd expect to see the volumes of a series appear on the weekly chart in the reverse order they were published: i.e., the most recent volume would have sold the most for the week, then the second most, then the third most, with the first volume selling the least. There is a tendency for the most recent volume to have the highest weekly sales if it's come out recently (i.e. in Nov. 2003 or later). But otherwise, we more frequently see the reverse of this, with the older volumes selling more for the week than the newer volumes, and the first volume selling the most. Also, if Hibbs were right, then we'd expect to see some titles with very high yearly sales but very low sales for the week, but we don't. No manga volume with sales for the year of 30,000 or higher sold fewer than 758 copies for the week; no volume with yearly sales of 20,000 or higher sold fewer than 417 copies for the week; no manga with sales of 10,000 or higher sold fewer than 184 copies for the week. Finally, I have my own little piece of anecdotal evidence suggesting that these titles are still selling now. The national chains aren't known for keeping titles which aren't selling in stock. My local Barnes and Nobles has every volume of Chobits but vol. 8 on the shelves or in a standup display, for a total of twelve copies, and ten of the fourteen volumes of Love Hina on the shelves or on display, for a total of fourteen copies; while my Borders has every volume of Chobits and all but one volume of Love Hina on the shelves, for a total of nineteen copies of each.

What we really need, and what we don't have (afaik), is someone to comment on these figures who is knowledgeable about the book industry, because that's the arena in which Tokyopop, Viz, etc. are competing. How do the figures for manga stack up against the average trade paperback? How does Tokyopop's ratio of hits to misses compare to other publishers? If we knew these things, we could make a lot more sense of these figures than we can now. For that matter, if we knew these things we could make a lot more sense of the numbers for superheroes in this chart. Superheroes are getting slaughtered compared to manga in bookstores; we know that, and this chart confirms it. But the competition really isn't "superheroes vs. manga," though that's how the blogosphere tends to frame it; it's superheroes vs. everything else in the store. And by that yardstick, it might be that superheroes are doing really well; I just don't know.

Turning from the performance of manga as a whole to particular titles, I compiled a few "top ten" lists. Here are the top ten volumes of manga in terms of sales for the whole of 2003 (the number in parenthesis indicates that volume's rank in weekly sales for the week ending Dec. 31, 2003):

1 (25). Yu Gi Oh v. 1 48,308
2 (34). *Chobits v.1 38,951
3 (93). Chobits v. 4 36,910
4 (11). .Hack v.1 35,889
5 (24). Inu Yasha v. 1 2nd ed. 34,777
6 (105). Chobits v. 5 32,603
7 (46). *Chobits v. 2 32,093
8 (47). *Love Hina v. 1 31,290
9 (9). Rurouni Kenshin v. 1 30,627
10 (102). Chobits v. 6 29,854

The asterisk means that the volume was published in 2002 (which explains the odd pattern of sales figures for Chobits).

To determine the most popular series, I could have added up the total yearly sales of all the volumes. But I didn't because a) that would be biased in favor of series with many volumes out, and b) I was too lazy. Instead I compiled two different lists. The first one lists series in the order of highest weekly sales of the volume of the series that sold the best in the last week of 2003 (the number in parenthesis following the title is the number of the volume in question):

1 (2). Rurouni Kenshin (2) 4837
2 (5). .Hack (2) 3915
3 (6). Naruto (2) 3661
4 (7). Yu Gi Oh (3) 3516
5 (10). Trigun (1) 3118
6 (12). Hellsing (1) 2489
7 (17). FLCL (1) 2141
8 (24). Inu Yasha (1 2nd ed) 1975
9 (32). Alice 19th (1) 1542
10 (34). Chobits (1) 1476

The other list lists series in order of the yearly sales of the volume which sold best in all of 2003:

1 (25). Yu Gi Oh (1) 48,308
2 (34). *Chobits (1) 38,951
3 (11). .Hack (1) 35,889
4 (24). Inu Yasha (1 2nd ed.) 34,777
5 (47). *Love Hina (1) 31,290
6 (9). Rurouni Kenshin (1) 30,627
7 (16). Naruto (1) 29,805
8 (17). FLCL (1) 27,177
9 (10). Trigun (1) 26,972
10 (87). Demon Diary (1) 23,277
11 (82). *Ragnarok (1) 22,207
12 (161). *Kare Kano (1) 20,136

(This list has twelve entries because I felt like it, and because I found #s 11 and 12 of interest. Note that Demon Diary and Ragnarok are actually manhwa (Korean comics); however, neither Tokyopop nor bookstores make a distinction between manga and manhwa, and I would have included manhwa on the other two lists if any titles had qualified.)

The list by weekly sales is biased towards series with a volume just out, while the list by yearly sales is biased towards series that have been out for a while; hopefully looking at the two together will produce a more rounded picture.

I don't have much to say about these lists, but I do have a few comments. First, despite all the (deserved) attention paid to girls buying manga, these lists are heavily dominated by shounen (boys') titles, though that may be partly due to what's appeared on TV. The only shoujo (girls') titles here are Alice 19th, Kare Kano, and possibly Demon Diary (which strictly speaking wouldn't be "shoujo" in any case, since it's Korean). Of course, some of the shounen titles undoubtedly have substantial female readerships. And since these figures were compiled, Fruits Basket has become a big hit, the first shoujo title to do so, afaik.

Looking at individual titles, I'm surprised to see FLCL doing so well, despite the anime being on TV: I would have thought the manga would be just too far out. I'm also surprised to see Demon Diary and Ragnarok do so well, since I almost never see them talked about. And I'm gratified to see that Kare Kano did well, though I wish it did better. I've complained about the quality of the reproduction in the English-language volumes I own; but in terms of writing this is probably the best series on any of the above lists, and one of the best series currently available in the U.S. (I say this having read the Japanese through vol. 16.)

Turning our attention back to the entire file, there are some series that haven't done as well as I'd have expected them too, given the amount of publicity or other "buzz" they've received. Among these are GTO, Initial D, or Boys over Flowers: none of these managed to crack the top 150 for the week (including all GNs now, not just manga) or sell 10,000 copies of any single volume in 2003. Paradise Kiss is another title that does substantially worse than I would have expected: the top-selling volume, #1, was only #439 for the week, with 199 copies sold, and sold only 7977 copies in all of 2003 (it came out in 2002). This is a shame: ParaKiss is well-written, and has a distinctive visual style. It deserves to do much better.

2) Superheroes. As I said above, superheroes do a lot worse than manga in bookstores. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does well, and so does Sandman: Endless Nights, if you count that as a superhero title, which I don't (the collections of the regular comic don't do as well). But apart from these, all the superhero books in the top weekly 100 are not comics at all, but illustrated coffee-table "reference works." With these excluded, the top GN or comic collection involving Marvel or DC's core characters is JLA: Liberty and Justice, with 724 copies sold for the week, placing it at #112. In terms of yearly sales, once again excluding the books mentioned above, the only superhero book to have sold more than 20,000 copies in 2003 was Wolverine: Origin, with 25,601 sold.

3) I had no idea that "Get Fuzzy" was so popular. Blueprint for Disaster, a Get Fuzzy collection, was the top seller for the week, with double the sales of the #2 title; it was also the #2 title for the year. And The Get Fuzzy Experience was the #1 title for the year, and #4 for the week.

4) I have to admit that alternative comics did even worse in bookstores than superheroes did. Random House's American Splendor did well, selling 9,084 copies; and Ghost World, which came out in 2001, still sells fairly well, with 5,899 copies sold in 2003. But neither Blankets nor the Jimmy Corrigan trade paperback managed to sell 5,000 copies, despite all the mainstream attention and good reviews they received. Other alternative titles did even worse. As I said above, probably the proportion of bookstore sales not captured by BookScan is greater for alternative titles than for manga or superhero titles; but it seems unlikely that the discrepancy would be great enough to put alternatives on a level with superheroes.

5) I'm a bit worried about Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts project. There are five Peanuts titles on the list, but none of them sold 10,000 copies in 2003. The one which sold the most, It's Back to School, Charlie Brown, sold 9209 copies, which is certainly a respectable total, but hardly a license to print money. I hope that Groth and Thompson aren't betting the company on this.

UPDATE: It appears that my worries in the preceding paragraph were misplaced.

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