"The Death of the Floppy" Examined to an Unhealthy Degree
As you may recall, I'm a fan of numbers. It's a serious fascination for me, and given my love of comics and statistics, it's impossible for me to not want to fuse them together. In a lot of ways, SKTCHD was my attempt to make a comic version of Fangraphs - I briefly even considered calling the site "Fanboygraphs," before I decided that was way too cheesy - because that baseball site is so good at marrying excellent writing with in-depth analysis of data.

These days, I'm not doing as much analysis of that variety because SKTCHD is, largely, just a depository for my podcasts. I just don't really do that kind of writing. And I'll be honest: I miss it. It's my favorite thing to do, writing wise.

That's why when John Jackson Miller over at Comichron tweeted out the following chart, my wheels began turning something fierce.

A little background before I talk about the information within the tweet. There's a fair amount of sentiment out there that we're in the death spiral of the "floppy" comic, or the single issue comic...or whatever you want to call it. That it's going to go away, and that the market for the single issue form is just not the same. Heidi MacDonald of The Beat, for one, came on Off Panel a little while ago and noted that she thinks we're on that path now. There are regular pieces about it elsewhere, and as Twitter does, there tends to be semi-regular hubbub along those lines in the comics Twitter conversation.

So Miller tweeting these numbers - which show the total orders of comics in Diamond Comic Distributor's Top 300 most ordered comics - was meant to quell those concerns. Yes, the death of the floppy narrative is out there, but look! April over the last 20 years has been fairly consistent, within a one million copy range! It certainly runs contrary to the perpetual doom and gloom that looms over the direct market, especially when you factor in the larger ecosystem that floppy exists in.

Think about it like this: typically in forms of entertainment, you see older formats decrease in viability as new ones are introduced. After all, we're not living in an era where people watch movies via streaming, blu rays, laser discs and Betamax. And in recent years, the book market for comics has exploded, while the digital marketplace has matured. We don't just have ComiXology, but other vendors like Marvel Unlimited, Hoopla, ComicBlitz and beyond. Webcomics have increased in viability as well, especially when you factor in the ability to combine them with crowd-funding services like Kickstarter or Patreon, which give creators the option of actually making money off them (fancy that!). Comics are everywhere, and there are more ways than ever to buy and read them.

Yet, with all that expansion, the total orders in Diamond's Top 300 has stayed relatively static over the past 20 years.

On the surface, that's an enormously important thing. It runs contrary to how every other medium has behaved, and shows comics as an ecosystem that seemingly can support a wide array of formats at the same time. If the core element is flat while everything else grows, that's astonishing and atypical, and a very healthy thing indeed.

However, it is worth noting that comic orders - despite what you might think - see huge variance on a month-to-month basis. When I see this kind of thing show up, bells start ringing in my business school brain. "Small sample size!" "Cherry-picking data!" "It's not representative of the whole necessarily!" While Miller very well could be right, my Spidey sense was tingling, which meant I only had one option: I had to fill the holes in the data to find some answers. 

So I did that, as I started with April of 1998 and filled out the data for every month over those two decades, looking through it in full to see if Miller was right. Normally, I'd write up a thorough but focused piece aimed at a central point, but in the process of putting this together, I accumulated a lot of interesting data, not all of which tied into a central point. So instead of that focused route, I'm going to share all of the findings I uncovered by looking over 20 years of data, breaking it down in my own way and hopefully coming to some interesting conclusions in the process. Let's start with the main point: has the market largely been consistent despite the growth of comics in other channels?

A few key notes before we get started

First off, all of the data came from Comichron, the most valuable site on the comics Internet.

One of the first things I did with all of this information was I made a rule for myself: I wouldn't look at everything on a month-by-month basis because, as I noted, there's just too much variance month-to-month to make that information super predictive. Instead, I decided to look at everything in 6 month rolling averages to see how the chunks break down. With more data in each section, the month-to-month noise is less problematic (or I hoped it was, at least).

Also, I continued Miller's focus on the Top 300 most ordered books, because there are a whole heck of a lot more comics being released today than there was in 1998 (as I've written about before). While the question of "are there too many comics?" is an interesting one, it's also at least somewhat unrelated, and it makes this exercise not an apples to apples comparison.

Also also, as per usual, it's worth noting that these numbers are orders by comic shops from Diamond, not sales to customers. Those numbers do not exist, at least in a fashion that are available to people like me. So "sales" = "orders by shops," not sales in the way you might imagine them.

Lastly, this is not meant to be a definitive take. This is one crazy person's thoughts after he compiled way too much data, and the observations that come from that process. Some of it may be worthwhile. Some of it might not be. But it was an interesting exercise, so I wanted to write about it.

Are Floppy Orders Relatively Consistent or Not?

That's the central question. Are floppies staying as consistent historically as Miller's numbers show, or was April just a nice bit of alignment? Let's start by looking at a six month rolling average of the units ordered in the top 300 from April 1998 to April 2018.

So there that is. That's a bunch of numbers, graphed into a line.

I'm not going to lie: when I first did that, my takeaway was "you know, that's not very useful." There's a hell of a lot of up and down, but does it really mean anything, besides comic orders weren't that great in late 2000/early 2001 and early/mid 2011, but they were pretty amazing in mid/late 2016? It's just kind of hard to figure out, and if I'm like that, my guess is it'd be rough for everyone else too. So I decided to take a page out of Fangraphs' book by creating some statistics for this in the vein of some of my favorite baseball stats.

OPS+ is a baseball statistic that looks at OPS - or On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage - normalized across the entire league so that league average is 100, and any percent above or below that is how far above or below average that person was. So if a person had an OPS+ of 140, they were 40% better than the league average, while 60 would be 40% worse than the league average.

My statistic is Units Ordered Plus (or UO+). Here's how it's determined. I take the average month over the past 20 years, and I divide each month by that number. After that, we're left with a decimal of some variety, and I then multiply that number by 100, establishing 100 as exactly average. That normalizes the number for market performance, establishing 100 as the benchmark of an average month to provide better context. It makes it easier to see "good" or "bad," that way we can better see if Miller is right and things aren't that bad in the top 300 relative to historic performance. And to normalize it even further, I again took a six month rolling average of everything. Here's that charted:

Okay, now that's a lot more interesting. Basically, if you look at the 100 on the Y-axis, anything above that is above average performance in terms of unit orders in the top 300. And basically every month since the New 52 has been above average to some degree. That's good! It also showcases how, for the most part, Miller is right. Besides some peaks and valleys, orders are normally fairly close to the average mark. Anomalies cut both ways, but for the most part, the floppy seems pretty healthy on an ordering basis.

Of course, after the Rebirth fueled high in 2016 - UO+ peaked in November of 2016, with a mammoth 29% above the 6 month average of units ordered - there's been a prodigious decline, with numbers flattening out in the Fall of 2017 before dropping again in the winter. That's concerning, right?

It did make me wonder, though. There's seasonality in every market, and the beginning of the year has always been underlined as a slow time for the comics industry. Maybe what we're seeing is more of a seasonal downturn than anything? There was only one way to find out, so I charted UO+ out by month over the past 20 years to see what I found.

Seasonality extremely confirmed!

Basically, January and February are straight up death for orders, with both months being nearly 10% below average. In fact, the first five months of the year are typically below average, with every other month above average.

Compare that with the recent downturn, and it definitely makes me feel like this is mostly seasonality in play, especially when you factor in April of 2018 (the most recent month) had a UO+ of 105, indicating a nice uptick in the month and a strong return to above average orders. Of course, you could discount that by saying Action Comics #1000 came out, and that's surely what fueled that leap, but some months are going to have big books and some aren't. Them's the breaks. May is going to be atypically big as well with Marvel's Fresh Start books and DC Nation #0 being in the mix.

One observation I'd make here: if I was a launching a creator-owned book, I would never do so in January or February. That's a time of death, likely due to consumer spending decreasing after Christmas.

A few quick takeaways I wanted to note here:

  • I think Miller's right and this does show a lot more consistency in ordering (especially over the past six years) than we're often made to expect because of the scorching hot takes about the comics market
  • Maybe the floppy isn't actually dying?
  • Because this isn't sell-through to customers, there's a part of me that's a bit concerned about the noise in this order data produced by an assortment of mischievous tactics comic publishers (specifically Marvel) have employed over the years, namely order gating variants to boost orders above levels that shops can actually sell
  • That said, there's a long enough span where orders have been above average and there are enough comics in the mix that I'm not too worried about it
  • While I don't think there's anything definitive to say here, I do find it interesting how in that chart we can see two seven-ish year rises followed by periods of downturn, and that was even more pronounced when I looked at units ordered using z-score - or how many standard deviations above or below the average something is - instead of UO+

It almost feels cyclical looking at that, right? I'm not sure that's meaningful, but it's certainly interesting!

So, let's move onto the next question I wanted to look at. Let's say Miller is right, and the units ordered in the top 300 are relatively consistent and maybe the floppy market is more stable from an ordering standpoint than we give it credit for. How is it performing relative to the other markets in comics?

The Comic Book Ecosystem

Let's create another couple statistics, focused on normalizing the data for consistency sake. The next chart we're going to look at maps out Direct Market Sales Plus (DMS+, the units ordered in the direct market's top 300, also known as UO+, but charted out on a yearly basis instead of a monthly one) and Bookscan Plus (BS+, the units ordered in the book market on a yearly basis, but normalized to the overall averages, using the numbers from Brian Hibbs' analysis). This only goes back to 2003 because that's as far back as the Bookscan data goes. Here's what you'll find when you compare those two in one chart:

What we see here is, on a yearly basis, the direct market orders have been at or above average every year since 2012. Meanwhile, during that same time, Bookscan orders have been going through the roof, breaking through to above average numbers in 2015 and reaching a peak in orders in 2017 at 40% above the average month. That's incredible!

So, while the direct market orders in the top 300 have been largely consistent on a yearly basis, we've seen the book market skyrocketing in orders. So we are seeing the consistency Miller noted and we are certainly seeing that growth I mentioned.

Meanwhile, the digital market has largely plateaued, with the last four years hitting $90 million or $100 million in overall revenue each year, per Comichron + ICv2. Worth noting, however: those digital numbers do not include subscription or "all you can read" services like Marvel Unlimited, ComiXology Unlimited, ComicBlitz and beyond, all of which could be pretty big numbers, especially given how much Marvel pushes its service.

I also wanted to look at the performance of trades and graphic novels in the direct market, as that's an important factor. Has there been growth there as well? We'll look at that after a quick note: this data only goes back to 2009, as that's when Diamond started releasing a Top 300 sales number for direct market graphic novels, and I wanted to make it as apples to apples as possible relative to where we are now.

Kind of! Using DMGN+ (direct market graphic novel sales in the top 300, normalized for the average, also using 6 month averages, but this time looking at dollar value instead of orders), the direct market didn't dive that deep into graphic novels until around 2012, and it's been above average most of the months since (with the direct market downturn of recent also rearing its ugly head in trades and graphic novels). It's not as significant a lift as I expected, but largely sales have been around the average, with some extreme peaks and valleys.

So, that's a lot of information. What are my key takeaways from it all?

  • The direct market has been pretty steady since the New 52 from an ordering standpoint, at least once you normalize for averages and monthly variance
  • While that's been happening, the book market has been growing a stupid amount
  • Digital is doing well, but because a lack of data for additional services, it's hard to say how well
  • Direct market graphic novel sales haven't seen the same monster growth that the book market has seen, and that kind of underlines how the direct and book market audiences might be fairly different from one another

Most of all, my takeaway from this exercise is that maybe the comic industry as a whole - not one aspect, but overall - isn't as horrifically badly off as some might make it seem. While 2017 was largely a bad year for retailers, it feels like we're kind of coming out of that (I want to emphasize this - feels). And from an industry-wide standpoint, there seems to be growth, even if the once (and perhaps future) core market has stayed steady.

One other note I wanted to make: people often point to comic shops closing as proof that the direct market is dying, but from what I've heard through my varying grapevines, while shops have closed, others have opened, leaving the number of shops fairly net neutral. I do not have numbers proving that, but that's what has made its way back to me.

A couple more quick charts before we go

The last thing I wanted to look at was a theory I had: the sales ceiling has decreased while the sales floor has increased, leaving everything somewhere around equal in the end. So over that 20 year span, I also looked at the orders for the #1 selling comic of each month in the direct market and the #300 most ordered comic. Here's what I found, starting with #1, again normalized for the overall averages and using 6 month rolling averages to further remove noise.

That chart is insane, and frankly, the last three years are straight up wackadoo enough that they kind of break the chart. This, in my opinion, is where we really see the variants and loot crates and what not messing with the data. With a single comic being looked at, I think you could almost argue that the top of the chart's data basically means nothing even when normalized. There are so many jagged ups and downs over the last three years because some months there are loot crate infusions or books with a billion variants (that also happen to be about Star Wars) that these three years aren't really predictors. It even messes up earlier data, because the more predictable nature of #1 performance has been sacrificed to the gods of order gates. So, yeah. Not that interesting. Here's what is interesting.

These are the orders for the #300 ranked comic, normalized for order averages at that position and factoring in six month rolling averages. Look at that incline! Basically, #300 has went from being a complete non-factor back in the day to a relatively strong seller! I mean, in December 2014, #300 performed 103% better than the average. 103%! That's insane!

Of course, this is likely a product of the fact there are so many more comics these days. When Marvel and DC are releasing 150 comics combined each month and we've went from barely 300 floppies being released in a month to nearly 500, that floor is going to be lifted. But still, that's a hellacious jump, and showcases that, as I thought, the floor has risen significantly over the past couple decades. While that itself can be an issue - there's an opportunity cost in theory for each additional comic added to the market - increased depth of performance is increased depth in performance. It's a hell of a gain.

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