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Flying Thompson’s Gazelle of The Yard

Brian Hibbs

A final word on my 2008 report on BookScan. Under the jump for everyone who is tired of this topic (which is probably most sane and rational people)

As a prominent retailer in a prominent market, who has a long-running soapbox on the retailing of comics, I do a fairly large number (3-6-ish) of interviews any given year, whether it be for various podcasts or newspaper features or whatever about the comics industry. Pretty uniformly, “what’s the size of the market?” is one of the primary questions that rises.

We have a paucity of real, viable data in this business. Other industries appear to have whole sub-industries designed just to analyze sales data. I guess the need to categorize, to define, to find out our parameters is one of the things that make us human.

In comics, we have exactly one public source of information: Diamond’s charts. They present data in a somewhat broken fashion. eg: they don’t include Diamond UK, until recently it topped out at 100 books (and not all that long ago, it topped at 100 comics, as well), and it also favors items that arrive at the beginning of the month’s cycle over those that arrive at the end of the month. There’s probably two or three more ways they aren’t properly reflecting the real market activity as well.

We understand these limitations, and, hopefully most people when they construct premises of market activity bear those limitations in mind.

We have no public data about any other sales in comics with the last remaining exceptions of those publishers (Just Marvel and Archie, I think at this point? John Jackson Miller, correct me if I am wrong here?) who still ship via a certain US Postal Service regulation and have to provide some sketchy (and, I’ve been told, often made up my some intern) sales information. We will, very occasionally, get some sort of vague public statement, usually rendered anecdotaly — most recently probably Paul Levitz’s comment that WATCHMEN was in the 1 million copies sold range in 2008 — but certainly nothing that one can construct any kind of real understanding of anything at all, based upon just that.

Seven years ago I was told about BookScan, and that there WAS data being gathered on sales outside the DM. It wasn’t public though, so I pushed and I pushed and I pushed at several dozen people, and I found a few sources that were willing to leak it to me once a year. And I thought if I was interested in this, other people probably were too. Given that it generally gets more commentary than anything I write the whole rest of the year, combined, I think this is justified.

Like any information stream, it is only useful to the extent that you look at it for what it is. As I understand it, BookScan is an accurate report of what sold through at the venues which report to BookScan. Those venues are, for the most part, the large chains, the major websites, the largest of the independent bookstores (Powell’s, etc.) This isn’t, by any means, any place that books can be or are sold, and it doesn’t include libraries, schools, book clubs, strip clubs, gas stations, residences, warehouses, farmhouses, henhouses, outhouses or doghouses.

But, within the venues that it DOES represent, it represents 100% of the sales during the year-to-date.

I believe that I have been scrupulous about stating and restating this, and I even think that I’ve done some damage to the readability of the article by bending over backwards to say “of those reporting to BookScan” or some variant of that over and over again.

What I believe is that if the charts say that “Love & Rockets: New Stories #1” sold 719 copies, then, yeah it is a factual statement that from the day of its release to 12/31/2008 that Borders, B&N, Amazon, et al. sold under 800 copies in those venues, during that date range. (I put it that way because, of course, as a guy who runs a POS system, mistakes get made by clerks all of the time, so there’s always going to be SOME kind of unavoidable “fudge factor”; but that factor is probably under 10% of the total)

That doesn’t mean that xxxx copies were not placed into the distribution channel. That does not mean that xxxx copies won’t eventually sell. That does not mean that xxxx copies didn’t go into non-retail channels. That does not mean any of a whole host of things. It just means that from date of release to 12/21/2008, Borders, B&N, Amazon, et al sold under 800 copies of that item. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now if you (generically “you”, not specifically so) want to believe that this datum holds no/limited value, I won’t try to stop you. But I will choose to disagree.

WHY do I think it has some value? Because of pundits like (as Dirk says) Balan Bavid Boane, or one-name internet trolls who lurk in threads everywhere who like to insist things similar to “The Direct Market is a dying and useless system that is no better than a cancer upon the heart of all comics everywhere”

Tom has an excellent point that “no one in a position of any importance at any company has to my knowledge ever seriously dismissed the still-crucial Direct Market as a place to sell comics.” So this much, at least, is down to my failure to differentiate between the light and the heat, as it were — but I want these memes to die the dog’s death that they deserve (and lets add “If only comics were anthologies printed on cheap newsprint, the audience would come flocking back” too, please)

But, yes, I’m guilty of falling prey to the heat. C’est la guerre.

And so for that, please let me apologize.

I do think there’s some conflation going to among “legitimate” pundits — I don’t buy the argument that because [whatever] is still on sale in specific channels that it moots the snapshot nature of a BookScan list; those items are also still on sale in the DM as well after all, and we’ll never know the final long-term sales of any book ever until after that book is no longer in print. I don’t buy the argument that we should count library sales (or whatever) on [whatever] if we’re not counting the same channels for [something else] — and since we’re unlikely to ever have that kind of clarity within our lifetimes, we work with what we DO have.

But, at the end of the day, BookScan is what it is, and, as far as I can tell there’s no legitimate disagreement that BookScan is what it is: “100%” of the sales, within the date range presented, to the specific venues that report to BookScan.

Each year I try to remove more of my biases, and more of my silly shit from the analysis — no one seemed to notice that this year I didn’t have the last 4-5k words be about a comparison to the DM, like the previous five years! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to 100% remove those biases 100% of the time, because I’m human (and I think comparisons are largely inevitable). But I’m working on it, really I am!

Whether I succeed or not, I do firmly and fundamentally agree with this statement of Tom’s: “Right here, right now, additional markets aren’t just desirable, they’re necessary. For many people the ability to operate in multiple markets is the difference between publishing and not publishing, and has been for several years now. For some folks, every single market of any value is the difference between making a modest living and making no living at all. For certain companies and titles it’s the difference between existence and extinction.”

In some ways, it is like what I say about Periodicals versus Perennials in the DM — the periodical comic books provide the cash flow; the book format perennials provide the long term profit. DM orders tend to be of great significance as an upfront thing, and they’re not returnable, and they tend to pay within 30 days from the Bank of Diamond — basically No Risk/Quick Pay. Other markets are riskier, returnable, and generally slower to pay — but as a long term investment may be very profitable if you get that big hit.

Either way, that’s where I won’t quibble with Tom even a little: all markets are needed, all venues are valid, all sales are good.

Anyway, just because I’m feeling silly, here’s how I felt a little earlier in the week when reading Dirk’s comments:


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