In an analysis of March orders to Diamond from comic stores, we've discovered what has long been talked about in general terms -- just how far comic sales have fallen from their once lofty heights.  Ultimate X-Men #4, the top-selling book in March, received orders for only around 98,000 copies from comic shops ordering through Diamond.  DC's top-selling book -- JLA #52 -- sold only a little over 67,000, and only thirteen books sold over 50,000 copies through Diamond. 


We compared these to estimated numbers (based on a single distributor's orders and its estimated market share) from ten years ago, in March, 1991.  We estimate that distributor orders to publishers for Uncanny X-men #276 in 1991 totaled around 308,000, as compared to around 96,000 for Uncanny X-Men #392 this year, a drop of nearly 70%.  We estimate orders for Batman #462 in March, 1991 totaled around 188,000, vs. around 40,000 this year, a drop of nearly 80%. 


A price point comparison to the books ordered ten years ago also tells part of the story.  Both Uncanny X-Men and Batman sold for $1.00 in 1991, and for $2.25 in 2001 -- an increase of 125%.  During the same period, the consumer price index went up around 30%.  That's a disparity of 95%, meaning that the cover price of what are essentially the same comics nearly doubled after inflation.  One can speculate as to whether that's cause or effect, but what's apparent is that comics are being sold in smaller and smaller quantities at higher and higher prices to fewer and fewer people.  Extrapolating the trends out another ten years, in 2011, Uncanny X-men will be selling around 30,000 copies at around $4.39 retail in today's dollars.  Similarly, in 2011 Batman will be selling 8,400 copies at the same $4.39 price.  


There is a bright side to this story, and that's the growth of the graphic novel and trade paperback formats.  There are currently hundreds of such books in print, compared to only a handful ten years ago, and the number grows each month.  Looking at these numbers, we wonder why some companies bother to publish periodicals at all.


Here are the top 25 comic titles with their estimated comic store circulations for March, 2001:

97,985  Ultimate X-Men #5

96,271  Uncanny X-Men #392

93,428  X-Men #112

70,846  Ultimate Spider-Man #7

67,762  Wolverine #162

67,630  Ultimate Marvel Teamup #2

67,382  JLA #52

65,972  Green Arrow #2

64,771  Fathom Killian #1

62,732  Daredevil Yellow #1

60,378  Avengers #40

59,332  Daredevil #18

55,116 Spawn #108

48,993 Rising Stars #15

48,055 Fantastic Four #41

45,436  Amazing Spider-man #29

44,411  Superman #168

44,127  Universe X #8

43,963  Detective Comics #756

42,865  Peter Parker #29

40,046  Batman #589

39,405  Thor #35

38,837  JLA Black Baptism #1

37,756  Tomb Raider #12

37,599  Midnight Nation #6


Looking at the bestsellers from the first ten publishers to appear in this ranking is also instructive:

97,985    Ultimate X-Men #4 (Marvel)

67,382    JLA #52 (DC)

55,116    Spawn #108 (Image)

33,923    Just a Pilgrim #1 (Black Bull)

24,496    Star Wars Qui Gon... (Dark Horse)

18,650    First #5 (CrossGen)

16,295    Bone #42 (Cartoon Books)

16,030    Vampi #8 (Harris)

15,826     Lady Death River #1 (Chaos)

14,108     Sailor Moon #29 (Tokyo Pop)


Complete numbers for the top 200 comics are available at 'Top 200 Comics -- March, 2000.'


Our analysis was based on a combination of the information Diamond releases in Diamond Dialogue and actual order numbers provided to ICv2 from publisher sources.  By plugging in the circulation numbers we know and using the Diamond order index, all of the circulation numbers for comics ordered through Diamond can be interpolated.  There are some limitations to this type of analysis:

Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image distribute 100% of their comic store orders through Diamond.  Some other publishers distribute directly to stores or through other distributors and as a result this analysis may underestimate their sales. 

Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, and perhaps a handful of other publishers distribute some of their titles through channels other than comic specialty stores, e.g., newsstands and bookstores.  These quantity estimates do not reflect distribution through those channels. 

Even given the above, however, it is probably safe to say that these quantities reflect 80% or more of sales on almost all periodical comics. 
(See reactions and updates to this article in 'Sturm und Drang in the Comics Industry')