What you’re about to read is an analysis I did of Robert Kirkman’s Invincible in 2005, covering the first 24 issues of the comic. The decision to try and figure out what was happening with it’s sales was actually sparked by a discussion on the Comic Book Industry Alliance. At that time, the sales patterns (as you’ll see in a moment) had dropped to fairly low levels (ICV2.com reported that issue 10 only sold approximately 5500 copies) but had started to rise shortly thereafter. This paper tried to analyze why the sales started to rise and what events may have contributed to that rise.
So why put this out now? Well, Robert Kirkman was named as a partner in Image Comics in late July, 2008. Shortly thereafter, Kirkman published a video encouraging top creators to do more creator-owned work. That sparked a lot of discussion and eventually led to Kirkman and fellow writer Brian Michael Bendis having a debate at the 2008 Baltimore Comic-Con. The two went back and forth in a point/counter-point fashion and I’m not sure anyone was really the clear winner. Then, as the debate fallout wound down, Kirkman announced that his books would have guaranteed ship dates beginning in 2009. Lastly, Todd Allen recently contributed a piece exploring various models, including the Image Comics model, that both Kirkman and Bendis addressed.
In the light of all this, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this piece and put it “out there” on the ‘net. The conclusions, of course, are mine and mine alone. You may disagree with them. I also want to add that none of this will really dispel any of the thoughts of writing and illustrating corporate-owned work versus creator-owned. Personally, I think doing work that one believes in and is passionate about is fundamentally what’s important (well, that and understanding exactly what you’re getting into with work for hire agreements).
With that out of the way, here we go!
By Von Allan
The Direct Market has long been known as a difficult market to crack for new and unknown creators. It’s very difficult for anyone to “break through” and gain prominence – harder still to actually make a living at it. Robert Kirkman, however, is one creator who seems to have accomplished this. Kirkman, the writer on both Invincible and The Walking Dead, has managed to gain a strong following and increased sales despite the difficulties that doing creator-owned work entails. Since Invincible launched before The Walking Dead, this paper will primarily examine the former (though the role of the latter will be explored to some extent). The irony with Invincible, of course, is that it wasn’t a success initially. As I hope to show, the sales on the first 13 issues indicate that the book was actually in trouble. How and why it rebounded from this downward trend is our focus – why were Invincible’s sales weak? And more importantly, what event (or events) occurred to lead to its rebound?
What’s important to remember, right off the bat, is that in examining these issues we can only evaluate sell-in; we do not have any firm numbers on sell-through. The latter evaluates final sales by retailers to actual customers (i.e.: “bums in seats”) while the former “only” indicates sales to retailers by Diamond Distribution. The unfortunate fact of the Direct Market is that there’s still no firm way of evaluating sell-through in a broader, macro-sense.
The second problem, of course, is the actual accuracy of these numbers. All are taken from ICV2.com’s website, but there are a variety of problems with these figures and they often are not as accurate as we’d like them to be. While many others (notably Brian Hibbs’ Tilting at Windmills column) have explored the limits of these numbers, it’s always important to remember that we are examining guesstimates only. Only the publishers (along with Diamond Distribution) know what the actual final numbers are.
That said, the Direct Market numbers as reported by ICV2.com are important for two reasons. The first is that if the numbers are incorrect, they are incorrect right across the board. In other words, any errors that occur in their tabulation are applied equally to all the titles that are included in any one month’s calculation. Secondly, these numbers reveal quite a bit about retailer confidence in a particular title. We may not know final sell-through, but we can evaluate how retailers are fairing with a particular title by how they order subsequent issues. If the title is doing poorly (in a broad sense), they will slash orders to avoid being left with unsold stock; we’ll see that reduction play out in the sales figures. If it’s doing well (retailers are selling out or close to it) then we’ll see the sales figures rise. Just keep in mind that this may not be true for an individual retailer – or even a group of retailers in a particular geographic area. It’s just a measurement of the overall performance of the title.
Another problem that should be addressed here, however, is the inexact science of ordering. Science is the wrong word – it really is an art. Retailers ideally would like to sell a copy of a particular issue to every single customer who wants one. They don’t want to be left with unsold stock that they can’t move. And they don’t want to “leave dollars on the table” but not having enough stock to meet customer demand. The major problem is that retailers have an almost impossible task of gauging demand when they generate their orders. Retailers are left making educated guesses on how many to order, especially with a new title. This is even more of a truism on a new title with unproven creators, a title that’s shipped erratically or has been chronically late, and titles that see changes to their creative teams.
The Direct Market ordering system forces retailers to calculate their orders on a given title based on a variety of variables. Some of these are:
* Pre-sale information to subscribers
* Sales history and patterns of similar types of stories/series
* Sales history and patterns for the creators involved
* Ashcan and online previews
* The discount they receive from Diamond
All of these can create a confidence (or lack thereof) for initial orders. What can then further skew the ordering data is the availability of timely re-orders. If a retailer does underestimate demand and sells out, then s/he must have the ability to re-order the issue and have it then ship in a timely basis. If stock is available but ships slowly (perhaps weeks later), customer demand may fall off and the potential sales window will have closed. As a result, retailers have lost a key opportunity. Worse still, if that extra stock does eventually show up, retailers are left “holding the bag” – they have stock but no customer demand. If, on the other hand, there’s no extra stock for whatever reason (the publisher has sold out, the distributor will not order more for whatever reason, or there aren’t enough re-orders to warrant a new print run), then the retailer is left languishing with no ability to meet that unmet demand. At least until the appearance of a trade paperback or other reprint versions appear months later.
The “Early” Days
That’s brings us to Invincible. Launched in January 2003 from Image Comics, Invincible has recently become a very hot book (sales breaking 10000 copies in both June and July 2005) and that “buzz” has spread outside of the comics industry, as well. Film rights were sold to Paramount (March 2005) with Robert Kirkman tapped to write the screenplay. Not too shabby for a title that’s only been out for 2 ½ years. We can see from ICV2.com’s sales charts (see Appendix) that the title has performed very well over all. This is corroborated by the overall trend line for the entire monthly series. Take a look at Table 1 above (the sales history of the first 24 issues of Invincible, not including issue #0).
As you can see, the linear trend line shows a very strong upwards climb on sales in the 2 ½ year run of the title. Overall, things look good for Invincible – strong healthy sales, retailer confidence, and positive reviews all seem to indicate that Invincible not only has done well but was always performing well. Certainly Image’s press releases seem to back up this contention – in both March and June 2003 Image sent out press releases indicating that issues #1 and #2 (March 2003) and later issues #3 and #4 (June 2003) had sold out. Since sold out titles indicate “hot” titles, all this means that Invincible was performing extremely well right out of the gate, right?
Well, not so fast. When you look at the sales performance of the first 13 issues, a very different trend emerges (see Table 2, below). And when you compare these two performances, you realize one thing: Invincible did find an audience - but what’s fascinating here is to see how long it took for that to happen. The title was actually at one of it’s lowest points in the late spring of 2004 – about 16 months after the Invincible made it’s debut in January 2003.
From it’s initial high-watermark with issue #1 (sales of 9975), the book had a steady downward trend. To put that into hard numbers, May 2004’s sales figures (issue #11) had plummeted to only 5613 copies sold, a loss of 44% from issue #1.
There is always an expectation of lower sales on issues #2-4 (and oftentimes #2-5 or even #2-6) due to a variety of factors. Issue #1’s generally do better overall (a combination of the collectible mentality and the natural jumping on point for readers), but for monthly shipping issues retailers often won’t have hard sales data until issue #4. And due to this, they’ll generally order cautiously on the first few issues, counting on the fact that re-orders will be available to meet unmet demand. What’s interesting here, however, is how poorly Invincible continued to do even after retailers began getting hard numbers.
What needs to be determined is why – why were Invincible’s sales so poor for so long and what led to the upsurge in demand?
To answer that, we will look at four key factors and three smaller ones:
Four Key Factors
* The Impact of the Trade Paperbacks on the Monthly Issues
* Special Guest Cover Artists
* The impact of Robert Kirman’s “other” series, The Walking Dead
* Regular monthly shipping
Three Small Factors
* The shortlisting of Invincible as Best New Series for the 2004 Eisner Awards (April 2004)
* The prominent appearance of Invincible in Image’s 2004 Free Comic Book Day title (July 2004)
* The overshipping of issues #1 and #2 to retailers participating in Diamond’s Overship Program
To Trade or not to Trade
The first factor to deal with, then, is the impact of the Trade Paperback releases on sales patterns. Invincible has four volumes now collected (the most recent in April 2005). The first two trades were released right in the middle of this low sales period – Volume 1 hit shelves in August 2003 (issue #5 on stands) and Volume 2 arrived in April 2004 (issue #10 on stands). We also know (from Image press releases) that Image announced (in March 2003) that issues #1 and #2 were completely sold out. That was followed up with an announcement from Image that issues #3 and #4 were sold out (June 2003). Critically, this means that unless a retailer ordered extremely deeply, any customer coming in late but wanting to start at the beginning of the story would have to purchase the first volume of the trade paperback in August 2003. No early issues were available from the publisher and therefore none of those first issues were available for retailer re-ordering.
So the key question becomes – did the release of the first trade (priced at $12.95 US) increase sales? And related to that, did the first trade do well when it was initially ordered? Ironically enough, the answer is a resounding no to both questions.
We’ll take a look at the 2nd point first – did the first trade do well? At this point, Diamond Comics was only releasing sales data of their Top 50 Graphic Novels (they would later increase this to the Top 100 in February 2004). Sales on the first volume do not appear on this list – meaning that Invincible Volume 1 could not have sold more than 1412 copies to the Direct Market. Why is this? 1412 is the lowest selling trade paperback to appear on the sales charts (at slot 50). Since Invincible Volume 1 isn’t on the list, it could have sold no better than 1412. And most likely somewhat lower (though how much lower is unknown). Regardless, this is not very good for such a “hot” first time collection. Keep in mind, however, that there is no data for it's sales outside of the Direct Market. Nothing in the bookstore market and nothing through retailers like Amazon. We're purely examing the Direct Market, through ICV2.com's numbers, here.
That notwithstanding, what’s odder is that the release of this first trade didn’t help the sales on the individual issues, either. As mentioned, issue #5 was on stands when the first trade came out. Issue #5 sold 6802 (a drop from 800 copies from issue #4). The trade hit stands in August 2003 and then issue #6 came out for November 2003. It’s sales were only 6475 – another drop. What’s critical (and we’ll be coming back to this point later on) to understand here is that issue #6 came out three months after the first trade hit stores. Retailers at this point would have had plenty of time to evaluate the sales of the trade and increase orders if they felt demand warranted it. What we see instead of any rise is that orders remained steady, actually losing a few more issues (approx. 300) between issues #5 and #6. Not good.
The second Invincible trade came out in April 2004. At this point, Diamond was releasing the Top 100 sales data for trade paperbacks. Due to this, we do see the 2nd volume of Invincible make the list – but it only sold 1382! That not only confirms the initial performance of Volume 1, at least in the Direct Market, but it shows that despite 8 months between the two trades (and 6 months of sales data for retailers), Volume 2 had no appreciable increase in initial orders.
So did Volume 2’s release effect the sales of the monthly issues? Issue #10 shipped with it (April 2004) and only had sales of 5598. At this point, it’s the lowest ordered title of any of Invincible’s run. Issue #9 (March 2004) had sales of 6086 while the first issues after Volume 2’s release, issues #11 and #12 (both May 2004) had sales of 5613 and 6551. While issue #12 did rise in sales, it certainly didn’t “spike” by any great amount. More critically, issue #13 (June 2004) didn’t “spike,” either – and this would have been the first issue ordered with firm sales data on Volume 2 of the trades.
Volume 3 of the trade paperback hit shelves in November 2004. At this point, sales had already risen to over 8000 copies and Volume 3 was “rewarded” with sales of 2506 copies, a 55% increase over Volume 2. But this trade paperback did not cause the extra sales in the monthlies – they had already started to rise in August 2004. If anything, the trade benefited from what was happening with the monthly title and not the other way around.
At this point, it’s pretty conclusive – the release of the first three volumes of the trade paperback had zero impact (none, nadda, zip) on the sales of the monthly issues.
The Three Minor Factors
At about the same time as the first trade hit shelves, the three minor factors come into play. Invincible was short-listed in April 2004 (the same month as Volume 2 hit stands) for an Eisner Award for best new series. Invincible featured prominently on Image’s Free Comic Book Day title in July 2004. Lastly, Image overshipped extra copies of the first two issues (as Image stated in the same press release that announced they had sold-out of issues #1 and #2 (March 2003)).
That last event we’ll look at first – Image’s overshipment of the first two issues. This factor certainly had no effect on Invincible’s sales growth. Sales on issues #3 and #4 stayed over 7000, but starting with issue #5 issues never again reached that point. They actually wouldn’t cross 7000 until issue #14, approximately 18 months later. It’s very clear here that while the overshiping may have helped initially promote Invincible and create extra attention for the title, it did not cause a “spike” in later retailer orders.
The next event (Eisner short-list) occurred in April 2004, at the same time that Invincible #10 and #11 were on the stands. If Invincible’s Best New Series shortlist had garnered increased sales for retailers, then we should have seen a major increase in sales by issue #13, since it was solicited in April 2004. Now, the sales on issue #13 did go up (to 6539) but in the increase is only by approximately 900 copies over issues #10 and #11. While it’s quite possible that the Eisner helped increase sales, the jump is not large. What’s more difficult is that the sales of issue #12 were also elevated. Since this was another May 2004 release (Invincible had two issues ship in May 2004), this increase in orders took place before the Eisner shortlist. Viewing it this way, it’s extremely difficult to conclusively say that this event helped Invincible’s sales. Call it a "push."
Free Comic Book Day 2004 is actually easier to evaluate. While it traditionally occurs in May of each year, the 2004 event took place on July 3rd. This completely eliminates it from having an effect on the orders for issue #14 – the event occurred after issue #14 had been solicited. But did it have an effect on later sales? This is very difficult to evaluate; after issue #14, sales remained high (over 8000) on subsequent issues. What role Image’s Free Comic Book Day issue played in that is extremely difficult to determine. We can state conclusively that this event did not hurt Invincible, but it seems unlikely that it had any role in increasing later orders.
At this point, we’ve eliminated one large factor (the impact of the trade paperback) and three minor factors and we still haven’t come to any conclusions. As it stands, if you evaluated Invincible on the sales of the first 13 issues (as well as the first two trade paperback collections) you would assume that this is a title in serious trouble (see Table 2 again). If sales had dropped below 5000 copies and then perhaps even 4000, it’s possible that the series would have eventually faced cancellation.
Covering the Covers
As we know, though, Invincible’s sales did the exact opposite beginning with issue #14. That issue hit stores in August 2004 (with a Frank Cho cover) and orders jumped 1700 copies (to 8219). That’s pretty remarkable, especially since it’s the first issue of Invincible to break 8000 copies since the first issue hit the stands. What’s more remarkable is that no issue since #14 has fallen below 8000 copies sold.
How do we explain it? Well, the only X factor that appears here is the Cho cover. Could Cho’s presence been enough to punch up sales by 1700? There isn’t a simple way of answering this save for looking at what happened on the subsequent issue (#15). Cory Walker returned as the regular cover artist and if Cho did cause the sales to spike, we’d expect them to fall back to where they were. This didn’t happen. Not only did #15 not drop in sales, it actually rose by 400 copies to reach 8612. This isn’t conclusive evidence that Cho’s work didn’t help the title; but it is curious that his absence didn’t hurt sales. Issue #16 featured another guest artist doing cover duties (Mike Wieringo) and his presence might have given us a better clue. But instead sales continued as they previously had, chiming in to the tune of 8427. A drop from issue #15, sure, but a very small one.
Three issues, three different cover artists, and all with approximately the same sales. This is made somewhat more complex by that two month pre-order window. Retailers would have ordered issue #14 (Cho Cover) in June 2004. They would have been ordering issue #16 in August 2004, around the time that issue #14 hit stands. A better evaluation would actually give the Cho issue firm sales by the time issue #17 was solicited. When we look at those numbers, we do see an increase. Issue #17 had sales of 9055, a definite rise over issues #15 and #16 but only of around 400-500 copies. It does mark the first time that Invincible crossed 9000 copies sold since issue #1 first hit stands, but again it’s difficult to single out Cho. If this was the case, we should have seen subsequent drops, especially on orders for issue #15 (the Walker cover). To further clear the waters, no guest cover artist was used since Mike Wieringo and issue #16 – all subsequent issues were split between Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. Despite the “lack” of high profile cover artists, the sales on Invincible continued to grow.
I don’t doubt for a second that a hot guest cover artist can help spur sales. But in the case of Invincible, there is nothing conclusive to hang our hat on. There is no clear relation between the presence of the cover artist and the increased sales as a result.
The Dead Effect
But we still have that jump to 8219 (issue #14) to explain. By the spring of 2004 Kirkman was getting lauded in various circles (especially with the shortlist of the Eisner award for best new series) and his other series, The Walking Dead, had been doing very well. Invincible had started earlier (January 2003) while The Walking Dead didn’t start until later that year (October 2003). Is it possible that Kirkman’s other work, especially on The Walking Dead, led to increased sales of Invincible?
To answer that, we have to take a closer look at the sales figures of The Walking Dead's first nine issues:
While The Walking Dead does have a spike in sales (at issue #7) what’s more critical to our look at Invincible is when the spike happened. By May 2004, The Walking Dead had crossed 10,000 copies sold and the very next month would cross 11,000. We’d assume, then, that these additional sales might translate into increased sales on Invincible. The problem is that we already know that this didn’t happen.
While The Walking Dead was hitting new plateaus by May 2004, Invincible was at it’s lowest sales period in April and May 2004 (5598 and 5613 respectively). And while June 2004’s sales of The Walking Dead hit 11689, Invincible June 2004’s sales had only gone up to 6539. If Kirkman’s work on The Walking Dead was adding sales to Invincible, it was only doing it to the tune of about 900 copies.
What makes this extremely unlikely are two factors – the first being that pesky two month pre-ordering window for retailers (they would have reacted to the “hotness” of The Walking Dead in March 2004. It was those pre-orders that resulted in the sales of 10495 in May 2004) and the lack of any impact on Invincible by the release of Volume 1 of the first The Walking Dead trade paperback. This second factor is interesting. The first volume of The Walking Dead trade hit store shelves in May 2004, one month after the release of Volume 1 of Invincible in trade paperback. While it’s orders were considerably higher (5374 vs. no more than 1412), the customers who bought The Walking Dead didn’t suddenly jump on the band wagon and start buying Invincible. It continued it’s poor sales, both in trade and monthly formats despite all of the increased attention that Kirkman was earning.
Now there is a possibility that the retailers reacted late to Invincible. They may not have felt that the customers buying The Walking Dead would cross over to Invincible (they are, of course, very different titles). But retailers are a smart, cagey bunch. They had seen what was happening with The Walking Dead as early as January 2004 (since the March 2004 sales on The Walking Dead #5 had jumped 1800 copies and would continue to rise as the months continue) and certainly by March 2004 knew and understood what was happening. But by that same time period they were cutting orders on Invincible. If The Walking Dead (and Kirkman’s increasing market presence) did help Invincible, it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
The Road to 10,000
We have only one factor left to explore. And this factor, often discussed but not respected, is timely, regular shipping.
I had mentioned earlier that retailers, when re-ordering, need both stock availability and quick shipping (this combination is often termed “just in time” ordering) to meet unexpected demand on a title. For ongoing titles (i.e.: monthly comics) they need one other thing – monthly comics must ship “monthly.” When Invincible first launched in January 2003, it made it’s first 3 shipping months. In other words, Issues 1, 2 and 3 all shipped in consecutive months (January, February and March 2003). But the next 4 issues took a combined 9 months to ship (see chart at right).
These missed months can be devastating to a title that is supposed to be shipping monthly. To determine the damage, take another look at the release of the first trade paperback. It shipped in August 2004, timed to take advantage of the sold-out nature of the regular series (recall that Image announced that the first 4 issues were sold out in June 2003). While issue #5 was on the stands a month before Volume 1 hit, issue #6 did not ship until November 2003 – a full 3 months after the release of the first trade. Those who did buy that first volume had only issue #5 to buy. They would have to wait to purchase (and then remember to look for) issue #6 when it finally shipped. What’s worse, of course, is how easy it would be for that to be missed. If a customer missed “new comic day” at his/her local shop, the issue could easily be lost among everything else that’s shipped recently.
Both the Invincible creators and Image Central seemed to realize the damage that was being caused. Issue #7 became the first issue since issue #3 to ship in a consecutive month. And starting in February 2004, the book became far more timely (see chart at left).
Issue #14 (our “spike” issue) shipped in August 2004 but was ordered in June 2004. June 2004 would have given retailers 5 issues worth of data (actually 6, since issues #11 and #12 both shipped in May 2004). While sales on these issues were not strong (backed up by the low sales on the first two volumes of the trade paperback collections), Invincible had “suddenly” gone from an erratic shipping title to one that was shipping on a regular, consistent basis. How consistent? Between February 2004 and July 2005 (18 months), 17 issues shipped! In other words, the book was hitting it’s monthly shipping window 94% of the time. It really is an amazing accomplishment. Or to put it another way, sales on issues #14-24 of Invincible have increased 42% over the sales of issues 1-13.
Look at Table 3 below and see how well Invincible started doing:
This is perhaps the most critical aspect of all the factors we’ve seen so far. Why? All other factors become directly tied to regular, monthly shipping. All the “buzz” in the world (positive reviews, the trade paperback releases, the Free Comic Book Day appearance, the Eisner short-list, etc…) do not matter if customers cannot find the book on the shelves. It is incredibly unrealistic to expect customers to actively search out a title, potentially months after the most recent issue hit stands, and then purchase it in enough numbers that retailers will feel confident increasing their order on subsequent issues. It is also unrealistic to expect retailers to continue ordering a title that they cannot depend on. In a non-returnable market, most retailers will not take gambles on titles that “might” ship regularly. It’s an unreasonable risk to their bottom line to do anything else. I cannot stress these points enough and Invincible’s sales patterns, I believe, clearly show this.
It is only speculation at this point, but one wonders what might have occurred if Invincible had made it’s shipping windows in 2003. Take a look at the chart (at right).
What’s obvious right from the get go is that Invincible would have 7 more issues (31 vs. 24) on the stands if the series had been able to hit it’s monthly shipping targets. What’s more, most of this gain would have occurred in 2003. It’s pure speculation, but it’s interesting to project what might have happened if the hypothetical shipping windows had been met. Volume 1 of the trade paperback would have hit shelves in August 2003 with issue #8 on the stands. In all likelihood, this trade would have actually made an earlier appearance (possibly hitting shelves in June 2003 instead of it’s actual August 2003 ship-date). What’s more critical is that the regular series would have been continuing monthly; those buying that first trade would have had regular issues to purchase.
Even more critical is that retailers would have been able to track their sales on a monthly basis with no “holes” (i.e.: missing issues) in their data. The three month delay between issues #5 and #6 would not have occurred, giving retailers more confidence in ordering the title – especially if their later sell-through occurred earlier. Is it possible that our actual issue #14 spike could have occurred earlier? Perhaps as early as issue #10? That’s conjecture, of course, but it’s an intriguing thought. It really would depend on how retailers order – some would view their entire sales history and continue making adjustments to their orders. Others, however, when faced with the gap between issues #5 and #6, would eliminate early sales as a factor altogether, using only recent sales data. If this latter point is the case, then Invincible’s orders would suffer greatly from late shipping. It would take time for retailers to regain confidence in Invincible, despite all the accolades that Kirkman was earning. We’ll most likely never know, but it’s unrealistic to think that late shipping didn’t hurt Invincible.
We haven’t answered conclusively that timely, regular shipping caused the rise in sales (beginning with issue #14’s “spike”) but out of all the factors we’ve looked at, it’s the most reasonable. Increasing retailer confidence (caused by both regular shipping and the issues selling well) led to increased ordering. This synergy can spread like a virus; as the increasing amounts of Invincible shipped on time, retailers continued to sell well, leading to higher orders on subsequent issues. Those issues, especially #14, continued to ship on time. And continued to sell. As long as these two events (on-time shipping and healthy sales) continue to occur, retailers will continue to order well.
We’ve looked at a number of different factors in trying to explain why Invincible, starting at issue #14, increased in sales so strongly. Three minor factors (the Eisner shortlist, Image’s overshipping of issues #1 and #2, and the profile in Image’s 2004 Free Comic Book Day release) had little to no impact at all. Two of the larger factors (the trade paperback releases and the guest cover artists) have almost completely been disproven as playing a role in issue #14’s rise.
The third factor, Kirkman’s work on The Walking Dead, might have had a fallout effect on Invincible. But if it did, the effect was not felt immediately by retailers – nor acted on immediately by them. There just isn’t enough hard data to make a decisive conclusion here. The popularity of The Walking Dead may have played a role in Invincible’s increased sales, but if so it didn’t occur right away. There’s simply no way to answer this conclusively.
The final factor, regular shipping, may be our winner. While it’s impossible to prove with complete certainty, monthly shipping seems to correlate best with what we see happening in the sales charts. More likely a number of these factors worked in harmony to impact Invincible. 2004/2005’s regular shipping would be the key factor with Kirkman’s rising profile in the Direct Market as a whole (clearly seen with the increasing sales on The Walking Dead) playing a somewhat lesser role. Events like the Eisner shortlist certainly didn’t hurt Invincible’s profile, either.
The key factor, I think, is regular shipping. Not only is it a title’s best advertising (constantly being seen on the shelves) it also gives retailers regular, concrete sales information. It minimizes guesswork and creates confidence that a title will ship when it’s supposed to. Creators (and publishers) underestimate this at their peril.
One other thought: never forget that Invincible was published by Image Comics. Image is one of the four brokered publishers (along with Marvel, DC and Dark Horse) that are distributed by Diamond. This means that retailers earn the most on titles from these publishers (though the discounts do vary to some extent between each of the four). The key point to remember is that retailers earn their best discounts from these four publishers. That may have given Invincible better odds at making a comeback then a title published by any other company.
One quick update: in October 2010, Image publisher Eric Stephenson chatted with Rich Johnson over on Bleeding Cool. They two discussed late shipping books and I thought this comment by Stephenson was very pertinent to this essay:
"Both Age of Bronze and Phonogram — and you know, they’re not alone in this, they’re not the only examples — have come out fairly erratically. Age of Bronze comes out a few times a year, when we solicit it, because that’s how often Eric Shanower can complete the work — he puts so much research and physical work into the book and it’s a grueling process — it’s in no way monthly. Phonogram was beset with scheduling problems almost from the beginning and didn’t ship monthly. Now, regardless of what factors go into the shipping schedule for either book, I can say without a doubt that sales on both books suffer from that kind of erratic shipping. Whether it’s late shipping or bi-monthly shipping or quarterly shipping — whatever — it will hurt sales and no matter how well-received something is in the beginning or how many awards a book receives, there’s going to be a loss of momentum.
Looking at a book like Chew — it wasn’t ordered spectacularly to begin with, but it came out on time and it came out regularly and people liked it and sales shot up. The most important thing for a book, whether it’s critically acclaimed or simply well-liked, is that it actually comes out." (my emphasis added).
1. ICV2.com has this to say about their numbers, “These estimates are based on ICv2 estimates of comic sales by Diamond North America…We are estimating actual sales by Diamond U.S. (primarily to North American comic stores), using Diamond's published sales indexes and publisher sales data to estimate a sales number for Batman (the anchor title Diamond uses in its calculations), and using that number and the indexes to estimate Diamond's sales on the remaining titles. We can check the accuracy of our numbers by comparing the Batman number that we calculate using multiple data points; our numbers for Batman are within 1/10 of 1% of each other, ensuring a high degree of accuracy.” ICV2.com also points out that these number do not include sales made by Diamond UK, orders on titles placed after month end, or copies purchased by Diamond but held in inventory at the end of a particular month.
2. This last point is not spoken of enough. Comic Book retailers order their product non-returnably from Diamond. The discount they receive from the brokered publishers (Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse) is higher than all other publishers. So if a Title (priced at $2.95) debuts from Image comics and the retailer receives a 55% discount off that title, they are far more likely to order it then if the same title was offered from a smaller publisher with a smaller discount. Say 45%. With Image, the retailer earns $1.62 per copy sold (their cost is $1.33). But at a 45% discount, the retailer only earns $1.33 per title (their cost is $1.62)!
3. Issue #0 had a cover price of only 50 cents. To use it, especially since it shipped out of order (shipping in April 2005, a week after issue #22 hit stands) would skew data.
4. Remember that retailers order approximately two months in advance. With issue #1 hitting store shelves in January 2003, Retailers would have ordered it in November 2002. Issue #2 would have been ordered in December 2002 and Issue #3 ordered in January 2003. Those three issues would all have been ordered before issue #1 ever arrived in stores, giving the retailer zero data to work with. Issue #4, ordered in February 2004, would be the first to have some hard sales figures to look at. But that would only be one issue’s sales history!
5. Though there is one small blip on the sales of The Walking Dead. Issue #6 lost the growth that issue #5 had, dropping back to 7726 before breaking 10,000 on issue #7.
6. To verify this, you only have to divide the total ordered by retailers on Issue 6 (6475) by the estimated number of Direct Market retailers (2500). The number of retailers is often contentious, but it’s often quoted by Comics and Games Retailer in print. Online, Diamond Distribution actually confirms this number (under e-mail queries, they state, “your message will be sent as a stand-alone email to over 2,600 retailers”). Also, Mel Thompson, a key retail consultant, states the number as 2500. I also direct any readers interested in learning more about the Direct Market to peruse Mr. Thompson’s site – it’s fantastic.
All that said, issue #6 would have shipped only an average of 3 copies (actually 2.59) to every retailer. While this isn’t good math (it assumes every retailer ordered equally and it ignored the impact of larger retailer ordering patterns) it illustrates how easily this issue could have been ‘missed’ by an individual customer browsing in a store.
7. Issues #1-#13 had total sales of 88194 while issues #14-#24 had total sales of 106078