Buy the Numbers

How important is it to have accurate sales statistics in the comics industry? I've been following the debate over at The Engine wherein the question is really being broken down into two parts.

First, is it more of a benefit or detriment to have sales statistics available to the general public? Second, if some form of sales statistics are going to be available either through leaks or estimates, how important is it for those numbers to be accurate?

It's no secret that popular culture industries use best seller lists to drive sales, whether it is simply a ranking like the New York Times Best Sellers or Variety's detailed weekend box office charts. If something is popular, it must be good or at least interesting enough to get that many people's attention and eventually the herd mentality takes over. To have a more accurate best sellers list for comics and graphic novels could only help drive sales for retailers.

Yet several creators in the Engine thread point out the negative effect that low numbers can have on quality titles. Some who follow the charts will see a book's declining sales and assume it will be cancelled, leading that reader to drop the book or that store to stop pushing it. This is clearly a very real detriment and one that can easily be averted by limiting the number of titles reported to a best seller list. Add to that the fact that the number we have access to (via Diamond's Index, translated by ICV2 and CBG into hard numbers) report only a very specific set of sales data for a given month and the specifics of those parameters aren't even clear. Creators and publishers both indicate that in many cases the numbers are as much as 30% low while others indicate that they are within a few copies. And yet, these number are almost certainly being used by retailers and customers to make decisions if not by publishers as well.

Unfortunately, avoiding such problems by limiting such a list to just the top sellers would eliminate what can be even more of a benefit: helping retailers and publishers diversify and discover those niche books that are profitable as part of The Long Tail that's becoming so popular these days. Not every title needs to sell 100,000 singles every month or 5,000 trades. Accurate sales data can offer insight into reliable sellers like Strangers in Paradise, a title where the number fluctuate very little but, when combined with trade sales, are enough to prove profitable.

The real problem with the entire debate, however, is that we're looking at the wrong numbers. Sell-in numbers tell us how confident retailers are that a title is a sure seller. Outside of that they are almost meaningless, especially for determining customer trends. On top of that, they ignore a huge chunk of sales by a publisher like Drawn & Quarterly, who smart stores are ordering via VHPS, Baker & Taylor or Cold Cut at better prices than via Diamond.

This debate reflects one among retailers about the value of pooling sales data into some form of rudimentary Bookscan system. Sell through data is one of the few areas where retailers have more information than anyone else. This is data that no one else can possibly have access to, yet there is almost no attempt by retailers to leverage that power beyond possibly one or two of the biggest stores. On a personal level, I would love to know the sell through levels of Civil War, 52 and the Walking Dead and I'm sure those numbers would have some sort of value to Marvel, DC and Image (or at least Mr. Kirkman).

Of course, what this all boils down to is that numbers themselves don't really matter, it's the context that they are put in and the means for which they are used that make them valuable.


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