Spider-Man Sales

Around the Brand New Day period, there seemed to be more discussion about Amazing Spider-Man sales than those of any other title, largely because some fans tried to prove that Joe Quesada made a bad decision, and other fans disagreed. These arguments have quieted down after the Big Time era began, though there was a recent facebook exchange between Stephen Wacker and J. Michael Straczynski back in December about sales figures after his departure that got some coverage.

Sales figures provide a way to avoid arguing about subjective criteria such as artistic merit, as arguers claim that they’re objectively correct. It also doesn’t require any familiarity with the content of the book, which is convenient for pissed off former fans arguing about decisions made years ago.

The goal for a detractor should ultimately be to demonstrate that if something didn’t happen, sales would be better. This requires an honest discussion about the various nuances and complexities. That doesn’t usually happen with the people claiming that the figures were bad. The easiest thing to do when arguing sales estimates is to try to win on a technicality, framing the numbers in the best possible way for your side. So, you wouldn’t take into account things that would matter when trying to determine if the book would be doing better if it hadn’t been for a decision you didn’t like, or if the book would do better if that decision were undone. All of the sales discussions ultimately have to be considered in that context.

An important note is that the figures being argued are usually incomplete. The oft-cited ICV2 numbers are estimates, based on the Diamond Sales index, which calculates how a book is selling relative to Batman. The occasionally released statement of ownership figures suggest that the estimates are reasonably accurate, but any error can skew the results from one month to the next. It’ll usually be obvious if sales are unambiguously good, or obviously atrocious, but the estimates lack the precision necessary to provide clear answers if there’s any haziness. And that’s the circumstance under which the most heated arguments occur.

The ICV2 figures are also only applicable for the direct market. It does not include reprints, digital copies or subscriptions, all of which generate income for Marvel. So it’s entirely possible that sales arguments are a complete waste of time, as the people who need to be convinced that the numbers are weak in order to inspire a change in the title have access to the real figures.

It’s further complicated by the fact that we’re looking at several different eras of the Spider-Man titles. There was the Pre-One More Day period when JMS was writing Amazing Spider-Man, and other writers were handling the two satellite books. There was the Brand New Day era in which Amazing Spider-Man was published three times a month, with a rotating team of writers. And there’s the Big Time era in which the book is twice-monthly, with one main writer, and Avenging Spider-Man has been launched as a satellite book.

Numbers VS Rankings

One of the major questions when dealing with sales figures is trying to determine if you should compare the estimates, or the sales rankings. The estimates suggest how many copies the book sold, which is important in trying to figure out how much money Marvel made. But just looking at the figures for Amazing Spider-Man isn’t intellectually honest, when trying to figure out how a book would have sold if the series had gone in a different direction.

The sales discussions are usually about the management of the Spider-Man books, rather than Marvel or the industry as a whole. As a result, it seems misleading to focus on how the book is selling without looking at the numbers in the context of the rest of the comics industry. There was a decline in overall comic book sales during Brand New Day, but some detractors of that directions try to suggest that Amazing Spider-Man is an outlier, while not explaining why the book would have escaped industry trends were it not for a story they didn’t like.

Things do get complicated, as there are many shades to the arguments. There is the reasonable claim that some Amazing Spider-Man fans stopped buying other titles when they left their favorite book, although it would be a stretch to suggest that this is the primary reason the industry has suffered.

Rankings can be vulnerable to new factors as well. A cheap shot would be that the book hasn’t always been in the top 25 for much of 2011, although that’s largely because of the boost DC got from the New 52 plan. As a result, there were more titles selling at levels that would otherwise have guaranteed a top 25 rank. That’s good for comics overall, but not an indication of poor administration of Amazing Spider-Man.

Issue-by-Issue VS Month-by-Month

The other major question when arguing about sales figures is over how Marvel should interpret the numbers. Should they compare issues of Amazing Spider-Man before One More Day to issues of ASM afterward, when it came out more often? Or should they compare total sales of the three Spider-Man books each month before and after One More Day? The logic with that approach is that the important thing for Marvel is about how much money they’re making. There are more nuanced positions available, including various reasons for thinking that total sales matter, but that total sales should have been higher during the BND era, due to the increased time and effort for the writers and editors. That said, it does ultimately come down to your judgement on these two approaches.

The detractors tend to use the most self-serving arguments possible, trying whatever worked better at a particular moment. While readers ordered more copies of Amazing Spider-Man when it was a monthly with an A-list writer, they also ordered significantly more copies of Amazing Spider-Man than they were of Sensational Spider-Man or Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

If you think per issue sales of Amazing Spider-Man should be the same no matter how often the book is published, would Amazing Spider-Man be selling the same amount per issue if it were an actual weekly? If so, this would obviously represent lost revenue for the House of Ideas. Hell, shouldn’t Marvel try to produce two issues of Amazing Spider-Man a week? They’d just be making more money.

It shouldn’t be that hard for Marvel to multiply the amount of Spider-Man material. All they’d have to do is cancel a few lower selling books (X-FactorThunderboltsNew Mutants, Journey into Mystery) and move the creative teams to a twice-weekly Amazing Spider-Man. If it doesn’t matter how often Spider-Man comes out, this represents a no-brainer method for Marvel to make more money.

As weeklies are supposed to sell as many copies per issues as monthlies with A-list writers, how much money is Marvel losing by not making their top monthlies (Uncanny Avengers, The X-Men) into weeklies? They could probably do it. And that shows the absurdity of assuming that sales will be the same, no matter how often the book is published. Just as less people will buy 2-3 issues a month of Amazing Spider-Man than one issue a month, I think significantly less people will buy an average of nine issues a month of Amazing Spider-Man than two or three issues a month.

As Dan Slott noted during the Brand New Day era.

Comparing 3X a month ASM to 1X a month ASM is applicable? How much money of their comic-buying budget did consumers spend purchasing all 1X a month ASM in a year VERSUS how much of their comic-buying budget did they spend to following all of 3X a month ASM? It’s odd that you’d consider buying 3 monthly Spider-Man books Pre-2007 to 3 monthly Spider-Man books Post-2007 “apples to oranges”… But you WOULD consider it completely applicable that someone deciding whether to purchase 12 apples a year is the same as someone deciding wether to purchase 36 apples a year.

Dan Slott explained why he was happy with the Brand New Day sales figures, although he also documented the increased difficulties on editors and the creative teams.

Starting in January ’08, the two satellite books (Sensational and FNSM) were replaced by two more issues of Amazing Spider-Man. So… Same number of pages, staples, and budget as the previous ASM + 2 other Spider-Books. No biggie, right? (HA!)

It seems easy on paper, but in reality there’s a lot more to do, tons of coordination, many late nights for everyone– SUPER late nights– ESPECIALLY for the editor, assistant editor, and the-hardest-working-letterer-in-comics, Joe C!
The schedule is a nightmare. It’s one thing if an issue of FNSM, Sensational, or even 1X a month Amazing misses shipping by a week or two. Slaps on the wrist all around. But for 3X a month Amazing? It’s the end of the world. People will come after you with live rounds. I’d like to say I’m kidding… but I’m not. Seriously, I’ve been doing this for about 18 years, and this is the hardest I’ve ever worked on a book in my entire life– and I know that EVERYONE’S been putting in those same hours– if not more!

That in mind (’cause I feel like everyone on the editorial & creative team’s earned it, on just hard work alone), I think it’s fair to look at the comparison of the 3 MONTHLY Spider-Man books that Marvel has been putting out since January 2008, and the 3 MONTHLY Spider-Man books that Marvel put out previously– going allll the way back to when Spidey first started appearing in three regular monthly titles.

We’ve put out 74 issues of monthly Spider-Man comics. Out of those, 73 have placed in the Top 25. For 2+ years, out of the sum-and-total of ALL Marvel’s regular monthly Spider-Titles, only 1 issue dropped out of the Top 25. That’s means 98.5% did! Ranking-wise, have the 3 monthly Spider-Man books that Marvel produces EVER had that good of a streak?

The comparisons to Amazing Spider-Man before One More Day typically neglect the book’s advantages at the time. The title had been involved in high-profile events for 21 consecutive issues (four issues of “The Other” crossover, followed by ten issues of Civil War, followed by the five issue “Back in Black” followed by One More Day) and often outsold the two satellite books combined. These tie-ins are really misleading as a baseline for what levels Amazing Spider-Man should be selling, as there’s no reason to assume that the book would have remained at that position post-JMS if One More Day had ended differently. A preferable benchmark would be JMS’s pre-“The Other” issues, when sales were declining, although that’s still comparing the current book (or the BND era book) to a monthly title with one of the the most popular writers in comics. And there’s a finite supply of A-list writers in the industry.

It was also significantly easier to selectively follow Spider-Man’s adventures before Brand New Day. Sales data indicates that’s just what the majority of readers did, a trend that became most obvious when JMS had a mostly self-contained run on the flagship title. I’m not aware of any issue of Sacasa’s Sensational Spider-Man run having any impact on JMS’s Amazing Spider-Man. FNSM tied up a loose end in “The Other” and established that a demonic entity was interested in Spider-Man, but it wasn’t referenced in Amazing. During Brand New Day, you could choose to only buy issues of ASM by a certain writer/ artist, but there’s no indication that a substantive number of readers were doing that. It is something that’s easier to do right now, with Amazing and Avenging, although it’s still more expensive to follow Slott than it was to read JMS’s material.

The discussions have simmered down. Most of these comments compared pre-One More Day figures to Brand New Day era estimates. Even the sales chart JMS posted on facebook was an year and a half out of date. A major reason for that is that sales from Amazing Spider-Man #648 and up have been pretty good. And Avenging Spider-Man was Marvel’s best-selling debut since Future Foundation.

Detractors were often paranoid about the sales figures, and there were a few threads at CBR about whether Marvel was cooking the books, a question often asked whenever variant covers were used. If you take the estimates seriously, and compare the estimated sales of books with variant covers to books without, it seems that the boost of one variant cover is less than 4,000 copies. Though it’s unlikely that there’s an attempt to manipulate the sales charts. If Marvel cared about the ICv2 numbers, they wouldn’t have offered a subscription deal with a 60% plus discount, as those numbers aren’t represented in the Diamond estimates.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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