Last week, Marvel’s 2007 adaptation of the Stephen King fantasy epic appeared, as if by magic, atop the hardcover list, unseating Watchmen. Although I couldn’t find an obvious reason for the book’s performance, I was willing to accept that the upcoming release of The Dark Tower: Treachery hardcover or another miniseries might’ve renewed interest in the original. (Or did I completely miss a new edition or reissue?)

“But this week The Gunslinger Born is nowhere to be seen. Watchmen again rests comfortably upon its hardcover throne, followed by a trio of Batman-related books.

“It’s as if last week never happened.” – Kevin Melrose, Robot 6 @ CBR

Sorry, I didn’t realize that no one had addressed this.

It’s pretty clear that the NYT Graphic Novel Bestseller lists are equally weighing all of Diamond’s direct-market sell-in with all of the other sales channels’ sell-through. What this means is that every book shipped by Diamond to a comic book store counts exactly the same on their list as every book actually sold by a bookscan-reporting store. It means that, on the week that comic-store-favourite graphic novels get released, their positions on the bestseller list will be abornomally high… but they will most likely never be heard from again. Unless their reorder velocity in a given week is incredibly high… maybe if that item was put on a sale or something?

So how did we end up with Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born on the list? That’s tricky. Marvel is a very litigious company, and has all sorts of warnings about reproducing their private personal information in public. Blah blah blah. So, let’s talk about me instead, because I doubt even Marvel would be able to argue that retailers aren’t allowed to talk about their own businesses. So: There was a time period last month where I ordered Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born and received a higher-than-average discount on that book, and for every copy I ordered, I got another copy of the book for free. I did this, it happened, and I am talking about my actions as a retailer (litigious!). So the week that all of those discounted copies and free copies of Dark Tower that I ordered shipped to me, the book ALSO appeared on The New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller list. Do you see the correlation there?

I don’t think Marvel tried to game the system with this maneuver; Diamond Comics also reported the first Dark Tower collection as being the top-seller for the month, likely because of this promotion. Apparently according to Diamond, something that sells at a reduced price—even if that reduced price is zero—is still a sale, and when they report data to the NYT? A sale is a sale.

Basically, in the larger bookselling community, the “end customer” is the reader, the consumer, because bookstores can return unsold product to the publisher (or distributor), and so a sale is really only final once it leaves the store. But in the Direct Market of comic book stores, the “end customer” is the retailer–the comic book store owner–because the comic book store owner can’t return the books; the final sale is when the books arrive at the store. Worse than that, comic book store owners are expected to front-load their orders–order heavily up front with no immediate promise of further availability–to secure a better discount from Diamond as a supplier, which further weights the Diamond’s numbers on the day-of-release.

So two largely incongruous sales systems are being merged–pretty badly it looks like–to generate a list that has books with little long-term sales spiking on release and never appearing again, and heavily prone to being thrown entirely out of whack by promotions, sales, discounting, and… hell, just giving stuff away for free! It’s one of the many, many problems of the apples-to-oranges sales systems that we have in comics. And yeah, it’s why The New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller List is Broken.

- Christopher


18 Comments on “Why The New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller List Is Broken”

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  1. George Rohac says:

    Chris,

    In a few years when/if I’m making money and on my way to doing nefarious deeds at the highest levels of government and commerce, I am going to see that you’re paid a full time salary with benefits just so you can write amazing things like this all the time.

    Seriously, you do better work than so many industry journalists. I love you.

    Now back to cleaning my room.

  2. Rosscott says:

    Intriguing. I wasn’t checking the NYT list, but now I think I’ll start.

  3. Bestseller List Shenanigans » Comics Worth Reading says:

    [...] Christopher Butcher has one possible answer: … the NYT Graphic Novel Bestseller lists are equally weighing all of Diamond’s direct-market sell-in with all of the other sales channels’ sell-through. What this means is that every book shipped by Diamond to a comic book store counts exactly the same on their list as every book actually sold by a bookscan-reporting store. It means that, on the week that comic-store-favorite graphic novels get released, their positions on the bestseller list will be abnormally high… but they will most likely never be heard from again. Unless their reorder velocity in a given week is incredibly high… maybe if that item was put on a sale or something? [...]

  4. Torsten Adair says:

    That would explain why the #10 hardcover, New Avengers Illuminati, which has been out for a year and which the TP just shipped, made the list. Marvel and Diamond Comics (dunno if Diamond Books offered the same deal to regular bookstores) probably are clearing out dead stock. They are remaindering books, but to the Direct Market, which explains why I see the same copies of Ms. Marvel in discount bins at every dealer at conventions.

    The Dark Tower continues to sell well on BN.com, as does Joker. The list goes up Saturday, is Sunday-Saturday in review, so for many new titles, only Wednesday-Sunday sales are counted. This may explain why the new Naruto volumes aren’t automatic #1 bestsellers.

    Many prose bestsellers only last a few weeks on the lists as the fans buy it immediately. Bookstores generally give a title three months to sell before judging sales and returns. Some hardcover titles sell nicely until the trade paperback is issued. Others stink as soon as they are placed on the shelf, and get a 50% discount with the publisher adding extra accounting so the retailer does not take a loss. (General discount range: 40-48%. Some have sliding scales for quantity ordered.)

    Anyone have Bookscan numbers for that week? How does the NYT compare to the USA Today 150? And what are the bestsellers at the Beguiling?

  5. Tommy Raiko says:

    This are definitely interesting observations, but I don’t think I quite come to the same conclusions.

    I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but I simply cannot believe that the NYT is so stupid as to be using comics-store-sell-in-from-Diamond and bookseller-sell-through as if they were exactly the same thing. They simply can’t be that stupid. For years before establishing this list, the NYT’s apparently cited the difficulty in getting appropriate sell-thru figures from the comics market as a reason they hadn’t set up a graphic novel list; the fact that they now have set one up implies that they’ve somehow solved that problem, and it’s defies imagination that their solution would be “To heck with it! Let’s just use the sell-in figures!”

    Maybe I’m missing some nuances on the timing here, but isn’t it possible that whatever promotion Marvel did to get retailers to order more copies of the book also had the effect of actually selling more copies to consumers, which sales were reported to the NYT? Isn’t is at least as easy to think that that’s what happened here as it is to think that the NYT is somehow so hapless as to dismiss the difference between sell-in and sell-thru?

    If we assume that the NYT is indeed getting actual sell-thru data from comics stores to form the bestseller list, we still don’t necessarily know which stores form those reports. Maybe the stores that reported their sales had exceptional success with this promotion, actually using it to sell dramatically more copies of the book to customers. That’s gotta be possible, right?

    Also, if we assume that the NYT applies some mathematical voodoo to their raw data, there’s always the possibility that whatever statistical models they’re using aren’t exactly accurate. Maybe whatever mathematical model they’re using to balance comics-stores-data and other-bookstore-data isn’t fairly weighted. If that’s part of the problem, that’s something you would hope they’d refine in future.

    There are obviously real challenges to the NYT in incorporating comics-market data and book-market data in their bestseller list. Absolutely, it’s good to monitor their lists to get a sense of how they’re working and how relevant the list may really be. But if there are problems with the list and its underlying methodology, there are plenty of other possible reasons than just that they’re misusing Diamond sell-in figures.

  6. Chris says:

    Tommy- That’s an excellent rebuttal, and you could be right. In fact, a few hundred comic stores are now using Diamond’s proprietary sales tracking software, and perhaps its the sales of those hundred stores that are being submitted as comic book store data. Sure.

    But the appearance of specific books on the top 25 (I don’t want to name them because singling out books in a negative way, in the context of this discussion, isn’t really appropriate), not to mention Occam’s Razor, lead me to believe my conclusions are closer to the truth…

  7. cream.fm › Shorties (Scott Pilgrim, Jill Sobule, and more) says:

    [...] Comics212 explains why the New York Times’ graphic novel bestseller list is broken. [...]

  8. Shorties (Scott Pilgrim, Jill Sobule, and more) | IndieFan - Independent Television | Music, Movies, News & Culture says:

    [...] Comics212 explains why the New York Times’ graphic novel bestseller list is broken. [...]

  9. MangaBlog » Blog Archive » Checking the numbers says:

    [...] the original. Kevin Melrose of Robot 6 questions the usefulness of the list and Christopher Butcher responds with an explanation of why some lesser-known comics make a single appearance and then [...]

  10. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » Linkarama@Newsarama says:

    [...] funny name isn’t the only problem after all: Christopher Butcher explains why the New York Times “graphic books” bestseller list doesn’t quite work like [...]

  11. Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources - Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Food or Comics | Money, comics and the economy says:

    [...] Born at a deep discount to comic shops, accounting for the one-week spike (or glitch). Retailer Christopher Butcher essentially agreed with the explanation, and spelled out a few of the details. However, he went on [...]

  12. Mike says:

    This looks like it would be the result of “panel data” AC Neilson uses it for consumer sales because Walmart doesn’t participate in AC Neilson. So they take like 50 stores over a time period as a sampling, multiply it out by the chain numbers and VOILA, you have the entire market data. It’s brutal, but in many cases the only market wide tracking numerous industries can go by. You probably just had a sample group of stores that had a promo on this book and it got applied to the entire market.

    Or they used the shipping info like your suggested, the book market seems very different from the toy

  13. NYT Bestseller Follow-up at Comics212 says:

    [...] In the comments section of my last post on the New York Times Graphic Book Bestseller List, a commenter named Tommy Raiko comes to different conclusions about the list than I did. It’s a thought-provoking response: “If we assume that the NYT is indeed getting actual sell-thru data from comics stores to form the bestseller list, we still don’t necessarily know which stores form those reports. Maybe the stores that reported their sales had exceptional success with this promotion, actually using it to sell dramatically more copies of the book to customers. That’s gotta be possible, right?” – Tommy Raiko [...]

  14. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » April 14, 2009: T-minus one says:

    [...] Christopher Butcher offers a theory as to why the New York Times “graphic books” charts seem so incongruous: [...]

  15. Strip Business | Strip News | ArtPatient.com | ArtPatient.com says:

    [...] check on the various topseller lists to see what’s pop-pop-popular but this criticism of the NY Times list seems like it has teeth (courtesy of MangaBlog. The above article is in response to this article [...]

  16. Checking the numbers | Tokyovation says:

    [...] the original. Kevin Melrose of Robot 6 questions the usefulness of the list and Christopher Butcher responds with an explanation of why some lesser-known comics make a single appearance and then [...]

  17. Blog@Newsarama » Blog Archive » If you must brag about being on the New York Times Graphic Books Besteller list, this isn’t a bad way to do it says:

    [...] really work right, I’d suggest reading Christopher Butcher’s posts on the subject here and then here. Obviously I personally don’t put much stock in the list and generally ignore [...]

  18. Sequential | Canadian Comics News & Culture says:

    [...] readers might want to check out what Chris Butcher has to say about the problems with the New York Times comics list, which is too responsive to blips [...]

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