Did 2020 break the Direct Market sales charts?

Last year had a lot of costs, but a quiet one was its impact on sales charts. It's time to break that down.

It’s strange running any kind of entertainment site during December, if only because of the requirements the month brings. You’re pretty much expected to plan your calendar around year-end content celebrating the best and brightest. It’s not that you have to publish that type of content, it’s just that people are always interested in breakdowns of “what was the best” or the “most popular.” 1 These things matter to people. They’re part entertainment guides and part fodder for discussion, fueling engagement and conversation in one fell swoop.

The tricky thing with those lists, of course, is they’re all subjective. Now, everything is subjective to a degree, but that subjectivity can lead to people delegitimizing perspectives if it’s one they don’t agree with. Quantitative analysis is considered a bit different because of that. Some look at it as irrefutable in a way. It gives you something to point to where you can cut through the noise of opinion and say, “see, people love this!” 2

That’s why people love numbers.

Box office charts. Nielsen ratings. Best seller lists. Whatever. They allow people to state with confidence that this thing that they like was actually “good,” because you know what? Others agreed! That’s why you often see a connection between fandoms and this kind of reporting. It isn’t just quantitative analysis; it’s validation.

The world of comics has that too. Diamond Comic Distributors’ sales charts 3 operate in a similar way, allowing for comic fans to do their own Monday morning quarterbacking with direct market data. 4 But it’s important to note that this isn’t really what these charts were designed for, as ICv2’s Milton Griepp – who originally created them when he ran Capital City Distribution 5 – shared.

“When I first developed bestseller charts with sales indexes for Internal Correspondence in the 1980s, the goal was to give retailers more than just a ranking, to give them some idea of how titles were selling relative to each other,” Griepp said. “That allowed them to get a better idea of how sales in their store were tracking relative to a national average and apply a formula to identify titles where there might be opportunity, or to identify titles that were outperforming to try to figure out why.”

To paraphrase Milton, these charts were originally created to help comic shops have a better idea of what to order. And that’s how they were used for a long time, with their utility evolving to include a wide variety of stakeholders. These charts were leveraged in a bevy of ways, both internally and externally. They allowed people to speak with confidence about what was working and what wasn’t, even if there were caveats in those statements from time to time.

Yet, in 2020, everything changed. That could mean a lot of different things, both in regards to the comics industry and beyond, but more specifically, everything about these charts changed. During the pandemic, DC Comics departed Diamond, choosing to move on with distributors of its own creation and removing its numbers from the equation in the process, and Diamond stopped including its order index numbers. Those changes limited our ability to speak with the same confidence about what’s selling and what isn’t, outside of – to a certain degree – relative positions from title to title. That has changed the look and feel of those charts considerably.

And those changes have had me asking myself one central question: do these sales charts still have the same value they once had? That’s what we’ll be looking at today, as we analyze the importance of the direct market sales charts from a variety of perspectives to try and determine what – if any – value these charts have in this new world order.

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  1. They’re also fun exercises to put together, to be honest.

  2. Unfortunately it’s likely more often seen in the form of its negative twin, “see, people hate this!”

  3. Which are really order charts, as they represent orders from comic shops rather than sales from shops to the customers themselves.

  4. There’s also the New York Times best-seller lists for graphic novels, which are very important – arguably more important! – but we’ll be focusing on the direct market charts today.

  5. One of the biggest direct market distributors before Diamond took over everything.