The discussion of how much a book sells is often an interesting one. A lot of people have a misconception of the numbers a book sells, and in particular, the numbers a book needs in order to make the best seller list. This is even true of comic books, as those numbers have changed over the past 40 years.
As an example, the December 2013 sales list is an interesting one. Taking the top spot for the month of December was Marvel’s Origin II, with estimated sales of over 131,000 copies. The poorest sales for December was Oni Press’s Boy and a Girl with estimated sales of 364 copies.
Compare that to books of the past, I’ll pick 1969 at random. The top selling book for 1969 was Archie with over 515,000 copies sold for the year. The top selling book for 2013; Walking Dead issue 115 with over 329,000 copies sold. While comic sales have picked up in the past two years (2012 and 2013), they’ve been no where near what they were years ago. In 1960, the top selling book for the year was Uncle Scrooge from Dell Press, which sold over 1,000,000 copies.
This really isn’t indicative of a decline in interest in comics (or books for that matter). It’s just that our consumption of media has changed.
I was going to mention novels as well, and the numbers for how many copies a novel needs to sell in order to make it to the best sellers list. In the UK, a novel needs 4,000 to 25,000 copies per week in order to make it onto the best seller list. In Canada, it needs 5,000 per week. Those are pretty small numbers when you think about it. The New York Times actually had to create a Children’s Best Seller list in order to move the first three books of the Harry Potter series just because those books had occupied the top three spots of the best seller’s list for over a year.
There’s always going to be a book or a series of books that makes the leap and becomes incredibly popular in a short period of time. But the numbers needed to even scratch at best seller is incredibly low.
Even the numbers for comic books have been very low in recent years when compared to years past. The last issue of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, which was being cancelled, sold over 150,000 copies. Today, if a book sold half that mark, there would be no way it would get cancelled. Again, this isn’t so much indicative of the book, but more how we as the consumers take in media.
There is a larger way of story telling now than there was back in the 1960s to 1980s. We have newer mediums that will tell a serialized story just as well as a comic book, or even a novel. With television and even the internet, we can access those stories just as well and be just as engaged in the process of story telling as we can with a book series or comic book series.
Our consumption of stories that involve these characters hasn’t changed, to be honest. The way in which we read those stories has.
Comichron: The Comic Chronicles (monthly sales lists and yearly sales list back to 1960)
Wikipedia: Bestseller (history of best seller and the numbers involved)
Diamond Comic Distributors (news and information about comics)