The Issue With Single Issues
Publishers and retailers traditionally ignore the sales of trade paperbacks when it comes to deciding whether or not a specific title is doing well. For decades, the single issue has been king, even though those sales figures are far from helpful. For one thing, these sales are based on what a store orders, rather than what actually leaves the shelves; and while comic book retailers have to be capable of predicting what is going to sell, some of the retailer comments at that disastrous NYCC panel suggest that seller bias and prejudice definitely has an impact on orders. In addition, these figures ignore all the ways that fans read comics if they aren't interested in collecting individual issues. Trade paperbacks are a big part of the comic market, and with digital comic subscriptions like Marvel Unlimited and Comixology gaining in popularity, digital readership is increasingly important - and overlooked.
Single issue comic sales are also falling overall. Although Marvel was the top comic book publisher of 2017, with a dollar share of 36.36% (ahead of DC's 30.07%), sales for the publisher have been plummeting. Sales figures for August 2017 revealed a 25% drop from August 2016, prompting lots of concerned think-pieces, but ignoring the fact that this drop is balanced in part by the increased number of readers purchasing digital copies and trades - especially trades from sources like bookstores, libraries and online retailers.
New Ways Of Reading Comics
These alternative ways of accessing comics shouldn't be underestimated, especially when it comes to the minority/diversity audience. Despite the fact that there are just as many female comic book fans as male ones (based on comic con attendance figures and theater audiences), comics are still often seen as a male pursuit, and bricks-and-mortar comic book shops are often intimidating places for minority geeks. Larger and more progressive stores are welcoming minorities with open arms, but geekdom is filled with stories of minorities being made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in a traditional comic book retailer. Comic book stores can also be confusing for newer fans - unlike bookstores and libraries, single issues aren't simply lined up on a shelf in alphabetical order, and finding what they want can be a daunting prospect for newbies. Even if someone is aware of the concept of a pull-list, finding the confidence to ask a surly store owner about setting one up can simply be too intimidating.
Compare that to trades or digital subscriptions, and it's easy to see why many new or minority fans would rather pick up a trade at a bookstore or subscribe to a digital service; it's just easier, and entertainment shouldn't involve running a gauntlet. For new fans, or fans who aren't comfortable in comic book stores, the more social aspects of single issue comics (like new comic book day, or events like Free Comic Book Day) are actually off-putting, rather than encouraging, and carry none of the nostalgia that long-time collectors will associate with picking up a single issue.
How The Latest Data Changes Comics
Despite comic book sales traditionally being more concerned with single issue than trades, it's time for that to change. Trade paperbacks are increasingly important as a marker of what sells, with 2016 seeing a 12% jump in trade sales over 2015 - a period when single issue sales fell. Even 2017, which saw both trades and single issue sales fall compared to 2016, trades were down 9.38%, compared to single issues dropping 10.4%. With trades seemingly doing better than single issues, comic publishers need to start taking these (and digital readers) into account when considering whether or not diversity sells - especially when minority readers are potentially more likely to prefer trades over single issues to begin with.
The same data that lends credence to Marvel execs' statements that readers don't want diversity... shows clearly that those readers who prefer trades do want diversity. This may not be enough to save all the characters and titles that Marvel has been scrapping lately, but it should be enough to give them pause - and at the very least, stop them canceling titles before the first trade is even released (which happened with Iceman). There's no doubt that the comic industry is changing rapidly - and if Marvel wants to keep up, they're going to have to balance out the introduction of diverse characters with a new way of looking at comic sales. One that reflects their more diverse readers, and not just the old guard buying through bricks and mortar stores each week.