The First Issue Boom

Fast out of the gate

#1 issues in comics are all the rage. They’re the jumping-on point for new readers and, as such, publishers tend to heavily promote them. There is also, as explained with trademark cynicism here, still a tendency for investors to buy up #1 issues on the assumption that they will eventually be worth something.

The speculator bubble, which burst in the ’90s, still flickers briefly into life every time a new #1 issue is released. This combines with the publishers’ promotion to fans who might pick them up casually to create a huge boom for each #1 issue of a new series. However, there is also the tendance for sales to immediately fall away after that first issue. You could almost say that the entire philosophy of Marvel and its Distinguished Competition is to publish as many #1 issues as they can, and hang their fortunes on the few that don’t shed a huge amount of readers. In fact, in 2011 DC Comics relaunched their entire line with 52 new #1s, essentially erasing whole decades of continuity to capitalise on the craze for #1s.

To illustrate just how reliant the publishers are on this method, I created an alluvial diagram to show many new #1 issues appeared in the best-selling lists, as compiled by Comichron. First, though, here is a diagram showing how volatile the comics market actually is:

Click for interactive version

Click for interactive version

As you can see, a disproportionate amount of the comics published by DC and Marvel (DC made it a point to only publish 52 comics concurrently during 2013) that made it into the top 10 were #1 issues.

That said, as illustrated by the following alluvial diagram, the vast majority of new series, which had launched the previous month with a #1, failed to crack the top 10 the following month.  Each vertical black line represents a month of 2013, and the split tracks that follow indicate how many went on to crack the #1 the following month and how many failed to do so.

Colours not accidental

Colours not accidental

Fallacy of the first?

As can be clearly seen, the vast majority of the series launched with a #1 in the top ten failed to crack the top ten afterwards, as they were displaced by reader apathy and a fresh wave of #1 issues and more were no longer being published by December than even the new #1s published that month.

In fact, in a number of months, not a single comic from the previous month’s #10 made it into the next one. Even the mighty Superior Spider-Man, otherwise a permanent fixture in the top 10 since its launch in January, failed to reach the top 10 in  April and September.

A few caveats, however:  Some of the  comics published (as can be seen by the dataset I used, reachable through the picture embedded below) are what are known as ‘limited series’ and were events scheduled for a few months at most. The following are the limited series books, which make up a large proportion of the books no longer being published:

  • Age of Ultron
  • Kick-Ass 3
  • Forever Evil
  • Infinity
  • X-Men: Battle for the Atom

Nevertheless, I believe my alluvial diagram has proven that DC Comics were correct to entirely relaunch their line with #1 issues in 2011. Now the struggle for them is to find comics that can actually hold onto their readers, and not force them to do so again in a few years’ time.

Click to see the cleaned up data

Click to see the cleaned up data

How was it done?

Initially, I scraped the excellent Comichron site for their comprehensive sales figures. I used Outwit Hub, a great and easy to use data scraping tool, to grab the first 100 lines of the tables for each month in 2013, the latest data they had available. From there, it was a simple matter of cleaning the data to only contain the data I required, then arranging it in such a way that it could be put into an alluvial diagram.

I chose to use Raw to create the diagram, since it’s so simple but versatile, perfect for quick visualisations. If you’re looking for a tutorial on how to use it effectively to create an alluvial diagram, read my fellow Interhacktive Laura’s great tutorial here.

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Data: Difficult Second Album?

The phenomenon of the ‘difficult second album’ is pervasive in modern culture, to the point that the phrase is even consistently used outside the music industry. Steve Coogan uses the term here in a very throwaway manner during an interview in a way that suggests the entire audience is aware of the phrase and its connotations.

It describes the tendency for an artist’s second effort to fail to live up to the first. The reasons that have been suggested for this include the suggestion that, human nature being what it is, we build up our expectations to such an extent that any follow-up cannot help but fail. There is also the suggestion that regression to the mean might be in play; the first success might have been a fluke.

And of course, sometimes sequels DO live up to the original

And of course, sometimes sequels DO live up to the original

But is it real?

The sophomore slump might well be a real effect. But, as I intend to demonstrate below, it’s not necessarily an inescapable fact of the music industry. Initially it’s important to note that, of course, the public and critical response to an album is highly subjective and each person’s opinion is likely to have been influenced by other people’s. There really is no objective measure of quality, despite Rotten Tomatoes‘ inference to the contrary.

To investigate whether it is a universal effect I decided to analyse the UK’s best-selling musical artists of the 2000s. To do so, I used the critical concensus on AllMusic to create interactive, comparative graphs displaying the marks out of five given to their first and second albums. Click on the image below to interact:

Click to view the interactive graph

Click to view the interactive graph

As the graph demonstrates, the average score actually increases for the artist’s second albums. For the majority of these artists, at least, the ‘difficult second album’ is nothing of the sort.

There are obvious problems with my method of analysis, however. For instance, I was forced to use AllMusic, rather than a score aggregator, because even Metacritic did not have scores for some of the artists’ first albums. However since AllMusic is so widely recognised within the industry I judged it the lesser of several evils. It does fall prey to this particular trope, however, which discredits it slightly.

A second problem is that it could be said these best-selling artists became so because they bucked the trend of the ‘difficult second album’. In order to counter that, I then analysed artists chosen at random from my own music library. Click below for that graph:

Click to view the interactive graph

Click to view the interactive graph

While the average score for these artists does indeed fall for their second album, indicating  there might be some truth to the phenomenon, it is by no means certain. For instance, more artists (4) scored higher for their second album than those who did not (3). In fact, if it weren’t for Interpol, the average would actually have stayed exactly the same.

While my sample sizes for each analysis were too small to come to any definitive answer it appears that, for music at least, the ‘difficult second album’ is a myth. In terms of the wider entertainment industry, however, it might simply be a misnomer – the much larger analysis I have started for film series indicates that what is there termed ‘sequelitis’ or sequel stagnation, is very real.

To conclude, we should be extremely glad the ‘difficult second album’ isn’t an all-encompassing phenomenon. If it were, we might have missed some of the greatest works of art of our lifetimes.

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Posted in Data, Data Stories

Data: Visualising Nintendo’s Fading Fortunes

Nintendo’s fortunes have taken a hit recently: They cut their projected sales for their latest home console the Wii U to less than a third of their initial forecast, and their most visible figures took huge pay cuts, an act of self-flagellation that is in some way supposed to reassure their shareholders.

It wasn’t always the case, however: Back in the halcyon days of 2008/9, Nintendo’s Little Console That Could, the DS, was essentially a license to print money. In the ten years’ since its launch, the handheld console has become the second-best selling console ever, and the best selling handheld console in history. Here’s a quick visualisation I made showing its cumulative sales, by year and region.

Click for a more interactive version

Click for a more interactive version

I quickly scraped this page to get the raw data, and tidied it up so it was by year.

As you can see, while ‘Other’ is a massively unhelpful description of a region, this vast entity of unknown sellers is almost itself eclipsed by the single region of the USA, understandable since that was where Nintendo spent a huge proportion of its advertising revenue.

What is most noticeable, however, is the steep drop-off in the tail-end of 2010. This has been attributed to the release of its successor console, the Nintendo 3DS, but the sales figures for the 3DS discredits the idea that all the consumers migrated to the new console: To date the 3DS has sold 42.74 million units worldwide, during the three years since its launch. As this graph demonstrates, that is nowhere near the number the original DS sold even in its first year, where it was untested and frequently derided:

Worldwide DS Sales by Year

More importantly, though, it also shows that not all – in fact, nowhere near – the established user base has migrated across to the new console. There are many conjectures and theories about why that might be the case, and the fact that the DS boom ended when market penetration of smartphones began to reach an appreciable level supports the idea that many gamers instead migrated to a smartphone system rather than dedicated video game console. This is further supported by the fact that Nintendo – notoriously slow to react to global technological trends – has finally recently announced plans to create apps and promotions for smartphones.

This data is by no means definitive, and it’s certainly possible for Nintendo to revive their flagging fortunes (they’ve done it before, and I needs me some more Smash Bros and Zelda games), but at the moment it all bears out the idea that the company is in the doldrums, with no easy course out.

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Posted in Data, Data Stories