First of all, nobody knows anything about the numbers except the publishers, so this is a ridiculous discussion to be having.
Secondly — confessing that I don’t know anything about the numbers — I’m pretty sure that when it comes to stories that real humans might read,* single issue sales are a fraction of the story. Quick, which has sold more: Sandman #21 or Season of Mists? Bone #10 or The Great Cow Race? Black Hole #6 or Black Hole? All the Year Round for 4/30/1859 or A Tale of Two Cities? Look, guys, a paperback edition is not “a cheap and easy way for latecomers to catch up with what they’ve missed.” (1991 is <— that way.) It’s a book. It’s the only thing libraries will stock, it’s the only thing bookstores will sell, it’s the only thing NYRB will review, it’s the only thing most people in the world are interested in reading.** The book’s the thing.
Related point: a purchase of a book in a given format is not an ideological declaration of allegiance.*** For years I’ve been hearing “buy the book in X format or you’re a traitor.” “Our team is losing! Buy single issues of She-Hulk or there may never be a collection!” “CIVIL WAR: I’m with Waiting-for-the-Trade Man.” You guys read too many comic books! There are no teams. Consume the media you like, in the way that makes sense to you, and the market will recalibrate itself to suit the consumption trends that emerge.
*i.e. stories in which Green Lantern does not appear and the female characters do not habitually stand such that you can see all their erogenous zones simultaneously.
**Excluding digital and disposable formats.
***With apologies to my lit theory prof.
As for this question of profitability. Why doesn’t Vertigo cancel its low-selling books? Profitability is a really complicated concept, and I imagine the mechanisms behind a title’s cancellation are considerably more complex than some are implying.
In every area of publishing, some products are (strictly speaking) profitable and others are (strictly speaking) not — it’s a fact of life. In fact, MOST books are unprofitable. Every publisher uses the revenue from the high-performing products to subsidize the loss from the low-performing products. Additionally, it may take a product many months or years to make back the investment that produced it — particularly at a company which pays high page rates and/or advances. If every publisher canceled a title the instant it dipped below the strict “profitability” line, almost none of them would last long enough to make real money, and the publisher would go bankrupt.
There are a dozen reasons why a strictly “unprofitable” title might be continued:
- expected revenue from future formats
- contractual obligations to the creators (I believe Rushkoff was promised at least one TPB when he signed Testament, and I suspect this is standard)
- public relations and other intangible/indirect profits (could DC really just cease production of kids’ comics? could Vertigo really cancel 80% of its line? what would people think?)
- editorial preference/indulgence
- contractual obligations from a movie option (GOT NO LEGS BOY must remain in publication because they might make a GOT NO LEGS BOY movie)
With the first bullet point being the most significant, in most cases.
And for that matter, a low-selling book may have considerably lower production costs than a higher-selling book. So it may not be nearly as unprofitable as it looks.