The Sales Figures of DC’s Irwin Donenfeld

Irwin Donenfeld was the publisher and editorial director of DC Comics (then known as National Comics and National Periodical Publications) for most of the 1950s and 1960s. Irwin was the son of the firm’s founder and majority owner Harry Donenfeld, and he was groomed from a young age to play a role in the family business. One of the things that has fascinated me about Irwin is that, during this era in which the sale of comic books was done solely through mainstream mass market newsstand outlets, he attempted to study the sales results of the various DC titles in order to attempt to work out what was causing certain books to sell, so that DC could take advantage of that information and duplicate the results.

To that end, he reportedly compiled a big book , some pages from which I am reproducing here. This book contained tiny reproductions of the covers of the different DC issues pasted in, along with sales data about how they performed. So as you can see in the above example, the top line of information listed under each issue indicated the print run for that specific issue, the initial sales percentage that had been reported by distribution, typically after about three months or so, and the number of copies reported as having been sold in that initial, early reporting. The second line contained the final sales percentage, circled, the later sales percentage typically reported after 6-9 months, and again the total number of copies that had been reported sold at that point.

It’s important to understand that, at this time, the way all magazines were sold was on a consignment basis. An outfit printed however many books they felt they needed to distribute in order to get good market saturation, whatever books were sold you made a profit on, and any copies that remained unsold past the active sell date were returned for credit and pulped. This means that typically a publisher such as DC had to print three copies in order to sell two, or sometimes worse. Given that comic books were seen as an impulse item generally, publishers would adjust their print runs based on the time of year (comics typically sold better during the summer months, for example) and attempted to maximize their profits. If you didn’t print enough copies, you wound up leaving money on the table by not being able to get your books into enough outlets where they would sell. print too many copies, and you’d get stuck with huge returns that would destroy whatever margin of profitability you built up. Managing these calculations on an issue-by-issue basis was one of Irwin’s responsibilities, and it’s one that he took very seriously.

It was through studying these results that Irwin began to develop a sense as to what elements might affect the sell-through of a given comic book; anything that seemed to result in a good sale would be repeated, until some manner of pattern emerged. Famously, he boiled down the effective elements in the 1960s to the following seven items; Gorillas, Dinosaurs, Motorcycles, the City in Flames, the Hero Crying, a Purple Background and A Direct Question to the Readers. Consequently, these ideas were used on covers quite often, to the point where coordination was necessary to prevent every DC title in a given month from featuring a gorilla.

I’ve never gotten to see the whole of Irwin’s book, though I’ve heard it spoken about several times, and I have managed to collect images of three or four pages from it over the years that have seen print in one place or another. So let’s take a look at what we’ve got and see what we can figure out.

This is the page summarizing the sales of ALL-STAR COMICS, the anthology series that had showcased the adventures of the Justice Society of America, right at the point when the series was overhauled into a western title, ALL-STAR WESTERN, in 1951. By the turn of the decade, sales on costumed super heroes were in decline, and many of them had fallen away. The Justice Society was one of the last holdouts from the DC line, apart from the “Big Three” of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, all of whom were still featured in multiple titles every month (though Wonder Woman would soon be down to just her own book.) Interestingly, and to the frustration of Dr. Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas no doubt, we can see here that the switch-over from the JSA to western stories really didn’t improve the sales of the book at all. And in fact, it may have softened sales. (It’s hard to tell 100% without a picture of what sales were doing across the entire line as 1951 turned into 1952 and beyond.) But with these results, DC might have been better off sticking with the Justice Society.

Here’s a snapshot of the sales on THE FLASH, the series that was largely responsible for kicking off the resurgence of super hero titles in the late 1950s. It’s interesting to me to see here that the best selling issue in these two years by far was the one that brought back the Flash of the Golden Age, #123 (the first issue covered on this page.) You can understand why that would cause editor Julie Schwartz to revisit that pairing only a couple of issues later. The second best selling issue here was #131, in which the Scarlet Speedster teams up with his Justice League ally Green Lantern. Interestingly, a few of these issues post final sales percentage numbers that are higher than the initial two projections, which shows just how uncertain the reporting could be on the comics of this time.

This is also a good time to speak a little bit about how the success of a comic book was evaluated during this period, as there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about it. Certainly, the number of copies that was being sold was hugely important–but even more important was the “efficiency” of the title, that percentage that Donenfeld was circling here: how many copies you sold out of a given print run. With the profit on an individual issue that was selling for 12 cents so very slim, you could actually wind up making more money on a book that sold 200,000 copies on a print run of 300,000 copies than on a book that sold 800,000 copies on a print run of 1,2000,000. So those efficiencies were very important.

And it’s in the realm of efficiencies that the nascent Marvel Comics Group showed up on DC’s radar during this time. None of Marvel’s books sold nearly as many copies as DC’s best selling titles. But what the Marvel books had going for them was extraordinarily high efficiencies across the boards. Where THE FLASH, above, might have been selling around 250,000 copies an issue on a print run of give-or-take 450,000, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was moving the same number of units on a print run of 300,000. And the solution here for DC wasn’t simply to reduce their print order: the fewer copies you printed, the less market penetration a tile had, and so the fewer chances there were for a potential reader to come across a copy and want to buy it. It was Marvel’s higher efficiencies that caught the notice of the DC brass and which concerned them.

One final page that I have access to, this one also from a key moment in comic book history, covering the period during which the BATMAN television series premiered on ABC in January of 1966. Even before that, we can see that editor Julie Schwartz’s “New Look” revamping of the title had worked out well, its sell-through and percentages were good even before the television premiere. But those post-premiere numbers jump way up. The issue that was on the stands when BATMAN was first televised was #179, in the lower left corner, though it had been on sale for a week or two by that point. #180 was the first issue to experience its entire sale cycle in the umbra of the show and the Batmania that swept the country. By the final issue on sale here 9the one that features the show itself as an element of its cover) the percentage is back down to a more reasonable level–but the actual number of copies being sold is a hell of a lot greater. Also of note, Irwin didn’t seem to bother to track the returns on the 80 Page Giant issues, probably because they were all reprint compilations. But I’d be curious as to what the sell-through had been like on those as well.

11 thoughts on “The Sales Figures of DC’s Irwin Donenfeld

  1. When I was in Direct Sales at Marvel, Jim Sokolowski kept notebooks something like these, to be able to track how well books were doing and maybe glean some data from them on what kind of covers sold best, although not with the kind of specifics Donenfeld did.

    It was Ski who suggested bagging the first issue of the McFarlane SPIDER-MAN for the newsstand, on the grounds that SAIL magazines best-performing issue each year was the bagged issue. It was bagged with a calendar, and I suspect “free calendar” was more significant than “it’s bagged,” but the bagged Spider-Man certainly set off a sales firestorm as the direct market demanded their own bagged editions, and that became a whole thing.

    Ski also had the debut issues of BARBIE and BARBIE FASHION bagged, a few months later, though these had actual giveaways in the bag — a door hanger and a fake Barbie credit card(?) — which was another successful model for a while, usually with trading cards as the in-bag giveaway.

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  2. With all due respect, this is interesting but not very relevant in the modern age. Is it possible to share information about the marketing research that informs the comic book market in 2021?

    Surely, it is no longer gorillas and dinosaurs. And clearly the life-cycle from comic book to TPB is key. But what is the 2021 allegory to the Donenfeld work?

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  3. Another dynamic that’s probably impacting Flash’s sales in that chart — #125 is when it goes from 10 to 12 cents, so there’s a steep fall-off in sell-through. That turns up just about everywhere it happened at other publishers in ABC’s data.

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    1. The Flash numbers are also spot-on with the one full year on that page for which DC reported sales data in its postal circulation statement: DC reported 270,000 for 1960, which probably would have been for #124-131 (the year of issues ending before September, when they would have compiled the report). Donenfeld’s numbers for those issues average to 269,375!

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      1. Another notable thing here as well is that the TV-charged Batman #183 — when sales would have been at their summer peak — did push well past the million-copy mark. I’d known it had averaged below a million for the year, but didn’t know for sure if any of the individual issues beat that mark. That’d possibly make it (and maybe the issue or issues following) the only million-topper between 1960 and Star Wars #1 in 1977.

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