DC Comics is starting 2011 with a little bit of old school outreach.
The publisher announced today on its The Source blog that later this year it will reinstate letter columns in its monthly DC Universe titles. The program’s focal point wll be centered at DCletterspage.com. The traditional first point of connection between fans and editorial, the back-of-issue forum for questions, compliments and complaints was phased out of the publisher’s comics in 2002 in lieu of online message boards and other more immediate interaction provided by the Web.
The move back to letter columns came hand-in-hand with a note from DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson where she outlined the major selling points for the company this year, both of which were tagged “DCU in 2011” – a heading the publisher has used for strings of announcements in the past. To help prepare for the expected onslaught of news from DC, CBR News spoke exclusively with DC Co-Publishers Dan Dido and Jim Lee about the letter columns return and how it will work differently from the internet, the publisher’s incoming “Hold The Line at $2.99” move to set all of its monthly books at the same price point, their plans to shape but not expand the line surrounding the “Green Lantern” movie, original graphic novels, digital comics and more.
CBR News: To start, the letter columns are back! I know that the traditional back and forth with fans at the back of DC Comics went out as Dan came in as Executive Editor in favor of columns like DC Nation, and I always got the impression that part of the reason was that it was tough to keep the letters pages up to date. Why is now the time to swing back towards that practice, and what makes letter columns a practical part of publishing monthly comics?
Dan Didio: Well, one of the reasons why we’re doing it is because the fans have been asking for it, to be quite honest with you. We’ve been out there talking to readers at different panels and conventions, and we’ve been getting letters and requests online as well about bringing back the letters pages and bringing back a sense of community to our books. That’s something we considered, and when we were rethinking our books and going to the $2.99 strategy, we wanted to make sure that even though the page count went down to 20 pages for the books themselves, there could still be more content or things people could enjoy in the monthly comics. One of those things we went back to was the letters pages. We looked at it and discussed it in terms of coming up with a formula that made the letters pages feel current. We didn’t want them talking about things that were three or four months old but things that were just coming out. We’re going to be putting a system in place this month to gather information, comments and more to put that sense of community back in our books again.
Part of this must be playing the DC website and the internet in general off what’s going on in the books a bit more. The Source has become such a big part of where fans look for things from you guys, in what ways does a 21st Century letter column have to be a hybrid of all the ways you reach out to fans? Is this going to be a mix of snail mail and e-mail?
Dan Didio: That’s absolutely correct. It’s going to be a little of both, and we’ll be gathering our letters both online and through the regular mail because we really want to get the thoughts and voices of the fans out there. We want to have people talking to the editors and have the fans talking to the talent and have the fans talking to each other. We want to impress that that sense of community isn’t just online but in the books themselves.
Jim Lee: I think it’s interesting in this day and age where people have Twitter accounts and one person’s Twitter page is no more special than a celebrity’s account in that it’s just as accessible, having a comment or a question printed in an actual comic elevates it from this fog of chatter and memorializes it. It makes it a permanent bit of history, and that’s something that I think a whole new generation of fans are going to see and enjoy and look forward to. I remember growing up that the letters pages were something very cool when you’d see a lot of recurring names, and each of the books would have a letters page with a lot of character with sometimes the creators jumping in to answer questions. We look forward to recreating that level of discourse and allow people who are used to expressing themselves on message boards and Twitter to be able to see their comments in print. It’s something that unique to print again in this world of digital comics.
Dan Didio: And I’ll add one thing too: We’re looking at the letters pages too as a place where everybody uses their real names. We want people out there to be identified so we can see who our fans are. It’s not going to be anonymous because we really want to have that sense of community where people are meeting each other, knowing who they are and enjoying the comics together.
Let’s talk a bit about the community and how you’ve been interacting with them of late. The last time we talked at New York Comic Con, it was just after the $2.99 announcement, and everything on that front was so new people hadn’t really processed it yet in terms of how it would affect fans and creators. In the months since then, what is the range of responses you’ve seen to the “Hold The Line At $2.99” Promotion?
Jim Lee: It’s been very well received. Obviously on a fan level, I saw when we announced it on panels at conventions that there was a huge wave of applause. The fans are appreciative of the fact that we’re aware we’re all in a recession and that budget are getting tighter and tighter. We’re not just blindly moving the price point up a dollar every year as we’re trying to chase profits. If you look at what’s on Twitter or message boards, it’s overwhelmingly positive that fans realize we’re basically taking a bet that reducing our cover price will increase interest in the comics and hopefully get readers picking up things they might have dropped. But more importantly, we were concerned that for a lot of fans we were breaking them of their love of comics. If we kept increasing the price point on these books, rather than making a decision of whether they’d buy one book over another, they’d just give up the hobby all together because it’s too expensive. We really wanted to make the point that DC is very aware of this and that we want them to stay. We want them to continue buying comics, and we want to make that as economical for them as possible.
So I think there are three components to that plan: one is obviously the price point. Two is the content – it’s beholden on us to give them comics they want to read. If you talk to some fans, they’ll generally pay what they feel a comic is worth. Even if you take a comic and make it $0.99 or free, some books they won’t want to pick up. It’s important for us not to just rely on the price point as part of this campaign. We have to ratchet up the quality level of the stories we’re telling as we make them affordable. And the third point is to give them a jumping on point, a point of access. “This is the first issue of a new story line, and if you haven’t been buying this book before because it was $3.99 -Â we’re making it cheaper at a point where you can jump into a story line and understand what’s going on and get immersed in these characters.” That’s really the program we’re going to be rolling out in the coming months.
One thing you’ve been circling around here Jim is the long tail of the recession. Things continue to look shaky economically in general, and while sales haven’t been the worst ever, they certainly have been soft and slowly sliding down. In what ways is 2011 a critical year for DC in terms of how you’re trying to bolster the market and bolster the retailers?
Jim Lee: Maybe you can help me with this, Dan, but I can’t remember a year that’s not been a critical year. [Laughter] Looking back at the past, every year has been critical. And in terms of sales I think if you multiply the amount of books you sell by the price point, the actual number of dollars in the business has been relatively consistent, and that’s a very good thing. But I would much rather sell more books at a lower price point than fewer books at a higher one. I would rather have a larger fan base -Â a larger number of readers – than a smaller one because if you keep going with this logic of increased price point with fewer buyers, you’re eventually going to have a very small marketplace with very, very expensive comics. That doesn’t make any sense.
Dan Didio: I couldn’t agree more with that. And that’s the one thing we’ve been discussing since the moment we stepped into these positions. It’s not a question of just being able to continue the business, but how can we grow the business? That’s the purpose of a lot of these moves you’ve been seeing at DC. The $2.99 price is to make the periodicals affordable and accessible as possible. We’re going to grow the book store business with our trade programs and also with the creation of more original graphic novels like “Superman: Earth One.” And now we’re also growing in the digital marketplace. It’s not that any one of these things replaces any other. It’s just that all of them together keeps comics and our characters strong and builds them for a long, long future.
Jim Lee: And I think the hat trick to all of this is aligning Direct Market sales with events you’re doing in the mass market book stores with your digital comics and figuring out ways to leverage all the channels -Â finding ways to get the readers talking about what you’re doing in your major events and storylines in all the channels at the same time. We’re having some significant success with that.
On that front, you’ve got a big “Green Lantern” movie hitting in 2011 and a “War of The Green Lanterns” event coinciding with it. Are you looking to expand the size of the line along with that, or is this more about finding ways to let people tap into what’s already there?
Dan Didio: Realistically speaking, we’re probably not looking to stretch the rubber band much further than it is right now. We really want to focus our resources on the books we’re creating. You might see some titles replacing others with older titles going and new ones coming on board. There are some interesting things we’ll being doing during the crossover “Flashpoint” that will hopefully get people excited about the line. But at no point do we ever want to overextend our own resources, and we want to make sure that we’re committed to a line that is strong, makes sense, is accessible and is affordable.
Jim Lee: Yeah, I know that in discussions Dan and I have had about the line – and we bring Geoff Johns in on this too and the whole DC Editorial team -Â we’ve really gone through the lineup to say “What is the purpose behind every book? Can each of these characters support this many number of titles?” It’s not about flooding the market or putting as much product out there as possible. It really is about making sure that we have the right creative teams on the right projects and making sure the quality level is what we want the line to be at. I think a lot of effort is spent figuring out what that lineup will be.
Dan Didio: We’re not going to over-extend the line for the sake of market share. It doesn’t make sense for the long term health versus the short term business. And also what Jim and I haven’t touched on but we should is the inclusion of Bob Harras as Editor-in-Chief as part of that process. Bob comes with a great pedigree and an understanding of characters in how to build a line and understanding a line that has a sense of continuity and growth and a stories with a real sense of urgency. You’ll see that more as he puts his fingerprints on the line itself.
On the flipside from that big, interconnected picture of the monthly books, DC has had successes in the book stores in the past year with more stand alone efforts. You mentioned “Superman: Earth One” but the core “Blackest Night” series also did very well this year. What have you been talking about in terms of the future of graphic novels? “Batman: Earth One” is on tap as is “Samaritan X” – how has all that been shaping up?
Dan Didio: What we’re trying to do is say that if we’re going to do an original graphic novel, it has to have the sensibilities that work better for a graphic novel. As I was making an analogy before, I was saying that original graphic novels are our feature films. In the way the stories unfold and roll out, it’s a different style of storytelling than if you’re just collecting a series of issues. If the issues in periodical form are television shows, then the original graphic novels are films. One thing we’ve talked about is that when you look at “Superman: Earth One” or the “Earth One” books in general as we’re going to be rolling them out, we look at those as you’d see things done in the “Twilight” books or in novels like the Jack Reacher novels or the “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” books where you have a continuing character that you know so well, and you can follow them into different adventures. That’s a lot of what we’re trying to accomplish here. We’re seeing a lot of people these days telling almost periodical kinds of novels with recurring characters, and our business is recurring characters. So we should be in that business with them.
Do you have any idea what the next graphic novel will be released or when it will hit?
Dan Didio: The reality is that it’s mostly in the back half of the year where you’ll be seeing the original graphic novels. The first half of this year, we’ll be focusing on what’s going on in the periodicals and in the digital marketplace.
To wrap up, let’s hit that digital marketplace question. The DC storefront is up and you’ve been talking about upcoming plans for the Android platform. Do you feel like you’ve laid a strong base for your digital releases, and how do you build on that base this year?
Jim Lee: I think the defining strategy of our digital work has been one of convergence. We really wanted consumers/readers to be able to find the digital comics online with their various devices, purchase it and store it so they can have it in the same library so that they can access any of the comics they bought from any place. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. We’ve also got the PSP content that you can buy through the Playstation Network, but any DC Digital release you buy through our storefront at DCComics.com, through iTunes or through Android, you can have them stored in a library powered by comiXology, and you’ll be able to access these different purchases at any different time. That is a key differentiating point of us from our competitors. It’s one that we think differentiates us from our consumers, and it gives you a reason to purchase the digital comics rather than illegally download them because you have the ability to search the library and find your favorite books by creator, character or series. That’s going to be a big selling point for us as we build our digital collection onto more platforms. It’s all built on one library.
Keep your eyes peeled to CBR News in the coming week for more coverage of DC’s “DCU in 2011” plans!