Yesterday, CBR presented the first half of our 52-minute interview with DC Comics Executive VP-Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood and Senior VP-Sales Bob Wayne about the publisher’s September relaunch plans. Among the topics covered were the publisher’s expectations on a creative level and its plans for the Vertigo line in the immediate future and beyond. They also delved into Flashpoint’s place in launching the line-wide overhaul, the challenge of making the entire line of titles as accessible to both new and veteran readers as possible and more.
Today, the discussion continues with CBR’s John Mayo asking the executive duo about sales figures, the mixed results DC has experienced in cutting prices to $2.99, their view on taking over the number one slot in the comic book publishing hierarchy, their hopes for the future of brick-and-mortar retailers as well as digital comics and more.
As you know, I also talk about sales figures — set my expectations for what DC’s targets or goals are for this relaunch. DC, from my vantage point, has always seemed to be playing more of a long game than a short game. You’ve been at DC for how long, Bob?
Wayne: I’m in my 25th year
So, not a pre-Crisis employee, but pretty close.
Wayne: Yes, I started out really young, I skipped 7th and 8th grade to take the job.
My point is that you have the history at DC, so you have a long perspective. You, John, are fairly new to DC, so you have fresh eyes. I think that’s a great combination.
Wayne: We think so. We’re delighted to talk to you in part because you’re one of the few souls with ComicBookPage and CBR to report on the business of the industry. I totally understand why it’s reported on, it’s an important thing to follow. It shows us great directional things that we take to heart in terms of our performance. What I’d alert you to is what you’ve already played back to us, it’s that we’re playing for the long term, we’re playing for keeps. Were we not, then we’d be playing “who wins the month” and I swear to you that we don’t follow that. And were we playing for the short term, we’d put out way too many titles every month and kill a character every quarter and do deep-discounting willy-nilly. We’re going to leave that to other publishers.
Our measurements for a successful New 52, with every respect to how the industry tracks the stuff, has nothing to do with dollar share, it has nothing to do with unit share. Were we to make it about dollar share, we certainly wouldn’t be holding the line at $2.99 like we are, with 48 titles out of 52, and those 4 that are $3.99 have more than enough extra content to merit the $3.99 price. My point is, so many other measurements of a successful DC Entertainment and a successful DC Comics, in particular the New 52, like the quality of the storytelling, the media merchandise opportunities that come out of this publishing success, the staying power of these stories and their appeal to readers in periodicals, in collected editions, physical and digital, domestic and international, use far many more distinct measurements than what is usually tracked. The full story is not shared, as it’s somewhat proprietary, as we combine Diamond, Neilsen and Bookscan. We certainly appreciate you following the industry like you do, but I want to make it clear to you and the readers that it’s not something we market or create against.
Rood: I think the Neilsen/Bookscan is an important aspect that we have spent a number of years working with, not just periodicals but book formats to try to maximize sales through the comic book shops and bookstores and other outlets. I think we have a substantial advantage in that format across all our channels of distribution that is under-represented because the metric for periodical comics is primarily sales through Diamond and the metric for book format is definitely sales through Barnes & Noble and to libraries and scholastic book fairs.
Just through Diamond, DC does exceedingly well, particularly with Vertigo, where “Fables,” “Sandman” and “Y: The Last Man” are constantly represented on the trade side of the Diamond sales charts. The success you’ve had there is visible, and I can imagine where I’ve seen something like “DMZ” under-reported via Diamond, that you’ve had success in bookstores.
Rood: I wouldn’t say it’s under-reported. The Diamond numbers are accurate for sales to those accounts (comic shops). Where it’s under-reported, and all of our books are under-reported, is that you don’t have access to the full information.
Yes, and I try to make that clear in my reports. I’d love to have access to that bookstore data so that I can show how the direct market is different from the mass market and where successes are on both sides.
Rood: As we want to let our retailers know how digital is performing so that they can order and participate in digital accordingly, we can come to you with news that you can to put some color onto what you are given from the Diamond numbers. One thing I’d say too is that we won’t know the true value of the New 52 for a year or so, as there won’t be collected editions until the Spring. There’s a value to creating a core backlist from the New 52 that going to reverberate for a long time. If we were out to win September then our incentive program to the retailers would be short-sighted and one-off. I’m pleased that retailers are pleased with what we’re doing for months to come to make sure that the orders are robust and accurate for consumers of these titles
One of the things you mentioned along those lines was how DC had held the line at $2.99 since the beginning of the year, which I thought was a bold move then and very much appreciated. I’ve got to imagine that that was a challenging decision for DC to make and not one that was made lightly, particularly since you had to take some material (like Jimmy Olsen) and repackage it to get it out.
Rood: We’re of our word, in a day and age where not everyone is, we’re pretty proud of that. That doesn’t pay the bills and I had hoped, candidly, that there was going to be a commensurate growth in volume that made $2.99 undeniably wonderful as a business move but that has not yet been the case.
While it may not have had the financial payoff, the amount of goodwill that it got DC was substantial.
Wayne: I understand. I think it slowed the attrition on some of our titles where retailers would tend to assume that they needed to ratchet it down and that fans would be dropping off, it made it easier for fans to stick with titles. But slowing our attrition, while we can work up a matrix of information against our competitors and other titles to show that it’s slowed, it is not the same as getting a lift from it, so it didn’t make the cleanest case.
Rood: Look at the moves Dan and Jim have made since becoming co-publishers. Witness for two examples, Drawing the Line at $2.99 and DC Comics: The New 52. Not only were they bold, but they came from a place of concern. I love the goodwill that comes around these bold moves. Yes, they are met with some frenzy, but we’d have it no other way. That is what fearlessness is going to draw. But, I sure like that we had the best interests of our readers in mind. And in particular with the New 52, that we have the best interest of the comic shop retailer in mind.
It definitely seems that way. You guys are looking at the long game, respectful to the readers and retailers and their time, their money, their interest and not taking that for granted. I would really like to see that pay off. It seems like you’re trying to build up the habit of reading comics, not just trying to get the most out of consumers’ wallets right now.
Rood: We think these are the right moves to make so there is a robust multi-media, multi-channel business of comics 10 to 20 years from now.
Along those lines, one of the things I’ve seen as I’ve been reporting the numbers that I find frustrating is that attrition you are talking about, Bob. What, if anything, can be done about that? Because that seems like a law of gravity almost in comics.
Wayne: I think when you have an audience that has been with you for any period of time, it is a natural thing when you start to go, “Oh, I should be saving money.” We are just trying to make it extremely difficult to make that decision to cut back on our stuff. We want that to be a painful choice. We’d rather people say, “I don’t need to take the drive to the grocer today. I’ll eat some leftovers.” That’s fine. I’m being a bit flip. But that is my goal: to make it where it is a tough decision. If it’s an easy decision to drop one of our titles, it means there is something we are not doing right to hold that readers interest. I think Dan and Jim are very keenly aware that you have to make it compelling so people come back and give you money every month. One of the things I always feel the editorial guys need to be reminded is, the rest of the world doesn’t get comics by going to lunch and when they come back there is a pile of comics on their desk. They have to decide to spend money for them. And when people say, “This gets really good with issue six,” that’s great. Because if I’m buying it, I gave up on issue four. Waiting for it to get really great at six? That is an enormous investment for a fan to make. I think one of the things about DC Comics: The New 52 batch of titles is, you are just jumping right in from moment one. There is no, “Wait, let’s walk across the room and talk about how we got here. Let’s all sit around the desk and talk about the last three adventures we had.” No — you are just right into the action.
Rood: We look at every single aspect to tell ourselves, this is what can be done to increase the frequency of the core reader and drive the sampling of a new reader. That is why we’ve taken the pricing steps we’ve taken. That is also why we are at price parity digital product to physical product. That is why we’ve invigorated the creative teams. That is why we are not taking certain storytelling for granted. They all had to earn their way back into their creative assignment by showing us they are serious about this bold new direction. Everything we are doing in marketing is to reduce that barrier to sales, like Bob said. And B-to-B, too, making it hard on a shop owner to order less than X-percent more. Making it as hard as possible on them because we have wonderful product and it is merchandised really, really well. Today, in stores nation-wide, is a sampler book of 40 pages about the New 52. This is classic marketing: give them a taste. Give them enough about each of the 52 so there is real delight and anticipation. We take so seriously the trust with our retailers. It hurts us to hear these stories about valuable customers threatening to stop [buying DC titles]. We are so confident that there will be more jumping on than jumping off — but that doesn’t mean we are insensitive to any jumping off.
Talking about jumping off and what you are saying, Bob, about making it as hard as possible to get off a title, what do you guys think about miniseries? It seems that a built in transient sales thing exists where you hook readers on a title and however many issues later, the sales are over. Are you going to continue with the miniseries as frequently as we’ve seen?
Wayne: We’ll continue doing some things in miniseries. If editorial gets pitched an idea and they just don’t think it can sustain for a long term but it is a really cool story and they think that fans would like to read it and the talent would like to tell it, there is no reason not to do something that is within a certain number of pages. So you’ll still be seeing that type of storytelling. We are refocusing, however, a lot of attention on the monthlies to re-invigorate those. There is always the danger that the miniseries becomes the most interesting thing because it is that one idea that someone has had to pitch for a long time. I think it is tougher, in some cases, to keep telling compelling stories month in and month out. But I think that you’re seeing that that is really what we are attempting to do with the New 52, to make those book as compelling as possible. If somebody calls up Bob and Eddie and says, “I’d like to do five issues of X,” and if it is a character that nobody is touching, and they think that’d be kind of cool, they’ll bounce it around to Dan and Jim. If Dan and Jim sign off on it, then it goes a bit wider. Then someone will say, “Bob, how many do you think we can sell of that?” I’ll jot some numbers down or I’ll say I think it will sell like this. That gets routed to a couple of my colleagues and then we start to build out whether or not it is a compelling story. Do we think it will be a profitable addition to the line, both in the financial sense but also in the overall identity of the company? Does it add something to it? It is transformative to a character? Geoff Johns and his team in Burbank are looking for some new hook, to go out and try to find and an animation hook, a television hook or a movie hook for a character. There are just lots of things where a miniseries might be a better way to do something.
Rood: Television programming metaphors abound. We have a big fall launch. There’ll be some mid-season replacements. Some series will go on too long. Some will be cancelled before they should have been, however unlikely that is. There’ll be miniseries. Vertigo is our HBO. There are a bunch of metaphors.
Going back to one of your earlier points, there are other things you guys are measuring this on then just raw sales numbers. I seen for a while a couple of titles that are a little lower on the list but because they add the diversity to the line or position something well, you keep them there. What other criteria are there that are worth reminding people looking at the sales figures about?
Rood: Quality storytelling. Depth and breadth of stories and characters. Opportunities for media and merchandise downstream from the publishing imperative. Opportunities to bring in a whole new readership once they are collected versus those monthly periodicals. Profitability, which is different than top line sales. There are a lot of measurements, qualitative and quantitative, beyond what is widely reported. We want to succeed and we want to reach as many consumers as possible. But we don’t want to beat Marvel. We don’t want to be number one at all costs. These aren’t things we think of. We need a healthy competition from vital publishers like Marvel and we delight in working with them and competing against them. But we don’t want it to come at someone else’s expense and we certainly don’t want it to come at the expense of long term thinking or long term profitability. Or media and merchandising opportunities of the properties we are working with.
It sounds like you guys are focusing more on what I would consider “good profits” versus “bad profits.” You are not going for the quick cash grab, you’re looking at the big picture, and I think that’s just the smart move.
Rood: What can possible come from 200 titles a month? What good can come from that? What can come from enticing the retailer falsely with ultra-deep discounting only to be vanquished a month later. It is just foolhardy and it is not the way we do business.
Wayne: One of the reasons why the various sales incentives that we are doing with the New 52 are not just for the first month — we are doing these for September, October, November, for three months, to help the retailers find their level, their base in their store for these books. For me, the worst thing that could happen would be if somebody wants to read “I, Vampire” and goes into a shop and they can’t find it because the owner only ordered two copies. One for him and one for the other guy who works there and they never even made the rack. So that is why on 41 of the titles we are saying, go a little bit deeper, get out of your comfort zone and we’ll take back what you don’t sell.
Rood: Up and down the line, there are titles we know probably won’t do well as variants and there are some titles we know darn well don’t need to be deep discounted. We have found a wonderful mixed economy in concert and collaboration with our retailers on bringing variants and price discounting and returnability to show that we are putting our money where our mouths are here. Sharing whatever quote-unquote risk associated with this New 52.
I think you guys have gone almost above and beyond in that respect, which I think was a very smart move. It lowers the anxiety for the retailers and is also something you guys have done at the beginning our all of your weekly series. It shows that you are standing behind your product. That show of faith is, hopefully, very much rewarded. As a reader, I appreciate that.
Rood: Thank you. We appreciate the praise. We need that praise to translate into increased orders and increased sales, but we sure appreciate the goodwill! Again, it is a pretty sacred bond between us and our readers and us and our retailers.
Wayne: I just want to push back a point I made, though. We are doing it for three months. A lot of times, we’ll do these things it is only for one month and the retailer doesn’t even have a chance to really see how well it has done and get any kind of feedback from the customer before they’ve got to make another blind decision at regular terms. This is why we are doing it for the three months. So that retailers can start to figure out, I sold this many of one, this many of two, I’ve got a buffer with three, now on four I feel like I’ve got a better level of confidence as to what my number is. Hopefully we’ll end up achieving a more effective, better sell-in.
You’re covering that period where retailers are essentially ordering blind because they haven’t seen the actual book. They haven’t gotten their actual customers feedback. I think that is just fair.
Wayne: A lot of the people on the sales side at DC have experience working either in brick-and-mortar book stores or in brick-and-mortar comic shops. Although we don’t currently exist with that anxiety of having to make those decisions, you still wake up sometimes remembering what it is like to make those decisions. The complexity for the retailer of the number of different titles they have to track and order now is so much more complex than it was when I was in retail that I am not jealous of this. I find myself lacking in envy. I have empathy, but I lack envy. I do not want to do this.
The reflected version for us is when we get the orders in from Diamond after the final order cutoff and then we are faced with, now we have the collected wisdom of all of these retailers around the world who order English language comics from us. Now we have to decide, are they right? Do they just need a little bit of a buffer? Or are they wrong and they are going to come back they day after and try to reorder. That is really where the science and the art kind of have to balance. A number of my colleges are relatively new to this. Sometimes, I’ll send more information than I might have in the past. I’m changing this because of Y, and usually I think that has been enough information that people go, “Oh, that makes sense.” Or, “I want to do this. I’m going to do it in 48 hours. Somebody needs to stop me if they’re going to. Otherwise, I’m getting in the car, I’m starting up, and I’m heading that way.” And, occasionally, they’ll go, “Whoa, hold on a second. Are you sure you’ve got enough gas? Ok, that’s fine.” Or they’ll go, “Whoa, I don’t think you should do that. I’d like to take the keys away from you until we talk.” Those are the kind of responses I get sometimes.
Wayne: He’s laughing, but he knows which ones he’s said!
And that is where your experience over the long term there really comes into advantage for DC. Is you’ve got an idea both back when you were working in retail but also seeing how stuff has sold over the years to make those decisions. That’s got to be a tough call at times.
Wayne: It is a tough call at times, but then I also have all the expertise of my colleges in sales and the folks in marketing and the folks who come to us new from other disciplines and other fields. Some of them say, “This reminds me a lot of when we did this over at my other job,” or, “This is something like when they relaunched this other thing over here,” and you go, “That’s an idea — how did that go?” You pull all of this collective knowledge together. Try to adapt it to the way in which things have been done historically but also use it as is this a breakpoint where we can do something different. The flexibility this gives us, by having people with different perspectives and different experiences, I think has made us more flexible and nimble on making these decisions. When we did the “Superman: Earth One” hardcover graphic novel, we had really healthy orders and [the copies of the book] just evaporated. We had to figure out how many to go back to press on. We went back to press, basically, for as many as we gone with initially. This is not a normal thing to do in comic publishing because you assume you got most of your interest from the weekly buyer up front. But this reminds us of how these things have performed and was reflecting the amount of attention we were getting from the press. Dan and Jim said, if that is the way all you guys feel, let’s go for it. It turned out to be a good call because we sold all of those as well.
David Hyde: But in part, a long term success — you may not have access to all those numbers, but I think watching the “New York Times” graphic novel bestseller list gives you a little bit of a sense of both the long term gain that you referenced with Vertigo and with “Unwritten,” “American Vampire” and “Fables.”
Rood: It discounts Bob’s skills, though, as an innovator and his ability to throw out convention. So, yes, we draw on the archivist thinking or the history trend-spotting but his delight, as head of sales, is doing something really new and striking in digital. Or new and striking in the book channel. Or international. Yes, you need that experience, but I think his willingness to try new things, day in, day out, is the real asset.
There is experience and [there is] not following it blindly. Knowing when to veer is where the skill is.
Rood: We hope for our retailers, that they are all faced with the same dilemma as they have a new audience base. They have new competitive platforms and new platforms they should capitalize on. They have to find some combination of what to keep versus what to throw out entirely.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Appreciate all of the feedback of what you guys are thinking behind the scenes. Because as an outsider it is easy for me to think I’d have done this different. Oh wait, I hadn’t thought of this decision or that aspect. I wish you guys the best of success with the New 52.
Rood: It is natural travel on the grief curve. People were fearful, in denial, angry. I am so heartened that we are taking the country and the channel out of the darkness.
Listen to the full audio of the discussion on a special Mayo Report episode of the Comic Book Page podcast here: http://www.comicbookpage.com/Podcast/?p=561