David Gabriel Discusses Marvel NOW! Sales

Fridays on CBR mean Axel's In Charge.

Welcome to MARVEL A-I-C: AXEL-IN-CHARGE, CBR's regular interview feature with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso!

An editor with years of experience who's brought out comics to both critical acclaim and best-selling status, Alonso stepped into the chair at the top of Marvel's Editorial department earlier this year and since then has been working to bring his signature stylings to the entire Marvel U. Anchored by regular question and answer rounds with the denizens of the CBR Message Boards, each week Alonso will shake things up with special guest stars, exclusive art reveals and more!

This week, Axel welcomes Marvel SVP of David Gabriel joins the column to discuss the sales and retail response to the just started Marvel NOW! relaunch. With "Uncanny Avengers" already on the stands to reportedly huge numbers, the pair share specifics on where that title is at as well as the overall reaction to Marvel NOW! from retailers and fans including the widespread practice of variants, the shelf life of non-marquee and fan favorite titles, the $3.99 price point, digital sales and much, much more. Read on!

Kiel Phegley: David, welcome to A-i-C. Let's start with the basics for Marvel NOW! "Uncanny Avengers" just hit stands last month as the first book in the relaunch, and I've heard talk around the internet of over 300,000 in sales. Can you share an exact figure on that book?

David Gabriel: I can give you that we're over 350,000.

That's a big number in general for the direct market. When you were looking at this launch, what was your estimate like for sales on the line, and how does that number compare to the range you were looking for?

Gabriel: We definitely had an idea on where we wanted this title to end up. That number comes from a mix of seeing what we did with "Avengers VS. X-Men," the creative talent on the book and its mission statement. We couldn't be happier with where it landed at. Now, we also know there were variants on that book, of course, and the variants did very well for us across the board. All of them did. But the good thing on this was that the regular cover numbers even exceeded what we wanted.

There are a lot of variants for a Marvel book like this these days -- variants for specific stores and sketch covers and alternate covers and covers based on order minimums. Do you feel that those are driving up numbers more than they have in the past, or is there a spike in interest in the product that's the root cause?

Gabriel: I think whenever we do something big and new, it garners a lot of excitement. For "Uncanny Avengers" in particular, some variants were tied solely on incentives like the Skottie Young variant, and some were for participating in the launch parties -- like the Deadpool variant. I think those two in particular are some of the most sought after variants we've done. So there's a lot of excitement around those, and then we have sketch variants of some because there are fans out there who like to see the art in a raw form. There are retailers and buyers out there for those variants, and we try to make sure retailers have them in hand to sell.

But there's definitely a perception that a big variant push on a first issue like this will drive up those numbers and leave a lot of books on the shelves in the months ahead as the actual sales level comes in much lower. Anecdotally, do you hear form retailers that the variants impact their stores now than before, and do you feel like Marvel has really accelerated the number of those covers you've done from years past?

Gabriel: I do hear from retailers about what they like and what they don't like, and everybody in the industry hears that. But the best barometer for that is not so much what they're saying but what they order the next time we do things of this nature. For example, going from what we did with "Uncanny Avengers" with a couple of different variants to what we do with "All-New X-Men," if we see a noticeable drop in those variant programs we know they're not working. But if we see them stay at the same level or actually increase, then I know they're selling them on their end. They're either using them as a way to make their store more money or as a way to promote the book. That's how we know they're doing well. And it's kind of obvious, but we wouldn't be doing the programs if they didn't work. So those blank cover variants, for example -- if those didn't remain consistently high every time we put them out there, then we wouldn't be doing them. At least we have sales data on those.

Are we being accused of having too many variants right now? Yes. But every company does every couple of months. It just goes in cycles. I would say that at least every six months in the past five years, I've heard that same thing. What happens is you do a lot, and they work. Then you do a lot the second month, and they work maybe a little less as a whole. Maybe individual ones will do very well, then you see them taper off. We got to a point probably in the middle of "AvX" and maybe a little bit before where we did taper off on doing a lot of variant programs, and then we ramped up through Marvel NOW! because it makes the most sense to be doing them.

Axel and I have talked a lot about Marvel NOW! as a relaunch and not a reboot -- that's the message you've been trying to get into the minds of retailers and readers both. Obviously, it's an idea in terms of storytelling or continuity that impacts Editorial, but how has that idea gotten across as you see it from a sales perspective? Has that message gotten out the way you wanted, and does it have an impact on the long term success of these books?

Axel Alonso: Yep. We wanted to deliver the message in phases so it would settle in slowly. The first phase was the creative team teasers -- "Remender and Romita, Soldier," "Fraction and Bagley, Family," "Aaron and Ribic, Thunder" -- each of which suggested a distinct creative voodoo was coming to a title. The second phase was when we revealed what those titles were and provided a cover image that communicated the vibe of the book. But it was the third phase when the message really came into focus: when we previewed actual content -- story pages, design sketches. At that point, fans really seemed to get what we were doing.

Gabriel: I totally agree with Axel. We've seen that once the previews hit, everything comes together. We have this general issue happening in all entertainment right now where everything is available at our fingertips. When Axel and I were kids, if you were looking for facts, you pulled out an encyclopedia and it would take you time to search that out. And it took you a while to find what TV shows were coming up, what books were coming up and certainly what comics were coming. There was always a search involved. Now everything is available instantly, so any time we start teasing folks, everybody jumps on this bandwagon thinking, "I have a little information, but I don't understand any of it. I want it all immediately." Because that's the way we're training everyone.

I think what worked nice here is that we put out just a little bit to begin with, and it got the comics community -- retailers and fans, new customers and old customers, internet press -- talking about what's coming up. It gave everybody the sense of excitement that something big was coming. And it almost didn't matter what that big thing was. People were getting excited. So once the first Marvel preview came out, they knew a little bit more. And the good thing was that I had a lot of retailers going "I don't understand this. I don't understand that. What is it? I have to know more." And the more information we fed them, we saw on the numbers side that everything started to increase.

So even though people maybe weren't out there screaming that there was this recharge coming to the Marvel Universe, you could see the numbers going up and up and up and up. Like Axel said, once we got those previews out there, everything skyrocketed. It was a really a great way to do it, and now you see other companies copying the same style of doing things. And that's great because you know it really worked.

What you seem to be saying here indirectly -- and this has been said with some choice words by Axel and others of late -- is that what you're doing with the rollout is different than what DC did with the New 52. They've had a very good year with their line over the past 12 months. Part of what people point to in that success is a new normal for the sales charts where that big arrival of 52 books made them either win market share or at least be extremely competitive. Marvel's per-title sales have seemed flat compared to a lot of those books. Did that launch come as a challenge for you, and how did that gauntlet impact your choice to release these books in waves rather than in one month?

Gabriel: I'll say that what's interesting -- and hats off for the job they've done in the past year with those books -- is that while it sounds a little harsh, for the previous four years times weren't so easy. I've got to call them on that. They were having trouble on a lot of fronts -- sales, marketing, editorial. They had to do something because everybody saw it and knew it was happening. So of course, it looks like they've done this amazing thing that everyone will want to copy. But I think less than us copying them, we were already heading down this path. The good thing on our end was to see that the industry was still alive and thriving. It wasn't just a bunch of "Marvel zombies" supporting everything. There were a lot of fans out there who just wanted new, exciting content.

We were already gearing up towards these big shifts. It was just a question of when that would happen. And [the New 52] gave us the impetus to make that happen and not just pull the plug overnight. We didn't just set an arbitrary date and make everything in our universe adhere to that date. We did it organically, and I'll give credit to all the editors and the creative folks. They put the word out, and everybody got jazzed. They worked very hard so that all the stories they were winding up got the proper endings on them. Nobody was told "You have to end this book in October because we have to relaunch the next month." Everybody had the freedom of a six-month period to decide when they wanted to launch the new book and when the others would end. What was really cool around here was that everyone was working together in a way I had never seen before. And a lot of that was because everybody had seen how exciting the industry could be in the past year.

Alonso: At the end of our first "Avengers Vs. X-Men" editorial summit, we knew we were positioning ourselves for a massive creative shift. So many of our top writers -- Brian [Bendis] on "Avengers," Ed [Brubaker] on "Captain America," Matt [Fraction] on "Iron Man" -- had enjoyed long and prosperous runs on core titles, and they knew it was time for change. It was just a matter of when. The aftermath of "AvX" provided the perfect launching pad to shake things up.

The first thing we did was make sure that each writer had enough time to finish the story they'd started. As we got optics on this, it allowed us to sculpt a rollout plan that allowed us to do this over several months, and found we had launch months anchored by Avengers, by X-Men month, and by Spider-Man. Doing this over several months, we thought, was fairer to retailers and fans and the writers and artists working on the books because it gave them just a little more breathing room to stand out on the month of their launch. At the end of the day, there is no replacement for content. What we're promising with Marvel NOW! is an exciting line-wide shake-up that provides a jumping-on point for readers -- old, new and lapsed. We're promising fresh takes from creative teams that are swinging for the fences. And we are going to deliver on our promise.

Gabriel: And let me jump in to mention the phenomenal year we've had ourselves. This past year for us far exceeded what we wanted and what we were looking for from comic sales. It wasn't just that we had this hit with "Avengers Vs. X-Men." What people tend to forget is that we made a conscious effort a year ago to cut our titles back from anywhere from 15 to 25%. We cut ten to 20 books a month out of our schedule, and it wasn't just in comics but in the trades as well. So as we were doing those cuts, title count went down month after month yet overall sales were going up. That makes for a stronger industry and a stronger us overall. I think people tend to overlook that when we're looking at the past year.

Well, you've also done more double-shipping on titles in the main line so there are more than 12 issues coming out across the year. That makes up for the fewer titles in the line each week at the shop. How has that accelerated schedule impacted sales, and in terms of Editorial, how has it been working with freelancers whose workload has had to increase? How can you keep books creatively consistent in that environment?

Gabriel: I'll go back to what I said before, if the double shipping wasn't working a year into this, we wouldn't be doing it. On the sales end, it's been a good thing. Axel can talk about Editorial and the planning that goes into it, but what we're seeing right now is that we're having such a successful launch into the next year, that we can look out into the future and have to do less of those double ships. But the plan all along was to take away the books that the customers and retailers weren't buying and weren't jazzed about so we could give them more of what they were reading and what they wanted to buy. It certainly has worked for "Amazing Spider-Man." How many years did we do three times a month and then now have it going twice a month? It's been working.

And I'd like to be able to say, "This really didn't work on series B" -- I'm avoiding using A or X so people won't think I'm talking about Avengers or X-Men. [Laughs] But there hasn't been a book on the sales end that's been hurt by this. This is not a slam at our competition, but if you look over at their world, they have a rotating stable of artists and writers coming onto books every month. It's also to the point where artists are changing at the very last minute AND switched after the F.O.C.. Even covers are changing. But it's something that seems to not negatively affect the perception around those titles coming out. That's part of the industry, and it doesn't seem to be hurting anything over there, just like this doesn't seem to be hurting us here.

Now, do we want to have this happen? I'll let Axel speak to that more, but no. We don't want to [have to rotate talent] like that. But I think as long as a reader is getting a great story by a strong creative team, that's what will matter in the end.

Alonso: I'll just speak to the creative. We publish books that we think we can sell. We take risks, but we want to publish books that have a reasonable chance to be viable long-term. As far as the creative challenges of multi-shipping, yeah, putting out 18 issues of a book is more challenging than putting out 12. The writer has to be able to plan ahead to keep two or sometimes three artists working. But that's really speaks to the fact that we put books in writer's hands. Would it be easier to have rotating writers? Sure, but we put a lot of stock in creators' long-term vision. With Marvel NOW!, every writer -- from Brian [Bendis] on "All-New X-Men" to Gerry [Duggan] and Brian [Posehn] on "Deadpool" -- is deeply invested in his or her title, and we are invested in them. We're not test-driving anyone. We've taken great pains to make sure that each creative team -- even those that have rotating artists, like Jonathan [Hickman]'s biweekly "Avengers" -- has great chemistry. In almost all cases, the launch artist -- like Greg Land on "Iron Man" or John Romita on "Cap" -- is in it for the long haul. They are the core artist, drawing most, if not all, issues.

David just mentioned putting out books that sell well as a top priority. I do get the sense from DC that they're very proud of publishing titles with B and C-list characters or across many genres in the DCU. Not all of those have set the charts on fire, but some things like "Animal Man" have been surprise hits. A while ago when Marvel was canceling a lot of those books in your line, Axel and I talked about finding a way to make fan favorite titles work. What have you learned about making titles that aren't Avengers or X-Men successful, and how have both of you worked to make that a part of Marvel NOW!?

Gabriel: I would say we fight about it. Axel, Tom Brevoort, and I just fight it out. [Laughs] I say that sort of jokingly, but the way it looks to me is that the fighting we do is fun that sometimes gets heated, but it all gets talked about. There's no one mandating that you do, let's say, a Morbius series. Axel's not doing that. Brevoort doesn't do it. I don't. Dan Buckley doesn't. Joe doesn't. No one stands back and declares, "You must do a Morbius series." Sometimes it feels like other companies have that going on, and you read about it on the internet, and I think that shows in what gets published. We put a lot of thought into what characters we're going to put out, and we're throwing less at the wall than we were two years ago. We're trying to be smart about who we can push and what launches we can do.

No one would have thought a few years ago that we'd have a "Venom" series going for this long or "Scarlet Spider." There are a few others we've got. No one would have expected that we would keep the Oz books in print. The comics are selling less there than what people generally think we have a threshold for. So there are a lot more things we are keeping around. Obviously, we have a very different financial way of looking at comics than our competition has. We have different margins we have to hit. And we all work to make sure that happens. It is difficult. It probably comes into play every single day here that there's a character or an idea or a debate where we go, "That doesn't have the word 'Avengers' in it. How are we going to get it to sell this year?" But these guys come up with amazing ideas for stories, and that's what pushes books through.

Alonso: Opportunities arise. We're constantly on the prowl for opportunities to pop our favorite characters. I mean, we're fans, too. What we look for is that window of opportunity to elevate them and get them back in play. Characters like Valkyrie in "The Fearless," Hawkeye, Captain Marvel or the Flash Thompson Venom are good examples.

That said, we've found the best way to elevate a character is to make them important to the Marvel Universe -- especially right now, when fans want to know that what they're reading counts. For example: Given the role Jonathan has Black Panther playing in the Avengers, I'd expect him to be a breakout character next year, and a prime candidate for a new solo series. Another example is what we're doing with "Nova" and "Guardians of the Galaxy": Their guest-appearances in "Avengers Vs. X-Men" and "Avengers Assembled" just hint at the bigger role they'll play in the Marvel Universe 2013. Yeah, there's a "Guardians" movie coming out, [Laughs], but the reason we're bringing in our big guns -- Bendis, McNiven, Loeb and McGuiness -- is because we believe there's a huge audience for these characters in comic books.

Gabriel: And I always love to give our editors and creators their credit, like when Axel brings up "Hawkeye." We talked a lot about how we'd done a few "Hawkeye" series in the past that didn't fare that well, and yes, Hawkeye was in the "Avengers" movie. But if we hadn't put out a "Hawkeye" book that was as good as the one that's out right now -- and Axel was behind that all the way to keep that book as pure as Matt Fraction and David Aja wanted -- it wouldn't have been a success. And that series is turning out like the "Daredevil" launch we had about two years ago now with Mark Waid. Very rarely do see a book that launches with mid to high numbers and then stays there. The "Daredevil" numbers have been increasing every single month since that started. It's never gone down, and it's crazy. Daredevil in this run has never tied into "Avengers Vs. X-Men" or had any tricks with it. Mark just wrote a great book, and that's what we're getting with "Hawkeye."

And those kinds of sensibilities are going into the Marvel NOW! launches except now we're just getting the big, popular franchises with those sensibilities behind them. It's going to be great for the books.

Rounding out the conversation, I couldn't have David here without asking about price point. $3.99 is something we still here complaints on from fans on message boards. It seems like Marvel has tried to add things like the AR features and digital download coupons to offset the cost issue. Do you feel like that approach has helped keep off any sales drops the extra dollar may encourage?

Gabriel: I think sales remain consistent because, to toot the horn again, with the $3.99 books, our guys put out some damn good books. That's why readers keep coming back. All the bells and whistles like AR and download codes are great, and they give the people picking up the books some extra added value. But if the book wasn't good to begin with, I don't think that extra value would make anyone try those books out. The $3.99 books have been around for five years now, and it feels like every time I see someone talk about this online, it's as though they just learned about what the price is. I'm going to guess that maybe 40% of our line is at $3.99. Maybe it's moved up to around 50%. But there's still a lot of good $2.99 books, and we've got some $2.99 books in the Marvel NOW! launch. But it's the quality that holds out. If the quality is high, the price point becomes less and less of a factor.

And how much of a factor is digital sales right now? Marvel was early on releasing books through comiXology and has now been at day-and-date for a while. We've heard now and again that digital sales can help impact the print line's approach to things. What kind of percentage of sales does digital currently hold, and how does that effect things overall?

Gabriel: It's sort of grown by leaps and bounds, I've got to say. And I'll say that in very few cases does it not mirror what's going on in the Direct Market with the comics. There's no lower tier book of ours -- and I hate calling anything lower tier -- where on the app it magically sells as the #1 book. What you see in the Direct Market charts, we're seeing the exact same thing in our digital sales. If "Avengers Vs. X-Men" is exciting comic fans all around the country, then you can be sure it's doing the same digitally.

And while it's growing, I hate to say what percentage it is of our sales because honestly, it changes. So say maybe at the beginning of the year it was at 5%, towards the middle it's gone to 10 to 12%, and probably by next year it'll be at 15%. But the good thing is that it's not taking away from the overall pie because the Direct Market comics have gone up 5, 10, 15% as well. So as print has gone up this year for comics and even for some collected editions, the digital has gone up too. The whole pie is expanding, and nothing is eating away at the rest. I think over the coming year, we'll have even more of that.

Lastly, is "Age of Ultron" coming out this year?

Gabriel: This year? No.

Well, you know...in 2013, I mean. Maybe?

Gabriel: Sorry, you said you had one last question. That was it.

Alonso: That's cruel. [Laughter]

Gabriel: You know what? Keep reading. 2013 is going to be a big year...it's been teased elsewhere today.

Have some questions for Marvel's AXEL-IN-CHARGE? Please visit the CUP O' Q&A thread in CBR's Marvel Universe forum. It's now the dedicated thread for all connections between Board Members and the Marvel Executive staff that CBR will pull questions for next week's installment of our weekly fan-generated question-and-answer column! Do it to it!

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