DC Responds To Marvel's Sales Win & Their Own Early Digital Releases

In the month in, month out practice of watching the Direct Market sales charts roll in from Diamond Comic Distributors, the results can often feel like watching a horse race. And though November saw Marvel take the proverbial triple crown that is dominance in the monthly comics Top Ten, DC Comics are holding steady as well.

While comics from the Marvel NOW! relaunch put the House of Ideas on top in both dollar and unit categories, DC SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham are quick to note that DC's sales have remained consistent and that their book formatted comics are doing as well as ever with high profile releases like an adaptation of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and a new "Fables" series in "Fairest" ranking high indeed.

In CBR's monthly talk with the VPs, the pair expressed happiness with a market that's doing well overall while discussing how Marvel's performance will and won't impact their own bottom line as well as how they're moving their book and trade sales into 2013 after all the New 52 titles have seen their first collected editions hit stands. Plus, in discussion our exclusive look at the digital sales rankings for the month, Wayne and Cunningham tackle the controversial early release of digital titles that's come with expanded platforms like Amazon's Kindle as well as whether strong print performances for digital-first books will change up their strategies moving forward.

CBR News: This month the big news was the first full on appearance by Marvel's NOW! initiative, and it did very well as expected. To be fair, I think the New 52 helped set a precedent for how people expected this kind of thing to go, so it's not too surprising that Marvel NOW! took almost all of the Top Ten spots on the sales charts. What do you feel were the significant differences between the DC relaunch and the Marvel one, and how will those differences effect how each line plays out over the next few months?

Bob Wayne: That's an intense question, but before we answer it, I'll say that I thought the big story of the month was "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" #1 being in the Top 20, but that might just be me.

John Cunningham: This is Bob revealing himself as a Brony. [Laughter]

Wayne: I think there are a lot of differences in the way in which the New 52 initiative was rolled out contrasted to the way the Marvel NOW! initiative has been rolled out. We shared a lot more of the risk of going deep on orders with retailers by having a returnability program, and we also made a clean "all in" jumping on point. They've taken some different choices on that. We'll have to see which of the techniques works best, but I agree with you that we've sort of laid the groundwork for others to follow and do similar things. So we're always flattered by others following in our footsteps.

Cunningham: And as the Marketing person, it behooves me to say that there was a difference in how our marketing was approached with our TV ads and a lot of the online ads we did. The concentrated effort we had there showed a stark difference.

One debate we have a lot in comics is not only how the pie is divided between the companies from sales but also whom that pie is divided between. Ultimately, with all your surveys and research did DC get a definite answer on what kind of people that marketing outreach brought to the books?

Cunningham: It's very difficult from a market research point of view to get a consumer to tell you why they purchase something. And I think over the years what I've seen is that if you do get that exact explanation, it tends to not necessarily be true. They tend to be answering the question the way they think you want it to be answered. That's the social scientific part that goes into how these surveys are put together. So the best way I can answer that is to say that when we did our research, the respondents said that TV came in as a very high ranker in the hierarchy in terms of number of mentions. That's how I would say we knew it was successful, but it's very difficult to say someone went, "I saw the TV ad, and so I ran out and bought it."

And I think that was the hallmark of our marketing campaign. It wasn't one specific aspect we did, but we used the overwhelming nature of the impressions to drive consumer behavior. A one-off TV ad that you see on a Tuesday night isn't necessarily going to change your consumer behavior, but a preponderance of messaging in a concentrated period is going to give you a better shot.

Well, I think one of the things we're going to do is watch how Marvel's numbers hold up over the first few months, the first six months, the first year. That's definitely something people did with the New 52 month in, month out. But as far as DC is concerned, with all the plans you have in place for publishing moving forward, if Marvel seems to keep this momentum and keep winning such a chunk of market share will that change your strategies?

Wayne: I don't see that there's any expectation that we'll be changing our strategy to one month of numbers for any number of reasons, the first one being that we certainly expected that they'd do well with so many titles launching in the month with incentive programs and variant programs. Overall, I think that they had over 70 variant covers in November, which certainly motivates some part of the retail base and customer base. But at the same time, our market share did not change too much between DC and Marvel from October to November. And that was in part because our book format products were so strong on the November chart, and it's also because a lot of our book sold similar to what they sold in September and October. It's just that the Marvel books did substantially better than they had in the prior months.

But it doesn't change dramatically the number of dollars we take in. It just recuts the 100% pie, and we think it's cut up more because of the success of things like "Walking Dead" Vol. 17 from Skybound and Image and the "Adventure Time" trade from BOOM! I already mentioned "My Little Pony," and the "Masks" project from Dynamite saw a strong launch, and this month had a strong showing from Valiant. There's just a lot of stuff out there that's getting attention. I think it all brings fans into the shops each week when we're doing a lot of interesting stuff and our competitors are doing stuff at the same time. It was really a good month for everyone.

Let's talk about the book market a bit. I was on Facebook the other day, and someone had tagged Scott Snyder in a photo where they'd bought every New 52 hardcover and trade and lined them up in alphabetical order, which looked nice but it was a reminder that we're finally at the point where that whole giant launch has settled in the market a bit. Now you've got some more weight behind other titles like the "Fables" books that did well this month and "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" and soon "Django Unchained." Are you able to approach the book trade differently or with a different focus since the New 52 titles have cycled through to a more regular pace?

Cunningham: Yeah. When we were looking at how to get the collected editions out in 2012 to get all the advantage of our aggressive marketing, we knew we'd have to publish on a more truncated schedule - meaning we'd want to put the bulk of the books out between May and November. But we knew the moment we said that that we would also have to change things in 2013 so things weren't so concentrated, and we'd have a more even product flow. I think looking at it now, you'll still see that some of the books like "Justice League" have Vol. 2's hardcover coming in January and Vol. 1's trade alongside it, but it'll be a lot less than the rhythm we've been working it. Moving along, you'll see how we're setting the pattern as 2013 rolls along. We'll basically take the same amount of product and spread it out with a more even flow.

Are you trying to structure each season around some of the more mass market friendly titles as you've done with "Dragon Tattoo" in recent months?

Cunningham: Yeah, I think when you get to publishing this way you roll out your annual calendar and then break it down into seasons. That's the rhythm our book trade sales agents use. And when you're looking at a season, you pick out the "cream of the crop" titles and pace them over six months to ensure that we have an even flow. That's right on target for how we'll continue to build these lists. And if you look back at 2012, you have tons of new product coming out, but we also built a lot of our schedule around "The Dark Knight Rises." We wanted to make sure that our Batman backlist was very strong, which in some cases meant classic titles were repackaged or repromoted. And the attendance numbers on the Batman films are huge drivers of backlist sales for us.

Switching to digital last, one of the big topics of late has been that with DC's switch to new platforms like the Kindle for the monthly titles, the download times are hitting much earlier. In some cases, comics are on sale for digital devices before stores on the East Coast are even open for business. When DC went day-and-date with the books, there was a wave of concern about whether that would eat into the DM's numbers, and it was watched very closely. With this new change in timing, how are you monitoring that concern, and how are you responding to the criticisms and worries you get from retailers?

Cunningham: Obviously, we're monitoring on a daily basis, weekly basis and a monthly basis what our digital sales are in concurrence with print sales. That's been the method of operation since we went day-and-date digital. And a lot of our attitude to that was grounded by the fact that we only saw digital as an additive business in terms of our overall sales. I might even go so far to say that it's an additive element that helps support and keep print going because you're marketing these properties in a more holistic way.

As far as the timing issue, I think the question is still very much out there. We're not of the opinion that it's going to provide that much of a statistical advantage because there's still no consistency as to when, where and how these titles go up digitally. And we're watching things on a very close, day-to-day basis to see if we have to make any adjustments, but I think we went into this fairly comfortable in the notion that this would prove to be additive just as well as day-and-date was.

It occurs to me talking this out that with Diamond's change to shipping books on Tuesday over the past year, stores have the opportunity in theory to do more midnight release events around titles, which we've seen occasionally in the Direct Market but see much more often in book stores and with CD and DVD sales. If the print and digital markets become more competitive, do you see that becoming a more frequent option for retailers?

Wayne: It's certainly an option. It's not an option that all of our trading partners are excited about. If you're a retailer in a market where you have a vibrant amount of traffic in the day and then customer traffic drops off at night or if you're in a shopping center with timing restrictions as to when you can and can't be open, you won't see the ability to be open in those times because you're not allowed. So there are good and bad aspects to that idea, and we'll certainly see it as an option going forward with various releases. We're having conversations with representatives from the ComicsPRO retailer trade organization, and they've expressed their strong opinions about this to us. We've had a number of retailers contact us directly. We've had conversations with people at Diamond about the same topic. And we've talked about it more in the DC offices in New York and Burbank. We'll continue to look at this and monitor, as John says, and we'll have to see what we need to do to make it work for everyone.

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One last question for the month on digital is that as we look at our exclusive digital rankings, we can now compare some of the digital first series to their eventual print releases. Recently, we've seen strong numbers for books like "Smallville Season 11" in print as it continues to rank here, and people were surprised to see the first issue of the "Legends of the Dark Knight" anthology do so well in print. Going forward, do you foresee a time when these digital-first titles may be more than just the media tie-ins and could be used to bolster lower-performing DCU titles?

Wayne: I think our plan is to continue to have this be for titles that have a possible interest outside the audience that we can engage already. I think you're correct that many people have been surprised by how well titles that have had a digital-first release have done in print, and we'll continue to look at how stuff is working out between the two techniques in terms of the delivery mechanism for story. There are various things we've done recently like the Joker over covers on the Batman titles, for example, that have no digital way to reproduce the experience. It's a print experience from the tactile feel to the level of control you have to the collectibility. It's not the same in digital.

Cunningham: And to go to the core of your question, the way we run a P&L on a property accounts for all expected revenue equally. So we're not going to save anything financially on a book if we decided to go digital-first on a book. We don't judge profits on those things off of one format of publication. It's over the long term. So that's never going to be an impetus for changing that. I can't imagine a scenario now where we'd look at a current series and go, "Let's transform this into a digital-first series." There's no financial imperative for that and no marketplace imperative. There isn't much place for that thought unless you're playing out worst case scenarios, which I can guarantee no one in this organization is doing.

Tags: dc comics, new 52, marvel now, john cunningham, digital comics, bob wayne

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