EXCLUSIVE: DC Execs On Sales In Digital, Print & New 52 Wave Two

In the ongoing back and forth between DC Comics and their chief competitor Marvel Comics over sales dominance in the comic book Direct Market, Marvel had a commanding performance in the March sales ranking, taking back three spots in the top ten after multiple shutouts from DC's New 52 and winning both dollar and marketshare on the month on the strength of their "Avengers Vs. X-Men" launch.

Of course, seeing the continued results of the comics marketplace reports as a battle between two forces is only one way to look at the numbers, and this month, when CBR spoke with DC SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham, we turned our focus onto DC's view of the market as a whole as well as their plans for moving the ball forward in future months when they have a new wave of product to launch on multiple fronts.

Below, the pair discuss the March sales rankings both in print and by revealing exclusive new digital top ten sales rankings for the month, reveal what books are gaining month-over-month as the New 52 enters its eighth month, share initial reports on sales for collected editions for the initiative and make predictions for sales moving into May and beyond.

CBR News: Often when I speak to you guys...or see other sites speak to you...or when I speak to folks at Marvel, the focus is on the perceived competition between the two big publishers over market share and the top ten and what have you. This week, I wanted to lean off that a bit because the numbers are showing something a bit different than "Who's on top?" Marvel obviously struck back in terms of all that with three books in the top ten and a win in market and dollar share, but it appears your overall market share grew as a raw number this month, and I think a lot of other publishers seemed to do well too. Do you think that idea of "a rising tide floats all boats" holds true for the Direct Market?

Bob Wayne: Well, we'd be happier if they'd landed books at #9 and 10 rather than #1 and 2. But yes, I think that when DC is doing interesting, exciting things and Marvel is doing interesting, exciting things and Image and Dark Horse and all our other competitors are doing interesting, exciting things - that invigorates the market as a whole. It gets the retailers excited, and it gets the readers excited. And all that means for us is that we have to look over our shoulder to see if someone's doing something different that we should take a look at, or if someone's telling an interesting story, maybe we want to have them write or draw for us. That kind of competition, I think, keeps everybody on their toes and keeps this stuff interesting.

I think in general these days, all the companies across the spectrum are working from different playbooks. What's going on with the New 52 is different from what's going on with "AvX" is different from what's going on at Image and so on. What do you think is the unique piece of DC that you're really happy with right now, and what do you feel maybe the other publishers aren't doing that's a drawback in comparison?

Wayne: Well, I don't think we're going to give unsolicited advice on what they should be doing. [Laughs] But what we're doing with the New 52 is that we have a lot of titles that take place within the overall fabric for a reality. And you as the reader are able to see small things that inter-related, and you make your own decision as to whether you want to be involved in 52 of them or if you want to be involved in a smaller quantity. I think that our stories are tending to all go in the same direction, and that they all seemed to be focusing on starting points. That's in part because we had a bunch of #1s a few months back, but we've also had a really good success rate getting copies onto the shelves so readers could decide what they wanted to stick with. I think that was really key - that these all felt like they were related, especially in their respective families, and that our retailers were able to place these with as many readers as possible, new, lapsed or current.

We've got the top ten DC digital books for the month of March, and as with each month on this chart, there's something that immediately jumps out to me about how and where the books shake out. This time around, what stood out was that while last month "Justice League" #6 ranked high up even though it was only on sale for one day in February, it also ranked very high in March. What does that say about the readership and the sales level? Are we looking at a situation where more people have been downloading their books of late?

Wayne: We have seen growth on the digital side, but I think to a certain extent, what the chart shows goes back to what you said. "Justice League" #6 only had one day on sale in the prior month. That one day on sale on the Diamond chart would mean all the copies that were sent to shops, but it doesn't mean the retailers sold them to consumers all on that same day. I'm sure a lot of those transactions took place in the month of March, but the invoicing was in February. The invoicing on the digital sales of our copies are really based on when the consumer makes the purchase. I think that's why you're seeing some of the distortion. I don't think it's because people are acting different. I think it's because you're seeing numbers from different spots along the line of delivery of comics to our consumers.

The other thing that stands out in the print versus digital numbers is that while a lot of the print rankings remain fairly consistent at the top of the charts, we do see a little bit more variation on those positions in digital. One month, "Green Lantern" will be up, and another month "Batman: The Dark Knight" will be up. Across the line, what kinds of trends have you seen? Are there certain books that are moving against the common trend and growing readership some?

Wayne: We watch that on both charts because we want to know if there is some sort of uptick, and then we'll look to see what explains it. Lately, we've seen an uptick on "Batman: The Dark Knight" because of Bane being cover featured and Bane being in the trailer for the upcoming "Dark Knight Rises" film. We've seen a lot of uptick in the core Batman books - "Batman" and "Detective Comics" - as we're going into the "Night of Owls" storyline. We're seeing those numbers shift. So usually, there's some factor that we can point to and say "This moved up a notch because of this" or "This moved down a notch because of that." But the other title we were looking at just yesterday is "I, Vampire" which is on an uptick right this minute. We were happy to see that. Over the two most recent issues there's been an uptick. Now, partially that's because we've introduced some other storytelling elements into it, and partially it's also reaching critical mass.

John Cunningham: And I think what that says is that ultimately content is what causes those titles to move up and down the list - whether it's digital or print - rather then technology or who may or may not be in the audience. Sometimes that can get a little fancy for us, but it's really what's going on on the page that sells the book.

John, I wanted to ask since we've got you this week about the marketing aspect of DC's recent releases. The New 52 seemed to get a lot of credit not just for selling high out the gate but also for being marketed towards people who weren't already in comic shops at the start. What do you think were the platforms or ideas that worked best in terms of getting that message out to readers, and now that we're seven or eight months in to the process, how do you plan on continuing that momentum now that you don't have #1s to hang your hat on?

Cunningham: I think the initial launch success was due in part to the fact that we went wide through all sorts of channels with the message of "This is where you can start." You go wide with as many formats as you can: publicity, online, advertising. And all the components - even ones outside of my purview - were working to spread that same message.

I don't think the messaging has changed as we go into the next phase. I think we've been very clear in saying since the beginning that we saw the New 52 as a multi-stage launch, especially in terms of drawing in new and lapsed readers because we knew that when it came time to collect the books, there'd be a second push there. So as we go into May with the second wave of titles launching and with the collections starting to come out, it's been our plan all along to come out with another wave [of marketing] tied into TV ads featuring the new Free Comic Book Day book and highlighting the six new titles. That's all been part of the plan since the inception of the New 52.

And I wanted to wrap looking forward, starting with those New 52 collection. It was tough for people to gauge exactly what level a lot of the New 52 would fall on in the end in terms of the monthlies, and it seems that a similar question hangs over the collections. What's your plan in terms of getting those out to readers, and what's your expectation for how those books will do compared to the trades of books published before the New 52?

Wayne: We think that the type of jump that we had in our periodical publishing as far as the level of sales and the level of acceptance [will lead to] a corresponding jump on our book formatted product. A lot of the early ones that we've gone through not just on their initial ordering process but the final order cutoff process on the Diamond side have shown that the numbers are very strong on everything New 52 related that retailers have placed bets on. At the same time, we've seen very, very strong numbers on the book trade side.

John Cunningham: And we knew a few months ago...well, we became fairly confident on the numbers performance on initials for New 52 hardcovers after our first couple of sales meetings with the Random House people. One of the first things they reported to us on the book trade side was that that marketing campaign for New 52 on the periodical side had worked on the booksellers. When they went in for their first sales calls for May, they knew that this was coming and were all excited and starting to pick out their favorites. So again, the marketing from the periodical point onwards was something where we always knew was going to have an impact when we got to the collected side. It's been our baseline assumption that, as Bob said, we were going to see a similar numbers increase when we got to collected editions. And I think as those numbers come out in the coming months, you'll all share in that feeling.

You've got a lot coming on the periodical side over the next few months as well. There are crossovers like "Night of the Owls" and "The Culling" on a smaller scale, and "Before Watchmen" is hanging out there in the wings. This month, Marvel had two very big launches make a splash on the top ten. What do you feel like DC's next wave of product is going to be able to do for you guys in terms of sales and visibility?

Wayne: Certainly, when the second wave of New 52 titles arrives in May, "Batman Inc." and "Earth-2" are both tracking very strongly on initial orders from retailers. And the following month, when "Before Watchmen" titles go on sale, we expect those numbers to be top ten level numbers as well.

Stay tuned for more on the March sales charts on CBR!

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