As 2012 got underway, most comic industry watchers and fans knew that the picture of sales in the Direct Market was going to be different this year than in year's past, but few probably anticipated that the year would start with a sweep of the top ten titles on sale by DC Comics. However, between that showing and a split result for #1 publisher according to Diamond Comic Distributors (DC sold more units overall while Marvel Comics made more money), the picture of sales in the comic marketplace seems to continue to be a changing and interesting affair for the foreseeable future.
And as with the last time DC made news with their sales performance, CBR News got an exclusive look beyond the Direct Market numbers with DC's top ten digital sellers for January. In that list (printed in full below), top-selling titles like "Justice League" and "Batman" continued to do very well, though maybe better than those watching their print performance would anticipate in some interesting ways.
CBR spoke with Executive VP-Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood and Senior VP-Sales Bob Wayne about all the numbers to gain insight as to what exactly a top ten performance means to DC, what the six canceled titles from the New 52 and their replacements say about the future of lower circulating comics including James Robinson's "The Shade," what digital numbers do and don't say about readership today and whether or not numbers have settled into place for the market as a whole.
CBR News: Gentlemen, before we get into the specifics of the digital numbers, there are the Diamond numbers for January, which have a lot to consider between a top ten performance for DC titles and a split between DC and Marvel for unit and dollar share. What's the most significant aspect of those numbers for you guys and why?
John Rood: To have our number fives sweep the top ten is amazing and really a testament to all the work everyone at DC Comics has put into the New 52. And Bob will say that he much prefers that if we're going to win something, so to speak, that we win unit share versus winning the dollar share.
Bob Wayne: I would say that. [Laughter] But I'm talking about myself in the third person now.
Let's look at those top ten books. It's surprising still in some ways to see books that have been considered second tier books in sales if not in character status like "Flash" and "Aquaman" rank that high and continue to do so after so many months. But do you see a real significant gap between where these books fall and where the next wave of New 52 books land sales wise?
Rood: That's a great question and something we're very mindful of. We didn't want the New 52 to make us any more top heavy, per se, in terms of driving the sales of our franchise characters at the expense of everything else. So to see our linewide average so very high through the first half dozen issues, and to see 46 of the 52 going strong with a half dozen titles coming in that by all indications will be stronger than the six they replace, that's the kind of stuff we watch just as closely as who wins the month.
Let's talk about those books that have left the line and their replacements. You spoke early about trying to give the titles as much time as you could to establish a normal sales level before doing cancelations, and that magic number seems to have come around eight issues. But what has the New 52 changed about the cancelation threshold in general? I know that in the past you had books that continued to run with low numbers because of fan support like "Manhunter." In today's DC line, has that minimum number of sales higher than it was before?
Wayne: There numbers are higher than they were before the New 52 launch. At the same time, with a case-by-case evaluation on "Is there something unique coming up that can change the readers perception of this title? Are we going to be able to migrate characters from this title or themes to this title to another book to retain a portion of that flavor?" are also conversations that we have. But the level of positive reception in the marketplace have given us the luxury of making some of those choices later than we thought we would when we were on the road doing our initial conversations with retailer. We initially thought we'd be having these kinds of conversations after the fifth issue, and now to be having them after the eighth issue is a pretty good batting average on the titles. And just because a character's title is going away, it doesn't mean the character is going away from the DC Universe.
One comic a lot of people have been watching in terms of how the numbers affect it is "The Shade" which James Robinson has taken to Twitter to promote in terms of it being on the cancellation bubble before it wraps its planned 12 issues. Can you say whether or not that title will complete its planned run?
Wayne: I'm sure it will sell more copies as a collection than it will as a periodical, but we're happy with "The Shade" creatively and commercially right now.
So we've also got a look at DC's own digital rankings for the month of January to go into. The last time we looked at digital data like this, it was drawn from a cumulative data set where the #1 issues were ranking very high overall. This time, it's for one month alone, and the standout to me on that front seems to be that the #5 issues are taking up a vast majority of the spots. What can we draw from that? Is this an indication that DC has built a substantial monthly readership for the New 52 through its digital app who are coming back month after month?
Rood: I don't think there's any interesting message there other than the fact that our entire category of comics and our entire list has an immediacy to it. That's what drives traffic to stores on Wednesday, and that's what's seemingly driving downloads week in, week out.
We're seeing a lot of correlation in these numbers with what sells in print. Are you seeing any books anywhere on the chart that seem to do significantly better in print versus digital or vice versa in a way that would be notable?
Rood: The only titles that do, interestingly, stronger as a percentage of physical sales in digital are publishing franchises with high awareness like "Action" and "Detective" or character franchises with high awareness like Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. And they are still relatively insignificant in total compared to print sales. But if you see any variance off of a straight average, it would be because of the built in interest that those franchises have with all readers - both physical and digital.
We see a few issue number fours ranking strong here in these January rankings including "Batman" and "Justice League" #4. Can we attribute that to the fact that those titles ship later in the month and so maybe more of them were sold in January after Christmas had passed and maybe a few more people had their hands on digital devices?
Wayne: There's a lot of that where you're seeing that the Diamond numbers are driven by the sell-in to the retail store and the digital numbers are consumer driven, so they have the same kind of long tail that the retailers have in their own stores tracking sales week-to-week. I also think that the titles we're talking here are "Batman" and "Justice League," and those are extremely high profile titles, and we are finding that there are people who are aware of those comics that aren't part of our existing customer base. They've come in with the New 52, and they have decided to follow those titles. It's certainly not insignificant that those were our top two titles on the Diamond chart as well. It seems like both the digital consumer and the print consumer have a shared sensibility in what they'd like to read. The difference is in how they would like to have the experience.
Speaking of "Justice League," people have noticed that the book has moved a week down the schedule on a few months due to both Jim Lee and Geoff Johns' schedules at the company presumably, though it hasn't yet missed a month on the whole. What has that meant for the book, and with a few guest artists coming in to draw some issues, do you anticipate that "Justice League" will return to a really solid shipping schedule when Jim comes back?
Rood: We heard from the retailers that delivery was a critical issue. We certainly heard it on our New 52 road show, and we put the New 52 together with a commitment to a very timely delivery as much as a quality product. I for one am very proud that we've delivered 310 out of 312 issues on time -Â that is to say six issues of each of the New 52. Yes, that's a high profile exception that we've made, but our commitment is, as ever, for timely shipping on that product moving forward.
You mentioned earlier how Bob was happy to be up in units over Marvel as opposed to dollars. What significance do you attribute to that split?
Wayne: It means a lot of things, not the least of which is that our $2.99 campaign, which has been very successful for a year for us, has been doing what we wanted -Â namely increasing the number of copies sold in the market place and expanding the number of opportunities fans have to read our books by making them more affordable.
Considering that, over the first five months of the New 52 we've seen mostly $2.99 books, though some have been adding a dollar in price as well as some content. Do you feel that "Holding The Line" at that price is something you'll be able to continue to do moving forward?
Rood: Yeah. 46 out of 52 is a lot of confidence on our part.
Wayne: And I think you have to remember that the books in our line that are $3.99 have 40 pages, which are additional story pages. Not every publisher is publishing $3.99 comics that have added pages and added story content. We're trying to cost justify or story justify on those titles that have those extra pages and that extra price. We wantÂ to make the product something where it deserves to be purchased and gives you the same value for your money.
Rood: If our pricing policy is very specific, so too our incentives aren't artificial. We don't deep discount or overprint or do things that give a temporary blip that aren't of value to retailers.
Wayne: In fact, to the long term nature of what we've been pointing to, I think that ten out of ten performance on the chart with the number fives shows that we weren't just trying to get the number ones to debut big and then let it fall from there.
People frequently ask -Â and sometimes this is other people in the industry while sometimes it's retailers or fans -Â whether these numbers on the Diamond charts are the same numbers that actually sell. The argument there is that with returnability and the fact that these are estimates rather than the actual data you have, these numbers may inflate performance. Overall, do you feel this data honestly represents what you've been getting back when all is said and done?
Wayne: The Diamond charts for a number of years - ever since we started doing very limited returnability offers on certain projects to retailers could make sure they're able to stock things like the weekly "52" project a number of years back - have done a set aside on the numbers in reserve against any returns. So the numbers are depressed on the side of the set asides. We know what the set aside is, and we also then have our data later that shows us what the actual return rate was. And we've been very pleased that this has been an effective and efficient way for us to get as many copies on the shelves of retailers around the world as possible. In that ten out of ten, only one of those ten titles on the chart has any level of returnability. Nine of them have none.
Rood: So in answer to your question, not only do we consider the list accurate and reflective of our sales, we think anyone who would question that is kidding themselves.
We've seen a lot of variation in the charts over the past few months. The #1 publisher spot has gone up and down, and the titles themselves have shifted around here and there. Ultimately, do you think this split between units and dollar share is reflective of a definite increase in sales for DC, or is it just that with all the different books being published by everyone means that the pie is being cut differently each month?
Wayne: I think the pie being sliced differently each time is probably the best analogy. At some point, the data tips from being what is openly discussed in public circles to what is proprietary to us for our own analysis. But we're certainly pleased with the way these sales are going on our titles.
So considering that and considering incoming moves from both DC with "Before Watchmen" as an example and I'm sure plenty of new initiatives from Marvel and other publishers, do you expect that the numbers will level out and find a new normal any time soon, or do you expect things will continue to be in flux from month to month?
Rood: I think it's great that people are talking to us about a leadership position instead of talking to us about a follower's position, so that's a permanent change that's been made in the last year. And the innovations that we're bringing to market with Vertigo and with the New 52 and now with Before Watchmen are part of our promise to retailers to innovate and to innovate with integrity. Months will come and months will go, and things will continue to be dynamic across all the great publishers.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on sales data from January and beyond!