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EXCLUSIVE: DC’s Digital Rankings Lead May Sales Discussion

by  in Comic News Comment
EXCLUSIVE: DC’s Digital Rankings Lead May Sales Discussion

Just ahead of DC Comics big summer launch with “Before Watchmen” and just past Marvel Comics release of #1 event seller “Avengers Vs. X-Men,” May was supposed to be a bit of a sleeper month in the Direct Market of comic book stores. However, with the May sales data released last week by Diamond Comic Distributors, the month seems much more exciting than anticipated.

Overall, comic sales were up 40% from May of 2011, and aside from chart toppers like “AvX” and “Justice League” taking their expected positions atop Diamond’s top 300, DC saw a strong performance for its “second wave” of New 52 titles including a reported level for “Batman Incorporated” #1 of over 100,000 copies ordered and a strong start for the alternate world actioner “Earth 2.” That’s not to mention the collected editions chart where “Justice League” and “Batman” topped performers overall with an eclectic mix of titles beyond that.

To see behind DC’s sales plan and into their ideas for the next step, CBR News spoke with SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham (joined by DC Publicity Director Brandy Phillips) who also shared exclusively the rankings for DC’s digital performance in the month. Below, the pair discuss the surprises held in May’s strong performance from collections that will help balance periodical sales to digital series marketed towards non-traditional comics fans to how the marketing machine built for the New 52 still serves the line heading towards its September “Zero Month.”

CBR News: Gents, before the sales numbers came out, I worried that there would be very little to talk about with the May sales numbers as people waited for things like “Before Watchmen” to shake up the chart, but as it turns out, there was a lot to look at in May. Starting with the “Second Wave” titles for the New 52, “Batman Incorporated” has apparently hit over 100,000 copies, but how have those titles done overall. Did having a group of books launching under the shared branding help amp up the numbers, or was the response more title-by-title?

Bob Wayne: Well, we’re certainly very happy that “Batman Inc.” launched in the top ten, and actually, “Earth 2” #1 had a set-aside on the Diamond chart because we’d offered a returnability factor to let retailer stock up, but something happened in “Earth 2” #2 which caused retailers to go back and scoop up all the overship and extra copies we had. So when the actual sell through of “Earth 2” #1 comes out, you’ll see that it would have made the top ten on this chart as well. I’m just giving you that with an asterisk in there. “World’s Finest” as a compliment series in tandem with that book was a top 20 book, and we’re happy with the other titles as well. We certainly didn’t think they’d all be top ten titles, but they’re clumped in together quite well. “Dial H” and “Ravagers” were in the top 50. So it’s a good place for us to be.

John Cunningham: I think it’s fair to say that all comics sell individually. There was never an expectation on our part that these would all perform on the same level. I don’t think anybody thinks that way when launching a series. But the fair comment would be that they all launched above the level we expected, which was a very good performance.

One thing I’ve heard anecdotally is that the orders on the first hardcovers and trades for the New 52 have impacted the sales picture for the ongoing titles. Is that true from your perspective? How will you be looking to shape the size of the line?

Wayne: We’re going to remain in the mode where we constantly evaluate the titles we’re publishing to see if they’re hitting where we want them to hit commercially and just as importantly where they are creatively and critically. We don’t have to have a straight line on the chart that says, “If they sell below this number, the books have to be cancelled.” And the numbers we’re looking at for the collections is another way of determining what the long term health of a property is.

Obviously, looking at the sales data we’ve got here, things like “Justice League” and “Batman” did well as we all knew they would. But were there some surprise performers elsewhere on the chart that boded well for the long term life of some of these comics?

Wayne: We track hardcover and trade paperback books together on the same chart, and the most heartening thing on that list from my point of view is how well “Animal Man” did. That came in as the #5 book on the Diamond chart. It’s certainly not hitting at that level on the periodical chart, but it’s showing us that it has a real continuing strength, and I think that will just build as we go towards the “Animal Man”/”Swamp Thing” stories intertwining for a few months [with the “Rotworld” story]. I believe that’ll be good for both series. And as Animal Man is a character who was kind of in the DC Universe and then moved to Vertigo and moved back, ramping it up in this fashion has had great results.

Cunningham: The other thing to keep in mind with the trade paperbacks is that the totality of that business is not only the Direct Market. We’ve been extremely excited by the fact that of the six books we released in the month of May, five made the New York Times bestseller list. We were very clear from the beginning of the process that we launched the New 52 as a two-phase gambit. The first phase was the periodical launch, and the second stage was the launch of the collections. And we were excited to take those out to the mass market and see how they’d do. And in fact, you’ll see in the New York Times list from this Sunday that Scott Snyder’s “Batman” is the #1 hardcover on the list. Or looking at BookScan numbers, that same book is in its third week in the top 50 of all hardcover fiction - not even just graphic novels but all hardcovers. That’s the fulfillment of the promise we knew we had at the launch, and it’s extremely heartening for us to see that now.

Wayne: Or to go further, the highest ranking item on the Diamond chart that’s within the Marvel Universe is “Spider-Man: Season One” at #13. I don’t believe that if you’d have told people two years ago, “There will be a new ‘Animal Man’ book and a new ‘Spider-Man’ book coming out in the same month, and the ‘Animal Man’ book that is a reprint will outsell the ‘Spider-Man’ book [of original material]” – I don’t think that would have been anybody’s expectation.

One last thing I’ve noticed in terms of this collections chart is that “Watcmen” is again ranking high, I assume in anticipation of “Before Watchmen’s” release. Can we also assume that that bodes well for sales of those new series?

Wayne: We offered retailers some special incentives to stock up on the “Watchmen” books, and you’ll see that reflected on the May chart, and I believe that will be reflected on the June charts as well. We’re very happy with where we are on the orders for the June issues of the “Before Watchmen” titles and where we’re at right now with the July in-store issues as well. I believe when we’re talking a month from now that “Before Watchmen” will be a part of that conversation.

Rank Title
#1 Batman (2011-) #9
#2 Justice League (2011-) #9
#3 Earth 2 (2012-) #1
#4 Green Lantern (2011-) #9
#5 Batman (2011-): Annual #1
#6 Batman and Robin (2011-) #9
#7 Smallville: Season 11 #4
#8 Nightwing (2011-) #9
#9 Action Comics (2011-) #9
#10 World’s Finest (2012-) #1
#11 Detective Comics (2011-) #9
#12 Batman Incorporated (2012-) #1
#13 Batgirl (2011-) #9
#14 Red Hood and the Outlaws (2011-) #9
#15 Ame-Comi I: Wonder Woman #1
#16 Batman: The Dark Knight (2011-) #9
#17 Batman: Arkham City: End Game #1
#18 Wonder Woman (2011-) #9
#19 Batman: Arkham City: End Game #2

Shifting to our digital sales rankings for the month, we’re continuing to see the digital original material rank right up there with the popular day-and-date print books. The “Ame-Comi I: Wonder Woman” title and latest “Arkham City” title are the new examples of that. And with those new releases and now the “Batman” stories by guys like Damon Lindelof that are rolling out, I see a real focus on digital first comics that look to appeal to folks outside the Wednesday comic shop experience. Now that you’ve got new digital comics coming out every weekday, can we take this as a sign that the digital line is building up a business with a specific shape and goal in mind, or is this just a result of things like “Batman Beyond” doing well out the gate?

Wayne: I think it’s C) All of the Above. We’re definitely trying to make sure that the stuff we push in the smaller bites on the digital side would have the widest appeal to not necessarily the weekly comic shoppers but to the person who was disappointed that “Smallville” went off the air and wants to see what the next season would be like. The “Ame-Comi” line is trying to build off interest in our DC Collectibles success. And people playing the various “Arkham” games are an enormous audience of people that we’d like to see migrate sideways to get them into the comics community.

Some of the new releases also work differently in that they aren’t formatted in a way that immediately screams “eventual print release.” The “Legends of the Dark Knight” short stories don’t feel like the kind of project you’d publish as a stand-alone collection. Will all of these projects eventually move to print?

Wayne: The stuff that we’re publishing at least through today is stuff that will eventually go to print. I think a lot of that is dependent on the storytelling choices made by the creative people. If someone comes up with something that doesn’t translate from digital to print, we’d have to think about whether we’d want to try and move it over. I think to your other point, the “Batman: Black & White” backups we did and the various collections we’ve done with that material shows that you can tell Batman stories in shorter bites and people will be interested in those different takes. I think what you’re seeing in this week’s episode is that it’s somewhat optimized to be told at that screen ratio, and it doesn’t have much to do with what’s going on in the monthly “Batman” books.

Brandy Phillips: We’re experimenting. A lot of the books that are currently in digital have print format-components are on a different schedule. Like Bob said, you’ll see more of that, but there’s no definite answer at this point.

Cunningham: I think it goes back to the original formulating of your question, which was about this stuff “building a business.” I think the unique opportunity in digital is that you’re building a business. Some would say that the Direct Market is a very codified market and how there are rules and ways you have to do things there. I’m not so sure I’d agree with all of that, which is another discussion, but the digital world is a brand-new world, and I think we would be doing this a disservice if we didn’t do this in an experimental way. That’s a process that will continue to develop over time and not just in this first year or two of its existence. It’s a changing market, and we need to always be on top of that change.

Speaking of this market being very different from the Direct Market, one of the notable things about this month’s rankings is that “Earth 2” charted much higher than it did on the print chart so far. We know things may shift there, but with all the talk lately about how it can be harder to sample things or have impulse buying happen when the DM sells out of an issue. Do you think the digital buying habit may allow for that a bit more? With a new launch, are you seeing people more willing to try it out or more able to try it out digitally?

Cunningham: We don’t really necessarily have a metric in place that’s measuring intent, though we’re always striving to find more information on these things. When you ask the question that way, I go back to the Nielsen survey we did in conjunction with the New 52 launch last September where we saw that the digital reader at that point in time had a good component of lapsed readers. I think that may account for why a property like “Earth 2” which has a grounding in a long-running DC tradition may hold appeal there as well. But I think the predominant reason is just what you say - it is easier to sample things in digital.

Lastly, we know a month of #0 issues is on tap for September to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the New 52. We’ve talked with Dan DiDio about the Editorial side of that equation, but considering things like the Nielsen survey and the TV commercials from last year, how will you Sales and Marketing guys be approaching outreach for the zero books?

Cunningham: It’s going to be the same sort of planning process. I think we want to make a big splash, but I also think that when we were launching the New 52, as I mentioned before, we were very aware of the long-term play in that. This is our reminder in the one-year anniversary month, it’s an opportunity not just to give fans a reminder of the origins and secrets that are in the storyline, but also it’s a reminder of what happened a year ago and how far we’ve come. We’re looking at a lot of similar tactics. We talked at ComicsPRO a few months back about how we’re going to do another Nielsen survey, though that’s not necessarily timed to this September. But a lot of the work we did putting together the New 52 has become part of our everyday now. It was a significant moment of change for the company and I believe for the industry, but a lot of those ideas continue now. A lot of those strategies informed what we did with “Before Watchmen,” for example, and not even just zero month.

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