EXCLUSIVE: DC's Wayne & Cunningham On Sales, Digital Rankings & Readership

At this point, it comes as no surprise to see DC Comics performing well in the monthly sales rankings released by Diamond Comic Distributors. Since its line-wide New 52 relaunch last year, the publisher's books have been more consistently hitting high spots in the Top 300, and even in a month like April where competitor Marvel had a massive launch for their "Avengers Vs. X-Men" event, DC books remain strong.

Of course, the fact that the publisher long seen as comics' #2 house has held onto a healthy chunk of the market for this long is noteworthy in and of itself, and this month as CBR News again had the opportunity to speak with SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham and get an exclusive look at the Top 20 sales rankings for their digital comics, CBR News focused on the current shape of the company ahead of what will likely be a summer full of changes as DC launches more new series, the "Before Watchmen" initiative, some small crossovers, and more.

Below, the pair sound off on how the market for comics has changed to get to this point, what their surveys with Nielsen really say about who's buying comics, what their digital rankings mean for digital original comic material and what the New 52 FCBD special may hold for the line as the relaunch nears its one-year anniversary.

CBR News: As with the past few months, the April numbers for the Direct Market showed the back-and-forth in sales dominance between you guys and Marvel. They launched "Avengers Vs. X-Men" very successfully to gain an edge in market and dollar share, and you guys continue to hold the majority of Top 10 comic spots. I think overall, we've gotten to the point where we know the "new normal" for these charts. What do you two see as the biggest difference in where the market is at now compared to where it was a year ago?

Bob Wayne: I think that, for a start, we're a lot more competitive in a lot of categories than we would have been a year ago. I also think it has to be acknowledged that Image and "Walking Dead" in the book format are a lot more competitive than they were a year ago. I'm kind of happy that "The Walking Dead" is off the air for a while on AMC because the graphic novels have just stampeded through the book charts.

John Cunningham: And those readers need something new to read once they've worked their way through all the "Walking Dead" volumes! I'm not going to say that this is totally about the New 52, but if I think back to what there was a year ago versus what there is now, I see a lot of different reasons that the market feels more energized to me now. "Walking Dead" is a part of that. The New 52 is a part of that. Frankly, a year with "The Avengers" and "Amazing Spider-Man" and especially our new "Dark Knight Rises" movie fuels that. But there just seems to be a different, higher level of energy around the marketplace right now, and it's really cool to be a part of it.

Summer is right around the corner, and traditionally in comics that means a lot of big events and big promotions. DC doesn't have one universe-spanning event story this year, but you have a lot of different projects on the slate for the next four months. What are you guys focusing on getting over in the market moving forward, and what is your expectation for how the numbers will hold or change as a result?

Wayne: Well, we've got the second wave of New 52 titles that have just started -- "Earth-2" and "World's Finest" and "Ravagers" and "G.I. Combat" and "Dial H" and -- which one am I not getting in my head right now?

Cunningham: "Batman Inc!"

Wayne: Oh yes, the best-selling one. Of course. [Laughter] And we've also got the first collections for the New 52 hitting across May, then "Before Watchmen" in June. And of course, there's "Night of the Owls" going on in the Batman books as well as "The Culling" happening in "Teen Titans," "Superboy" and "Ravagers." There's just a lot of stuff going on right now. And I think the May and June projects, particularly "Before Watchmen," will carry us well into next year.

Cunningham: Certainly there's always seasonality whether it's summer or the holiday season, and all that factors into our publishing plan. But one of the most interesting things we heard this year was when we were at ComicsPRO in February is that the retailers were ecstatic about the January they'd had leading up to that moment because their numbers were running so high. That was so interesting because one of the old saws in the seasonality argument is that that part of winter is a tough time to sell. We talked about it afterwards, and I think the lesson we learned there is that if you've got good, compelling stories that people want to read, they will come out to buy them no matter what time of the year it is. So we're always going to have those points of marketplace seasonality, but it's really about doing the work as best you can and publishing books when they make sense. Our audience is so devoted and so intense that they'll come out if they believe the stories are worth coming out for.

"Night of the Owls" started up this month, and as we can see by the numbers, it launched "Batman" above "Justice League" in the DC rankings. I think everyone expects an event to push up the marquee book and to move units of lower-circing titles, but what long terms effects do you anticipate a story like this can have on titles like "Nightwing" and "Red Hood" and the like?

Wayne: That's something we hope for -- that there will be new readers coming to a title once they've sampled it as part of a crossover. "Nightwing" is a perfect example of that. The most recent issue benefitted greatly from the "Night of the Owls" crossover, and I actually think it was the best issue yet of "Nightwing" so that's been very cool.

John, since we last spoke, I saw you deliver the findings from the Nielsen survey of the New 52 launch at C2E2's retailer summit -- trying as best I could to type everything you were saying at a fast clip. When you first released info from that survey, I think the general takeaway from a lot of people was "there weren't enough new readers." But when I saw the full numbers in Chicago, there seemed to be more variance in who the readers were based on which survey they took. What findings did you have once you looked deeper into the numbers that people may have missed?

Cunningham: If I had to boil it down to one thing, it would be about the numbers we saw in lapsed readers. We believed since we launched the New 52 last September that this would play for a long time, like with the collections coming out right now. If the New 52 was conceived as a jumping on point for all sorts of readers, we knew all along that when we were able to take the collections out into the Direct Market and other markets that we'd see new and lapsed readers come out. So I view the numbers on the lapsed readers through the lens that we're talking about pulling people back into the weekly periodical habit. That is not the same as getting them interested in the form again. It's a different level of commitment.

I think I said in Chicago that the number across all three surveys was about 7% for new readers. And it's easy for people to look at that and go, "Oh, it's not that much." But to me, 7% of people who identified themselves as new now coming in to buy monthly comics is a fairly extraordinary number. I would expect that we would see that new number even higher when we get to the collected format, but I'd also expect the lapsed number to come up as well.

You also said that there are more surveys you're looking to do moving forward. Will we see one unpacking the demographics of people buying the New 52 collections over the next month?

Cunningham: Yeah, we're working with Nielsen on what the next series is. We always planned for the survey work we're doing to be an ongoing process. It's not enough to just take a snapshot of one month in one year and say, "This is what it is." Our goal is to take continual measurement and then analyze what the measurement is, what's working, what's not working and where we think there's more to be done. We can talk a little more about that in a few weeks, but again, we planned from the get go for this to be an ongoing effort.

As with past months, we've got rankings for the digital comics on sale this month, and again, the real standout to me here is how strongly the digital original content like the "Beyond" material and now "Smallville Season 11" is doing. A few months and a few projects into this, what are you learning about digital original? What confidence do you have in terms of doing certain projects digital first from here on out?

Cunningham: From my point of view, it's a little early to make such conclusions. We're very heartened by what we see in the digital projects, but I would be loath to move away from that point of view that allows us to view this as "Let's try this and see if it works" as opposed to "Let's have these digital rules that we're obeying."

At the same time, it seems like you're working toward launching broader media properties through this format more than meat and potatoes DCU stuff. "Batman Beyond" and "Smallville" are both TV series still syndicating, and you've also got digital comics coming up inspired by toy lines. Isn't there a way in which the projects to date have gone for a more general public reader?

Cunningham: I think you've identified what that particular brand of experimentalism has been to this point in time, but if we're talking about what we've learned, I think we're also equally heartened by the print numbers we've seen for "Smallville" and some of the other books that have come to print. That changes the lesson you're learning from the digital side. If something's working in digital and still working in print, then what does that tell us? I'm asking that as an open-ended question because I don't quite know the answer to that yet, and that makes things very exciting and cool at this point in time.

Finally, by the time this interview runs, people will have been able to check out the New 52 Free Comic Book Day offering from DC. That's something that Geoff Johns has been talking up as a lynchpin entry into the canon of the DCU, and the expectation is for a lot of ideas and projects to jump out of it. But we're also getting close to the point where you'll be revealing what's on tap for this fall. What can you tell me about where your heads are at for the one-year anniversary of the New 52 and how what we're seeing now plays into that?

Cunningham: That is a very interesting question. I think what you're talking about makes a lot of sense. When we get into June, you'll be seeing what we're soliciting for September, and you'll have a good picture then. Though I think one of the fun things about the Free Comic Book Day special is that I'm not sure that Bob and I are even aware of everything being alluded to in that book and what it holds for the future. It's a fun experience for us on that level too.

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

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