EXCLUSIVE: Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley On Sales, Pricing, DC & More

2011 saw many interesting events in the comics marketplace, many of them orbiting the idea that the industry is currently going through a "soft" phase -- which is essentially a nice way of saying a financial downturn thanks to the recent recession and other factors.

And while sales levels and hype levels may have fluctuated from month to month, traditional industry leader Marvel Comics kept steady over the course of 2011. By year's end, the publisher kept its status as the biggest and best-selling company in comics. However, within that range of success, there were also challenges for the House of Ideas. In the second half of the year, Marvel cancelled a number of low-performing titles, laid off a number of staff members in Editorial and Production and faced its stiffest competition in years from a renewed DC Comics and their New 52 relaunch in September.

Today, in the first of an exclusive, massive two-part interview, Marvel Publisher & President of the Print, Animation & Digital Divisions, Marvel Worldwide, Inc. Dan Buckley discusses Marvel's comic sales, prices and competition. A longtime veteran of the industry and of Marvel, Buckley has served as the company's Publisher for almost a decade. And while he's never taken a heavy a hand in promoting the stories of the Marvel Universe as his Editorial staff is known for doing, his insights into the publisher's practices, policies and performance serve as an invaluable resource for understanding what Marvel Comics is today.

Below, Buckley addresses Marvel's recent sales strategies and performances including the perception that the company is in a sales slump, the idea that DC's recent success has tipped the scales of the industry, debate over comics pricing, the double shipping of Marvel's top titles, cancelations, character deaths and much, much more. And stay tuned tomorrow for part two where Buckley discusses incoming comics from AvX to Disney product!

CBR News: Dan, let's start by looking at the big picture for Marvel. 2011 was a very up-and-down year for comics in general. What are your impressions of comics and of Marvel's performance overall as a publisher last year, and what lessons were learned that inform your plans for 2012?

Dan Buckley: As a whole comics had a good year. This business continues to perform admirably in difficult economic times. This performance speaks to the strength of the content, its retailers and fans.

As for Marvel, we had a good year, but not a great one. What I mean by that is that we were very pleased with some individual projects, but as a whole we did not hit it out of the park as we have in some recent years. Now, I want to be clear that I feel that what prevented us from having a great year had little to do with our creators and editors and had more to do with the way we approached 2011 from a planning perspective. We were a little slow to reading what the market is willing to digest at this time. We are confident that the business planning adjustments we have made will lead to a great 2012.

The pub plan adjustments are relatively simple. The biggest and most important adjustment is that we need to focus on the core titles in our line. Retailers and consumers showed that they are mainly interested in the ongoing titles and that one-shot and lower tiered character limited series are something that they are not interested in at this time. The other thing that they made clear to us is they want more of something if they like it. This as lead us to publishing many of our core titles more than once a month. This was proven to be successful for "Uncanny X-Force," "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man," "Amazing Spider-Man," etc.

We will also be introducing some product enhancements in the vein of "Digital Free" over the coming year that will provide greater value to both committed and casual fans.

Let's look at some of those major moments across the year. I know that David Gabriel earned some press early last year with his quip that Marvel would be killing a character each quarter, but stories like the death of Johnny Storm and the death of Ultimate Peter Parker did seem to provide a very big bump the week those comics hit. How do you feel Marvel has done on capitalizing on that interest for long term market growth? Is there anything about these kinds of events that is repeatable year-to-year?

Yes, [Laughs] David did generate some buzz with that remark. His sarcasm does get the best of him at times.

The key here for Hickman's "FF" and Bendis' "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" story is good storytelling, and that's what always been at the heart of our success. If the stories were found lacking, then these would be stunts with the one issue bump in sales. I think it is pretty clear that these were not stunts but creator-driven story points that our marketing and PR team used to elevate awareness and ongoing monthly sales of two high quality titles.

Are these type of events repeatable? Yes, editorially-driven creator events are repeatable year to year. I think the Marvel editorial and creative teams have proven that without a doubt that they can repeat this type of success regularly. All you need to do is look at the numbers over the past decade, and it is pretty clear that Marvel is the only publisher that can honestly say that they know how to repeat this success year in and year out.

On the flipside, there was a fair bit of retraction at Marvel last year as well. Readers noted a wave of titles ending from ongoing series like "X-23" and "Alpha Flight" to unfinished or only solicited minis like "All-Winners Squad" and "Victor Von Doom" for the quick timing of their end. And industry watchers were surprised at a round of layoffs laid at the feet of budgetary changes. What can you say to people who see a disparity between a publisher that has won market share for the year, had a number of big hits and also seems to be pruning parts of the business down at the same time?

As I stated earlier, the sales figures for lower tier character series, be it a regular or limited series, were not strong enough to warrant continuation.

As for the layoffs, all I have to say is that we needed to make some tough decisions, and that we lost some very good people.

One of the very notable elements of Marvel's monthly publishing platform for 2012 is the idea of accelerated shipping for the core monthly titles like the Avengers and X-Men books. We know it's early in this program, but so far, what has been the response from retailer and readers in your eyes? What effect do you hope this strategy has on both Marvel and the market?

I'm going to disagree with you calling this a program or saying it's new -- we've been shipping 12+ books of many series over the last decade, most notably Bendis and Bagley's "Ultimate Spider-Man."

We've received a tremendous response from retailers and fans. Fans are getting more of the books they read and less of the product they feel is ancillary or unnecessary. Looking at a series like "Uncanny X-Force," the bi-weekly shipping helped enhance the experience of reading Rick Remender's "Dark Angel Saga." Look, if we didn't think this was good for the market we wouldn't do it.

The desired effect is that we provide our regular readers with the comics and stories that they know they want. Additionally, we are looking to provide our retail partners with an offering that is less risky in these difficult times. There is more certainty associated with selling 16 issues of "The Avengers" than 12 issues of "The Avengers" and four issues of a B-list title. I am not saying that the B-list title is not good, but when dollars are tight, people are less likely to sample new things, regardless of the buzz, which means that those four issues of that B-list title are more likely to stay on the shelf, which then ties up cash flow for our retail partners.

Simply put, this is not the time to ask retailers and consumers to load up on titles based on characters that even our most loyal fans need to look up on Wikipedia. It can and will lead to taking dollars out of the industry and tying cash flow up and dead inventory. People need to remember that the comics crash of the nineties was primarily caused by the industry tying its cash up in unsellable inventory.

Another big issue for retailers has been perceived competition with digital initiatives, and while Marvel has been a digital leader in so many ways, it seems as though you've often tempered the rollout of things like day-and-date releases to measure the impact on brick-and-mortar stores. Over the past few months, we've seen all sorts of experiments from Marvel focused on this divide -- coupons in comics for digital downloads, coupons online for physical product, polybags and special covers for comic shops, etc. What's your main focus in testing all these promotions, and what's been the success rate so far? Will we continue to see these same specific programs across 2012? If so, which ones? Any other new methods you'll be testing in this area?

You're absolutely right that we've taken a more strategic approach based on the concerns of retailers than some other publishers. We want to make sure our moves into the digital areas are done in a way that allows both Marvel and retailers to gauge their effect on print sales so they can react accordingly. This is a new distribution channel for comics, one that has amazing potential to bring in new readers and we want to make sure whatever we do there not only does that but also benefits brick & mortar retailers. We were the first major comics company to get into digital comics, beginning with Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited in 2007, and we've been the most aggressive in getting the most of our backlist on multiple digital platforms.

But we have to look at how to best leverage this channel to benefit everyone -- creators, fans, retailers and Marvel itself. To that end, we're going to continue experimenting and innovating, from using digital copy codes to increase the value of our print comics to merchandising our app in a way that attracts new or lapsed readers.

The coupon program you mention was a huge success for us. We're going to do it again, very soon. It's the kind of program we hope brings digital only or lapsed readers back to comic shops. Based on the response so far, we're confident it's working.

We've just announced we'll be at SXSW in Austin this March to make some major publishing announcements. That's an important distinction for Marvel -- we see print and digital as partners in the overall publishing plan, so you won't hear us calling these "digital media announcements" or anything like that.

One of the undeniably big stories from the second half of 2011 was DC's relaunch -- first in its announcement and scope and then in its sales success. A lot of folks at Marvel have taken to the press or to Twitter or what have you to comment on DC's moves, and you even recently spoke to the AP about a rising tide helping to float all ships, so to speak. What overall do you make of DC's strategy right now? Will it remain sustainable?

To be frank, I cannot speak to their strategy because I am not involved in determining their objectives. If their objective was to win market share and increase sales, then I would have to say that their pricing, promotion, PR, communications and trade strategies were spot on and that they executed the tactics associated with these strategies flawlessly.

We have watched and, what is the word I am looking for -- "admired" many of their tactics, and I would be remiss in not stating that their efforts have inspired us to look at our marketing plans differently.

Now, is the "All-New 52" sustainable? I don't know. As I stated earlier, long term success comes down to the product. And to be clear, product in our industry comes down to 2 things -- story and art. Basically, is the story compelling, and do people enjoy the art.

Right now, it is hard to determine what product is working beyond the product that was working before the "All-New 52" was implemented. What I mean by this is, Geoff Johns' Green Lantern and Grant Morrison's Batman were working before the "All-New 52," and now those books are performing better than before, which speaks to the strength of that product.

The sustainable success of the program for the titles that fall outside of their top 10 is where the jury is still out. The reason why I say this is because various trade programs are being implemented across the line that make it hard to determine if the incremental sales of the bottom two-thirds of the line are associated with the product or the trade program. The industry will know if the success is sustainable for those titles when the product finally needs to speak for itself. Most recent numbers would indicate the elevated sales for the rest of line are not sustainable.

The question that begs, of course, is one of competition. With things like the accelerated shipping and the impending same-day-digital move for the Marvel U books, an assumption a lot of folks make is that Marvel is reacting a lot to DC right now. How accurate is that assumption? Does DC being more competitive now have any impact on how you guys roll out your books? Is that a good thing for comics overall?

DC stepping up to the plate is good news for everyone. That means more comics being sold and retailers seeing a bigger bottom line. But some short term success by our distinguished competition isn't going to change how Marvel plans and executes our business. Yes, we will adopt some tactical executions if we feel they are good.

Our strategy is the same as it's always been -- the best creators paired with the best characters to create the best comics. That is why we've been the top publisher for over a decade and why I believe 2012 is going to be an immensely successful year for Marvel.

As a case study in both the market as a whole and the impact of DC's line, let's look a bit at the just released January numbers. First and foremost, a lot of ink was spilled over DC's top ten performance on the charts -- and deservedly so, we would think. It's been quite some time since a publisher was able to pull a sweep like that, and the last time it happened, Marvel was the publisher. Judgment on these sales numbers is almost always curbed in terms of "Who's winning?" but even beyond that general talk, the feeling of analysis on this recent set of numbers is that Marvel has had a harder time of late keeping its franchises -- either consistent leaders like Avengers or new launches like Defenders -- above or around that magic 100K threshold. Do you think that's a fair point to be made? In short, is Marvel in a bit of a sales slump these past few months?

First of all, going 10-for-10 in any given month is pretty impressive and hard to do, so kudos to them. As for "Who's winning?" from a numbers perspective they "won" unit sales and we "won" dollar sales and neither of us "won" either category by a substantial spread. With the 10-for-10, I would give them the edge for January.

Is Marvel in a sales slump at the moment? Nope. Over the past few months we're tracking above our year-over-year numbers. Would we like to have more books above 100K? Yes, of course we would, and we have, and have had, plans in place to increase the average unit sale for each title in the Marvel line. These plans involve editorially/creator driven programs combined with increased focus on the core titles and characters in our line.

Recently, DC's John Rood and Bob Wayne have made the rounds in the press to talk about sales numbers for the New 52, and despite a lot of early talk about not caring about the competition for the #1 sales spot, they do appear confident and happy these days to talk about themselves as being the market and industry leader. Since Marvel's been the #1 publisher in comics for so long, do you consider that distinction one you want to go after in a significant way? And do you anticipate a more robust battle for #1 as 2012 goes along?

Our number one goal at Marvel is to be the best publisher, which entails many different objectives, from gross sales to franchise management and profitability. Our strategy to fulfill those objectives is combining the best talent with the best characters to deliver the best stories. We have never run our business with the goal of being number one -- it has quite simply been a really cool by-product of the efforts made by the Marvel publishing team.

Now, I won't kid myself or anyone else by saying we don't take a great deal of pride in the fact we've been number one in unit share for so many years, or that we've generally also been number one in dollar shares month after month. We've even been the number one publisher in terms of both for years -- including 2011. Damn, now that I think of it, that is almost as impressive as our friends across the street going 10-for-10 in January!

So to answer your first question -- we will always strive to be the best publisher, and it would be great if those results garner us the #1 slot, but we will not pursue the #1 slot as a primary goal or at the expense of other important business objectives.

As for "do you anticipate a more robust battle for #1 as 2012 goes?" that's a two part answer. 1) Yes, and 2) it's about time!

One specific thing from January's numbers that has also made a big splash in the press is the split between units sold and dollars made on the Diamond charts. DC has taken this has proof that their majority adherence to a $2.99 price point is working out to their favor, and there may be a significant number of readers out there who agree with them. Do you think there's a chance that this price point debate hurts Marvel, if not in profits, then in the eyes of the consumer? In the end, are there ways in which $3.99 comics don't work out so well even as there are others that they do?

The distinguished competition stating that their $2.99 pricing strategy is the reason they won unit share -- by less than 3% -- in January is misleading and, quite frankly, silly.

First, we need to dispel the concept that the unit "win" was done with 52 titles vs Marvel's 3,489 title offering in January -- yes, that is sarcasm. Their winning of January unit share by 2.35% was done with us soliciting 82 books vs. their 80 books -- not 52. So if you take this reality under consideration then you would realize that we're also in a virtual tie when it comes to average unit sales for each title we put into the market. It is important to clarify this fact because it takes away from the concept their unit numbers are significantly different than ours.

Now let's review the "draw the line at $2.99" timeline, which kicked off last January, which did nothing to move the needle for their line. Don't get me wrong -- it may have helped some titles here and there, but it definitely did nothing to elevate their unit sales volume as a whole. The unit numbers did not pop until the "All-New 52" program launched, and, as I've mentioned earlier, I think they did a great job executing the marketing and merchandising part of this program.The success of this program is essentially tied to a couple of different things. Specifically, those things would be messaging and #1s combined with the depth and reach of the "incentive/returnable" program.

To be frank it is the "incentive/returnable" program, which is in its fifth month, that's had the greatest effect on elevating their unit numbers as a publisher. For the month of January, more than half their line (40+ titles) has been subsidized by this program, and it is my understanding that their "returnable" program is now extending for another three months. We really will have no idea what the true "demand" for the bulk of their line is until those titles, as I stated before, have to be sold on the merit of the product.

The last thing I would like to add here is that I am not arguing the merits of "returnability" as a sales tactic. That is a conversation for another day. All I am saying is that all parties should be clear about the fact that a "returnable" as a business practice elevates "sell in," which makes it an effective sales tactic if your objective is to increase product trial. The other happy by-product of this practice in the Direct Market is that "sell in" is the basis of DCD's monthly sales ranking. Would our friends across the street have gone 10-for-10 without "returnablity"? Most likely not, but to their credit they would have still had the top three or four books and most likely had six or seven books in the top 10.

Back to pricing, the consumer will buy a $3.99 product if the product is of high quality, and the sales charts support this statement. The unit ranking in January shows that; two of the top three titles, nine of the top 20 unit books and 23 of the top 50 were $3.99 or higher. I guess what I'm saying is that the primary influence on unit sales is driven by quality of the product, and not price. But that does not mean that we should not be working to add value to those titles which is what we at Marvel are focused on daily.

Check back to CBR tomorrow for part two of our Dan Buckley interview where he discusses making "AvX" different from past Marvel events, looks to capitalize on "Avengers" movie madness and more.

CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this interview.

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