EXCLUSIVE: Marvel's Gabriel on "AvX" Sales, DIgital Initiatives & More

There's almost certainly no doubt about it at this point. When sales rankings and numbers come in for May's performance in the Direct Market of comic shops, Marvel Comics' "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1 will be the top-selling single issue of the month. In an exclusive interview with CBR News, Marvel SVP of Sales David Gabriel revealed that the kick-off to the publisher's summer event has brought in an initial order estimate of over 250,000 copies, a number which represents the biggest pre-order for a Marvel book in several years and one which will likely top the first month performance of competitor DC Comics' recent "Justice League" #1 (though that comic has proven to have a very long tail with overall sales now reported at around 400,000).

Of course, there's much more going on at Marvel these days than the pre-orders on a single comic (no matter how important that comic may be to the line). Below, Gabriel speaks to Marvel's place in the Direct Market in the wake of February Sales Estimates that saw the House of Ideas winning market and unit share even as DC took the top ten spots on the chart, discusses recent Marvel policies including shipping titles more than 12 times a year and overshipping select releases to retailers free of charge, the success of their "Fantastic Four Season One" OGN and what that means for the future, how digital moves from day-and-date to download coupons in print impact sales, what the Marvel ReEvolution promotions holds in store next and much, much more.

CBR News: David, the February share numbers are out, and most folks have been focusing on the "split" status of things with Marvel winning market and dollar share but DC taking the top ten positions on the comics chart. We'll get into specifics in a moment, but overall, what's your feeling on Marvel's performance right now, and to what do you attribute the overall win in sales?

David Gabriel: We're very happy with our performance. From the moment we announced "Avengers Vs. X-Men" in December, we've seen a lot of excitement at the fan and retailer level. DC launched their New 52 line very strong and continue to have some successes, but Marvel is selling more comics and bringing more money into this industry than any other company -- and we're up in both categories from last year with fewer books.

We've also been very steady in unit share and dollar share over the last six months, while other publishers have been far less stable.

As I'm sure you see, there are plenty of theories, comments and debates over Marvel's place in the market, but one thing everyone agrees on is that you guys put out more material than any other publisher, often by a large margin. How much of a contributing factor is the size of the Marvel line in a share win for the DM? Is market share a contributing factor to Marvel deciding how many comics they publish in any given month?

If you count the number of books solicited by Marvel in February throughout all our lines and compare this with the number of books solicited by DC through their lines, you'll find we actually solicited the same number of books. Despite comments to the contrary by various folks online, there isn't a huge disparity in the numbers of comics Marvel and DC put out each month.

Our focus is on releasing the best stories every month -- this is what drives our editors and creators, who bring fans such great comics each week, and what drives the publishing plan. It doesn't matter if we publish 60 or 100 books each month -- what matters is that we feel these are quality comics that bring fans to comic stores each week.

We have never managed our business to "win" market share. Our goal is to create quality stories that draw in old and new fans to their comic stores week after week.

The real focal point of a lot of Marvel's current moves has been the accelerated shipping on certain marquee titles like the Avengers and X-Men franchises. Of course, this is a program that's been tested on various titles over the past few years, but the past few months have seen that practice ramp up in a whole new way. What's the response you've gotten from retailers to this change in the line, and as far as you can tell, have the readers responded any differently to multiple books hitting in any given month?

It's pretty simple: We want to give customers the books they want. We've heard from customers loud and clear that they want more of the core books and less limited series. So not only do we have customers coming into comic stores more frequently, but they're getting more of what they want.

Keep in mind, this isn't a new strategy -- comics double-shipped in times past (I'm sure people remember "Uncanny X-Men" shipping more frequently in the summers in the 90s), and we're responding to a demand. This comes from fans, as we mentioned, and also from retailers, who want to increase foot traffic in their stores.

If this wasn't working, we'd be scaling back the double-ships as opposed to maintaining them.

Another recent move by Marvel to support new titles is overshipping issues to retailers, which we've seen on high profile books like "Point One" and "Defenders." In cases like that, how successful has the program been at generating more interest for projects across their periodical life? For example, has having more copies of a title like "Defenders" on the stands in that first month at all impacted the long term orders on issues #2, 3, 4, etc?

The best part of the feedback you see online is just how much it's divorced from the reality of retailers we talk to day in and day out. For all the cries of Marvel's Machiavellian schemes from online pundits, there's absolutely nothing sinister nor is there anything new about this practice. It's also amusing to see no one complain we're providing free overships of "John Carter: World of Mars," but if we do it with "Defenders" then Marvel must be evil.

Let's break it down: Marvel is giving free copies of our big launches -- or comics we believe in -- to retailers to sell to their customers because we feel there's a larger demand than orders indicate. There's no charge for this, nor do we ask retailers to return unsold copies. In fact, many of these same comics we overship sell out at Diamond and go back to new printings.

We're not making money off the additional copies retailers sell, but what we're doing is making sure retailers, the lifeblood of industry, are more profitable. Do we hope they order more Marvel product, like "AvX"? Of course! But the more important goal is helping retailers stay solvent by making sure they have product fans want.

We hear anecdotally from them that, because of the free issues we sent them on "Defenders" or "Incredible Hulk," for example, they were able to sell more copies than they expected and felt more comfortable when ordering subsequent issues. What this program really becomes is our answer to returnable comics. It's one thing to make retailers jump through hoops, spend money upfront on untested comic series, have to wait three to six months to return unsold copies, then get charged for unsold copies, and so on. All this does is tie up retailers' cash in product that may or may not sell and add a burden of work on retailers when there really is no need for that burden. We achieve the same thing by just sending the books out for free. We've shown we are behind the book and retailers get to pocket the money that they make from the extra copies, without any additional work involved. Most retailers will tell you that they much prefer this method to comics being returnable.

It's been noticed recently that the trend of the past few years for titles to miss shipping dates due to creators needed deadline extensions has significantly declined. Books are hitting their shipping dates more consistently now than they have been in years, in part due to art teams rotating on and off books. What's at the core of a renewed focus on shipping schedules, and what's been the response to having more consistent books with maybe less consistent art teams?

It's nice to get noticed and get some credit for the hard work our editors and creators have put in. This is all a result of our reduced title count, and our editors maintaining some pretty high standards for all their books, and our creators meeting (and maybe surpassing) those standards. I think any changes in art teams have been kept to the barest minimums and even when we've had to make those decisions, the transitions have been pretty seamless. I have not heard any complaints, at least from the retail community, our procedures in handling this have had any adverse effects. And keep in mind we do this judiciously and there is always a LOT being considered in terms of the overall project when do decide to switch out an art team on a book. Our editors are always conscious of how any switch to their books will affect the overall story, the rest of the creators, and of course the fans. So far, so good.

Of course, Marvel didn't just win the unit share for the month. You guys took dollar share, too, by a significant margin. A lot of folks are going to point to pricing as a contributing factor in this. In short, does a line with many books selling at $3.99 and $4.99 price points impact the overall sales picture as much as people assume it does?

I don't think so -- prices vary across our line, as it does with competitors. Books are anywhere from $2.99 to $7.99, but at the end of the day it's quality that sells. I guess if we were losing in the unit share month after month and only winning in the dollar share then I'd have to agree with you. But that's not really been the case for the past few years.

Does our $3.99 pricing help us "win" the dollar share rankings each month? Absolutely. But only when the unit shares are there as well. But it also helps the retailers "win," too. With very few exceptions, we win unit share each month as well -- and that means our pricing strategy works well for this market, allowing us to generate more dollars for our retail partners by drawing in more customers on a weekly basis.

The debate over price point is something that has been made promotional fodder by companies including DC, and there is a certain segment of readers online who say that $3.99 as a regular price point is a barrier to their buying some Marvel books. Have those criticisms bore out in your numbers at all? If sales seemed to significantly drop on a comic with a higher price point, would Marvel make moves to change its pricing, and if so, how big would that drop have to be?

We see the same drops and rises on $3.99 books as we see on $2.99. There has not been a book yet that has sold more units because of a price drop. We all saw how true that was last year when there was a massive drop in prices. But it's not pricing that drove the DC unit sales jump, nor is it pricing driving the drop on many of those same books. DC put together a successful promotional program for The New 52 that drove significant sales increases across their super hero line.

By comparison, last year, when "Draw the Line at $2.99" was announced, there was no discernible uptick in DC's overall volume to the direct market. Instead, as we mentioned before, dollars left the industry. This trend wasn't reversed till The New 52 program launched.

You've just announced that moving forward, all $3.99 books will come with a download code for a free digital copy after experimenting with the program on titles like "Avenging Spider-Man." What's the response been on that experiment that led to taking that action across the line? Have there been a significant bump in downloads on titles with free codes? Care to share a percentage of downloads that come from print comics?

Digital comic sales are on the rise, regardless. It's not just coming, it's here. What is relevant is that we are the first company to add the extra value to our comics at no cost to consumers and with a direct payment based on redemption to direct market retailers. No other publisher is doing this. Ask the retailers who get the monthly payments what they think of receiving their percentage of the program. We're now the industry leader in turning this program line wide and we've doubled the value of every one of those comics. And it's not stopping there. We're the only publisher to present coupons to consumers of digital comics driving them into comic shops to purchase print comics. And now we're on the verge of the Marvel ReEvolution that encompasses both of these programs and adds multiple nuances, some announced and some coming soon. You've heard of our Infinite Comics, a new line of digital comics designed with modern mobile devices in mind. And you've probably heard about Marvel AR, our new Augmented Reality app that brings DVD style extras to comics in an exciting new way.

But the thing you may not have heard amid all the discussion is that Marvel is creating more value with the print product. For the reader who buys "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1, they get not only the free digital copy on the Marvel Comics app but also "Avengers Vs X-Men #1 Infinite" for free. They can also use Marvel AR -- which is a free app -- to get even more out of this print comic through our exciting surprises in the issue.

So regardless of which format you prefer -- print or digital -- the best value is the print comic. We're not upcharging. We're just delivering more top quality content for fans, which is what will drive them to stores and which is why we're seeing record breaking initial orders on "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1.

It's also not a stretch to imagine that this is only the beginning of how Marvel will use the aforementioned technologies to bring more value across our line to drive even more customers into stores every week.

One side of the equation that doesn't get discussed quite as much in all the periodical debate is the graphic novel side of the business, and this month Marvel seems to have had a strong success with the "Fantastic Four: Season One" OGN ranking as the #2 trade for the month. What does the success of that book and the "Season One" line mean for the future of Marvel's GN program? Is there a chance we'll see more projects like this or a significant expansion of the "Season One" line?

That's a great question. We've been thrilled at the success and reviews of "Fantastic Four Season One," both the ranking in the direct market, as well as appearing for the last two weeks on the NY Times graphic novel bestseller list. We've already announced the second wave of Season One books and before too long we might be announcing a third. As far as other OGNs being produced at Marvel, only time will tell. We're not actively looking to get into that market, but I can't say that the Season One success hasn't brought the topic back up in our halls...

Looking forward, we've heard lots of talk about the orders for "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1. Can you share with us what the expected orders for the first print will be? How do you think that number bodes for the event and for Marvel's line further into 2012?

We had an initial print run for "Avengers Vs X-Men" #1 that exceeded a quarter of a million copies...and again, that's just the initial orders. It's a good sign of just how strong Marvel and the comic industry are right now that we're seeing more excitement for this story among retailers, fans and media than we've seen in quite a long time.

We've just begun to see orders come in for following issues and the rest of the series continues to surpass any numbers we've seen recently.

Again, this goes back to our core philosophy -- bring the best characters and best talent together to create the best story. That's what will drive fans into stores.

A full rollout of same day digital is in the offing for Marvel this spring. After already phasing a lot of the line to day-and-date, do you see any significant impact of digital on print or vice versa? Overall, what kind of hopes do you have for digital sales as opposed to their print counterparts once everything is available at the same time?

This probably won't surprise many, but we find that the sales of digital comics are separate from the sales of print comics. A spike or decrease in one doesn't affect the other negatively in any way. The goal here is simple -- bring more readers to comics and make sure they're here to support not just Marvel, but the entire industry as well. The best way to do that is delivering great content on a regular basis -- and that's exactly what we're doing.

We also see a huge opportunity to bring digital consumers into comic stores to discover that unique experience. One of the first steps we've taken towards that goal is our couponing program which gives fans a $5 coupon for a digital comic purchase. We launched this in January to great success and just announced an "Avengers Vs. X-Men" themed version of this offer that last a week leading into the launch of this storyline. We want all fans to know where to find their local comic shop and incentivize them to visit. This coupon program is the most significant investment by any comic publisher in growing the print comics market by driving digital comics customers into stores.

To combine those last two questions together, we've heard that the promotional plan for "AvX" is going to be one of the biggest Marvel has launched in quite a while. Who will the promotion most strongly target? When it comes to a general readership familiar with the Marvel movies, is the hope that digital will break down any barriers for folks not accustomed to comic shop shopping?

This isn't just one of the biggest -- it is the biggest promotional plan and marketing investment we've ever made in our comics, which is something we can do because "Avengers Vs. X-Men" is just that big -- and good -- of a story. We're very much focusing on bringing lapsed readers back to comics and also appealing to those out there who love Marvel but maybe haven't found that perfect entry point into comics. We can show them "Avengers Vs. X-Men" and say "these are your favorite super heroes, in the biggest story we've ever told and you can start reading comics right now." You've seen our advertising in places we've never been in before; our PR efforts have taken us to places like Game Informer, ABC, EW and more that get us a very wide demographic of fans; we went to SXSW with huge publishing announcements activated by "AvX"; we're creating a documentary series with MTV; and there's even more we haven't announced.

This is about taking our biggest story ever and bringing in more new fans than ever before to read comics. When our readership grows the entire industry wins.

There are many folks who wonder about the viability of print in the wake of so much expansion of and embracing of digital publishing options. This weekend, Marvel announced new digital-based publishing initiatives as well as new print enhancing digital products. What do you see as the future of print in all these changes, and what strengths does print have that maybe digital still can't replicate?

You still can't "hold" an individual digital comic. You still can't "collect" them. You can't share them with your friends or easily pass them around in reading circles and create a community around them. There is no San Diego Digital Comic Con, there are no Stan Lee's Digital Soap Box. What's going to emerge is going to be some kind of blending of all these things, where both mediums will have their place and both are able to co-exist and benefit from the other. People were having the same worries years ago when manga starting taking over book stores and everyone feared that the comic book was doomed. These are exciting times ahead of us for comic fans, for fans of print, for fans of digital, for fans of collected editions, and especially for fans of Marvel. Folks are already blown away by the next iterations of print and digital comics, and we're dedicated to making sure that each medium has its place within the industry.

Ultimately, what's the most significant piece of Marvel's sales strategy for the rest of 2012? We know that competition has been stronger in the past six months than it's been in a while. What's your prediction for how Marvel will be fairing once we're into the thick of the summer and beyond?

I see Marvel having the most exciting editorial content since "Avengers Disassembled" and "Astonishing X-Men" debuted so many years ago. I predict the rebirth as a result of the Phoenix story this summer in the pages of "Avengers Vs. X-Men" to have some of the strongest reverberations across the Marvel Universe that will continue to drive new and current fans into the Marvel Universe! Game changers for 2012: A Wedding, A First Meeting and Rebirth. It's time for a ReEvolution of comics as we know it, and we're hoping every fan reading this joins us for the biggest year in our history.

Stay tuned to CBR News in the weeks ahead for more on the sales performance of "AvX" and the entire shape of the Direct Market.

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