As has become customary each month when Diamond Comic Distributors releases its sales rankings and market share report, the DC Comics executive team of John Rood and Bob Wayne made the rounds late last week to discuss the publisher's February performance with the press. And once again, CBR News has an exclusive look inside the top digital rankings for the month of February, which revealed some new information on the publisher's digital plans and readership.
February saw the debut of both "Justice League Beyond" and "Batman Beyond" digital-first comics. The titles are serialized on DC's digital app over the course of the month before being collected as a print comic under the title "Batman Beyond Unlimited." As the numbers show below, the Justice League portion of that digital series ranked in the top ten alongside print best-sellers like "Batman" and "Justice League," and a DC spokesperson confirmed that the "Batman Beyond" title performed strongly as well, ranking in the top 20 for digital sales.
Below, we reveal DC's digital top ten and discuss its particulars with Rood and Wayne as well as the February sales data overall. The pair explain what the Beyond performance has to say about digital first programs as they relate to print, what the rankings for "Justice League" numbers reveal about digital consumers and their buying habits and what the February numbers overall mean for DC in terms of market share and future planning including new Vertigo books launching this month.
CBR News: Gentlemen, let's start this month with a look at these digital rankings. I will admit that I was a little surprised to see the digital-first "Justice League Beyond" right up there with some of the New 52 books, and as I understand it "Batman Beyond" also ranked in the top 20. What do you think about those titles performance? Did those fall where you'd hoped they would, and what does it bode for future digital releases?
John Rood: The only thing that's given me hope in terms of the Beyond experiment has been the performance of the print comics. I think we expected it to be a novelty because of its digital-first nature and for it to make it into our top rankings in terms of digital, but to have the retailers embrace it as a model is something that's really interesting to me, and I'm excited about that.
We've talked in the past in terms of digital and print, and you've said that digital is additive, not just in that it's not taking away from print, but in that its overall percentage is a fraction of the print sales. When it comes to a program like the Beyond comics, are you seeing strong enough numbers to do a comic that is digital only, or at this point are the numbers still small enough that you need print performance to justify the cost?
Rood: The Beyond titles are not a pilot program to institute digital-only. That's not to say we won't consider digital-only content in the coming years, but the Beyond idea is decidedly physical plus digital.
Like last month, we're seeing a bit of sales lag for titles that ship late in the month -- "Justice League" #6 being the prime example where the top comic on the stands hasn't hit the sales level of comics that ship earlier in the month just yet, but #5 is catching up from last month. By that standard, would you say the majority of digital sales come on that first Wednesday, or do they get spread out over the course of the month?
Rood: I've been watching that as well. "Justice League" #6 got its February number from one day of sales, so the answer to your question is a combination of things. There is a significant percentage of digital sales -- which are themselves an insignificant percentage -- that show a burst in Wednesday [sales] and then a tail of sorts. The testimony of that is seen in two titles of the same book showing up in the top ten in one month.
Wayne: But I think on top of that, because one track of data is giving us sell-in data that's been adjusted at final order cutoff, so our primary reflective aspect of that is the reorder activity. But that doesn't mean that the customer who's shopping for physical comics aren't going in and buying a lot on Wednesday only to have a longer tail where there's some on Thursday, some on Friday and another batch on the weekend. You may be seeing that a lot of the customers shop the same way if they're buying digital comics, but since there's no inventory problem, there's no need for us to report out "We were prepared for X number of people on the server at one time." It's just entirely different. Really with digital, we're tracking sell-through instead of sell-in on the other.
Some of these books are available in a digital combo pack, where fans can get a free digital copy with the purchase of a print comic. Do these sales rankings reflect those downloads as well as the ones that come from sales?
Rood: No, I don't believe what you have includes the combo, because the digital sales are just that. It's the actual redemptions digitally, whereas with the combo pack, there's the questionable level of the activation of the code, which doesn't count here.
Let's shift to the rankings from Diamond for this month. DC did another sweeping of the top ten with many of the same books from last month, though things have shifted slightly. One thing people have been tracking when the actual sales estimates are released is how level the sales are becoming for each book. Now that we're six months in to the New 52, what are you finding about that sales level question independent of how the books rank overall for the month?
Rood: Stability is the word. These things have stabilized, and what's a better testament to that than sweeping the top ten with #5s and then again with #6s? That's crazy good. And then the wear out in terms of slippage or decline is still a much smaller percentage than we could have ever, ever imagined. So, these things are really stabilized.
Bob, you mentioned a moment ago how you gauge things by reorder activity for print books. We heard for a while that "Justice League" #1 was hitting new sales plateaus even after #2 and #3 had hit the stands. What's the overall reorder picture been like on a lot of these comics?
Wayne: Well, we're still going back to press on some of the #1s, so I think as far as reorder activity and the long tail, it's been pretty astounding. I would not have assumed that we'd be going back for a seventh printing of "Justice League" #1 or multiple printings of "Batman" #1, and now we're starting to see even more issues sell out. On Monday, the last of the final order cutoffs came in on a third printing of "Batman" #5 and a second printing of "Batman Beyond Unlimited" #1, which is a good testament to what we were talking about on the digital side. We've got "Justice League" #5 going back to press, so it's an amazing amount of continued interest in the titles. People have got a track record now. To a certain extent, I think we've helped the retailers set a high watermark for what a first issue can do initially and how well they wished they'd ordered when the comics came out, and I think we're also seeing how well things can do if they've got continued availability. We're happy to help stake out a new threshold for where that level can be for the benefit of anyone else who might have a big book coming up sometimes.
Overall, the big books seem to be doing well for you, though the overall market is splitting or going to Marvel in terms of market and dollar share. I know we've talked about those not being primary goals for DC, but when you look a the line, are there ways in which you're thinking about expanding the overall line with an eye towards what place you take as a big piece of the market?
Rood: We certainly aren't looking at expansion as an in-and-of-itself tactic. That would help the share performance, but we're kind of beginning to accept the fact that they're putting more skus in the market overall than we are by a great amount. And we're accepting of the fact that they have more titles at $3.99 than we do and that there's deep discounting going on with other publishers that we're not as engaged in. We're just accepting of all this and aren't doing any reactive changes to our strategy as a result of the share reports.
The other piece of the market that maybe doesn't get as much press is the graphic novel market and its performance. DC traditionally has a very strong GN and trade paperback presence, and this month you've got a majority of the top ten books in that category again with a heavy emphasis on Batman titles. What's the picture you're drawing from there this month? Is this some advanced interest in stocking up for the new "Dark Knight Rises" film?
Wayne: On Batman, I think we're being pulled forward by several things. A portion of this is consumer interest in Bane and people wanting to read key Batman stories or give them to their friends. There's an overall enthusiasm and excitement going into the third of Chris Nolan's Batman movies. The other part is that the Batman titles that we're publishing are running on a very strong creative edge right now, in particular with the story arcs and ideas that Scott Snyder is doing with Batman. "Batman" as a title is running very, very competitively with "Justice League" for us right now, and exactly how that's doing tends to be a discussion I'm having if I happen to have Jim Lee on the phone or Geoff Johns on the phone. [Laughter] But "Batman" started out with sales less than "Justice League" had, and now it's coming up really close to "Justice League." It's been a very exciting thing to watch that, and I think a great deal of the excitement on the periodical side is driven by the story content. I also think that the book format stuff that leads into the various Batman titles has been done very well. We're on a fourth printing now of "The Black Mirror," and the #1 book for us in the book format through Diamond in February was "Gates of Gotham." We've also got the softcover of "Time And The Batman" and the book featuring Bane, so Batman really dominated the top of that particular chart.
Rood: Come May, the collected editions of the New 52 launches should provide a bit of a booster rocket to that chart. If we've got "Batman," "Justice League," "Detective Comics," "Batman: The Dark Knight" and "Batman & Robin" all in the top ten periodicals, then we're expecting big sales for when those collections come out beginning in May. So to Bob's point, it is movie interest, the uniqueness of these collected editions and graphic novels one to the other, and it is the solid, crazy performance of the periodical titles which are themselves distinct and themselves celebrate such great creators like Snyder and [Greg] Capullo. We're very excited for "Batman Incorporated," too.
Let's wrap on one last topic that's more forward looking. You've got a number of Vertigo periodicals launching this month on the heels of all the New 52 success, though Vertigo has always been viewed as being anchored by the collected edition market rather than the monthly comic sales. Now that the superhero line is well established, what's your expectation for where you want Vertigo to perform these days of its 20th anniversary, both the new launches and the existing titles?
Rood: We've not yet begun to celebrate Vertigo's 20th. These series and mini-series this month are showing great numbers so far with an up tick at F.O.C. In and of themselves, they're great series, and we get so much great coverage of these books from one title to the next that there's a rhythm that we're proud of. But despite their collected performance, we also think there's a periodical win. Both successes can occur, and each title has to be treated as somewhat distinct from the others.
Stay tuned this week to CBR for more on February's sales numbers!