DC VPs 'Happy' With Nov. Sales Despite Marvel Share Win

 

While November numbers indicated a market share boost for Marvel Comics with their Marvel NOW! event in full swing and a slew of #1's in the Top 10, Newsarama's monthly chat with DC executives about sales numbers was anything but negative.

In fact, the word "happy" was used quite a bit as the executives focused on the continued success of their New 52 line, as well as the whole comic book industry. And they were downright buoyant about their hopes for 2013.

DC's Senior Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne and DC's Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham talked with Newsarama about the November sales charts released by Diamond Comic Distributors on Friday.

There was little new revealed during the interview, but the executives did give insight into their plans for 2013, as well as their hopes for the Vertigo brand after the departure of Karen Berger, Vertigo's Executive Editor and Senior Vice President.

What follows is our conversation with the two executives about November's numbers, and what they think of the status of the industry as a whole.

Newsarama: Bob and John, I'd like to start with the headline that's on the sales announcement every month, which is who won the market share. In November, Marvel was ahead in both units and dollars. What are your thoughts on their win of the month?

Bob Wayne: We think that Marvel had a really good month with their Marvel NOW initiative. And we're still pleased that we're extremely competitive and that our share, or sales were basically very close to what we had last month in October. And we're still happy with the quality of our books and the storytelling. And we're happy with our overall numbers.

Nrama: After September last year, I discussed with you about how Tom Brevoort told Newsarama that Marvel does better when DC is strong. Do you feel the same way? Do you think the fact that Marvel had so many #1's in the month and did well with them benefitted DC?

Wayne: I think that when there are exciting things and interesting things each week on sale in the shops that it brings people in and it helps everyone. And I think there were a number of publishers who had really interesting success stories during the month. And I think it helped everyone. My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic #1 placed on the chart, and the Mask project from Dynamite, and there's a continuing success with the latest volume of The Walking Dead in trade paperback, doing these bang-up numbers.

So I think there's plenty of stuff happening from multiple publishers. And overall, it's a good time for comic book fans, because there's plenty of interesting stuff for lots of folks out there.

John Cunningham: And Vaneta, we've talked about this before in these interviews, but to me, again, the very interesting and ultimately, at the end of the day, most significant number on those Diamond charts is year-to-date 2012 versus 2011.

I mean, you look at those numbers, the marketplace is up 11.5 percent in units, and 14.6 percent in dollars for the year. Given the amount of growth that occurred last year, due to New 52 and many other factors, to have this year be so significantly ahead of last year, it's not only, I think, sort of unprecedented for the comics market, but it's unprecedented for a lot of different entertainment markets.

And I think that, to me, is the overarching story of this year.

Nrama: Yeah, and I hate to pat you guys on the back too much because, you know, I think we had a nice adversarial relationship going on here the last few months, but....

Cunningham: But....[laughs]

Nrama: But.... I went back and looked at the sales numbers over the last 16 or 17 months, and they show that there was an obvious turnaround for the whole market that started in September 2011. I know you can't take credit for all of the growth, because there are other positives going on in the economy overall. But when everybody thought print was dying, and everyone was worried that the comics industry was dying, you guys said you were going to give the industry a shot in the arm. Now that you are seeing these numbers, do you feel like the medicine that you gave the industry in September 2011 worked?

Wayne: Vaneta, do you have the option of using a larger, you know, typeface, or larger font -- maybe like a 14 point when you put in that particular question? Make sure it really pops out on the screen?

Nrama: [Laughs.] I don't know if I can do that.

Wayne: I just thought I would check.

Nrama: But surely you guys are thinking this stuff, aren't you?

Wayne: I mean, we think that... we certainly think that we have been one of the companies that's been a catalyst to bringing additional attention and to bringing customers that might have lapsed or come back. They're buying.

But I think a lot of other people are doing stuff. You have the return of Valiant. Now you've got Marvel NOW! You've got Image being resurgent with the success of The Walking Dead and Saga and lots of other titles. There are just more things for people to choose from than there were two years ago, that people are talking about and are really buzzed about.

So we're happy to take some credit, and we're also happy to give credit to other people as well.

Nrama: Yet I can't help thinking that when you guys jumped off that cliff, and it seemed to work, it inspired other companies to jump off their own cliffs. You know what I mean?

Wayne: Whatever we can do to push our competitors off of cliffs, we always think is a good thing.

Nrama: [Laughs.] I didn't mean it that way. John, you know what I mean by cliffs?

Cunningham: Yeah, I like that. I got a sort of Carlos Castaneda vibe when you started talking about that, with the jumping off of cliffs.

But I think that is appropriate, because I do think that the comic market is a market that is vibrant and changing, but it's also ruled by its continuity. So it's not always easy to get people in that sort of... you know, that long-term continuity is one of the strengths of our business, and it can be a challenge and be overcome as well.

But I do feel that people are wanting to take those leaps more and more. And I think that's not just true of publishers. I think that's true of the retailers. They really had to jump in and take those chances. And I think the same is true for consumers. So for me, as we round out the year, I just think it's really been one of the more exciting years in comics in a long, long time.

Nrama: OK, that said, when you look at November, with all these #1's and all the "events." Obviously, as a marketing person, you have to grasp onto something exciting happening in the comic, but with all these "interesting and exciting" things that have happened over the last year and half, is it fair to say that the industry has changed to the point where you almost need something like that to call out to the consumer? To make this an exciting month to pick up Batman or whatever? As you market, aren't you looking for those kind of things? Is that something that's part of the industry now, as it keeps up this strength?

Cunningham: I don't know that I feel that that's any more true than it is if you went and looked at the New York Times best seller list, you know, for fiction books. Is the enormous success of a 50 Shades of Grey -- is that an "event?" Or is it just the storytelling coming to the fore?

 

I guess, at the end of the day, this discussion may just boil down to a semantic issue. Is "Death of the Family" an event? Or is it a really well-done storyline? I think for me, at the end of the day, what readers want are really compelling storylines. If some people want to call that an "event," that's one thing. But when we're looking at what we can put pressure on and what we think can be marketed, it's really ultimately what we think of the story that's going on, and what we think the potential is. So maybe that's just the point of differentiation.

Nrama: There's been this counting going on of your ongoings, to see if you're really at "52," or if you're publishing only "51" (which I think is true in February), and it occurred to me how this title of "New 52" that you guys are carrying has a strength, in that it's become a brand, but it's also kind of locking you into a number. What do you think of the moniker "New 52," what do you think it means to your customers, and where do you hope to take it? Do you have a plan for that? And is it still specifically related to the number of books you have, or are you hoping to evolve it beyond that so you can change your line a little bit?

Wayne: I think it's always been both related to the number of books that we have, and it's been related to other aspects as well, starting back when we did the weekly stunt/event/publishing thing that we called 52 six years.

Nrama: Are there discussions about that sticking?

Cunningham: Yeah, actually, to be frank, you always enter into these things wondering, on an initiative like this, what your "out" point is. And it just keeps surprising us that it has taken root in the marketplace. It means something to our readers. It means something to our creators. It means something in the retail community.

I think we've always been around "52" number since we launched it, in terms of where we're going. But I think it's got lasting potential at this point, so we sort of feel, at this point, we're going to ride it until we feel like it's not an advantage.

But I think the point of your question calls out that it's been a very effective brand.

Wayne: In between my office and John's office are the guys that work on our international development. And they have posters and signage for "New 52" in various language, because it's been adopted by some of our publishers in other countries.

So it has a life beyond even our own publishing plan. It has a life with people who are adding to it by bringing us into other markets.

Nrama: Interesting. I know anytime I see anything with the number 52, I think of DC. Even "52 Pick-Up," when my kids try to play that, makes me think of DC. It's nuts.

Wayne: It's working!!

 

Nrama: I want to talk about Before Watchmen, because you guys have done really well with that series, and you've added a few additional mini-series. And it seems like Watchmen has become a brand of its own, like how on the covers you can see that bold yellow and black and know what book it is. But J. Michael Straczynski recently said in an interview that he believed the Before Watchmen stuff is now coming to an end. Can you verify that? And what are your thoughts about the timing of now letting that end after its success?

Wayne: The Before Watchmen project was always seen as a limited project of interlocking mini-series, so it's wrapping up pretty much as it was originally planned. The only thing that was going to change is we have the two issues of Moloch and the issue of Dollar Bill, that weren't originally announced, but everything else seems to be pretty much the same, as we announced it.

We don't have anything on our schedules, on our long-range planning right now, for there to be another. Our main focus, right now, is preparing the world of readers who wait for the trade, the collected edition readers, the people who bought over 2 million copies of the Watchmen book over the years, for us to reach out to those people when we have these in book form.

And we have a number of people that really haven't seen those books and gotten the message yet that there are other stories involving those characters. So that's our focus for the new future.

Nrama: Assuming that means you're marketing Before Watchmen to the bookstore market as well as the direct market, and you also have some more New 52 collected editions coming out soon, it's obvious in the numbers today that you continue to do well in the graphic novels. Are you guys supporting those collected editions and graphic novels in a different way? Is there a reason it's doing so well in that market?

Wayne: I have to assume it's because of the hard work by John and myself and the people who work with us. It's the only thing that does it.

Nrama: Yeah, right, Bob. Of course. Just that.

Wayne: OK, OK... also the fact that we have all these great stories from great creative people, and editorial work, and the way that the entire company has worked to expand the book format and keep as many of our books available for reorder as possible.

John, I'm sure you can add to this.

Cunningham: I think it's important to note that we look collected editions with the direct market as the primary market, but the bookstore market is a very significant one. So we're very happy to see November, in the face of a lot of competition out there.

And by the way, looking at those Bookscan charts for the last month or so, it's been an extremely great holiday season for the overall category. The Walking Dead obviously performs very well there. The Chris Ware book from Pantheon is driving huge numbers, as well as what we've seen with our books.

But what we were most gratified about was, for the New York Times list for November, we had the No. 1 hardcover four weeks running. One with Totally MAD, which is a licensed book, but a great history of MAD's 60 years. Two weeks with Superman Earth One Volume 2 at No. 1. And last week, [Fables: ] Werewolves of the Heartland making the list.

So as we talked about those numbers on the direct market side looked really good year-on-year, we're seeing the same thing no only for us, but for the entire book sector when we look at the book trade side of the market too.

That's another reason we're extremely bullish when we get to the end of the year, because we tend to look at this sort of holistically.

Nrama: With the departure of Karen Berger being announced this week, I'm sure you guys can understand there's a lot of people that way, "Oh no! Vertigo's leaving!" because she's so synonymous with that brand, with that imprint. Can you guys offer any insight into the importance of the Vertigo brand, what its status is now, how you guys intend to market that brand, and what your hopes are for Vertigo going forward? With the new Harlan Ellison book being a DC book, what's the purpose of the Vertigo brand?

Cunningham: I think the way we conceive of Vertigo both up to this point and going forward is that it's the place in house where we do the most cutting edge, critically acclaimed titles that DC publishes.

And as we talked about last month, we spent the summer, especially around San Diego and New York [comic conventions] announcing a lot of new series.

 

So when we look at 2013, we've got a new series from Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy, The Wake, Jeff Lemire's Trillium, Neil Gaiman returning with Sandman. We'll have new volumes of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as some new things that are coming that Bob and I are aware of, that I can't announce here.

I think, once we look down that slate of 2013 to see where it's going, I think we have the stories and the books there, and we're going to have to do the work to make sure they get out to the readers.

Karen was an extremely valuable member not only of DC's family, but the entire comic book community. And everyone's going to miss her. But we've got a 2013 line-up to go forward with, and we'll develop where it's going from there.

But I do think Vertigo readers are going to see, regardless of the situation, they're going to see a plethora of great books to read in the next year.

Nrama: As the last question, since it's December, as I mentioned, I really went back and looked at past sales numbers. But I also looked back at the last few years for you guys at DC. And in 2010, Diane Nelson announced her new executive staff for DC entertainment, and the phrase they used was "no fear." Then the reboot in 2011 was the realization of that phrase. John, you said the "overarching story" of 2012 was just continuing that growth, even industry wide. So my challenge to you is, what's the story of 2013? The big picture of the business for DC?

Cunningham: You know, I'm sitting here trying to think it through and figure out how to go about answering that question.

This might be kind of imprecise, but where I sort of go to is, when you launch the New 52, you're starting out this brave new world and starting to tell interesting stories, but you've got to populate out that world.

Now that we're through our first year of New 52, that next year is "filling in" greater and greater details of that world, and how those characters and their stories start to interrelate to one another.

That's what I think of when I see what's coming down the pike on the DC side for 2013. We can see, in some of our long-range planning, where stories are going to come together, where larger threads are going to come from. And I think it's that sort of interrelated, very complex, long-term storytelling that comic fans really hunger for.

So we, obviously, knew by going out and rebranding and starting with new #1s and the New 52 that there was a potential boost there, but I think we all sort of knew that the long-term payoff there was to have a clean slate where you could begin a new world of storytelling. So that's how I feel about 2013, from this perspective.

Nrama: Bob, would you agree?

Wayne: Yeah, we recently -- John and I both recently had the opportunity to sit with Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Bob Harras and hear the various beats of where they're guiding us into 2013 and beyond. And so, I think you can tell we're just a little bit excited by some of the storytelling things that are coming up. Our readers and retailers are going to share that when we get those plans ready to go.

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