DC VPs Explain CANCEL/ADD New 52 Strategy

Action Comics #20

In our monthly chat with DC sales executives, the subject usually gets around to just how well the comics are doing overall.

And while the specifics are hard to come by, DC execs claimed this month that their average sales number per comic is higher than it was pre-New 52. And they're maintaining that success by weeding out those comics that don't work, while adding new titles they hope will catch on with readers.

With this week's announcement that six DC Comics are being cancelled in May, it's obvious some of those lower-selling titles are being weeded out pretty quickly.

And although it would seem that today's revelation that there are two new "political" sounding comics being added to the line (The Movement and The Green Team), they weren't formulated together, according to the execs.

DC's Senior Vice President of Sales Bob Wayne was joined by DC's Vice President of Marketing John Cunningham to talk with Newsarama about the January 2013 sales figures released by Diamond Comic Distributors on Friday.

And while they were happy about their growing market share compared to December 2012, they acknowledged that the mainstream media has a lot more influence on comic book sales than most people realize. So much, that they're hinging some of their summer 2013 sales plans on the audience for the Warner Bros. movie Man of Steel.

While we didn't find out more about their "special" plans for September 2013 (see last month's chat for that hint), the two did hint about a few other things that will be important to the publisher this year.

Newsarama: DC Entertainment and Marvel both increased market share over December 2012. How did that happen?

Bob Wayne: Well, I think the most important factor is that The Walking Dead does not have new episodes every single week of every month. So we do have a few times when we're able to put something on the charts in opposition to Walking Dead, which I think is beneficial to Bill Willingham and the Fables team, who got the No. 1 book on the Diamond charts for the month of January.

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And we also had a pretty solid batch of stuff. Marvel having averaged just one or two new first issues every week, so I'm happy that our share increased. And I fully expect that Walking Dead will rise back up the charts again as well. So we're in a competitive race between all of us.

Nrama: John, do you think it's the Walking Dead effect?

John Cunningham: Oh yeah, we're seeing such enormous sales spikes that are totally tuned to the air date of the show, when it's on and when it's off. I think we know from the movie experience we've seen around things like V for Vendetta, Watchmen or how we've been able to tie into the Chris Nolan movies, that nothing drives large, best-selling numbers like big media hopping on board of our bandwagon. So I think it's a direct correlation in terms of seeing it that way.

Nrama: That kind of leads into the next subject, which is the Man of Steel movie. Obviously, you guys are expecting some sales from that, but what was the thought behind choosing "Last Son of Krypton" as the Superman focus of the Free Comic Book Day issue?

Cunningham: Every time we get together to put these movie promotions together, we want to make sure we're focusing on what we think are the most saleable books and the books that either have some best-seller status or have some sort of tie to the movie. And I think the reason we chose that is, you have Geoff Johns co-writing it with Richard Donner, so Donner's obvious experienced at working with Superman as a filming project, and gives it a lot of credence, but it's also a storyline that features Zod. And it's probably the most recent and most compelling Zod-based storyline that we have collected in book form. So I think those are the reasons that we chose to feature that particular book.

Nrama: What's the strategy behind FCBD for you this year?

Cunningham: There's a secondary component, which is featuring a sneak preview of the Scott Snyder/Jim Lee Superman book that's coming.

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So what we're trying to do is, when we conceived of it, we were trying to look at how we can use the enormous marketing clout of Warner Bros. Studios and what they're doing for Man of Steel to help support that effort, but also use it to build up our own initiatives.

So finding a way to work it and use it to sell our backlist, but finding a way to work it and use it to sell new periodical publications. It's just part of the long-term strategy we've developed for Free Comic Book Day.

There's a whole [Man of Steel-related] program we have, and I think it's in April in-store Previews, where we have the foldout that showed the cover stuff that we're doing in April. And on the back of that, there's sort of a sell piece featuring the books that are part of this program.

We're focusing on classic backlist titles like Superman For Tomorrow or All-Star Superman, but also the Grant Morrison Action Comics books. Obviously [J. Michael Straczynski's] Superman: Earth One volume 1 and volume 2 are big tie-ins there, as well as a Superman vs. Zod Compendium that's sort of the baseline for seeing the history of these two characters over time in our stories.

Wayne: That is in the February Previews for April in-store comics, and it's a foldout that's between pages E and E-1 in the book. So people can look at that.

We're also doing a consignment offer for the comic shop retailers to get stocked up on those books, like we had done with the three Dark Knight movies and Watchmen and Vendetta and other movies.

And don't be surprised if our DC Collectibles line also has some stuff involved in it, but we'll wait until Toy Fair starts to talk about that.

Nrama: From the announcements you guys have made this week, it looks like it has finally come down to the "52" number losing the part of its meaning that is related to the number of individual DCU titles. How did you choose the number of books you're releasing in May?

Wayne: The number of titles is going to remain, for now, at 13 a week, which is 52 a month, in the DC Universe. If the count is not coming up to 52 right now, it probably means we haven't finished announcing everything yet.

In a typical four-week month, it's 13 titles a week. And that gets us 52 for the month. Every time one of the books concludes, we're getting another title. It's just that we may not have announced all the titles we're adding. So if you're running a tally it may not come out to 52, but it will as soon as we make announcements.

Nrama: From my calculations, in May you've got 35 titles left from the original series that were launched in September 2011, and even a few series that are barely 8 months old are being canceled. Has DC learned anything from what lasted and what didn't?

Cunningham: I think the lessons we've learned there are really not necessarily much different than the lessons we've learned over time, that these books have to work, on story and character. And if they're not working that way, we move on.

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At the end of the day, I think our process of editing down the line and adding new titles in and weeding titles out is pretty much the same as we've been doing since the pre-New 52 days. So how people react to that is going to be their issue. But I can tell you from inside, it pretty much feels like the same process that we've worked for awhile. If something's not working, we don't want to string it along, and we want to try to replace it with something that's going to up the sales in that particular slot on our list. And I think we've been successful over time, with the New 52 launch doing that.

Nrama: From a sales perspective, the numbers show the most popular DC books doing really well, but the mid- to low-level DC books doing about the same or even less than your line used to do before the relaunch. Is that what you guys are noticing as well?

Wayne: Our average sale per title is better than it was pre-New 52. And the titles that are kind of soft, toward the lower parts of our list, are the ones that we're replacing with other titles that we hope will be more creatively and commercially successful.

Nrama: The fact that you just canceled quite a few titles does create an impression that things are tough on the lower end of the New 52. Do you have any information that maybe combats that impression?

Wayne: I don't think there is any information to combat that perception because the readership is voting on which books they want to buy the most from us and from our competitors, and the ones that don't attract a large enough readership. Those tend to be the ones that are going away and being replaced by books that we believe have a shot at getting a larger readership. So if people are waiting for the trade or trying to talk their friends into trying some of the favorite titles, now is the time, because we're looking at these numbers closely each month, at least as closely as the comic book press is.

Cunningham: Believe me, I understand the impulse to look at an announcement and tea-leaf read it as to what it indicates about other things. But as Bob sort of alluded to earlier, oft times, the decisions about what to cancel when are as equally dependent on the sales numbers as they are on, "do we have something that's ready to go to replace this book?"

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So when we cancel titles, that's half the story. The other half comes when we talk about what's replacing it or how we're moving forward with titles in that group and that family or other strategies that we're doing.

It doesn't always work to our advantage in terms of how we want to strategize it to announce the cancelations and the new books on the same day. But I think savvy watchers understand, after a certain point in time, I'd like to hope, that these announcements usually come one-two.

So keeping that running tally of how many books we have needs to take into account that this an utterly fluid situation. And probably the next big title-specific release we put out there will answer a lot of those questions.

But it's not that easy to do it in one fell swoop.

Nrama: OK, at the risk of looking like I'm reading tea leaves... are the next announcements of titles all connected to each other? Is that why you say you want to "strategize" it? Are you holding them and doing them all together?

Cunningham: No, it's really down to, Vaneta, how the creative issues behind each book, where is that in its development? It really isn't that strategic in terms of, "Oh, we want to keep everything in one flavor and do it this way." Because I'm not sure that's how consumers buy anyway.

It's really driven by, where are we in the production process and where are we in the creation process.

Nrama: Interesting. I think a lot of people probably assume marketing drives announcements more than creative, but I guess when it comes down to it, it's about whether something's plotted out, or written or drawn yet. Along the same lines, was the decision to do The Movement and The Green Team at all motivated by what people "vote" with their purchases? Was it at all influenced by sales or a sense from marketing on what might catch people's attention now?

Cunningham: It's an editorial question, so I can't answer it as knowledgeably as I might. But in the case of both of those books, the creators turned in a pitch, and editorial liked the pitch. We were able to find some similarities to make them work together. But it's not like it was conceived of like, "hey, this would be a great two-prong thing!" We had two separate pitches that we found a way to work together.

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And again, that's how the process works here. It's book-by-book, creative team by creative team. And when those decisions are made, we try to find ways to coalesce that into larger announcements or larger solicitations.

Nrama: I know I've asked you about this before, and I'm not trying to nail you down to a specific long-term policy, but currently, it does seem like mini-series are being approached in only certain circumstances, most often in tie-ins to larger events. How would you describe the motivation for short, limited series versus ongoing series? And I ask because Team 7 and Sword of Sorcery only made it eight issues.

Wayne: The conversation on that usually starts from the creative side, where the writer and artist and editor will pitch to our co-publishers, and see if this is a concept that has enough story ideas that they like it as an ongoing monthly title. And sometimes, if they have a beginning, middle and end, and they'd like it to be a finite number of issues, that normally comes to us for a "what do you guys think?" And we go, "great!"

And the fact that some of the things we gave a green light to didn't work as well as we'd hoped and has to be concluded has nothing to do with... it's not retroactively turned into mini-series. They were all projects that we had hopes and aspiration that they were going to be successful.

We do have some things that are designed as mini-series — the Before Watchmen titles were clearly designed as mini-series. The Scott Snyder/Jim Lee Superman project, I think, has a finite number of issues, with a story designed through that entire arc.

But other times it's just going to be how well the book is received, and how well the creative team thinks and editors think there are more ideas that make for fun and interesting comics.

Nrama: OK, I know I've been getting really "editorial" on you sales guys, and I hate to corner you on things, but now that you mention that Scott Snyder/Jim Lee thing, you guys haven't announced any title for that project. Is there a working title or anything for that book?

Wayne: The "Scott Snyder/Jim Lee Superman project."

Nrama: [Laughs.] OK. Somewhat related to your comment that the Snyder/Lee project has a finite story. What about Batman, Inc.? Morrison's original plan was for 12 issues, but it's clear characters like Batwing that spun from that are sticking around – is that book staying past Grant, or will it end?

Cunningham: You will see an end to Grant's run on Batman Inc., is what you'll see.

Nrama: OK, then to finish up, can you give me a general indication of what's going to be important in summer 2013 for DC? Even a couple character names?

Cunningham: I would say, looking at the rest of this year, the two words I would say are "Superman" and "Sandman."

Nrama: Hmm. Anything from you Bob?

Wayne: I'm afraid John used the same two words I would use. He just hit the buzzer first.


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