Over the last month, DC has been putting its mouth where the money is.
Beginning on June 17th, executives from DC Entertainment started visiting cities across America to talk directly to comic book retailers about its September "New 52" revamp of the DC line.
Bob Wayne, Senior Vice President of Sales, oversaw what DC called the "Retailer Roadshow," a series of five summits with comic book store owners where information was shared by speakers like Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, Executive Vice President of Sales John Rood, and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns.
As Newsarama readers found out Monday, the New 52 initiative is DC's response to what Co-Publisher Dan DiDio called a "shrinking market." DC is hoping the excitement in September will not only attract new readers, but will also bring back what they call "lapsed" readers who have stopped reading comics.
So it makes sense that, as the co-publishers confirmed, sales will be a big part of the measurement of its success, as DC attempts to stop the shrinking and instead encourage market growth.
Some of that growth, DC is hoping, will come in the digital market. But Jim Lee told us yesterday that digital represents a small "slice" of a much bigger pie, and the New 52 initiative is designed to boost print sales as well.
For DC, the initiative's success in the print market hinges upon retailers being on board. Unlike many other retail industries, comic book shops have to purchase their inventory up front. So the number of DC comics available in the print market in September relies entirely upon retailer commitment.
Of course, the retailers are taking a risk too. Because they purchase products up front, if a comic doesn't sell, the comic retailer cannot send it back to the publisher. But DC is offering a return program for their September initiative that allows 41 of the 52 new titles to be returned to DC if they don't sell. In order to qualify for the return program, DC is requiring stores to really make a commitment to DC's new line. A retailer's total order of DC comics in September must add up to 125 percent of what they ordered from DC in May.
Much of the responsibility for retailer sales rests on the shoulders of Wayne, who also happens to have the word "sales" in his title. Newsarama talked with Wayne to find out more about the ideas behind the DCnU, what retailers thought about it during the "Roadshow" tour, and what comes next.
Newsarama: Bob, as you have traveled to talk to retailers in person, what is the feedback you're hearing from them about the "New 52?"
Bob Wayne: The feedback from retailers has been the most wildly divergent feedback on anything since I started working at DC, and probably before that when I was working on the retailing side as opposed to the publishing side.
I think the retailers who attended our retailer Roadshow sessions and a lot of the folks who read the one or two commentaries on what we did at those sessions seem to be more interested and more enthusiastic now than they probably were initially upon hearing our news. That said, there were a lot of people who were very enthusiastic about this as a business opportunity, and a storytelling opportunity. But as in most cases, the voices you hear are not usually the people going "hey, that's an interesting idea! I wish I'd thought of that!"
Nrama: Can you give an example of what you mean by divergent?
Wayne: I've been in rooms now where I had one retailer take the point of view that "none of my customers want to buy anything now until after August 31st, beginning with Flashpoint #5 and Justice League #1. Then a few minutes later, another retailer will take the position that "none of my customers want to buy anything after August 31st." And it just sounds like maybe these guys need to get together because maybe their customers are migrating from one location to another.
I think the reason there are such divergent opinions is that a lot of our retailers have chosen to be comic book retailers because they are so passionate about comics. They love comics and they love the art form. So when they're responding to something, their response really runs on two tracks. One: They're responding as the businessperson. What is the business opportunity for me and my retail environment with my customers? How is this going to impact me? And at the same time, they're responding with their comic fan mentality, because that's what brought them to the party in the first place. And they're thinking, wait, you mean my favorite comic book that was published in 1959 may not be exactly where I think it should be in continuity anymore?
I think those two responses can end up in conflict with folks. I think sometimes retailers can't help but respond with their comic book fan mind and not their businessperson mind.So we spent some time talking about those types of scenarios. I mentioned my own personal experience of going to a newsstand in the 1960s to buy Batman and finding out that Batman's costume had changed without notice, without mention, and there was a yellow oval behind the bat. And how surprising that was to me as a reader, but it only took me a few minutes into the comic, reading it, before I was thinking, "Oh, I like this storyline direction better than I did the last kind of stuff they were doing anyway."
Nrama: Do you think it's just a gut reaction to change?
Wayne: I think that's a big part of it. The tone of each of the sessions we had was different, and I think if there was anything I had to address over and over again, it was just to gently remind people that these comics had not remained stagnant from their creation.
There's always been some level of change in our storytelling and other people's storytelling in comics. It's almost a necessity with anything that's been going on as long as the publishing of comics. The tone of the times and the nature of storytelling tend to evolve and change.
Nrama: But obviously, Bob, most large-scale changes like this one are at least somewhat motivated by sales, since publishing is a business. We've seen sales of comic books become stagnant in some areas, and drop in others. Was this something that had to happen to jump-start the comic book market?
Wayne: Within the lifespan of a lot of the retailers who are currently selling comics, people brought up a couple of things as being kind of a touchmark on this. People would mention that, with Crisis on Infinite Earths, there was a feeling of a shift in DC's storytelling and the shift in the publications overall. And there were a lot of people that we talked to at our roadshows who indicated that that was where they jumped into DC Comics. They were attracted to that clean start.
And almost immediately after that, they would mention when Julie Schwartz handed off the Superman titles and how that had wrapped up with the Alan Moore story and had moved over to being the stuff with John Byrne and Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway. Those were referenced by a lot of people as being positive points for sales in their stores and their enjoyment of our comics, even though they had not been necessarily positive about it at the time when they heard something was going to change.
I look at this as being the type of evolution that we've always gone through with our characters. Is it sales driven? I can assume you that sales with a capital "S," as in my job title... I didn't go to the publishers and say, "You must do something! It's time to do this again! We need a shot in the arm!"
Instead, we kind of collectively decided that we needed a shot in the arm, for a lot of reasons. But it wasn't dictated by the business side.
Nrama: The changes you're mentioning from the 1980s even changed the face of the industry. What does this initiative do for the face of the industry?
Wayne: I would like nothing more, when people talk about this years from now, to feel like what we did with the launch of the New 52 and the initiatives around that was a turning point and a positive way for the industry. It is certainly something we're working toward. But I don't want to judge the results and how it will be viewed by history prior to the first comic shipping. Seems a little premature. It's almost like asking something, what are your retirement plans the day before you start the job.
Nrama: You've gotten to talk directly to retailers and have heard what readers are saying. We've certainly seen divergent feedback as well, with some people loving the changes and other wanting to stage protests. This is your chance to talk directly to readers. Is there anything in particular that you think isn't understood by the readers that you would specifically like to address? If you could talk directly with them, what would you say?
Wayne: I honestly just wish they could see the enthusiasm of the people we had at these presentations, from people like Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and John Rood and the team. The more people saw our dedication to this, the more they embraced it.
And I think the knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people was negative, but the reflective reaction from people is more positive, particularly once they heard the details of how we intend to support this to the market. They're thinking, "I need to give this a chance."I guess what I would say to readers is, put aside the knee-jerk reaction about change, then back up and think about what DC is really offering in September. The question becomes, "How could I pass up the opportunity to read X?" Whether it's, "how could i pass up the opportunity to read Grant Morrison's launch of Action Comics #1?" Or "How could I pass up the chance to see Geoff Johns' and Jim Lee's Justice League? "How can I miss what comes next in the Green Lantern saga?"
I think the way in which we announced it, some people leapt to different conclusions than we wanted. So we definitely spent a lot of time telling people that the Green Lantern books in August lead right into the Green Lantern books in September. And Batman in August leads right into Batman in September. And if you wanted to know what happened in May, June and August with those characters, you're still going to want to know what happened in September and November.
Nrama: Because digital is such a big part of this initiative, I'm sure you heard from some retailers who were concerned about customers switching from digital to print. DC has always maintained that isn't the goal, but what's the purpose of the Justice League bundle, where print customers can also buy a digital version, if not to entice print readers to try digital?
Wayne: I've spent a great deal of time with folks in mainline publishing, talking to them about where novels are going in terms of digital versus print, and one thing that's come up a number of times is that there are people who will buy a novel in hardcover, because they have bookcases or space in their house or like a particular author's work, but they'll also buy the same book on a digital copy to read on some platform or device.
I think there are people who want to be able to experience storytelling and have a permanent copy and also have a portable copy that's lighter weight than the physical version. Our colleagues at Warner Home Video have been offering packages where you get a DVD and you also get a digital download of the same material. So you have a physical, durable copy to play, but you also can watch it on a device while you're traveling.
The acceptance of one doesn't mean the extinction of the other. I think our situation is relatively unique because in addition to that, there's a higher degree of collectability with comics than there is with prose novels that you might read at the beach, where you might even find them abandoned in a hotel or abandoned on a plane. Our customers tend to want to keep and possess a collection of comics because they have some extra value to them other than just as a reading experience.
I understand that there is a resurgent bubble of people buying vinyl because of the same type of touch-and-feel experience. But I think most people don't do that because they want a different sound to the music as much as they want the physical aspect of the vinyl on the turntable and wearing the headphones and seeing the album sleeve.
It's similar with comics. There's a different experience to holding a device to read comics. Jim Lee was talking about you can have a double page spread in a comic and you just spread the comic out so the aspect ration changes. You can't do that with a device. In order to see the entire image, you're going to have to reduce it to fit it onto the page. There are things that print can do in comic book storytelling that digital can't do the same way.
The Justice League poly-bagged offer was an experiment, and it continues to be an experiment to see if our retailers are interested and feel they have a market to people who want to have a physical comic and also have a digital download of it at a very low price. If it turns out that we have a lot of people buying those comics and redeeming those comics to get a digital download, then we'll continue trying it. But if we don't, then we probably won't add titles to that particular offer.
Nrama: One of the retailers we heard from brought up a good point. For a new digital customer who doesn't live near a comic shop, or maybe doesn't care to shop in one, do they care that something is "same day as print" if they have no interest in the print version of the comic?
Wayne: Well, I think it goes to the fact that people like to experience and talk about things with their friends, with Twitter and Facebook and things like that. If you read something or see something and enjoy a piece of music and art, and you want to post something about it, you don't want to have a bunch of your friends saying, "That's been out for three months! You just now discovered that? What kind of yahoo are you?"
People want to be part of the conversation and the culture about what's going on now. It doesn't seem likely that customers who are wanting to buy stuff as digital downloads are going to want to have a lag time on when they can talk about what's going on in the culture at the same time as everyone else.
There are also marketing advantages. We can't realistically re-market a book to a digital audience three weeks after it's come out. There's already a convergence of marketing and, as I already pointed out, social networking activity when a book comes out in print. So it makes sense to tap into that for digital at the same time.
People are looking for a call to action. When they hear about something, they want to buy it, they want to read it, they want to go do it. There's already enough of a lag time in the comic book industry when people announce their projects to when they can actually be purchased, so it's really tough now to convince people that they'll have to have a lag time before they can talk about something because they'll be spoiling their friend's version, which comes out even later.
Nrama: We've heard from some different people that the digital market is very small compared to the print market. What is the digital market and what does it represent compared to the print market?
Wayne: Well, yes, in comparison it's small. But I've had this discussion where it's kind of a circular argument, and it's "what is the size of digital versus print?" and "does that mean that it doesn't matter if it's so small?"
Our decision is based more on philosophy and logic and watching out other companies are dealing with this issue. There really is not a substantial lag time between print and digital on most mainstream magazines, music, home video, prose novels, at this point. There was at the start, but I think to some extent, the consumer is not going to be satisfied with that when they decide how they want to read.Another aspect of this that came up during our travels is that we've found that different parts of the country have different levels of concern about this. It seemed that there were more people in bigger cities, like New York, where I think the average person lives in a relatively small space and may have already maxed out the space for their comic book collection, who were tempted to be more selective about adding comics to their collection, but would still like a way to read stories and keep up with their favorite characters. Other places, people have probably larger houses on averages, so there are less motivation for people to even want to have this conversation.
Nrama: Everybody talks about DC versus Marvel in market share. As a major producer of comics, you've got to desire a larger market share, and even aspire toward that position as No. 1. Is there a hope to be No. 1 in market share in September 2011?
Wayne: Our goal is to be the best publisher of comics that we can be. I have not been given a goal to make DC No. 1 at all costs. So no, this is not about DC being No. 1. I certainly look at the market share. And I know there's a lot of internet chatter about the market share in the direct market, but that does not represent the complete business.
We do our own analysis of the bookstore market, and we go through all the Bookscan data and build our own internal report. We also have an internal report where we combine the bookstore sales of graphic novels with the comic store sales of graphic novels and the sales of periodicals. There are multiple platforms and opportunities that we internally measure our success by.
We certainly are aware of market share, but that is not our primary goal. But market share is not the only way we look at our success internally.
Nrama: With retailers, their reaction was probably based on existing customers, although I know they want to reach out to new customers too. Is there research that shows there are new customers out there interested in comics, and that this is the type of initiative that will bring them to comics? Is this just a gut feeling, or do you have something on which you're basing this?
Wayne: There is a great interest in DC's characters that already exists, which you can see by just looking at the success we've had in other media, in other venues with these characters, and even the success we've had repackaging our comics as graphic novels or collections, not only in the comic shops, but also in the book trades. There are also a lot of people who were familiar with our characters and had fallen out of the habit of shopping on a weekly basis for periodicals.
The idea here is to make everything so exciting and so interesting that no one wants to wait for that particular trade, but they really want to know what's going on from day one and be part of the conversation.
We see that we have current readers who are very enthusiastic, and we want to keep those readers as enthused as possible about what we're doing going forward. And if we have readers who also want to expand their collection from the previous 75-plus year of what we've published, we have a very wide backlist publishing program.
We have readers who have lapsed from regular reading, and we're hoping that they'll come back and find that they've missed reading comics on a regular basis.
And we have people who are aware of our characters and our type of storytelling from the other types of interpretations of them, be it feature films, television programs, animation series, the direct-to-DVD properties, the many ways in which people can experience our material on home video. All of these folks, we're hoping, will find the news of what we're doing to be interesting, exciting and intriguing. And they'll seek out ways to sample our comics.
Those are the concentric rings we're trying to get to. People who are current readers, people who are lapsed readers, and people who have never been comic readers but have already found some fascination or appeal to the concept through the way it's been handled in other media.
We've been successful with book format. And we've been successful in some of these other projects. So we believe there is a continuing appetite for this type of storytelling.
Nrama: What's next in the process of communication you're doing with retailers?
Wayne: We're doing a small version of this during the ComicsPRO programming track at Comic-Con this week. And we're also going to be speaking at the Diamond Retailer lunch this Friday. And in August, we'll be doing another session in London for the retailers who buy our stuff through Diamond U.K. We're just trying to make sure we give retailers as much information as we can. And get feedback from them. It's invaluable to know what kind of things they want.
Nrama: Has their feedback influenced how you're approaching the initiative?
Wayne: Definitely. We've had tons of suggestions. There's a lot of creativity from the retail side. We've been tweaking various programs for retailers. For example, we're going to rush the hardcover of the Flashpoint mini-series, and that's going to be in print in October, in order to give people that particular book as a bridge into the New 52. That was something that was suggested by a lot of retailers in multiple cities.
We also cut the pricing we were using for the returnability for the fee for returned copies, based on retailer feedback. We've tweaked our variants around some. We've done a great deal of things after our customers came back to us with their feedback and their suggestions.
Nrama: Then to finish up Bob, is there anything else you want to tell retailers or readers about the initiative and about your part in the communication about the program?
Wayne: I just want to say that I've enjoyed the process of doing these Roadshows. I've been going through all the emails that have made it to me, and all the phone calls and polite letters, and I really do like hearing from people about their thoughts.
We've talked to about 300 people in all the cities we've visited. For everyone we talked to who might have had something negative to say, there were many more people who were excited and were talking about how many people they already had signed up in their stores to buy all 52 first issues.
So overall, I've found it to be an invigorating experience to be able to talk about things with our customers. I've really enjoyed this process, and I hope we can continue this process of teamwork and creativity and communication.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!
- DC Comics' October 2011 Solicitations
- Canon Shot? 10 Great Stories to Fold Into DCnU Continuity
- LEE, DIDIO: Rebuilding DC To Counteract 'Shrinking Market'
- DIDIO, LEE Say DCnU SUPERMAN Changes Make Him "Accessible"
- Single, Orphaned, Alien: Big Changes for DCnU SUPERMAN