When executives at Valiant Entertainment realized there would be a creative team change on their flagship title X-O Manowar, they knew they'd be facing a challenge - one that's exacerbated by the current state of the modern comic book industry.
With a record number of titles on comic shop shelves right now, and a relaunch-happy sales environment that's filled with new #1 titles and creative team changes, getting readers excited about a new direction on X-O Manowar would surely be an uphill battle.
But Valiant took to the challenge, doing a new #1 and a new creative team, but as part of a larger marketing initiative that’s intended to make it just another relaunch. Launching this week, X-O Manowar #1 by Matt Kindt and Tomas Giorello has been promoted to retailers and consumers in several familiar ways - like variant covers, returnability, and preview copies for retailers (who even helped put together a review video about the issue). But Valiant has taken their marketing efforts several steps beyond the usual - like a special preorder edition, co-op geo-advertising on social media, a slew of in-store promotional items for retailers, and advertising support beyond the #1 release.
The company is even sending a couple dozen of its staffers across the country on release day Wednesday to visit comic shops nationwide, bringing prizes and promotional items with them.
The hope is that X-O Manowar will not only continue to be the company's flagship title, but that – with its consistent fourth-week-of-the-month shipping - the title will help launch more new comic books. This is all coming just weeks before Valiant becomes a key part of the long-running Vans Warped Tour, which puts X-O Manowar and other Valiant superheroes at the center of the long-running music festival.
But with the extensive efforts the publisher is making for this one issue's launch, Newsarama talked to Valiant's Hunter Gorinson, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, and Atom Freeman, director of sales for Valiant Entertainment, to find out more.
Newsarama: Hunter and Atom, you guys at Valiant have been really marketing the X-O Manowar #1 issue that comes out tomorrow. I'd like to talk to you about what you did to really target your audiences for the comic, but first - why this one book?
Hunter Gorinson: X-O Manowar is our flagship character, the character that we initially relaunched the company around back in 2012 with the run by Robert Venditti and Cary Nord. That was a huge success for us; it really set the baseline for what the new Valiant could do and could be. It ran for 56 issues, tons of awards and nominations, and a run like that was pretty unheard of in the modern comic book marketplace, especially for an independent superhero series. I think that's the longest run of any in recent memory, outside of maybe Invincible.
Newsarama: That, and Image counterparts Spawn and Savage Dragon. Gorinson: And so with that in mind, we knew we had a plan for X-O Manowar after Rob's run. Matt had presented a really, really amazing pitch for what he wanted to do with the character, and 2017 was going to be the 25th anniversary of X-O Manowar.
We knew if we were going to take a break and come back with a new #1, it has to be justified, it had to be based in-story, and we had to do everything possible to make sure that this was going to be the spine that the Valiant universe was based around in 2017 and beyond.
Atom Freeman: When you look at the book that ended up getting turned in by Matt and Tomas Giorello, you can't not get excited about it, you can't help but say, OK, what else can we put behind this to make sure that everybody possible can read it.
This is some of the finest work I've read from any publisher in a very long time, and I think it's one of those books that we're going to be remembering for a very long time.
So as a team, it's easy to get excited about it.
Nrama: Retailers have to be very involved in this. How receptive are they to what you've been doing? Are they starving for marketing help on these types of books?
Freeman: We brought this to the ComicsPRO annual meeting about a month ago, and because we're so far ahead with this book, we were able to have issue #1 there for retailers to read. We even got video reviews from many of them. Every single retailer I spoke to had nothing but glowing, glowing praises of this book.
Right now, there are challenges in the comic shops. They're being dealt a really difficult hand to play this year. They're all working really hard to deal with it. And we as a company do our best to make sure that we can support them and cover that bet that they have to make.
Gorinson: The way that X-O Manowar fit into our publishing plan was also very much intentional. We didn't launch any new #1 books in January or February in order to give the new X-O series as wide a berth as possible and give us as much promotional time as possible to get in touch with retailers, get copies into the hands of the press, even get it into fans' hands early so they could start talking about the book and build as much anticipation for this in order to get as many people into stores as possible when March 22nd rolls around.
Nrama: You describe all this lead time and planning - is that why publishers don't do this type of marketing push more often? It sounds like it's a lot of work, and you have to dedicate a lot of resources to something like this.
Freeman: It's hard. It's really, really hard.
I want to say I don't blame other publishers for not working like this, but I will say, you know, we've been at this for a few years as a team. And as a group, we've all been in the industry for a very long time.
We believe this is how you get attention in this marketplace.
Right this second, there is a record number of titles on the shelves of comic shops. Comic shops are really struggling. So you have to put this kind of effort behind something like this in order to make sure it lands well.
Gorinson: Atom is exactly right. Our editor-in-chief, Warren Simons, often says that every character from the past 75 years of comics history is now being published every month in the comic shops, in some form or another.
There are more comics coming out right now at a higher volume than ever before.
And in order to make noise, in order to get our books in people's hands, it really does take doing some extraordinary measures - like planning your first 13 months of scripts and art duties and getting everyone working at once, like reorganizing your publishing schedule around the release of your big book like we're doing with X-O Manowar Wednesdays, and on and on down the list.
The entire point of the initiatives we put behind this is to get the book into people's hands because we're A) Incredibly excited and proud of the work that Matt and Tomas have done, and B) It's an excellent jumping-on point for Valiant as a company.
We think that if you can pick up this book with no prior knowledge of what's come before, then you can jump off of that into every one of our titles, or stick with X-O month in and month out.
Nrama: With comic books, there's also two audiences that have to be targeted with marketing - the retailers and the readers. It's tough for retailers, because comic books aren't returnable, so they have to take a chance with everything they put on their shelves.
Freeman: Actually, this book is returnable. We gave retailers the largest base discounts that Diamond will give, and we also made all the books returnable.
We also went a step further by saying you don't have to order, you know, 5,000 copies in order to get these incentives. All copies - there is no qualifier for that.
But something else you're speaking to is another challenge - something we have to balance. On the one hand, we need the retailers to be excited about this enough that they're going to be able to hand sell this book and get excited about telling their staff and their friends and their fans and their customers about how wonderful this book is. That's the only way we're going to get new readers, is through comic shops hand-selling this book.
But we also need the fans that are already here - the ones who are already excited about it - we need them activated as well.
So in this particular instance, we created something called the pre-order edition. It's the same price, in the same format as the regular edition, but is has extra back-matter pages in the first three issues. You can only order the first three issues of the pre-order edition if you order before the initial order for retailers. So what this says to fans is, you have to go in and place a subscription if you want this special version. You must go to the comic shop and tell them you want this subscription.
It worked incredibly well.
Gorinson: It was an amazing success. It exceeded our expectations internally, and we heard the same from Diamond as well.
So we're going to be replicating that for issues #4 through #9, which are up for solicits in the next cycle, beginning in June. We'll also have a preorder edition, as will our Secret Weapons mini-series.
Nrama: I know you guys have been trying to get readers of one title to sample other books since you started Valiant back up, but that's also a specific focus of this initiative, right?
Gorinson: Yeah, it was definitely an experiment, and we dabbled in this kind of thing before - getting your book preordered is one of the most valuable things that a fan can do in service of a title. For a publisher like us, the challenge that we face - and I'm sure this applies to Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite, BOOM!, on down the line - is that you don't want… we've all had that experience of showing up at your local comic shop at 10:30 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday and the books from the independent publishers are already gone.
So we want to make sure that we're getting sufficient preorders so they have more copies of this book to sell for your more casual fans or new readers who aren't specifically coming in for X-O Manowar #1 - they're coming in to pick up the new issue of Batman or Green Lantern: Rebirth or whatever it may be. They've heard about X-O Manowar but maybe didn't know it was coming out on March 22, but there's enough copies there that they can pick one up and get hooked.
So yeah, that's what we're constantly up against, just making sure there's enough stock to satisfy demand for this title - all of our titles.
Freeman: We spoke earlier about how challenging it is for comics retailers right now. So what you do is say, what are the challenges for them ordering this book?
No. 1, they're asking, what is the demand? OK, so you have fans coming in placing a preorder.
No. 2, am I risking anything? You make them all completely returnable, no qualifiers.
No. 3, can I sell it? You make it available for them before initial order so that they can read it and get excited about it.
No. 4, how many do I need to order? So you create incentives for ordering larger amounts so that some of the collectors can get, you know, fancy items, but they will have enough on the shelf so that, as Hunter said, get through that first day and have copies on the shelf.
Gorinson: You're giving away the secret sauce, Atom.
Freeman: I'm sorry, brother! You know…I do this all the time, though. I want everybody to work like this.
Gorinson: And to that point, the only other thing I'd add is, while we've been doing this kind of thing, we've been working closely with retailers behind the scenes - Atom and the rest of our sales team have done an exceptional job forging long-term relationships with retailers across the country - but with X-O, we kind of formalized a lot of those initiatives that we've been doing on a one-to-one basis for some years.
That's why we're doing things like - we're essentially making them partners in this, trying to give them as many tools as we can to make X-O Manowar a success in their stores.
Every store is different. Every store has a different formula for what works and what doesn't.
And so through things like, doing some co-op, geo-targeted advertising on Facebook, generating custom store signage … there are very few things under the sun that Valiant wouldn't be game to do in service of making X-O Manowar a success in a given store, even if that means - and our CEO Dinesh Shamdasani has done this many times - giving out Atom's personal cell phone number and telling people to call at any hour of the night. [Laughs.]
Freeman: [Laughs] And they do.
Nrama: You keep saying that this year is tough for retailers. You mentioned the record number of titles. But why is it so challenging for retailers right now? Is it because there are so many titles that they can't commit in a big way to one independent title - or any single title, really, for risk of not having copies of all the other dozens of titles each week?
Freeman: Most retailers are ordering on a non-returnable basis, which means that every time they say yes, they're saying - they're possibly losing money.
And every time they say no, they're at minimum keeping their money, but not making any.
The goal is to make sure that every time they say yes with us, they actually make more money.
So you have to continually look at it as a partnership. That's where you're building their business when they commit with you.
Gorinson: From a consumer standpoint, I would just add that I'm always hesitant - I'll present what I'm going to say with the caveat that I'm always hesitant to speculate on the entire industry – but from my perspective, I think everyone, fans and retailers alike, are a little relaunched out.
There's certainly been a diminishing value of what a #1 represents in the comic book industry, which is part of the reason why – going back to your very first question - why we decided to put so much firepower behind X-O Manowar #1. We knew that we had to justify our reasoning for doing this and present the best story, the best product, the best packaging possible for this series.
If you're reading - a new fan – and you pick up a new #1 book from the "Big Two," there's very little assurance these days that that book is going to be around even in five or six issues before it comes back again with another one.
With X-O Manowar, one of the reasons why Matt had gotten so far ahead - one of the reasons why we have five art teams working concurrently on the first year - is that's us evidencing in real time that this is a book that's going to have staying power, that we're presenting a long-form story, that we're going to be putting all of our energy behind, for not just the next two or three or four months until we go back to a new #1, but for the next year or two years, and that we have a new plan and place.
Freeman: One of the things we did with this particular book is we recognized that we have a singular standing in this industry in that we are the only publisher in comics who has never been late on a single issue.
We've been doing this for…we're coming up on five years?
Gorinson: Five years this May.
Freeman: Jeez. My gosh I'm old.
So we've been doing this for five years, and I don't know how many hundreds of comics we've put out in that time, but we've not missed a single issue.
Gorinson: Close to six hundred issues.
Freeman: Close to six hundred issues we've put out on time.
As a result of that, we've been a consistent provider for the retailers. They know that they can count on us. We've been a persistent provider for the fans. They know they don't have to wait around for another issue.
So because we know we can do that, and because we know we were able to get the first year working, we were able to create something called "X-O Manowar Wednesday," which is the fourth Wednesday of every month. That's the week that X-O is going to come out. So you know you can go into your comic shops and see X-O there.
We're also going to be launching - because X-O is going to be our flagship book - we're also going to be launching another of our exciting titles on that same week. So the fans can come in, the fans who are already excited for X-O will be there for the new launches as well.
We've even put together a calendar for retailers that they can put up in their offices so they know when they can order and when it's coming in for the next year.
Gorinson: And that makes the schedule not only consistent and predictable, but given the fact that we're going to be launching another major series on those dates each and every month, it creates kind of a mini-marketing opportunity in each and every store for us to carry forward all of the energy and work that's put into the launch of X-O Manowar across the entire year of 2017.
And that's exciting. It gives us a lot of opportunities.