DC's sales numbers for September and October looked strong, but retailers think now is when the real test begins.Why are November and December so important? Because retailers said they ordered too low in September, and ordered a little too high in October.
"We've got a much better grasp on how to order," said Mike Wellman, co-owner of The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Calif., "so hopefully we'll be maximizing our potential, not losing out on sales and also not bringing in way more than is necessary, like we kind of did in October."
"We got stuck with quite a few books [in October]," said John Robinson, co-owner of the nine Graham Crackers Comics stories in Chicago. "[It was a] trade-off of either being short or being stuck. [We] wanted to keep customers happy, and find what the true ceiling on all these titles was with #2, so now we know."
"My orders [for November] look, for want of a better phrase, realistic," said Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus, Ohio. "I now feel completely confident in my ordering of the New 52, so I know where I can take chances with displays and trades."
"By December, we're probably going to base the numbers on actual sales and figure we have a pretty decent feel for readership at that point," said Matt Price, co-owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Okla.
That said, retailers are thrilled about the effect so far of the "New 52." Not only did September provide some much-needed cash flow for the stores, but it had an effect on the attitude of their customers."I've seen a noticeable jump in the enthusiasm among long-time fans, as well as some new and returning customers," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, Calif. "So, at this point, it looks like the New 52 has helped lead us through two of the best months we've had in the last couple of years and a few of the best single days in Flying Colors' 23-year history."
That excitement has even extended to the attitude of some shop owners themselves.
"Before the New 52, my thoughts about the future of the industry from a retailers' standpoint were dismal, but DC's careful planning and fine editorial work has caused a revitalization that I didn't know was possible," said Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz.
" If I knew how successful DC's relaunch would be," he added, "I would have reconsidered downsizing my store. I really think they've saved the industry for retailers. I hope they can maintain their lead and I hope that Marvel wakes up and stops the unending crossovers, tie-ins and new number one issues and tries to tell a story that we haven't read twenty times."
Price said he's also hoping other publishers notice what went right with the New 52, like on-time shipping and aggressive marketing.
"I think digital forcing the print books to ship on time will provide positive momentum and sales for DC Comics," he said. "If Marvel is likewise forced to hit deadlines by moving their books to same-day release, that could be the best upshot of the whole digital movement for print comic shops — waiting months or years between issues of a comic book may no longer be acceptable. I think The New 52 also showed that aggressively marketing an event to the public can work — and I hope it encourages more of the same from DC and other publishers."[The New 52 initiative] also showed that DC modernizing their co-op [advertising] procedures to allow e-mail marketing and Facebook ads, among other things, has apparently had a positive effect," he said. "I hope it encourages other publishers to provide more aggressive co-op programs with the direct market."
Field, who also serves as president of the retailer trade organization ComicsPRO, said he agreed that there was much to be learned from the success DC has had. "It's clear that DC has pumped a lot of gas into the comics tank by doing a huge roll-out of 52 new titles, plus giving it the promotional push it needed to get the message out to a much wider audience," he said. "I honestly don't know if this is something that Marvel could replicate — or any other publisher for that matter — but I do think it's clear that bold, positive and creatively-driven initiatives can do good things for this market."
Several retailers are still taking advantage of the marketing opportunity the relaunch offered -- especially Wellman at The Comic Bug, where customers were offered $100 in store credit toward future issues of the New 52 to those customers who purchased all the #1 issues. "We all know that a large percentage of folks will come in and buy #1, or "Death of Captain America/Superman" or whatever, and we'll never see them again until the next big headline grabbing event," Wellman said. "I'd much rather reward regular customers with savings and special offers and I've had more than a few of them tell me that they're reading far more titles than they would if they hadn't had that store credit. They say it's hard to judge a book by its cover. It's almost as hard to judge it on its first issue alone, right?"
Of course, the newest customers had to be educated on the "monthly" cycle of comic books. "One customer was surprised when we mentioned to him that we'd see him 'next week,' [because] all the #1's had just finished that week," Robinson said. "He didn't know there would be #2's for these titles. 'Really? How many of them will have a #2? Oh, and how long will these run?'"Yet educating new readers is something retailers like doing, if they can get those readers to stick around. "There are definitely some people who were away for a while who have come back, and there are a few people who are just getting into comics with this relaunch, which is great," Price said.
While most retailers said there was a relatively small percentage of brand new readers, they were thankful that they now have books that additional new readers can jump into.
"Last night, I had a boyfriend and girlfriend come into the shop for the first time after they beat Arkham City," said Wellman. "It was very nice to point them to a manageable stack of comics that I just knew they'd be excited about. They walked out with Batman #1 and #2, Detective #1 and #2, Catwoman #1 and #2, and a Joker hardcover graphic novel. Very giddy and for sure new readers brought into us through another medium — videogames.
"If Arkham City dropped six months ago, can you imagine the Batman books they'd be walking into?," he laughed. "'Uh, okay, so Bruce Wayne is dead and his soul is weaving it's way through the centuries while Dick Grayson is Batman, blah blah.' Let's tell great stories without forgetting to keep these characters rooted and accessible!"
As the industry heads into the third month of DC's initiative, retailers said they were seeing the following trends:- Digital Acceptance: Retailers seemed more comfortable with the presence of the digital market, but some still wonder if the effect of "day-and-date" digital won't be noticed more later, after the sales kick of the New 52 wears down.
"That story is still in its first chapter, but I would not be surprised if the growth of digital sales is a direct result of retailers being too tight with their ordering, especially on the first issues of The New 52," said Field, who has a comiXology storefront through his website. "It remains a big question how many of those readers who went digital when they weren't able to be satisfied by their local shops will actually go back to those shops for future issues. Or are they lost to digital completely?"
"My feeling is the amount it helps and hurts may be a wash. It's still early to say, though," said Price, another retailer with a comiXology digital storefront. "I was more concerned about [day-and-date digital] before they did it. At this time, it appears most readers still prefer print when there are comics coming out that they are excited about. I am hoping that people who don't live near a comic store will take the opportunity to support a comic shop with their digital purchases when they can."
"I feel it's almost a different market completely," said Seymore, who has a comiXology digital storefront associated with his Comic Town shop. "I don't think that we lose any sales to the digital market at all. If anything, it helped us out. In September, if we were sold out of a book, people could jump onto our comiXology digital shop and pick up the title in order to give it a shot. By not missing the book, people could still look forward to the second print or the #2 and not feel like they were missing out. I hope that Marvel follows suit and partners with comiXology the same way DC has.
"I thought that same-day digital was the right call and that it would expand readership rather than cut a chunk out of the sales pie," Seymore added. "Why not make the pie bigger and invite shops to the pie tasting?"
- Incentives Help: DC has offered returnability and discount incentives that help retailers feel more confident about ordering higher than they normally would. Those retailer incentives, which were originally offered through December, have now been extended through April.
"It's nice to be able to order with that kind of confidence," Wellman said. "I worry slightly that they'll be surprised by the amount of returns they get on issue #2. The frenzy of September caused us to become a little overzealous with our issue #2 orders, so we do have quite a few comics to send back. But it's nice that they're extending the program until April."
"It's great that they are continuing to promote it. I'm not sure that we're going to qualify for all of them going forward, as we'll have a better feel for what our numbers might be," Price said. "At that point, it makes less sense to gamble on returns, especially with the returnability penalty. In December and going forward, supposing you've found the ceiling (and we have), it makes more sense to try to get the numbers right and eliminate the cost of returns, both in man-hours and penalties. If you have yet to find the ceiling on the books, I imagine it will be a help."- Cream Rising to the Top: The shop owners we surveyed said their orders for November reflect a division between "hits" and "failures" among DC's titles. But they liked the fact that so many customers got the chance to sample a variety of genres and titles before picking what to keep reading.
"Most people only gave the title they tried one issue, then decided yes or no to keep it on their buying habits," Robinson said.
"I've had a lot of Marvel fans try the New DC and many have liked them so much that they've asked for all Marvel titles to be removed from their subscription lists so they could afford more of the 52," Harris said.
"Swamp Thing and Animal Man seem to be the biggest surprises and critical darlings," Wellman said. All Star Western is a great book and selling well. Some of the more salacious books, like Teen Titans, Catwoman and Voodoo, are doing well, proving that sex does sell! Batman is hands down my favorite of the lot and a huge seller!"
"Nightwing has exceeded my expectations," Price said. "I don't know if that's because fans followed him 'back' from being Batman, or he's just an appealing character in general. We did best with several of the books we pegged to do well: Action Comics, Batman, Justice League. Animal Man and Swamp Thing are still performing above what my expectations for those titles were prior to the first issues going on sale."
"While my favorites so far are the Animal Man and Swamp Thing, books the fans seem to be most excited about are Action, Batman and Justice League, the three main books, which suggests that DC really has all their wheels on the ground," Harris added.
"The trends I can see are people not just picking up Green Lantern or Action Comics, but picking up the entire line of a particular character," Seymore said. "If some one buys Batman, they will nine times out of ten also buy Detective and Dark Knight as well."- Higher Sales on Everything: Retailers are trying to get the new and lapsed readers they're seeing to buy more than just DC books. As a result, some retailers are reporting that sales on other items in the store are doing well, although most said its indie books and trades that have benefitted most.
"Spider-Man has grown in sales a small amount," Seymore said. "The biggest movement we've seen is in trade paperback sales. With the newer readers wanting to pick up story arcs from characters or teams they've enjoyed in the past or seeing that Walking Dead was a comic before it was a television series are grabbing trades and testing the waters out that way."
"Looking at August as the base month, since only the last day of that month featured New 52 content, the aggregated comics category is up more than 15% from August to October, even with Marvel being 17 percent down from August to October," Field said.
"While Marvel isn't 'relaunching,' they are having lots of launches happening this month," Wellman said. Incredible Hulk. The two new X-Men titles. Avenging Spider-Man is highly anticipated. Books with clear beginnings or jumping-on points are doing very well with New 52 readers."
- Returning Customers: Several retailers were thrilled to see the effect the relaunch had on customers who had either let their pull list lapse, or were scaling back on comics.
"I've got one hard-core Superman collector, a school-teacher from the high school around the corner, that has been trying for year to quit," Wellman said. "He'd just about reached the end of his rope before the relaunch, had his pull subscription whittled down from many DC titles to only Superman and Action, and the relaunch brought him back in full swing! He wanted to try the first three months of all 52. He's loving it for the most part. Ironically enough, he came in last week and decided that he couldn't afford all the titles, so he dropped a few, including his near-and-dear Superman!"
- Positive Holiday Season: More than one retailer said they're glad DC timed its New 52 initiative right before the all-important fourth quarter began.
"One of the critical bits of timing that seems to have really worked well for the launch of The New 52 is that it happened in September, getting hundreds of new people in here in the months leading into traditionally stronger holiday sales from late November to early January," Field said.
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