With the beginning of a new year, change is bound to happen.
And for fans who follow the market share race between Marvel and DC, that change came Friday. While DC held the top spot each month since their much-publicized "New 52" relaunch in September, the newest numbers from December had Marvel in the top spot.
John Rood, the company's executive vice president of sales, marketing and business development, has always maintained that the market sales number doesn't matter. As he's been joining with DC's SVP of Sales Bob Wayne to talk with Newsarama each month, market share is not DC's goal.
That said, the executives both addressed the market share question and more as we talked to them this month. Among their revelations:
- Marvel's "win" in December of the market share race might have been different if not for the way Diamond reports "returnable" comics. (As the execs explain below, the December numbers for DC's returnable comics are being reported lower than they will probably end up being, meaning DC may have "won" the month anyway.)
- While the executives congratulated Marvel on the company's market share win, Wayne and Rood both were frequent to point out differences between DC and Marvel, maintaining that DC's approach is more admirable on things like digital/print combo packs, price points and the number of titles released.
- DC confirmed that they're seeing a phenomenon similar to Newsarama's feedback from retailers that high-selling titles are doing better than pre-September, but mid- and low-tier titles are heading back to the pre-relaunch level.
- This year will see higher price points and page counts for Batman and Detective Comics. The comics will go from 32 pages each to 40 pages, and they'll sell at $3.99, joining DC's other $3.99 comics: Justice League, Action Comics, All-Star Western and Men of War.
- There's a "story reason" that Batman and Detective are adding pages, but that has yet to be announced.- New "combo packs" (with both a print and digital version of the comic) are on the horizon for Green Lantern and Detective Comics, similar to those being offered for Justice League, Batman and Action Comics. The new Detective combo pack will be $4.99, while the new Green Lantern combo will be $3.99. Batman's combo pack will increase to $4.99.
- DC is planning no major digital announcements in 2012 that will be comparable to the digital moves the company made in 2011.
- While Newsarama has been told in the past that the move to same-day digital drove the decisions behind the New 52 initiative, language from Rood indicates the priority in 2012 has shifted strongly back to the print market.
- DC is hinging some of its 2012 plans for how to shake up its print comics market on discussions at next month's ComicsPRO annual meeting, where they'll be revealing the results of the Nielson survey the company conducted last year.
To provide perspective on those announcements and what today's release of the December sales numbers really means for DC, Newsarama spoke with Rood and Wayne.
Newsarama: John, I know you hate the fact that the press harps upon the market share discussion, but you insinuated last month that you thought DC might win the market share race in December. Was there a surprise, or did I misread what you said last month, or does all this discussion not really matter?
John Rood: A combination of all those things. Turn out the lights. The party's over. You know? All good things must end.
This day was going to come. It came later than anyone in or outside the company would have imagined. That accountability for returnability is probably what made the slight difference. But that's because I've been asked to comment on this. Otherwise, it's not something we're following.
That's something you've been hearing month-in and month-out. We're more about the profitability of these titles. We're more about the media and merchandise opportunities of these titles. And we're most interested that the retailers are continually excited about the stories and characters. We've been following that.
But we tip our hat to the "other guys" who have great stories and characters too. And we knew this day would come.
Nrama: Can you explain to the layperson what "accountability for returnability" means and how it may have unfairly affected the numbers for December?
Bob Wayne: What we're alluding to when we say that is that the Diamond charts right now, because of our current returnable program that we have on a number of titles, that the full sell-in of the titles isn't counted for the chart. Diamond reduced the sales number by a percentage against the possibility of returns.
Rood: Now, that's not me grasping for excuses! The "winner" of December has great books and a great number of books. So congrats to them.
Nrama: I understand. But you know, I just talked to retailers, and they indicated that they really aren't returning much now. They were returning much more of the #2 and #1 issues, but that isn't happening with the more recent issues. What are you seeing in returns?
Wayne: Right now, our returns have been averaging below the quantity that our numbers are reduced on the chart.
Wayne: We're not taking anything away from their winning. I think the main take-away from our conversation is that these numbers are incredibly close. It's a very competitive marketplace. And we're competitive, and our competitors are also trying to put their A-game on the table, I think it's good for the readers, for talent and for retailers that everyone is out there trying to put out the best stuff possible.
Nrama: This time last year, I interviewed Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, and their big push at that time was the "Hold the Line at 2.99" initiative, which was the guiding pricing principle for DC in 2011. How did it perform for you in 2011, and is it something you're going to continue into 2012?
Rood: How can we even be in the dollar share stratosphere with the other guys when 46 of our 52 books are $2.99? That's why I was laughing these past months. To be in the dollar share conversation with a fewer number of books and at the distinct lower price point versus other publishers is what makes me laugh each month.
But yes, we'll continue to hold to "Draw the Line at 2.99," if it's a 32-page book.That said, Detective Comics and Batman are going up to 40 pages, and as such, they're going to $3.99.
Nrama: Will these larger, more expensive Batman and Detective comics have back-up features, and is the change being made for content or just from a sales perspective?
Wayne: The reason for adding the story pages is for the story and the editorial content. I think that when you find out what we're doing with those extra story pages, it will all make perfectly good sense.
Nrama: That explains the increase to 40 pages. But what's the reason for adding these two more titles as combo packs? And how were those chosen?
Wayne: Those titles in particular are the titles that have the strongest sales right now, and the ones that we have the most requests from people to add those two.
There clearly is a philosophical difference between us and our competitors on how to handle this. In our case, the retailer decides if they want to carry the version that includes a digital code. And if they want to share that customer with us in that arena. As opposed to the digital code being in every single copy.
Rood: And the consumer decides whether they want a digital code or not in our scenario. As Bob mentioned, these are top titles that are in demand in that club of digital combo packs.
Nrama: So are you saying the combo packs won't become something you do for all the titles?
Rood: I don't foresee it becoming a common practice on the rest of the titles.
Nrama: What about other pricing structures? I think, John, you had mentioned 99 cent comics last month. Are you continuing to look at different sized comics or different price points than the standard 32-page $2.99 and 40-page $3.99?
Rood: I think we want to partner with the retailer on the optimal solution. One of the dialogues at [the] ComicsPRO [annual meeting] on February 9th is going to be, just being candid about how to be profitable as a publisher, how to be profitable as a retailer, and what's the product mix that they want?We'll be talking about adult titles as opposed to kids’ titles. We'll talk about format and price point.
And if we still get a strong consensus to draw the line, we'll draw the line. And if we get some consensus that there are some titles or stories across DC Comics, Vertigo and MAD that are worth different price points, I want to consider it. I want to leave nothing unconsidered.
But there hasn't been any progress specific to the 99 thing I mentioned just as an example last month.
Nrama: You indicated that you might be replacing or canceling titles around #8, and that's the next solicitations we'll see. Do you think we'll hear anything about that, and is replacing what is going to happen? Is 52 a magic number?
Rood: Fifty two is not a mandate. I'm pleased, and as far as I know, the co-pubs and the executive editor have been talking more about whether there are quality stories to be told beyond what's been put out there so far.
So it's been a magical number for us, but it's not a leg irons that are going to make us put out substandard quality.
I mentioned issue #8 because at the Road Show when we were announcing the New 52 last summer, we were talking about looking at it after issue #5. So that's an exponential success to go this long without talking about replacements.
Nrama: Are there some titles that are being reviewed for cancellations?
Rood: Sure. That's a safe assumption. And there will be announcements in the new year about how to enhance the universe. But no announcements today.
Nrama: You've been saying in past months that you're seeing order increase on top titles. Is that still the case, or has that leveled out?
Wayne: We're still seeing some titles with increases, and some titles with very, very limited attrition. It's almost a rounding error. So we are really pleased with how many of the titles are holding in at very strong numbers.
Nrama: Have you seen initial orders from retailers for the #6's?
Wayne: Yes, and some of my colleagues are even surprised by how well the numbers are holding up. In particular, historically, orders are usually light when retailers consider what they're going to stock for January and February, because they're concerned, through much of North America, that you could have weather-related disruptions to your supply chain or your customer base. And we're not seeing any type of traditional lightening up of numbers for January and February.
Nrama: The feedback I got from retailers indicated that they were seeing mid-level sales titles and lower-level sales titles were going back to pre-New 52 numbers. But the high selling titles are holding at very high levels. Is that similar to what you're seeing?
Rood: That's in line with what we've seen. We were very mindful about line-wide average, and that continues to exceed any expectations or sales forecasts.
Nrama: Do you have any idea why that would happen in that specific way?
Rood: The fact that it's driven by iconic publishing titles like Action and Detective, and driven by iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Green Lantern probably shouldn't come as any surprise, especially when there is an aspect of brand new readership in stores.
Nrama: Are you still planning a marketing and advertising push for the New 52 collections in May, and is there indication how those will be collected and marketed?
Rood: Yeah, there will be an effort, but it will be a fraction of what the launch effort was with the periodicals. But we will be drawing with publicity and paid advertising attention to the collections that will begin in earnest in May.
Nrama: Will those collections be available digitally?
Rood: We have yet to make formal announcements of how it's going, but you can expect that we'll have digital partnerships beyond our current one with Amazon.
Nrama: It just seems to make sense that if you're doing mainstream advertising, you would also offer those collections digitally, wouldn't it? Or am I jumping to conclusions?
Wayne: Yeah, you are.
Rood: I understand the connection, but it's not the case. The lift on analog, or physical periodicals, on the New 52 was greater than any we expected with digital sales. My point is that the national publicity attention and the national advertising did its job to put people in stores, and that was job one. And that's what we're excited about.
So to say that something outside of house ads or something outside of Newsarama is only to drive digital consumption is not a fair assumption to make, however tempting it would be to make.
Nrama: This is a ways away, but given we’re now in the second half of the first year of the New 52, is there any reason for DC to publish issue #13 of anything, given you’ve given up on the ghost on high numberings on Action, Detective, etcetera?
Rood: I don't expect to do any mid-stream renumbering or "point" something, decimal points. Those have proven clunky. And as I've mentioned before to you, I'm delighted that the sales performance of the New 52 was not driven by speculative purchasers. There is a low report out from our research from thinking that they're just buying No. 1's to put in a hope chest and sell to Sotheby's in 50 years. Rather, these are new readers that are going to become new recurring customers.
I don't feel like undertaking another renumbering anytime soon.
Nrama: How important a role will digital play in 2012, and can you give any indication of what innovative plans you might have planned in that market?
Rood: I don't expect a digital announcement in the New Year as significant as the ones we made in 2011, namely same-day digital for our periodicals and getting into digital graphic novels and collected editions. There's nothing "next" that's going to be as big as those two things that we did in 2011.
We obviously expect growth in that area, but it's a larger growth in physical, if you look at the numbers off of its much smaller base.But our attention is at the core content, the core physical product, and the core physical retailer. That's really where our efforts are for 2012.
Nrama: How about some year-end sales figures for DC individually? What were their 2011 sales figures looks like compared to 2010, and what are DC’s projections for their 2012 sales figures compared to 2011?
Rood: We need to build on our success, and so no one around the company is expecting to take our foot off the gas. It may not be as seismic as what was done on August 31st, but everyone's game has been raised to tell more compelling stories, to introduce more compelling characters, to provide more incentives to the retailer than have ever been done before, and that's as much a Vertigo imperative as a DC Comics imperative.
And so I think everyone's trying to best themselves.
And that was an internal intent of the New 52. We put a picture up at the Road Show of a nurse giving an immunization in the arm, because we said, speaking only for DC Entertainment, we needed a shot in the arm. And we would suppose that retailers needed a shot in the arm, and creators needed a shot in the arm, and this intellectual properties, and stories and characters needed a shot in the arm.
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