In this month’s interview DC execs Bob Wayne and John Cunningham take on the charge that the Big Two are using additional discounts to bribe retailers to take extra books in a quest for marketshare, offer a progress report on the publisher’s efforts to scale back the use of variant covers, and express confidence that the industry will be able to maintain its sales momentum in 2013.
What is your reaction to what happened with comic market sales in December?
Wayne: Our first impressions of what happened in December are that we are very pleased by our performance in the marketplace, and that it was a very a tough month with Marvel’s Marvel NOW! initiative on month number 3. But we are very happy with how little erosion in sales of our titles that we had during the month. We are looking forward to building on that in the New Year.
Basically Marvel was able to maintain most of the marketshare lead that it opened up in November, wouldn’t you say?
Wayne: Yes that’s fair. But the big story may be that to a certain extent at least, that Mr. Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is continuing to walk all over the book format charts, and we are just glad that he left a few places for us to participate.
Given your long term dominance in the graphic novel arena, it was rather shocking that there was only one DC title in the Top Ten on Diamond’s graphic novel list for December.
Cunningham: I think what you have to keep in mind is that what happened is as much a result of how high the sales were on The Walking Dead as anything else, and the numbers bear this out. We didn’t see any decrease in sales numbers for our books, especially for our core backlist, we saw some very high level increases in the month of December in all markets. I think the Diamond list is just a testament to how much The Walking Dead has touched the public consciousness, but we are well prepared for when those moments happen because we have seen a lot of them in recent years whether it’s Watchmen or anytime that we have been tied in with the Chris Nolan Batman features we see how increased category traffic increases sales for us, especially in that key backlist area. Whatever the driver is to put people into comic book stores or the graphic novel sections of bookstores we love to think that we are well-positioned to benefit from that.
Wayne: We are certainly aware of how much planning goes into riding out those various waves of interest by making sure you have inventory in place. Image having both The Walking Dead Vol. 17 and Walking Dead Vol. 1 both in the Top Ten for the month is an astounding testament to how many copies of The Walking Dead Vol. 1 have moved through the channel in this year alone.
With reports of Barnes & Noble shuttering some stories (see "Barnes & NobleStore Closings Accelerate") do you fear that a lack of physical venues could put a crimp in graphic novel sales in the bookstore channel?
Wayne: Barnes & Noble has adjusted the number of stores in some areas and a few stores have closed. We think we are still in a pretty good spot, but we do miss all the shelf space we had at Borders locations, and we like all the shelf space we have at Barnes & Noble’s brick-and-mortar locations. We’d like to be in as many places as possible-more is better than fewer.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has stirred up a fair amount of controversy, so much so that the action figures based on the film have gotten some flack (see "'Django Unchained' Figures Draw Criticism"), have you received any negative feedback on the comic book series?
Was Reggie Hudlin working on the comic project from the beginning?
Cunningham: Reggie has been involved from the very beginning, from the first negotiation of the contract through getting Quentin on to our stage at San Diego to make the announcement, to the production of the book. Reggie has been with us since day one on this.
Is his actually working on the adaptation of Tarantino’s script or is he just facilitating the entire project?
Cunningham: He is actually working on the adaptation itself. But that’s just one of the many roles that Reggie has filled here as Django made its way to the screen.
What’s your reaction to criticism that Marvel and DC are bribing retailers to take more books in order to gain marketshare? DC’s plan for launching Justice League America: Vibe #1 and Katana #1 involves giving retailers an extra 15% discount for meeting certain order requirements. Is a new ploy to hype up sales of number one issues and boost marketshare?
Wayne: Well we did some extra discount offerings when we launched the "New 52" and we were just looking to see what we could do to make sure with the tremendous orders we have received so far for Justice League of America #1 with the 53 variant State flag variants that we could do some things with the related titles that are somewhat linked to Justice League of America by the membership of those characters in the team. But granting higher discounts is a tool that we use occasionally and other people resort to a lot more frequently. For us it is a way to get attention for a book and to encourage retailers to take more of a position on it than they might have otherwise.
Cunningham: I think Bob addressed very nicely the sort of sales background for why that
happened. As to why it gets reported as some sort of marketshare-grabbing controversy reminds me of when I worked in book publishing. There was a sort of standard joke in book publishing that every five-to-seven years The New York Times would write a front page story talking in a shocking tone about how prime positions in bookstores were available for sale through coop advertising. Every five years the story would run and people would act shocked and surprised that what is a standard business practice was somehow highlighted and made to seem by dint of a slow news day to be something controversial, but it was indeed, as I said, just standard business practice.
A few months ago you talked to us about cutting the number of variant covers which were proliferating at an alarming rate (see "DC to Cut Variants"). How is your effort to rein in variants going?
Wayne: Well there are four titles that had variants that we have stopped doing variants for, and the Before Watchmen titles are wrapping up and those had variants, so there is a reduction in what we are doing. Certainly the 52 variant covers for Justice League of America is a bit of an outlier to that process, but I think, that once we ship JLA, our trend toward a smaller footprint on variants will be clear. But we look at that in our sales meetings and we tweak the program on an ongoing basis. But the 52 variants for JLA #1 is definitely an outlier for us.
2012 will go down in history as one of best sales years in the history of the direct market. Do you think that DC and the rest of the industry will be able to keep this sales momentum going?
Cunningham: When we look at it we actually think that the industry as a whole can continue to grow and that certainly we can as well. In 2013 we have the Before Watchmen collections, and we have some stuff for the end of the year that we can’t talk about now. Especially with The Man of Steel movie coming I have a feeling that we are going to be able to click Superman onto a new level when that movie comes out, especially since we are positioned with really terrific product to sell around it. For us, we are coming off a Batman movie year, so we have to grapple with replacing those sales. But I think we feel as strongly about the potential of Superman as a property for us in terms of selling product as we ever have.
Let’s talk about The Man of Steel. Retailers tell us that with major vintage comic book properties like Superman, Spider-Man, Thor etc., there are so many graphic novel collections available, but those characters’ continuities are so convoluted that there is often no book or set of books that retailers can recommend to civilians who come in because they have been engaged by a film featuring one of those characters. Are you going to address these concerns with your Man of Steel publishing program?
Cunningham: That’s an excellent question and we will be fully prepared to discuss that with you next month.