ICv2 recently caught up with Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley for another in our series of interviews with key comic and graphic novel publishers.
In Part Two of this three part interview, we talk about the changing relationship between movies and publishing; Marvel’s digital initiatives; and Marvel’s position on a shift to a universal Tuesday delivery day to retailers.
In Part Three, we talk about highlights of Marvel’s 2009 schedule; more on coordinating publishing with movie releases; and the “connective tissue” between movies and comics.
In Part One, Buckley talks about the current state of the comics and graphic novel market, including the possible impacts of the economic turmoil; the impact of increasing bookstore sales on Marvel’s publishing strategy, especially on comics for kids.
We're seeing a surprising and unprecedented impact of movie events on graphic novel sales this year. Are you seeing that change as well?
I won’t say we haven’t been playing to that for several years. The success of Spider-Man the movie was really the thing that got us into the book market. The mass market retailers saw that people really wanted this type of product and content. So ever since then we have been working strategically to make sure we have a lot of product out there.
We see it sell through and it moves. Our Iron Man product did very well this year--we’ve been very pleased with that. The Hulk product we put out there in the book market did very well. You can even see it in our strategy with the publishing schedule: we try to make sure we’re doing things with the characters a couple years before the movies come out to make sure we have a lot of fresh product of high standard to put out there.
Iron Man has been in the middle of our world for while now, which worked out very well before the Iron Man movie. I think we saw some pleasantly surprising, consistent success with Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s comic book. Usually we don’t look at the comics to get spiked. We look for the trades to really carry the movie marketing piece. We’ve very pleased with that and it does help us.
Now the outlier that is doing great numbers because the movie’s coming out next year—Watchmen--is a very interesting thing to watch. I think it’s years and years of pent up excitement to see that thing finally come out. We would never argue that’s not a great book. It’s a genre defining publication for our whole industry. Between that and The Dark Knight in the late 80s that was probably the first pop for comics being a mass market presence in the world. The New York Times Book Review and all that stuff really popped graphic fiction. I think there’s a cool and unique mojo to that. It’s creating a lot of excitement, so if it’s creating a lot of foot traffic in the stores, we’ll do OK too.
Marvel Digital was launched last November. In our last interview you thought you’d have about 3,500 issues available a year later. Where are you at right now?
Right at around 5,000.
So you’re going faster than you originally planned?
We had them made, we’ve just been responding to some of the requests and demands of the people on the service. They wanted more product to browse through. We had been working for two to three years before that on how to make them, how to prepare them. It’s part of our regular production process now, it’s not some separate unit sitting off to the side. With
Our retail community in the direct market has been very supportive of it, and we listen to them. That’s why it was easier to get to the 5,000. Some guys don’t love it, I’m not going to act like everybody wants to bless it with holy water, but most people see it as a positive marketing and awareness and trial-building effort on our side. And we are listening to them.
In terms of number of subscribers, are you at, above or below expectations?
We’re about where we expected to be. And that’s all I can give you [laughs.]
There’s now some original material produced specifically for Marvel Digital. Can you talk about where that might be headed?
It’s actually kind of interesting. We even had some of the people in our print side of the business say, “Well, maybe you should do that one digitally first.” It kind of caught me off guard.
On a case-by-case basis, we’ll be looking at stuff. Obviously if it’s a great benefit to do it in print first, we make a lot of money, and it excites our fans and that’s what they want, that’s the way it’s going to happen. But we do have pitches and projects that go through this building that we think are interesting to look at, but we also know that they might not be long enough, strong enough or interesting enough to put ink on paper. When we’re pitching projects now in some of our editorial meetings, we do consider some of the things, like, “Oh, that’s a cool idea,” but we just can’t get a four-issue limited series out of it, or we won’t generate enough volume to justify the A&E investment. But we think we can collect it and use it in other forms later and keep on monetizing it. So we’re looking at it as an option for products that might not fit what we’re trying to do in the direct market. You might see some more genre stuff that’s original, then we’ll package it up and put it in trade because generally, genre stuff doesn’t do real well--say westerns and martial arts books, and stuff like that.
We are looking it as a viable option. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of it. It’s also something that’s there to excite the fan who is on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited and wants to feel like they’re getting a little bit of a sneak peak. Everything will see ink on paper eventually.
You said response from retailers has been generally positive. Can you tell if there is any impact on print sales, one way or the other?
Neither way. I will say this. I know when we do promotional things and we really hype it, it does help generate excitement; I do think it helps spike it. We did some stuff around Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion was going to do well anyway, but it helped generate even more buzz than we were getting, with the little 8-pager we did with Dum Dum being a Skrull that was online first and then was in the comics two weeks later.
One of the things I asked when we interviewed you last year...
It’s not my fault, I didn’t mean it! (laughs)
...was whether you thought there would be any impact on illegal file sharing. Have you seen any impact there?
That’s still out there. We’ve dealt with U.S. stuff fairly well, but there are countries out there where we don’t have a lot of effect. But I also don’t think we have as many people seeking it, because of the service we provide. If you’re on there and you really like digital comics, it’s relatively easy to use our viewer; it doesn’t create a lot of bandwidth issues.
I think most people do want to pay a fair price and to be part of the commerce [and not be] perceived as stealing things. So we haven’t had as many problems with saying “You need to shut down this site,” because I don’t think there are as many people saying “Go here, find this book.” It’s still happening, though, and we’re still dealing with it on a case by case basis. We’ll never shut that down completely.
One topic that has come up in comic stores the last couple of months is the idea of comics stores receiving their orders a day in advance of the street date so they would have more time to process them. Diamond does that now for chain stores that need more time, but the single store operators were asking if they could have the same treatment. What is Marvel’s position on Tuesday delivery for Wednesday comics day?
What you’re talking about is much more logistics and freight, and I can’t talk to the details of that. We will work on ways for guys to get to look at previews earlier, but I think it’s long shot to think that the whole industry will get physical copies on Tuesdays. Maybe if we can figure out how to do it without expedited shipping costs for either party, or creating increased fees from Diamond, because I know these people don’t want to pay more for it either. Freight’s through the roof right now; it’s one the fastest growing expense categories on a percentage basis. I’m not against exploring it but I think we’re operating pretty tightly as it is.
Click here for Part Three.