ICv2 caught up with Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater, who graciously consented to take the time to discuss the numerous initiatives that he has undertaken since gaining control in June of 2009 of the company his father co-founded. Goldwater has been perhaps the most aggressive comic publisher in exploring the digital realm, and he has managed to score some signal successes in paper publishing as well, for example launching a successful magazine program in an era in which newsstand magazines have the mortality rate of lemmings on a cliff.
Archie recently announced going day and date with its full line. What do you say to retailers who feel that the Archie’s digital offerings represent direct competition, selling the same content at a lower price through a different channel?
Basically, for Archie right now, we’re newsstand-driven and from our viewpoint it’s really a different customer. There’s the digital customer and there’s the retail customer, so we really don’t look at them as overlapping customers whatsoever. It’s a very rare customers who going to not buy the print because they’ve gotten the digital. The people who want the print version, they always find a way to get that. That’s what we’ve found out through all our fans and through all the research we’ve done here at Archie comics that we don’t see having any negative impact whatsoever for our retail partners. We value them greatly. They are our life blood and we do everything we can to support them and we will continue to do so.
Other than where they buy, what are the differences between the digital customer and the print costumer?
The best way I can put it, is your print customer is in a supermarket, is kind of spur of the moment, or you’re at a newsstand, you’re kind of spur of the moment, but often we have fans who go out there and look specifically for certain books to buy. Our digital customer, I believe, is someone who is on his iPad or his iPhone or whatever mobile device they may be on and they’re going on the Archie app and they may see a comic book from 10 years ago that we have up there and they want to buy that. So really, for the digital customer there’s a lot more variety, in that there are a lot of older books in addition to our current books. I think a lot of our customers are little more cross-generational than the average retail customer.
Do you think the average digital customer is actually older?
I think they’re young, but it really has the ability to really morph it into different generations on the digital side, yes I do.
It seems like a likely device that an Archie customer would use would be the iPod Touch, which a lot of kids have.
They do, but I can see our sales, and the vast majority of our sales are through the iPad.
That’s probably because it looks better.
Exactly. The iPad has been the game changer for us digitally. It just allows people to enjoy the product on a platform that is very easy to read and very easy to enjoy.
Let’s shift to another example of finding new ways to sell Archie content, which is the magazines--Life with Archie and the Betty and Veronica magazines. We’ve been told your sell-throughs at newsstand have been 60%, which is really an incredible number for any comic product on the newsstand these days. Why do you think it’s doing so much better in the magazine format than comics generally do?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all the value we give for $3.99. We’re giving two full stories. A very popular book that we put out last year was the Archie marriage series. This is a continuation of that with the parallel universes of Archie marrying Veronica and Archie marrying Betty. So we’re giving incredible value on a subject that was extraordinarily popular to us. Additionally we have other content in there, which we think is a lot of fun and we think people may enjoy and if nothing else, it’s a pleasant read. And third, it’s availability. Magazines are available now for us--it’s a lot easier for us to get the magazine format in places where Archie has never before been available, like CVS [and] Walgreens, places like that where you can go buy the magazine very easily as opposed to searching out where you may have to go your comics shop or certain super market or special newsstand. Our Life with Archie, as a magazine, is just available a lot more places.
So it’s fitting the in line display fixtures instead of having to have a special display?
That’s exactly right and the retailers are happy to do that. It’s a format that they’re very comfortable with and they know that that’s a successful format. So for us to come with a magazine, it’s something that they’re very used to doing. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel [from] their viewpoint. On the comic book side we are trying to reinvent the wheel quite frankly, but from the retailer perspective, that’s a format they’re very comfortable and familiar with.
Do you think that’s a different customer than the comics or digest sized products?
I wouldn’t say so. Once again I would attribute it to availability and to the fact that we’re giving great value and a popular storyline. I think it’s an Archie fan. So I just think it’s availability and accessibility.
You mentioned the value of the $3.99 magazine. Archie comics have remained at $2.99 while most other comic have gone to $3.99 and some are even rolling those price increases back. What are your thoughts about cover prices for comics and the potential impact on size of the market or the potential number of customers?
I think $2.99 is a fair value and that’s what we’re sticking to at Archie comics. We’re in a down economy. It’s hard to earn a dollar as everybody knows, and we want to give our fans, our readers, the people we value the most in the world--the Archie readers--value. And that’s what we live by here, and for us $2.99 is a very fair price point for our comic books and that is not going to change.
Last year you had some book licensing deals, you had a product from Abrams, you announced a broader deal with IDW for various collections of Archie content. Looks like you’re still publishing some collections yourselves. Can you talk about the strategy in terms of how you’re managing the choices between what you license out and what you do yourselves for book format product?
We’re really proud of our partners, and don’t forget Dark Horse is doing some stuff for us as well. We really spread the wealth around, quite frankly. We have a library that’s 70 years deep. So we have an unbelievable amount of content. It really has never before been exploited. All the people that love the classic Archie style from back in the day to current time--there’s so much there that we sort of cherry picked what we thought each company wanted to go with. So for the Abrams book that really was, once again, a continuation of the wedding story, and they did that special edition, and that was really a one-off with them. IDW is doing a lot of the “best of” of the artist series, and they’re doing a terrific job with that. And then Dark Horse is doing a bunch of Archie firsts. There’s so much content there that we could do this for 20 years and never really run out of what we want to do, and then there’s going to be stuff that we do as well.
It’s really a question of getting as much product in the marketplace as possible and giving it our readers a chance to buy our books in other formats like hard covers, like coffee table style books, things [that] we really haven’t had a chance to do before.
You talked about how availability is helping you to find new customers, whether it’s digital or the magazine racks. Another thing you did last year to expand the availability of Archie content was a program you started in Toys R’ Us. Can you tell us what the response has been to that?
So far so good. The response from Toys R’ Us checkout has been absolutely terrific. I don’t have the schedule right in front of me but I think we have a couple of Sonic titles in there and an Archie title, and especially Sonic titles makes tons of sense for us to be there with the video game success that Sega has for them to be a great partner for us. The Sonic titles have done very well, Archie’s done well there as well, and then pretty soon we’re launching the new Mega Man book. We’re going to have Mega Man as part of the Toys R’ Us comics that we put out there. So we’ll probably have a couple of Sonic books, a Mega Man book and maybe an Archie book, or maybe we pull the Archie just do the Sonic and Mega Man books. We’re sorting all that out right now, but it’s been a terrific success for us and we’re thrilled to have that visibility at the check-out at Toys R’ Us.
Mega Man was a new license you announced recently. Are you looking at that as a broadening strategy or as an expanding part of your publishing--licensing properties from other sources?
For us we really are very, very careful about who we want to enter into licensing deals with. We always want the best, the most vibrant, the most exciting, that are going to work well for both companies. So yes, we’re always going to keep our eye out, but we’re going to be very careful about who we enter into those partnerships with. Our partnership with Sega has been fantastic and very successful for both companies for the last 15 years. And we anticipate the exact same thing going forward with Capcom with Mega Men.
On these videogame licenses, would it be fair to say that you would be looking for titles that fit the Archie demographic?
Sure, yes, of course--that goes without saying, but also these companies have tremendous success on their own with their incredible successful videogames. For us, we’re adding, hopefully, extra value to Capcom and to Sega as well extra value and extra visibility and extra ways that they can reinforce their brand as well. And don’t forget though, we are also in business with Stan Lee and our Stan Lee line of comics, which is launching right near San Diego Comic-Con this year. So we have a partnership with Stan for a bunch of books, and we’re very excited about that as well.
On the content front, looking at what’s happened over the last year or two, Archie has gone from what could be described as somewhat behind the curve in terms of when you started incorporating aspects of life that have been incorporated into comics from other publishers sooner. We’re talking specifically about your gay character or Archie’s kiss with a person of a different race. Now it seems you’re moving further into that kind of content with a comic featuring a gay character. Can you tell us about the reasons for accelerating the pace of change at Archie in terms of kinds of content you’re producing?
Well basically we’re reflecting what is going on in high schools today. One thing about Riverdale is it’s all inclusive. It’s safe place. It’s a warm environment where everyone’s welcome. And what we’re doing, we’re reflecting what we feel kids deal with on a day to day basis, whether it be relationships, friendships, issues at home, issues with teachers. The characters you mention, Kevin Keller and Archie dating Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats, those things are a reflection of what kids are dealing with on a daily basis in their own schools and in their own homes.
That seems like a change from Archie’s previous strategy, are you trying to be more responsive to the environment than you have in the past?
I guess. I’ve only been here now about 19 months, so my marching orders when I sat down with our editors, writers and artists, and our whole creative team, and they said we need to reflect what’s really going on with the kids today. It may be a little bit of a break from the past, I really see it more as a reflection of what’s going on currently. So what happened before was just Archie being Archie, now we’re Archie being Archie in contemporary high school today.
You obviously had great sales response to Veronica 202, because of the change and degree of change from Archie’s past strategy, did you get any push back, letters or communications from people who objected to the changes?
Well we’re not going to make everybody happy all of the time, but in large, it was 100 to one positive. I think we had only seven people total cancel their subscriptions and we had hundreds and hundreds who signed up, so it was overwhelmingly positive. There are always some people who aren’t happy with what you do and that’s just the nature of when things change. People sometimes have a hard time accepting change.
You’re going to do some ’50s revival titles--Sam Hill, Katie Keene, Cosmo, The Merry Martian--are those all going to be under the Archie imprint?
Sam Hill probably will not. Katie Keene, Cosmo The Merry Martian will be. Sam Hill will be under its own imprint which we’re figuring out right now exactly how we want to push that forward. But Katie Keen will under Archie as will Cosmo.
Are you going to put those out in comic format first or are you looking at any other formats?
Sam Hill’s going to be out in the direct market first and foremost. Katie Keene, right now we’re talking about being part of Life with Archie, and Cosmo will be out as its own comic.
Last, Archie historically has had a lot of its characters in a lot of other media, anything going on in that front right now?
All I can tell you is to expect announcements very, very soon. We are actively in discussions for all types of media from film to television to animation. So these announcements in 2011 are going to come at you like a firecracker. There’s a lot of stuff brewing and we’re getting close to a lot of great and exciting announcements. It will definitely happen in 2011.
Anything else you’re excited about that we haven’t talked about?
We’re at Random House now with our graphic novels and that’s going fantastic. We’re launching Archie Babies, as our first original graphic novel which is coming out this year as well. Everything here is moving forward nicely.