A couple of weeks ago at the San Diego Comic-Con, we sat down with DC President and Publisher Paul Levitz (DC Vice President Sales Bob Wayne sat in) for our annual talk about the state of the comic business and DC's place in it. In Part 2, we discuss the ongoing restructuring of DC's sales and marketing staff, what those changes mean for DC's relationships with its primary sales channels, and ask whether graphic novels will ever pass periodicals. In Part 1, we talked about the setting for the meeting (the San Diego Comic-Con), the state of the comics market in 2005, and DC's place in the fastest-growing parts of that market. And in Part 3, we talk about the toy business, DC's Crisis editorial event, and ask whether the current spate of comics-based movies is a bubble.
DC has been restructuring its sales and marketing staff over the last few months. I've heard part of the reasons for that were to adapt to the changing channel structure and formats of the comic medium. Where are you headed with that?
Levitz: We have a bunch of forces at work. We've been blessed with a stable management team for a very long time. The curse that goes with that blessing, you have a great deal of conventional wisdom. We all know what we all know. The table is better balanced in any medium when you have some people who are fresh to a problem and don't know what's impossible. Sometimes a matter needs a fresh person to pound their head against a wall to see if it will break. Sometimes you get a genuine fresh insight. And sometimes it just changes the dialogue in the room to get a fresh conversation going. Bringing in fresh voices has been one of my goals, specifically in sales and marketing.
We've just been through a decade where there was very little opportunity to do outmarketing. Working with our core constituency was about as much as most publishers, including us, could manage. There wasn't anyplace to attract a natural outmarket. Now we're at a time where graphic novels are a natural cross-over format for people from outside, sold through both channels. Cultural changes and the relative enhancement of our economic strength combine to say this should be a good time to get more people to read more. We have something that they want to buy, want to read, we have a couple effective places to sell it. There are a lot of healthy comic shops that are very good at selling graphic novels. We have the bookstores they can blunder into fairly easily. How can we best take advantage of that? That was the second motivation for getting in fresh talent. Stephanie didn't arrive with marching orders that said, 'Please reorganize to this pattern.' It was please come in, look at this, see how you think it ought to fit together. She came to some conclusions very quickly such as pulling the two markets together more closely with Bob taking more responsiblity for selling everywhere we sell. Some other conclusions are evolving over time, some painlessly, some a little rockier, some may yet change further. She's got a couple more picked out for her team. You'll see some announcements on that shortly. I don't know what it ends up looking like. If I did we wouldn't have needed fresh blood. I hope it ends in an environment where we can experience the same kind of growth and outreach that we did in the mid-eighties but with more sophistication, skill, and resource behind it to build a house that lasts.
Do I understand correctly that Bob's job is splitting between sales and marketing?
Levitz: It's a little fuzzier than that. Bob inherited responsibility for the book trade sales channel as well as the direct channel...
Does Rich Johnson report to Bob now?
Levitz: Yeah. We're going to add a marketing job to take over some of the pieces that Bob had had reporting to him previously, but also to add a tremendous range of things that we hadn't done previously. Marketing should clearly be serving the needs of the marketplace. We have an incredible wealth of experience and expertise in Bob and we don't want to pull away from those things. He'll be in his grave a couple of years before he stops worrying about how we handle ourselves at
There's angst among direct market retailers about whether DC's interest in the expanding graphic novel business in the book channel is going to mean less attention to the comic store market. How do you respond?
Levitz: Change is always scary. The specialty stores that are good at handling graphic novels are vastly better at handling graphic novels than the book stores today. It's still a product category that benefits from hand selling, from deep knowledge. You can see by the size of the backlist that we've developed, maintain, and obviously benefit from that we have a tremendous need to stay committed to the people who have a deep caring about the field. From personal choice and preference, we still think there are enormous things you can do with comic book shops that are not part of the bookstore environment, where you're a very small piece of what's going on there.
I think it's a balance between the two channels. We've yet to have a year that demonstrates that the bookstores can grow faster as a seller for us than the comic shops. What works still seems to work for both. I hope that will continue to be the case. Some kinds of marketing and promotions should work better in a chain bookstore or a bookstore that's situated in real estate where it's easy for someone to wander in during the course of their habit buying. Some things work better in a comic shop where a retailer's focused on how to sell the material. There are probably a few stores that are both at the same time.
High visibility and high knowledge. Are you going to continue to hold your RRP meeting; will that group continue to be part of DC's relationship with the direct market?
Levitz: Yeah. We have a DC retailer meeting scheduled for the second week in November. Participating retailers have already heard the announcement.
I think we cycled to eighteen months this time instead of a year. It's hard to figure out exactly the right cycle. Because of all the change we've been going through, it seemed to make sense to do it at a point when we have the team together. It's been a very valuable tool for us over the years.
A few years back you told us that you thought the possibility of the graphic novel format passing the periodical format was remote. Have you changed your mind?
Levitz: I've been surprised by the growth pattern for the graphic novel. If you count the manga material, which has really altered the mass of it, when you include manga it's possible it will in the next few years. It was much closer last year than I would have expected.
It's not there yet but it's getting a lot closer. The change is pretty dramatic.
Levitz: The doom-sayers about the periodicals are very wrong. It's a viable format.
It hasn't been that periodicals are shrinking, it's just that graphic novels are growing.
Levitz: The graphic novel's a wonderful growth engine.