We talked to Marvel Senior Vice President -- Print, Sales & Marketing, Marvel Publishing Worldwide David Gabriel at San Diego Comic-Con recently to get his view of the market and talk about some of Marvel’s latest moves.  In Part 1 of our three-part interview, we talk about the overall state of the market, the graphic novel business, international sales, comic stores, and variants.  In Part 2, we talked about a new test in a large mass retailer, the digital market, changing the characters, and the kids market.  And in Part 3, we talked about the reasons to re-use Marvel Now!, comic price resistance, Champions, and big graphic novels for the coming seasons.

What is your view of the state of comics and graphic novel market right now?
David Gabriel:  Getting better all the time.  From Marvel’s point of view, we have had a great three or four years with each year increasing over the last year. Graphic novels for us are up 20 - 40% in some areas, which is very big for us.  Dan Buckley and I have been instrumental in building that program for the past 14 years. So it’s great to see how that’s paying off. That’s both in the book market and the direct market and that’s also with a lower title count from what we had four or five years ago.

How did you that?
I’ll give the lion’s share of credit to editorial for strong stories and content.

You said there are fewer graphic novel titles than there used to be.  What are you cutting and what are you emphasizing more?
About four years ago when we cut regular comic title counts, that automatically cut the title counts of the trades. And they really concentrated on much stronger titles and they also sold better.  Who would have thought?  And we’ve also gotten some really strong backlist trades, which we had never had before.  Deadpool is our Batman.  We slowly built that up over about a year and then it exploded well before the movie.  And we’ve just had gigantic hits.  We actually, on a monthly basis, get called by the finance guys to question the gigantic print runs that we’re having, which is great.

Probably when you and I started talking years ago we wouldn’t have known how to respond to them.  But now it’s been a long run for the people at Marvel and years ago no one said that was going to happen.  Everybody wanted to say that we would be gone in a year and there would be a new crowd.

And we have more coming up.  Black Panther is one of them.  We’ve seen the print runs on that, and it’s nothing like we ever expected.  A lot of that is Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course.

It’s been strong for us.  We’ve gotten very good at working with the retailers, the book market, and international sales. It goes back to having the same crew in place for 14 years and knowing the market well.

Did you see a big increase when Barnes & Noble increased their space?

Are you getting more titles in there or just better exposure?
I think a little of both.  Barnes has been a great partner.  Again, same buyer for my entire time here. Jim [Killen] and I have always kept a very close relationship.  When they increased space in Holiday last year, a lot of that space went to us, which was great.  I’ll say a lot of it went to Star Wars at the time and to Deadpool, because the movie was coming up.  So we really commanded a great amount of sales in Barnes & Noble.  I think Publishers Weekly just put out a whole breakdown of all of the book market and what was up and what was down.  I think graphic fiction was one of the top two categories with increases of about 26%.

Based on our analysis, the book trade went crazy with graphic novels last year (see "Comic and Graphic Novel Sales Top $1 Billion").  Comic stores did well, but the book trade did great.
When we were saying 35% growth, it was good to see all that.

A lot of the publishers tell us that Amazon (of the book channel accounts) is growing as a percentage.  Are you seeing that?  How do you feel about that?

I would say they remain consistently for us at the top. Barnes is also one of the contenders with them.  But what’s really grown for us is international sales with Hachette Distribution.

Licenses, or exports?
Exports of our English language books.  We started a concerted effort about two years ago with having me go out to The London Book Fair, the Frankfurt book show, and meeting with all the international reps for Hachette and presenting to them just like we do in the States.  All of those individual territories, all of the reps, really latched onto the Marvel books.  The movies, of course, helped. I don’t want to take that away.

Are the Marvel TV shows in Europe also?
It is, in different spots.  That one was a hard one to pin down because every country has a different time or they don’t show the show, it’s all in repeats.  Same with the animation.  But just the strength of Marvel at international has been incredible.  When you look at our book market accounts, we used to just lump international in there as one unit.  Five or six years ago, they were not on the top 10.  Now they’re in the top three and switching places with Amazon and Barnes on a monthly basis.

That is a big change because historically, Europe especially wasn’t that receptive to superheroes so that’s a big change.

What about the comic store channel?  It seems that comic stores are doing well.  Is that your perception?
Certainly from our side, it is.  If you read the naysayers on the Internet, you would not think that.  I’m not saying that you’re one of them; I don’t think you guys are.  But there are enough sites out there that would lead you to believe that the comics industry is dying.

The first part of the year was a little shaky, but in June everything just exploded.
I have to give us some credit because very few people would do that.  It was not shaky with us.

Right.  That’s true.
I think you guys did say that; you had a very good quote that we might have lifted and put on our Previews magazine, something about "It’s a Marvel world, and the rest of the publishers just live in it" [speaking of the market share spread increase in 2015, see "Comic Store Market Up in 2016," ed.].

The share spread was pretty unbelievable some of those months, because you didn’t have any competition for a little while, which is not good for the business overall.
Exactly.  Glad you said it.

So I can understand that perception.  What I never understood is the negative perception toward Marvel when, for many months, we were putting out product that was keeping stores afloat.  But it’s been a good year.  And yes, in June, with a very strong marketing promotion behind them, DC is back in the marketplace, which I think is healthy.  We like nothing more than a Superman or a Batman customer coming into retail shops rather than it always being Spider-Man and Deadpool.

A few years back we asked Dan [Buckley] how important he thought variants were to the total business, and he estimated that industry-wide it was around 10% of the dollars [actually 10-20%, see "Interview with Dan Buckley, Part 3"].  Do you think that’s about the same or has it changed?  And how do you feel about the role of variants now, more generally?
I think it is still probably spot on about 10%.  I can only speak for Marvel on variants and what we do.  It’s gotten stronger in the past two years and we keep a close eye on it.  I think it’s going to certainly stay at the same levels or get bigger as store owners figure out ways to use them better.

Retailer exclusives weren’t around as much.  Star Wars #1 set a new benchmark for what you can do.
Retailer exclusives has been one facet of it, but what we’ve been doing is going to other outlets that don’t sell comics and getting them interested in first issues of some of our bigger books and getting them involved.  Those places have included Hot Topic, and fortunately we have some of the Disney stores that are picking up some the books.

Marvel Universe?
Some Marvel Universe, some of the Disney Kingdoms, and some of the Star Wars.  We weren’t in those stores years ago.  They don’t carry the full line.  The great thing is if people want more of what we’re advertising in the books, and they see them at the Disney Store, there’s only one other place to go, and that’s the Direct Market.

We’ve also started selling retailer variant-type things to Scholastic.  They’ve taken books like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, the Han Solo book recently.  I think Totally Awesome Hulk and the All-New All-Different Avengers.  And when they take them, they’re not taking a few thousand, they’re taking a big order.

So you’re doing special editions for them?
Yes.  Really for just the first issues.  Sometimes down the line they will purchase the trade through Hachette, but more often than not, they enjoy selling the one issue.  And if people want the second issue, the Direct Market is there for them.

That’s where our concentration is.  The retailer variants are gravy to everything we do, but we try to keep an eye on the marketing value of the variants and getting new readers.

Click here for Part 2.