Tilting at Windmills: Examining DC's New 52: Month 2

Thu, October 20th, 2011 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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EXAMINING DC'S NEW 52: MONTH 2

The second month of DC Comics' New 52 is here, and the results look to be very different.

As noted last month, the launch of the #1s was simply enormous, and the demand -- nearly across the board! -- was gigantic. Comic shops all over the country saw an influx of new, or lapsed, customers coming into our stores, eager to spend money.

I don't want to universalize my experiences, because I really am just one mid-sized store in one city, but, here at least, the new and lapsed customers have continued coming in week after week, and have added the habit of coming in to see what's new each week to their weekly routines. We're up by about 15 subscribers, and I can identify 2-3 times that number of new customers among the faces that come in each week. This is a great result, and one DC should really be praised for. I'm just not used to publisher-driven pushes that deliver actual new repeat weekly customers.

But, now the bad news: there is no longer the wide and wild "feeding frenzy" that was happening with the #1s. In fact, it appears that most readers (existing or new) very quickly decided what books they don't want to read. We've talked before about how the "typical pattern" for a book is something like #2 selling 80% of #1, and #3 selling 80% of that, and then settling into a (say) 1-2% drop per month after that. And I'm seeing some books acting like that: Morrison's "Action Comics" surged up to the highest "Superman"-related numbers in several years and, yeah, keeping 80% of #1 here; while some books (like "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing") are, surprisingly, 100%+ of first week sales of #1. But other titles aren't faring nearly as well. "Green Arrow" #2, for example, only sold one third of the number of copies of #1, in the same time period. That's a pretty crazy high drop, and puts "GA" #2 as selling about the same that the last version of the title sold here at its last issue, which is not a promising sign for the whole of the "New 52" as a psychic experiment and branding exercise, y'know?

(It's not just "GA," either -- I see three other titles in my store with 60%-ish drops, so far, and just less than half with drops in the range of one third, though I'm writing this on the day before the third week of second issues.)

I don't think it's all that surprising, really. The chances of hooking a significant number of "new" readers on buying a wide swath of fifty-two titles was always somewhere between "slim" and "nil" -- but I don't think I was expecting it to really be more than adding "a book a week", and it seems like we're going to end up with 2-3/week. That's pretty awesome, actually.

The interesting thing to see is if the "exodus" books like "GA" (for us here, in this one store) take "the standard 20% drop" at the third issue as well, or if they immediately stabilize. If they don't, we're going to end up with a significant portion of the line selling below where it did before the relaunch. Already, I have a book ("Hawk & Dove") which my sales seem to indicate should almost certainly be dropped to either subs-only or "subs +1" as soon as possible.

Looking at my somewhat-hazy crystal ball, I think we're going to end up in my store with the top DC books being up significantly in sales -- potentially double or triple in some cases -- enough so that line averages will be dramatically better a year after the relaunch, but we're still going to have the typical problem of the bottom-selling books being barnacles against the economic hull of selling comics. I really have little interest in titles (from any company, mind) that I'm selling 10 copies or less of -- I had really hoped for a minute there that "The New 52" would have avoided that scenario, but I think it would have been the "New 26" or something for that to happen.

One other thing I want to note here is that there didn't seem to be any other follow through "New 52" effect for any of the next few (non-"52") #1s -- "Huntress," "Shade," "My Greatest Adventure," all of these sold consistent with my "old DCU" sales, and got no detectable bounce.

The one really difficult marketing puzzle that DC has is that by selling it as "The New 52," there's a big hit they take to "the brand" when they need to start canceling books. I dunno, maybe they have the next batch of monthlies all ready for when/if they start canceling the lowest sellers, so the count will stay right, but there's likely to be a downside in promoting a number, over the individual components.

IRKING EXLCUSIVITY

Another thing I want to bring up quickly was Barnes & Noble pulling from their store's racks the hundred graphic novels that DC was making available digitally exclusively on Amazon's Kindle.

As always, I spent a lot of time face-palming myself reading the comments on the Internet, from people with dramatically fundamental misunderstandings of how most customers buy (for example: "Browsers" are typically buying more books than "I know exactly what I want" customers in physical stores), and certainly B&N is doing this more out of a selfish motive than they are presenting it as, but, as consumers, it is ultimately not in your interests for content to be solely available from one vendor, or through one service or platform.

DC made a huge error in allowing, even for a "limited test run", one vendor to exclusively sell some of their material, because that sends a really awful precedent that could have some potentially dire ramifications for you later.

Think of it this way: what if DC had announced that "Watchmen" itself, the GN was only available on Amazon, that you couldn't buy it from any other vendor? Would you still be as sanguine? And, if not, what's the difference then?

I'm kind of concerned that this deal went down, in any case, because it really is a fundamental change for DC, who has historically at least tried to place an egalitarian face on their dealings with their customers, making sure that goods are available freely.

DIGITAL DILEMMA

Finally, I want to talk about a comic that is coming out a few weeks from now: "Avenging Spider-Man" #1. As some of you might know, Marvel has decided to offer a "free digital copy" with the print version.

As a result, I ultimately decided to not order any copies of the comic for my racks, and wanted to talk you through my thinking.

There are a couple of factors that go into this decision for me, but most of them come down to the "Surprise!" factor.

I am of the belief that what a comic is described as in its original solicitation via "Previews" is what that comic should end up seeing print as with virtually no exceptions. In the extremely rare situation that something needs to change, that book should be treated as mis-solicited goods, and be made fully returnable. Publishers clearly have the capability to have work in hand before solicitation, that they have chosen not to operate in that fashion, isn't particularly my problem, as a purchaser of non-returnable goods.

Over time, Marvel Comics has unilaterally decided that the initial solicitation is fairly meaningless, and that books are not finalized until before the FOC date (typically 3 weeks before publication), and anything about the solicitation can change for any reason. I think this is a low down process because, as a working comic book store, a significant amount of our consumer education and outreach is done in the subscription model -- I really do need 10-12 weeks to get the information out, and collect it back (not from my capability, mind, but from how fast the typical consumer reads and responds).

Marvel and all of its employees are well aware of solicitation and marketing deadlines -- they fall in the same ways and means each and every month, there are no surprises anywhere in the process. I find it personally impossible that something as significant as full, free, digital codes in every copy wasn't decided well in advance of catalog deadlines, just from a manufacturing standpoint, so for Marvel to not announce it until well after orders have started to be collected is thoroughly dirty pool.

I also strongly object to, as a retailer, not being able to opt out of something that I have a very hard time seeing as anything other than an attempt at trying to building a database of "my" customers so that Marvel may try to convert them to digital.

I also have a major problem with Marvel doing it on such a high profile book, after the retailers started promoting it, where Marvel knows full well that most retailers will just swallow it because they have no other choice.

Marvel, of course, strenuously denies this is their intention, and I will certainly admit to the possibility that I am letting my paranoia get ahead of me, but history shows at least one other direct assault on the Direct Market business (Marvel Mart in 1994), and, besides, Marvel's newest parent company is one of the single most rapacious companies in the world, if you ask me. I'm afraid this one is really a matter of "prove it" before I'm willing to lower my guns.

At least when DC tries this tactic, they give us a choice -- "Justice League" is available with "digital copy" versions, but it's not the only version offered. Even the variant covers of "Avenging Spider-Man" #1 are going to have the code with them.

I also really and truly don't want to encourage any behavior that might become line-wide at either company that requires comics to be poly-bagged. (Otherwise, the digital code can be stolen) Poly-bagged comics are against everything that my store stands for and represents.

Finally, I was, in discussing this with a Marvel executive, absolutely assured that they had to make every copy come with a code (no opt out) because "all" of the marketing to the consumer would be stressing the code, and that Marvel thought it would look bad to do that and then maybe not have coded versions available at retail.

But, of course, the house ads that have been running for the last two weeks don't mention digital. The original "Previews" solicitation didn't. The 8-page marketing handbook that Marvel sent stacks of to every account in good standing last week? Nope, didn't mention it there, either. In short, the methods by which something is best communicated to virtually all of my customers didn't mention one word about it, yet we still can't "opt out?"

No.

I'm opting out, all right -- I'm not going to carry the book with my own money. I'll certainly honor all preorders, and if someone wanted to make a special order, that's fine, but I'm not going to buy the knife they want to slit my throat with, especially if they're going to represent it as a bow-tie, y'know?

I know that certainly at least one person is going to come along and insist that I'm harming myself more by forcing my customers to go elsewhere to buy this comic, and that by doing so not only will I fail to make my point, but that I run the risk of losing that customer in total. In short, I'm probably everything that's wrong with Direct Market retailers.

Okay.

But I've been in business for a very long time (I am, in fact, the oldest comic book store in San Francisco with the same ownership in the same location), and this isn't my first time around the rodeo -- heck there was the nine (?) months I didn't rack any Marvel comics because of the Heroes World fiasco, and my sales went up during that time.

At the end of the day, I have to make decisions that make sense to me, that allow me to sleep properly at night, and that don't inadvertently give my "partners" a "stamp of approval" on things that I vehemently disagree with -- whether that is the digital itself, or the playing fast-and-loose with the solicitation process. If they'd played honest, if they'd made it a choice that involved my consent, then I very well might have brought in a copy or two just to see what the demand might be (because I'm closing on 200 copies of "Justice League" sold, and not a single person has even mentioned the digital copy to me, so I'm not thinking this is an actual selling point) -- but is it too much to expect my publishers to approach me fairly and honestly?

I do not think it is, and that is why I won't be carrying "Avenging Spider-Man" #1 on my racks.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, dc comics, new 52, barnes & noble, amazon kindle, avenging spider-man

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