EXCLUSIVE: DC Unveils Top Ten Digital Sellers

Mon, December 12th, 2011 at 7:30am PST | Updated: December 12th, 2011 at 8:24am

Comic Books
Kiel Phegley, News Editor
28

At the end of last week, Diamond Comic Distributors released its estimates for comic sales market share in the direct market this November, and a strong performance by DC Comics seemed less and less a surprise. Though their chief competitor in Marvel Comics came much closer to closing the gap, DC took top honors for a third month in a row since it relaunched its superhero line.

However, this week DC looks to kick off a new phase of public discussion surrounding another closely watched set of sales rankings: their top ten digital comics, which CBR News has gained an exclusive first look at. Since the publisher went same day digital with its comiXology-powered app in conjunction with the New 52 relaunch, the readers who have been purchasing comics through that outlet (however many of them there are) appear to have developed similar tastes to their print-buying counterparts. Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's "Justice League" struck big in both formats, with that title, along with the series starring icons Batman and Superman, filled every spot in DC's digital top ten from September to November. The full chart can be seen below the jump, along along with an early look at the cover to "Justice League" #7.

To help unpack what these sales rankings mean, DC's Executive VP-Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood spoke to CBR about print, digital, market and much more. Below, the executive explains how DC's data on readers both new and old suggests that the digital copies being bought up aren't hurting print sales even as they betray similar trends, and he notes how these early months of DC's sales success impacts the publisher's plans for trade paperbacks, more digital offerings and outreach to new readers and retailers alike.

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CBR News: John, before we get into this new digital top ten, I wanted to look at the broader picture of where you feel DC is at right now. Sales numbers for November just came out, and DC did very well overall again, though the biggest bump from the #1 issues of the New 52 seems to have finally settled down. We've spoken before as these numbers have hit, and you've said that you knew a balancing of the scales to come from the reorders there, but as you see #3 orders for those books, do you feel there's been any kind of consistency in DC's line since the relaunch? Or are we still waiting to see what the real level will be for these comics?

Jim Lee's cover to "Justice League" #7

John Rood: I think it's settling. Luckily it's not falling or settling south, but it's definitely settling. And that's understandable. We're in an ordering business of largely non-returnable products so we knew the retailers had to find a new ordering pattern born of their traffic activity. It's awesome that we still keep making news, so I imagine that there are still some new customers coming in even in these latter months. You and I both know that there will be a whole set of new traffic to come when the New 52 becomes Vol. 1 of collected editions in May and beyond.

But consistency is the right word -- especially consistency in the digital end. There has been no shake up of numbers when you look at the percentage of physical sales by title. So if something is selling 6% of its physical sales digitally for issues #1 and 2, then it's about 6% in issues #3 and 4. And if another title has been selling at 16% of print sales in the early titles, the latter titles have stayed at the same level. So there's been no fluctuation. And the fact is that the makeup is largely the same and the performances you've seen in the data provided is largely the same in digital as it is in physical, yet we know from both anecdotal and primary research that this is a different audience. It suggests that the people might be different [for digital and print] but their tastes and their demos are largely the same.

So let's look at the chart. The standout, aside from the big titles being the big sellers, is that there's an awful lot of #1s here, especially at the very top. How have the sales for those #1s shaken out overall? Was there a big spike of interest in the first week, or have more readers continued to discover the app and start at the start?

If there's people jumping on, there may be some people jumping off. Again, if you look at these as a percentage of physical, everything is holding. The titles that are at the higher end of our range in that metric of percentage of physical are the ones you'd probably predict. The nation of new readers or the folks on digital who might be lapsed physical readers have latched onto "Action" and "Detective" as publishing franchises of ours, and they gravitate towards Batman and Superman as iconic characters of ours. So while there have been pleasant surprises to critics and readers alike -- we keep mentioning "Animal Man" and "Swamp Thing" because those are great performers -- there is nothing on the digital landscape distinct from physical that is newsworthy.

1Justice League #18/31/2011
2Batman #19/21/2011
3Detective Comics #19/7/2011
4Action Comics #19/7/2011
5JusticeLeague #210/19/2011
6Batman #210/19/2011
7Detective Comics #210/5/2011
8Justice League #311/16/2011
9Action Comics #210/5/2011
10Superman #19/28/2011

What have been the specific things you've learned about who these digital customers are? I know there's been some marketing research, but it seems like a lot of how you've defined these readers is by the metrics of what digital sales do compared to in-store sales. Does the app provide some more specific demographics or even feedback from readers that's been significant for you?

Yeah, anecdotally there's every type of digital reader under the sun. There are folks who bought plenty of physical product that week but also wanted it digitally because of their media consumption habits. Then there are folks who don't know where their local comic shop is. So our consumers run the gamut. What I expected to find in our primary research through Neilsen NRG was some staggering difference in terms of demography or age or history in the comics category or the genre, but I haven't seen anything like that that's jumped out. We'll be sharing more specifics with the retailers at the ComicsPRO convention on February 9, but there won't be anything shocking. It'll be, "Hey look, there's a measure of physical traffic to the stores that is current plus new plus lapsed readers, and then there's a measure of self-reported readership from our digital resources that is a balance of current, new and lapsed."

DC's two oldest franchises helped anchor the digital top ten.

I still am delighted that this is a genre -- and I trust other publishers are equally delighted -- where we're not talking about cannibalizing [the core business]. We're not talking about one platform being a replacement for the other. Who else in print can say that? Not "Businessweek" or "The Washington Post." No one else can say that the addition of a new medium or platform or consumption behavior has been additive to your business. And the numbers that are most interesting to me in the Diamond press release is the growth of the entire category in November. It's not sexy to keep saying we don't follow the so-called "battle" or the so-called "winning," but when we follow DC's November, we follow it in terms of DC's October and DC's November 2011 versus November 2010. And we certainly keep an eye on the overall category growth. To have the anecdotal evidence from the other publishers confirm that when people come in for the New 52, they're not only buying the New 52 but they're buying titles from other publishers...I'm not being hokey when I say that's great news. We hope to have residual performance of publishers into 2012 if there is any.

One of the things we haven't seen for sure yet but that John Jackson Miller, who follows a lot of this stuff very closely, has speculated is the idea that overall comics will be up in 2011. Do you agree that DC will finish better this year than you did last year?

Yes.

The other big question I wanted to ask in terms of these digital rankings is "Justice League" #1s top performance specifically because it was the book that was offered as a digital combo pack. Do these sales rankings include the numbers from those print combo sales, and have they accounted for a significant portion of that book's digital sales?

I can say that the portion is insignificant. We will have combo packs for other top titles, but we're certainly not doing it because there's some kind of huge windfall associated with it. Quite the contrary, the only thing driving "Justice League" numbers is the fact that we're on our fifth reprint. There's nothing to the combo pack that in and of itself contributed to "Justice League's" dominance.

You've said here and other places that the next big phase for the New 52 is in the collected editions hitting in the spring. How does digital play a role in that rollout and your strategy? Will we be seeing some of these trades made available on platforms like the Kindle Fire at the same time as the print collections are hitting?

"Justice League's" combo pack didn't leave a big imprint on digital or print sales.

Well, we sure anticipate heightened attention in May and beyond for the Vol. 1s. Before we even talk about print versus digital, there's a whole lot of the web that's going to want to read these [stories] in that manner just like one wants to collect the whole season [of a TV show] as opposed to episode-by-episode. That's just the nature of our business. DC has for years enjoyed a significant graphic novel and collected edition business. So we knew to save some of our calories and some of our dollars and some of our publicity relationships for the spring when there will be a whole second wave of interest in the New 52 called the Vol. 1 collected editions.

There will be digital marketing to drive physical sales. We were successful on CBR and a lot of other sites touting our news, so we will do that again as it will manifest itself at the comic shop and in the bookstores as people show up to buy the physical books for Vol. 1. In terms of digital, it's too soon to see how our first nascent steps into digital collected editions -- in this case on the Kindle Fire -- are going. They say they're happy, so we're happy. You can imagine DC is not done making news in digital platforms and digital devices and digital partners. So I suppose how much we see digital lift will be a function of not false positives but of positives associated with adding new things to our mix. If Fires and NOOKs and all sorts of things sell as well as anticipated and iPads keep selling as well as they are...gosh, over time the collected edition business will be robust for digital the same way it is robust for our local comic shops and national bookstore chains.

I hadn't thought of that, but with the tablets as a highly touted Christmas gift category, does the wait for those gifts to be given and to see who uses them and how change at all how you're looking to release content as well as to market and promote those releases?

That's a good question. I guess my first response is that if you had $150 around at Christmastime, we'd hope you'd buy the print collected edition of all the New 52 #1s. [Laughs] It's great to have all 52 in one book rather than buying a tablet! But the digital dynamic is pretty wild. I keep going back to this David Carr quote from the New York Times where he said, "One more achievement for the digital revolution is that it made it fashionable to be rude." The more people that are digitally active with comics -- which years ago was the blogosphere -- the more people can provide feedback. And feedback can be overreacted to if people have a lot of opinions about a given story or a given character or the given actions of a corporation. So that just gives us more data points and more places to monitor and touch our consumer. And I think over time, that's just going to be good for us and our retail partners, whether that retail partner is a local comic shop engaging in digital promotions and sales or a retail partner like a bookstore chain or like a digital provider. It's interesting to see how many more people are interacting on our Facebook page or our website. Our web traffic has never been higher. And that to me is great because there's a great dialogue now which we only used to get just a few years ago by going into stores.

If nothing else, you can say for the hardcover collection of the New 52 #1s that with a Kindle you'll never be able to kill a bug so easily.

[Laughter] Yeah, at eight pounds you can kill a coffee table by setting that thing down on it!

Stay tuned to CBR for more on digital comics and the sales data from November 2011 and beyond.

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TAGS:  dc comics, john rood, digital comics, justice league, superman, batman, detective comics, action comics, sales estimates

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