The somewhat uneven performance of Marvel’s graphic novel program is a frequent topic of analysis when we talk about graphic novel programs here. Both the Diamond and BookScan numbers for 2012 showed Marvel—the #1 publisher overall in the Direct Sales market—surprisingly far back in the pack where books are concerned.
Retailer Jeffrey O. Gustafson has a withering overview of what he sees as Marvel’s missteps in packaging and keeping books in print. I’ll just excerpt a tiny bit:
But most glaring, with a new Guardians of the Galaxy series premiering this week and a major movie in the works (to much positive excitement amongst Marvel fandom), the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning books of recent years on which both are based are completely out of print. For some reason there have been new printings of the irrelevant 1970s and 1980s Guardians material. This is simply irrational and schizophrenic.
Ouchie. There have long been similar complaints about the Iron Man Extremis collection by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov which featured many elements used in the rather popular films. The book comes and goes out of print—according to Amazon the nice hardcover is unavailable now—and that’s with an Iron Man movie coming out in a few months. You can get the Kindle edition though!
While Marvel rarely comments on these matters, when retailer Brian Hibbs expressed similar discontent in his 2012 BookScan analysis, Marvel’s associate publisher Ruwan Jayatilleke showed up in the comments to defend Marvel’s actions. Hibbs wrote:
…I think it is clear at this point that Marvel, at least in the Bookstore market, isn’t really that significant of a player able to drive very many hits. Yes, they’re largely dominant in the Direct Market channels, and they rule periodical comics, but their backlist strategy does not seem to be paying off with any kind of solid results — in either market.
This, to me, is nutso-crazy because Marvel is clearly a stronger brand than DC, better known, more established, and, for many “civilians,” practically synonymous with “comics” itself. Further, Marvel does rule the periodicals, and strong periodical sales really should yield strong backlist sales — it is audience tested material!
I think it is very difficult to look at Marvel’s backlist business as anything other than an abject, deeply embarrassing failure, especially when you consider that there was a film that grossed a billion-and-a-half dollars, and was not only also a critical hit, but a near perfect encapsulation of what’s awesome about comic books serving as the greatest advertisement for their comics that one could possibly imagine, and Marvel’s best-selling comic in BookScan is… “Kick Ass 2.”
And Jayatilleke responded in a series of posts:
AvX, MARVEL NOW, etc. are proof otherwise that our books sell at a “fast-paced.”
Title chronology exists for the adventurous fan. I don’t think any new reader or casual reader is starting from from materials 4-5-or 6 decades ago. They tend to read characters and or creators they like or via recc’s or word of mouth.
We are capitalizing fine off of Marvel Studios successes and other third party films. Remember digital is now a part of our planning.
Marvel has a strong backlist. Is it as robust as other publishers? Yes and no. But we are working on it.
Actually word of mouth has driven our periodical and frontlist collection sales, so I am not sure what you’re basing your opinion off of….
I’ll be fairly honest our business model works. We are a margin driven business that uses tight controls on all COGS/COS like inventory to maximize OI. We had a correction at the end of 2011 and we’ve been off to the races again since.
A lot of your “solutions” are qualitatively based and aren’t derived from any sort of historical data or business acumen. While we enjoy seeing people give us suggestions of how to improve￼ our business, you seem more than content to grind an axe for some unknown reason and insult Marvel in the process. We outperformed our quantitative and qualitative goals for 2012 and the objectives set by the Walt Disney Company and will continue to strive to do so again, again, again, etc. So while the naysayers keep naysaying, we keep succeeding. However I will definitely look at backlist chronology since that is part of whether retailers and consumers really need that level of curation these days.
Just for you to note, we evaluate our business and the health of it by a number of different metrics. Overall retail revenue is one of them, but not the main determinant.
I would say margin (operating margin) would be a more relevant number which you are not privy to. Despite the doom ‘n gloom your article might kick up as it relates to Marvel trade retail business…I’d say from our perspective that we are really happy with our performance. Our ranking versus other publishing might be important to some folks, but it’s not how I guide our strategy in a channel or retail space–or evaluate it for that matter. While being cognizant of our competitors and other performers is great contextual knowledge to have, it does not bend what we set out to do. Being that I have worked for Scholastic (before Marvel) and Marvel and for other reason are familiar with the publishing p&ls of some of the other publishers you discuss, I’ll be quite frank…each publisher is operating at much different margins. And with that perspective, I am really happy with how Marvel is performing versus how I estimate other fellow publishers are doing, despite rankings.
There’s a lot of valuable data in your piece and as you state yourself it’s important for people to draw their own conclusions and do more research…I am quite confident in what Marvel achieved in 2012 versus other publishers, but at the end of the day…we are judged on our own performance not other players.
Asked if this was indeed the real Ruwan, he wrote:
Indeed it is I–or me–Ruwan at Marvel. I oversee the sales, marketing, and communications teams re: Publishing amongst many tasks and am responsible–along with my team and other stakeholders for the publishing p&l. Unaware on CBR and professional status titles and accounts…Jonah hates me so I don’t see that happening. Kidding! Love you, mean it Jonah! ;)
Hmm “strategy misguided”–bit of a reach as it comes to the business of creating publishing product. Selling yes–no one question your expertise as it relates to your store/s and sales patterns. But that is only one link of a very long chain of revenue chain–both upstream and downstream. Even the roughest “back of the envelope math” doesn’t support what you’re stating IMO. Sorry. Totally value your opinion, ideas, and attempts to educate and inform. Not trying to dismiss them outright. I can say from just looking at the proprietary info and other industry insider knowledge, you’re backing out an answer based on loose assumptions to support your hypothesis. There’s not even qualitative data to support what your stating.
No it’s not coming from an “objective place” bc it’s coming from YOU (not actuals as it related to Marvel, its margins, actual sales, and all channels/product formats). On top of it not being an accurate sampling amongst a channel of retailers you can extrapolate from, and you’re not being able to waterfall out revenue for a year of sales amongst different and divergent retail channels. While I respect your retailer perspective.
“Further, at a certain point, operating margin means far less than the absolute profit that can be netted out — I’d rather earn 200% ROI on 100k copies than 300% ROI on 50k copies. That’s just math.” Who said that profit or the weighted value of the actual margin means far less to me than x, y, or z metrics that we have batted about. I get “math” and we’re (Marvel) doing a great job w/ the math to hit our goals which are aggressive. As I said before we use different metrics. I shorthanded operating margin as a main indicator and I should overstated there are more main indicators, but that is all I am willing to share online or otherwise. Until you are sitting in my seat or one of one of my colleague’s chairs at any of the other publishers (you can throw the same thing back at me in terms of retail–I know)…all you’re presenting is an opinion based on nonactuals and borderline back of the envelope math. Not trying to shut down this discussion, but this is going to get protracted for no reason. You’ll have proved nothing to me by us trading who’s right and who’s wrong over a forum. And frankly I am not interested in that conversation bc it gets neither what you’re trying to advocate further to me or my teams–or vice versa. I’ll be at a fair amount of the comic shows this year. You can me chat w/ me about this offline at one of them f2f.
Cheers and thanks for the dialogue,
So there you go, Marvel has its own goals and is meeting them.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.