By Todd Allen
Over at Comic Book Resources, Kiel Phegley interviews David Gabriel about what’s going on at Marvel right now. There aren’t a lot of raw numbers discussed but the vector they’re moving in is certainly worth noting.
The biggest piece of news is the official confirmation that Avengers Vs. X-Men has been ordered in excess of 250,000 copies. A huge upfront order in this day and age. I think we need to take a little closer look at what Marvel’s doing here, though. I spent a little time in the hospitality industry and one of the promotional tricks they used to do in Chicago was have an open bar (if you were on the list) at the beginning of the evening. You get people in and drinking. This accomplishes two things: 1) when people walk by, they see a full room and are more likely to come in; 2) a certain number of the people on your open bar list will stay the whole night and spend money. This is more or less what Marvel is doing with AVX. (And make no mistake about it, this works in the hospitality industry.)
Marvel isn’t quite giving away free comics for AVX, but it’s the same principle. I’m hearing a 70% discount if you meet order levels. I’m hearing about scarce alternative covers for meeting order requirements. That means AVX is not going to be netting as much money as a 250K copy book would. They’ve created incentives for the retailers to order huge and if the retailers pass on the deal to the customers… hey, Marvel’s already been paid and you’re increasing the number of eyeballs on the book. You’ve got a certain amount of attention from the fans coming to you when you can say “initial orders on this are higher than Justice League.” That’s the group mentality equivalent of walking by a crowded bar at 10:30.
What Marvel is hoping is that these retailers can get the majority of those copies into the hands of readers and this creates a huge increase in demand for the next few months of all the Avengers and X-titles in the crossover. Come in for a free drink, stay for the night.
We’ll see how wide the PR net gets cast as the actual comic comes out. SXSW isn’t a bad venue for Marvel to make an announcement, but an announcement over a month before the comic comes out is irrelevant to the non-Direct Market world.
There are two things that could derail this plan: 1) the consumers don’t buy into the initial promotion _and_ retailers don’t respond by passing their incentives on to the fans, in terms of sale price; 2) fans read it and just don’t like it
As long as the retailers can get those books into readers’ hands there should be a rising tide effect on at least some of the 20-some books in the crossover and that’s where Marvel will make it’s money.
If the outside PR kicks in, this will be interesting. Previously, mainstream PR for Marvel (Death of <pick one>, Spidey Meets Obama, ect.) has traditionally been one issue and out. This may be positioned more specifically as the first part of a serial, but we won’t know how it’s picked up until it happens or what any mainstream reaction will be.
The strange thing about all this, and how you can tell Marvel’s been successfully changing the retail conversation: the designated AVX lead-in, Avengers X-Sanction is selling in the neighborhood of 25% of the AVX initial orders.
This is not an unreasonable plan, and they’ve executed the first phase of it — the initial orders — very well. Make no mistake about it, Marvel has put a lot of chips on the table for this one. It’s not a hail mary to the extent that the New 52 was, but Marvel doesn’t spend this kind of energy promoting out of kindness to the Market. They need to reverse the trend of the last few months.
Outside of AVX, we have a few other things discussed.
Gabriel gets a little defensive about Marvel’s overshipping titles like Defenders.
Let’s break it down: Marvel is giving free copies of our big launches — or comics we believe in — to retailers to sell to their customers because we feel there’s a larger demand than orders indicate. There’s no charge for this, nor do we ask retailers to return unsold copies. In fact, many of these same comics we overship sell out at Diamond and go back to new printings.
And yes, that is nicer to the retailer and less hassle than returnable copies. The thing is, both free overship and returns are both only done when you don’t think the retailer has sufficient confidence in the title. The cited examples of Defenders and Incredible Hulk haven’t exactly been tearing up the charts, so there is some question of to what percentage the overships worked. Having confidence in your product certainly isn’t a bad thing, but this does speak to an issue with retailer confidence.
The topic switches to fill-in artists:
I have not heard any complaints, at least from the retail community, our procedures in handling this have had any adverse effects.
That’s really funny, because I’ve heard complaints from the retail community and I don’t know that I’m more approachable than Gabriel.
$3.99 is brought up:
We see the same drops and rises on $3.99 books as we see on $2.99. There has not been a book yet that has sold more units because of a price drop.
And this is probably a very fair point for Marvel. The majority of their first tier titles do seem to be price insensitive on the whole. I think we all know someone who’s but a particular Marvel title back on the rack because it was $3.99 (The Loeb version of Hulk certainly tanked when the price went up), but you don’t see the $2.99 titles shooting up the charts. And that may be a function of Marvel’s customer base. On the other hand, as DC’s $2.99 New 52 gained momentum, Marvel’s top line appears to have dropped off a level as a unit. I’m under the impression it’s more DC and $2.99 vs. Marvel and most of the main titles at $3.99, than it is which individual Marvel titles are $3.99 and $2.99. Plenty of room for debate on that, though.
Then digital comes up. I want you to remember this quote. We’re going to come back to it:
Digital comic sales are on the rise, regardless. It’s not just coming, it’s here.
So, digital is rising and Marvel’s print top line has clearly taken a hit in Q1.
But the thing you may not have heard amid all the discussion is that Marvel is creating more value with the print product. For the reader who buys “Avengers Vs. X-Men” #1, they get not only the free digital copy on the Marvel Comics app but also “Avengers Vs X-Men #1 Infinite” for free. They can also use Marvel AR — which is a free app — to get even more out of this print comic through our exciting surprises in the issue.
No, I think everyone agrees you’re adding value to the print product. A lot of people are pointing out that when digital is surging, it may be a little odd to tie all the enhancements to print. There is an impression that you’re doubling down on print when most publishers are very concerned with getting caught up to music in the digital space. (Uh, oh. I just heard Brian Hibbs coughing.) Comics are unusual, in that its a collector’s format. I’ve been saying since at least 2002 that the majority of comics *collectors* will want their print. Digital is for comics *readers*. If you’re adding the DVD extra treatment for the collectors, that’s value-added. The enhancements don’t seem to be a good fit for the digital readers and that’s where the irony comes from. And it’s legit irony. A bigger question, and one that has been asked a few time: is this Marvel AR something that will cause digital customers to switch to print or a justification for the $3.99 cover price? Marvel does not like that this question exists, but it does and it is a legitimate question. Time will tell how this shakes out. Check back on this on in 3-4 months.
The comments on the upcoming simultaneous print and digital release bring out a stark contrast to the DC experience:
This probably won’t surprise many, but we find that the sales of digital comics are separate from the sales of print comics. A spike or decrease in one doesn’t affect the other negatively in any way. The goal here is simple — bring more readers to comics and make sure they’re here to support not just Marvel, but the entire industry as well. The best way to do that is delivering great content on a regular basis — and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Remember, Marvel is _mostly_ selling back issues right now. Back issues frequently have little to do with current releases. A handful of titles are simultaneously release. Over at DC, they find their sales hierarchy strongly mirrors the print sales hierarchy. Which is also to say, DC’s online comics audience is an extension of it’s print audience, not a casual readership coming in. It will be interesting to hear what Marvel’s experience with simultaneous release is. Marvel used to have a newsstand breakout on it’s circulation reports and you’d see titles like the Marvel Adventure line and Nova performing proportionally better on the newsstand, than in the stores.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.