A few months ago, as I was running a deposit to the bank, I ran into the store’s landlord at the terminal next to mine. As we both waited on our tellers to process our various requests, we had a small chat. He asked how the business was going. I replied that the store had been going quite well, exceeding our expectations.
“Basically, things are great and terrifying,” I told him, only half joking.
Our landlord shrugged.
“Honestly, that doesn’t go away,” he said, “And the moment it does? Close up, because it means you don’t care anymore.”
This remains the best advice I have received in regards to running a small business.
Ownership: never stop screaming.
It’s been a while since my last retail column, and admittedly, most of that time has been spent wringing joy from the terror. Don’t get me wrong: I am having the time of my life running the store – the only problem has been finding ways to cope with my ridiculous brain. Whenever I think I have things all sorted, a little kernel of doubt will lodge itself inside my brain meats and start dismantling any form of comfort I’ve managed to find. Customer base on the rise? What happens if that stops? Great month of sales? What if this is the best you’ll do? Great idea for a column? Shut up, you’re garbage, and nobody cares. It’s like the internet lives inside my brain. Anyway, as a result of this, it’s become hard to write. I’ve been listening to a lot of slower living podcasts with the wife on our commute to work and have come to realize that a lot of this has to do with the fact that I’ve only had one day off since (at least) April. Turns out, the brain requires time to rest and reset or else it will fill to the brim with crazy and churn until stress and sadness falls out. You live and learn, yes? Anyway, with the store going as well as it has, this situation will soon be remedied – but in the meantime, I figured I’d come back with a topic that’s almost a layup for the purposes of greasing the crazy wheels.
Let’s talk about the DC You.
A bit of background info before we get to the nutmeat: the DC You is an initiative from DC Comics that saw a fair amount of shift in what the company had been publishing in terms of their superhero output. It began with a huge push in June after the company spent two months running Convergence – a series with the unenviable task of keeping people’s attention while the company moved across the country. The idea was, everyone could have their cake and eat it too: retailers and readers would get a big, juicy two month long event ran by a separate editorial and creative pool and the company’s regular players would get a chance to breathe instead of trying to match regular output levels while people either moved, or found their footing as new hires for those who stayed behind. In practice, this didn’t go exactly to plan.
Convergence was a bit of a flop. In some ways, it was almost inevitable. With heavy hitters sitting on the bench, and creative clout being (rightfully) spent on June’s big DC You push, the stop-gap series had a lot going against it right from the start. That said, there was definitely a way DC could have taken their limitations, and turned them into positives. In terms of story, they already had a decent structure: for years, Brainiac has been doming off chunks of reality, and has been keeping them in a collection. Through whatever means (I read the whole series, and this part remains fairly unclear) he ends up losing control of this collection, and a new player decides to fight the realities against each other. That concept is solid: realities fighting realities. Toss in the inevitable realization that they should be working together to take down the real threat, and you have yourself an easy 1 + 2 = 3 structure. From there, you can build whatever structure you please. As long as the main story remains easy to follow, and the tie-ins function on a fairly self-contained level, you can successfully entertain for the span of two months, without doing too much damage to a customer’s buying habits. This was not what happened.
The main story to Convergence was needlessly complicated and poorly structured. They took the idea of realities fighting each other, and ran that through for the majority of the main weekly series, before discarding the entire premise in the final two issues. Seriously, without any real legwork done, one of the main antagonists has a crisis of conscience, and decides to stop the fighting, completely negating the reason for almost every single tie-in series. This, in turn, set up the intended resolution for this series: the negation of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which is something that is done in the span of four pages or so. The result? The DC multiverse is once again infinite, allowing for any kind of story to happen (which is a great fertile landscape), but at the cost of a four page shoulder brush for one of the company’s “most important” stories, and two months of largely pointless storytelling. If this was always what DC had intended (and maybe not something they decided to run with when most of the story was already drawn and written – a very clear possibility), the event should have been structured entirely differently. The battle stuff should have been relegated to three issues of the main series tops, with the bulk of the series about going back in time to prevent Crisis from reaching its previous resolution.
With this different structure in place, some of the tie-ins still could have been about the battle between realities, but more of it could have done stories like Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner’s Question tie-in, which used the loose framework to just straight-up tell a story about the pre-New 52 version of the question with a light bit of event flavouring. More to the point, there should have been a wider range for these tie-in books. Again, speaking to the limitations in the event’s structure both within the realm of fiction and without, these books could have been an excuse to do anything. Instead, they were by and large replays of old ideas from older creators – always looking backwards without looking ahead. Sure, revisit a few old concepts. Attach creative teams that are synonymous with a certain character from a certain era – something like that is always going to sell, even if it’s powered by nostalgia alone. But dammit, why not dig through the ranks of the new up-and-coming talent pool and get them to tell amazing and strange stories. Or hey, why not use it as an excuse to let a mind like Paul Pope or Los Bros Hernandez run wild on a corner of the universe, just because you can? So much wasted potential.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. Convergence landed with a wet thud, and retailers are still feeling the effects of this. While the numbers certainly look healthy in terms of overall sales, the story largely failed to connect with readers. What’s more: DC had sweetened the Convergence pot with tasty treats such as full returnability for hitting certain thresholds on books. On the one hand, this made the prospect of ordering deep on the event much more palatable. On the downside, it has created a situation where there’s a glut of this product out on the shelves. Compound this by the fact that initial orders for the entire event (including the weekly nine-part main title) were all due before the first Convergence related title hit the shelves. Now compound that with the fact that these titles didn’t start being returnable until after initial orders for June’s big DC You relaunch, and you have a very bad retail situation – which inevitably resulted in a poor environment to launch a new line of books with.
With a bunch of unsold copies of Convergence titles choking out shelf space, retailers set about manifesting some numbers for the new DC You books. Very recent experience had shown the company pushing the Convergence line (a full month of number one issues) with about the same amount of arm waving and excitement as they were with the DC You titles. Consciously or unconsciously, a look around the store would remind a retailer exactly what buying into the previous hype had done, and that message wasn’t great. From that point, there was also the fact that Marvel was in the midst of marketing the hell out of their Secret War line-up, and doing so by attaching more incentives to their books than DC were doing with their own. This, was essentially a battle of perceived confidence. Here was DC tossing the odd 1-for-25 variant on their books, while offering small pools of retainability and discount incentives for hitting certain thresholds, and there was Marvel, offering reams of different variant covers set at different qualification levels, with rolling announcements that spread the risk over a few months and the promise of higher discounts at certain levels. Sprinkle on top of that Marvel’s recent market dominance and their near pitch-perfect execution of the Secret Wars event structure, and you have a more enticing product line facing an unproven initiative.
Beyond that, the DC You was pushing the company outside of its very narrow comfort zone in a big way for the first time in a long time, and there was no real marketing structure to support the change. For years, the company trained their readers to expect a certain style of story – and so a very specific audience built around those books. Tossing in a bunch of different flavours because Mark Doyle was (and is) killing it in terms of making the Bat-line of comics hum with books like Gotham Academy and Batgirl doesn’t automatically mean those books will suddenly sell. Yes, the audience for those different books exist, but they have to be made aware – and honestly, the reason why Gotham Academy and Batgirl worked had absolutely nothing to do with DC’s marketing, and everything to do with the creative teams of those books hitting the pavement, and making people aware of what was coming, and encouraging that audience to engage, even before the books were released – and when the industry lives or dies on how many titles are pre-ordered by retailers, getting that interest in place before the series hits is extremely important for the success of your books, or your line.
So yes, the current state of DC looks a little worse for wear. They just moved across the country, and lost a lot of people in the process, including Bob Wayne, who as a former retailer, understood how retailers thought and would eventually place orders. The company was hobbled by an almost necessary stop-gap event that sadly didn’t come together – and then they made the mistake of marketing the new line using very similar language and incentives from a freshly remembered botch. This does not, however, reflect the current state of quality for the current line of books – only to how those books entered the market on unsure footing. Personally, I think DC has one of the best line-ups they’ve had for years. It has a broader slate of creators than before and while a good chunk of the line is same-old-same-old, so much of it feels new and vibrant.
To really focus in on this point, I want to talk about Prez. Right now, I believe that Prez is one of the best books in the comic book industry today. It’s a razor sharp series with amazing writing and art, and there was a three page sequence in issue two that rocketed from slapstick humour, to rage, to helplessness, to beauty, to sadness and never once felt jarring. Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell consistently surprise me with their level of craft and ability – and for me, that’s something that’s hard to come by given the volume of comics that I consume for work purposes. It is also one of DC’s lowest selling titles. Why? Well, the concept doesn’t necessarily mesh with the audience DC cultivated over the past few years, and the language DC used to promote it was flawed from the start.
Right off the top, it was a different series awash in a sea of proven concepts, asking for money. A smarter plan would have been to launch this (and the other new concept books) during month two, where it’s not competing for dollars against Batman or Justice League pushes. Strike two? Calling it a twelve issue mini series. Want to know a sure way to make a retailer hedge their bets? Toss an unproven concept up as a mini-series. Even if a book is only intended to go 4-12 issues, it’s always better for a company to take a book like Prez and just run it without slapping an “of X” to the end of it. Retailers equate ongoing status with company confidence. They see an open ended run, and say this company wants this to go as long as it can sustain itself rather than this company thinks the concept will run out of juice at this point. And strike three? Dropping the phrase “this series is now a six-issue mini-series” into the issue four solicitations without further explanation. If you hit the internet, you’ll see that the company line says that Prez will now be two separate six issue mini-series – but for those retailers who didn’t seek out this information (a high percentage, I would assume, due to the already low retailer interest in the book), it appears as though DC has even less confidence in the book, cutting its run even shorter than previously announced. This last bit could have been avoided if they had just said “this series will now be two six-issue mini-series” – which would actually be shown as a vote of confidence. Not only would it show that the company is dedicated to seeing the title through to its natural conclusion, but doing so with the promise of a new number one and the implication that they want to series to release as solicited with the same creative team, rather than be met with delays on the back end. This shows that a company cares – and puts that information directly in the line of sight for the people who are actually ordering the book, and providing DC with numbers.
Now that the company is attempting to push outwards from its formerly narrow viewpoint, it is essential that they learn how to market accordingly. Having lost a good source of implied retail vocabulary in Bob Wayne, they are attempting to do without any style or verve. What retailers need to see – especially in terms of their line outside of their mainstay superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman (and hell, sometimes even Wonder Woman) – is a projection of confidence from the company, whether that’s implied by the incentive structure, or by the language they use to solicit the books, and a perceived interest from their readership, which can be done by mobilizing social media buzz and doing sustained pushes during final order cut-off weeks. Some companies are particularly good at providing previews of their upcoming books during the FOC period, alongside promotion from the creative team and editorial. DC doesn’t quite have a handle on that, as evidenced by the haphazard way they scheduled the 8 page previews of all of their DC You titles in May. Very few of those (if any) lined up with the book’s actual final order cut off date, so retailers weren’t hearing whispers of excitement right before they adjusted their numbers. What’s more to the point, all of these previews were consistently released in a chunk, instead of staggered out over a several hours and days – which would have provided the company with sustained and building noise across a longer period of time, instead of a jumble of noise created all at once.
I want DC to do well. If they are selling more books, and reaching new audiences, then I clearly benefit from that. What they need is to get their marketing under control. Grow from this experience. Maybe hire a consultant or two who speak the language to bring your outside-the-comic-industry marketing hires up to speed. If you start controlling the message (like Marvel has very successfully done – just take a look at that market share), you’ll start selling more books.
A COUPLE OTHER THINGS.
- This is already far too long – and I’m roughly 100% sure someone is going to hit the comments without reading this bit, but whatever. Here it is: I do realize that the comics market is larger than the direct market, and that the numbers DC displayed for their June launches might not be an accurate reflection of where they are as a company. I think this article does a far better job of explaining where DC is succeeding outside of my narrow purview far better than I ever could, so definitely read that. But the fact remains: if they are doing very well outside the direct market, the message they put out there needs to say that. DC tends to play defensive instead of offensive, and as a result, they aren’t scoring very many points. Instead of combating rumours of regressing the line to its previous state with unsupported claims at a long game, grab those social media statistics! Tout your positive moves! And dammit, don’t just block shots when being fired upon – get out there and make positive noise! Stop reacting, and be proactive. The company will be far healthier for it.
- Clearly, there’s a lot more to this than what I’ve covered here – and the next Retailer’s View article is going to be about the dangers of retailer incentives as part of your company’s plan to show confidence in your product. With any luck, that’ll be up in a week as I start going through the order book for November and start convulsing involuntarily once I hit Marvel’s wall of incentives. Look forward to that, if I’m not a heap by then.
[Brandon Schatz is an owner of Variant Edition in Edmonton, Alberta and has spent the past nine years working behind the comic book counter. In his spare time, he writes about the comics and culture. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson and at his website, Submetropolitan. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]