The business side of Marvel has been quite a wild ride lately. First you had layoffs. Then you had cancellations. Then iFanboy wrote a piece about what other titles were falling into roughly the same sales range on the Diamond estimates, and could conceivably be in danger of cancellation. Then Ivan Brandon got worked up about such talk of sales levels and cancellation. Right on cue, a title on the iFanboy watch list (Daken: Dark Wolverine) got cancelled. Bickering ensued. Now Kiel Phegley is stepping back and taking a more measured look at Marvel’s line and business factors than we’ve seen, thus far.
1) Direct Market sales. Yes, you typically need to add 10-15% to the estimates, but we have a rough idea how well these books are selling and a better idea how they’re selling in relation to each other.
2) Newsstand sales. Yes, there still are returnable copies in circulation. The demise of Borders didn’t help this channel, but you still have Barnes & Noble and a smattering of other outlets. Of course, not all books are going to be as well-placed on the newsstand _and_ newsstand buying habits have always had their quirks. Since Marvel stopped having individual titles broken out in their circulation audits, this is a hard one to gauge accurately. Here’s an example from ’08.
3) Subscriptions. This is another category that’s hard to get a reading on without individual titles broken out on the circulation audits. Here’s the current subscription list from Marvel’s website and X-Factor is on it, but Thunderbolts isn’t. (More strangely, Wolverine and the X-Men isn’t.) Going back to that example from ’08, Spider-Man and “Marvel Adventures” titles generally do well with subscriptions.
4) Book editions. Marvel is sort of the anti-Vertigo. They don’t keep books in print like they should, so this ends up being more front-loaded and less rope is given to grow the series in this format. You have a certain number of books that are targeted more towards this market like the literary adaptions (Stephen King, etc.), Marvel’s John Carter of Mars will doubtless tie in with the Disney (well, Disney’s name and Pixar’s director) film… and compete with the Dynamite books and the Dark Horse reprint. The Ultimate books tend to get picked up by libraries, particularly Ultimate Spider-Man. But if you can name a new-ish Marvel superhero title that had low monthly sales and built a big following through the book editions, pipe up in the comment section. I’m blanking on an example. Not all titles seem to be given a chance on this revenue stream.
5) Digital editions. This one is tricky. First off, this is the hardest category to get an idea of sales in. Secondly, not all of the Marvel books are simultaneously released with print — so the true impact may be skewed at the moment. Third, if you’re taking a long view, the performance of these titles in Digital Comics Unlimited could be a factor. (Although it doesn’t seem to be the case with titles getting cut inside of a year.) It’s an emerging category, though.
6) Creative budget. Let’s be brutally honest: not all creators are paid the same. While you won’t see very many direct quotes about it, there’s plenty of chatter about creators having an “A” rate and a “B” rate. The “B” rate being a discount rate given for work on a book that isn’t expected to set the world on fire with sales. “B” rates on a book make for a lower break-even point, no matter what a slippery slope it is for the creators.
7) Price point. In general, you need to sell fewer copies of a $3.99 comic than a $2.99 comic to break even. Of course that depends on the creative budget. A-rates from Bendis and Romita, Jr. would need to generate significant sales at $2.99. #6 and #7 seem to be a balancing act at the moment.
As Phegley notes, Marvel seems to be operating on some new and stricter budget guidelines. Mix and match from the above factors to get your survival formula.