As Marvel Turns: Buzz and Business Factors

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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.

Daken Dark Wolverine As Marvel Turns: Buzz and Business FactorsI’d like to add a few factors into the discussion of what goes into deciding a book’s fate.

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.

Comments

  1. Steve P says:

    On point #5, it’s worth noting (to me, anyway) that none of the recently cancelled books had a significant digital presence (as far as I can tell). That will work itself out as Marvel goes digital with its full line, and I kind of doubt it would have had that much of an impact, but it still seems a shame that they weren’t given that extra shot at building an audience.

  2. I’m pretty sure Nextwave had pretty low monthly sales and found an audience in collected editions. They still canceled it, but they brought out several collected editions as well to capitalize.

  3. I seem to recall Ellis saying online or in a Bad Signal that NEXTWAVE didn’t quite have the sales to support its ‘creative budget,’ as described in item 6, above. Given the option to continue the book without Stuart Immonen, Ellis chose to wrap it up.

  4. jaroslav hasek says:

    i would add that sales certainty makes a huge difference. so if say, peter david’s x-factor is guaranteed to sell X, including TPBs, then you can more easily figure out a way to make that work, then say, thunderbolts, which MAY find a bigger following in TPBs but is more of an unknown quantity.

    all businesses love “sure” things. so much easier to plan budgets and raise money.

  5. Torsten Adair says:

    Marvel newsstand editions are priced $1 more than the Direct Market. That might be to cover the costs of returns from the newsstands. (A general rule of thumb: ship three copies, sell one.)

    I’m not near a B&N, so I can’t note what appears on the stands.

  6. Eric – That wouldn’t surprise me at all, and though I wish Nextwave had continued that was a good call on Ellis’ part.

  7. Mikael says:

    “we have a rough idea how well these books are selling”

    NO NO NO NO NO!

    You do not have an idea how they are “selling”. You have an idea how many were ORDERED. That has nothing to do with selling. Because the next month, retailers order less. And then the next, even less. We never have ANY idea how many readers actually bought said books. For all we know, EVERY book could only sell to readers in the mid-level numbers. It just takes time to figure out that number.

  8. Great post, Todd!

    Two points of note:

    1 – The issue of newer titles being offered as subscriptions has come up recently in the Axel-in-Charge column (though I’m having trouble finding the specific entry). If I’m remembering correctly, more titles will be offered, but that process lags quite a bit behind the books in comic shops for some administrative reason.

    2 – The John Carter of Mars books at Marvel are, I believe, actually consigned and edited by Disney Press for sale as a first run graphic novel, but then Marvel publishes the content as singles for an extra bit of money. They did this with the Tron comics as well (and before the Marvel/Disney deal was 100% locked in, Disney published a Prince of Persia graphic novel as singles through Dynamite). So I think it’s fair to assume that that particular content will see its lion’s share of profits come from way outside the Marvel system and from the bookstore market.

  9. “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.”

    Runaways? Though that’s fairly old now I guess.

    And the estimates on the sales charts can be up to ~50% lower than the actual orders (though that is a pretty extreme case). I think ~20% might be a bit more accurate.

  10. Lynxara says:

    Stuff that shows up on newsstands at the local B&N:

    – Whatever the big ongoing crossover is
    – Most of its spinoff minis
    – The “main” book for each major property
    – Sometimes the secondary book, but this is spottier
    – Reprint magazines that may be newsstand only, they tend to focus on one major character and reprint three issues at a time. I’ve never seen these things in a shop, but do see them sometimes racked in department stores like Wal-Mart.

    Things you very rarely see at the local B&N newsstand:

    – The tertiary or lower books for any major property– like, I think the local store never carried X-Men: Legacy.
    – Steady but low-selling spinoffs like X-Factor and the sorts of books getting canceled now
    – Books that aren’t related to a major property (i.e., I don’t think the local B&N ever racked singles of Runaways, even in its glory days)

    I dunno if this reflects how the local store orders, or what the local store gets sent from its supplies. So maybe other B&Ns are better/worse, maybe they’re the same.

    A final note:

    For whatever reason, even though the local B&N carries about twice as many DC TPBs as Marvel TPBs, the newsstand situation is reversed. Hardly any DCs show up monthly and what does show up seems random, sometimes its issues for whatever sells well, sometimes it’s just the main book for a major property, sometimes it’s mostly Johnny DC books. The local B&N newsstand selection is mostly Marvel, then mostly kids’ books from Boom/Archie/Bongo, and then DCs occupying whatever space is left.

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