Marvel’s graphic novel program examined again—and Marvel’s response

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201302280306 Marvels graphic novel program examined again—and Marvels response
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.

Comments

  1. Chris Hero says:

    Can anyone at Marvel ever speak about any part of their business without redefining the discussion as everyone hates them but they keep succeeding? Do they have an orientation program that’s all about how “nobody believes in us?”

  2. Start presenting some actual numbers and the precise time periods and distribution channels they refer to, and all these horrible protracted discussions “based on nonactuals and borderline back of the envelope math” will be a thing of the past. It really is that simple.

    That said, we’re all quite aware of what the available numbers mean and what their limitations are, at this stage. So pointing at them and trying to discredit them for not being the exact same numbers that someone working at or for the company in question sees when staring at their own sheets of paper just makes you look funny.

  3. This proves that the mainstream does not want to read about superheroes for 100 millionth time.

    Marvel, you go to these convention surrounded by exceptionally talented artists who probably grew up liking your work and have went on to creat interesting bodies of work on their own….sure it may not look like the inbred child of Neal Adams and Kirby you ONLY print, not to mention they come with pre-established fan bases…Occams Razor, why don’t you hire them? A good portion of them are women/girls, and you’ve been trying(barely) to crack into that demographic for like forever and while your at why don’t also publish some original IPs. yeah yeah super heroes are today’s mythological heroes, but people still like to see new stuff. think about it: hire artist you never hired before and get them make new IPs. You could become a great publisher Marvel, IF you only tried.

  4. Does anyone find it ironic that Marvel seems obsessed with periodical market share dominance, but when it comes to backlist, are happy with being ranked so low because of other internal metrics?

    Or am I missing something here?

  5. Shags says:

    So basically he’s saying “we meet our numbers and have no plans or goals to exceed them in any way”? Alrighty then.

  6. It may not relate here but has there been any discussion about newer Marvel HCs arriving without dust jackets? They look like textbooks now.

  7. zayed says:

    gay

  8. jonboy says:

    Marvel is content with how their GN business works.
    This has been obvious for a long time (as shown by the simple fact that they haven’t changed it in years).

    However, Marvel’s goals for their GNs do not mesh well with the retailers’ goals or business plans.
    This has also been obvious for a long time (as shown by the continual griping by all the retailers).

    And Marvel ain’t changing. So retailers are gonna continual to gripe.

    Works for me.

  9. Marvel may be meeting their own internal goals, but they are still failing their fans and retailers in the direct market.

  10. “We are a margin driven business that uses tight controls on all COGS/COS like inventory to maximize OI”
    “We outperformed our quantitative and qualitative goals for 2012″

    In other words : “We’ve managed to bamboozle our bosses into thinking we’re doing a great job with meaningless doublespeak jargon like this for years, and fooled them into accepting amazingly low targets that we were able to exceed, and that works for us.”

  11. Johnny Memeonic says:

    There are other factors that go in reprint considerations for Marvel.

    It could be that they don’t think the new Guardians material would sell any better than the older material (regardless of “irrelevance”) and they don’t have to pay as many royalties, if any, on the old stuff. Then again they could simply be waiting for the movie to be in theaters before reprinting the most recent series.

  12. Bon Alimagno says:

    This what the real world looks like. You hit your numbers or you lose your job. We can talk forever about what’s best for readers but if Marvel failed to hit these numbers, no comics and graphic novels might not be published at all. These are the compromises you have to make keep a business running. And trust me, no is ever happy to make compromises. But ultimately you have to get the job done.

    And as someone who worked at Marvel, trust me, the kind of feedback I used to see was a seemingly relentless torrent of attacks, cynicism and negativity. You’d think the world was against you too if that was what you experienced every second of every day.

    I appreciate Ruwan taking the time to give these explanations. Understanding the structure of Marvel, this is like Joe Biden going to Reddit to explain the sequester. You’re not going to get higher level feedback up the chain unless Dan Buckley himself responded.

  13. As a bookseller, the number one comics publisher I get asked about where the customer leaves without buying (or chooses another publisher) is Marvel. Batman sells like hotcakes, Vertigo backlist is super strong, and Image is the next big contender helped hugely by The Walking Dead.

    Marvel is nowhere, not even with the classics. Batman gets a boost with every Batfilm; Marvel does not. The trades are too confusing for many casual readers.

  14. The Beat says:

    Bon: Thanks for the perspective. I also appreciate Ruwan talking about this. He is a class act and a smart executive. He makes it clear that Marvel has a business model that is based on factors that aren’t obvious to outsiders. It’s a little frustrating because everyone– and I mean EVERYONE — would like to see a book program for Marvel that played the long game…but that’s not the game they’re in right now, as Ruwan explained.

  15. Synsidar says:

    Jayatilleke used a bunch of words to say nothing. Yes, churning out reprints in various formats can be done at relatively high margins, for the reprints that sell, at least, but if Marvel is doing measurably worse in the book market than its competitors are, then its image is being damaged among retailers and consumers. That damage matters more than claims that internal goals are being met. Why should Marvel’s business partners give a damn about Marvel’s internal goals?

    SRS

  16. Christopher says:

    As a lifelong Marvel fan, I find their collection development policies frustrating at best and utter shit at worst. It seems like there is no rhyme or reason to what gets published, how long it stays in print, etc.

    A great example is Ann Nocenti’s run on Daredevil. There were two briefly available collections available but the issues chosen hardly made sense. The Typhoid Mary one was incomplete and The Lone Stranger one made no sense whatsoever from a storyline point as it captures basically half of two different stories. We know Daredevil sells well and Ann’s run is well-regarded so why not give it a reasonable re-issue schedule?

    You could point to tons of other examples across the board too. It seems great titles fall out-of-print in less than three months and other stories are collected in the most haphazard fashion. Compared to Dark Horse, DC, IDW, etc. Marvel just lags far behind and is losing my hard-earned dollar every time something I want is either out-of-print or incomplete.

  17. Marvel’s method to me appears to be “Print enough to sell out quickly. Move to the next book. Rinse and repeat.” That is why their ROI is so high and it’s how they want to keep it. Once in a while they go back to a book and do a reprint. How and why they choose what books to do seems to be pretty random.

    They might be thinking it “forces” knowledgeable consumers to buy the product now, while they still can vs assuming it’ll always be in print and they can pick it up any old time.

    Still, many, many retailers have said they can sell way more books if Marvel would just print them, and they’ve been saying it for years to (about a decade now by my count). Marvel just doesn’t want to make that money.

  18. DC sold 2,452 books and 1,2 million copies, and erned $26,729,997.
    Marvel sold 3,083 books and 720,000 copies, and earned $18,848,013.
    Marvel sells few copies of a lot of different books. I don’t think that Marvel’s backlist business is a “an abject, deeply embarrassing failure”. There aren’t best sellers – this is a failure – but the whole business seems solid.

  19. It seems that DC Comics GN division has benefited from their long association with Warner Books. I hope that over time, Marvel will reap similar benefits from the Hyperion(Disney) connection.

  20. SCARCE- Xavier lancel says:

    “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”
    Ok, does he really believe anybody is gonna believe this?!

  21. David says:

    @Scarce- I think it’s actually true. Not just Marvel say it, DC say it too.

  22. Ruwan Jayatilleke says:

    @Marc-Oliver Frisch The thing is no one has any obligation to present proprietary information to anyone. It’s within my right to discredit them unless you’re calling me a liar. And lastly, I don’t see any publisher creating that sort of transparency on their print or digital business. I don’t see myself being beholden to you in this reality or the 616 in terms of having to provide this info to you, I don’t see that changing. I mean stranger things have happened. But I can pretty much state that my tenure at Marvel will determined by how I measure up to the standards set by TWDS not by a hyphenate on a comic book news site.

    @Bon Bon! How are you–and thank you! The bottom-line (hammer’s point) is as you kindly stated w/o having to state it is Marvel is running a business measured by it’s internal goals and those set by the TWDC. Fortunately (knocking on wood) we have been doing that and continue to strive to do that across print, digital, and elsewhere. Look at the sampling on this talkback it’s been an endless torrent of negativity from all people who never “industry” at a major publisher. Sad.

    Thank you as always and you have always been aces in my book! Stay well, amigo.

    @Jonny R. I will say fairly openly I am not obsessed w/ periodical sales. We just do it well. And as Heidi or anyone at any other publisher will tell you, I never talk about market share except to make light of it because it’s only one measure of any publisher’s business.

    @BobH apparently you don’t know who the chairmans Marvel is . no one is “bamboozling” anyone. We hit aggressive marks. The only fuzziness here is your perception of what is vs. what isn’t.

    @Heidi Thanks for the heads-up on placing the article as always, But as I told you f2f and via email this is is exactly why no one gets interior views of what is going on bc they aren’t interested in the truth just a version that fits their own myopic vision of what publishers are doing wrong.

    @ All Please keep in mind you have no complete grasp on what the size of any publisher’s true trade retail, mass retail or digital business is unless you work for said publisher. I’d emphasize that because of this is a big part of where the connection between internet journalism commentary and what reality is in terms of actuals breaks down. Everyone is mum on digital bc print still drives the business by a huge margin, but myself and other publishers do not want to give away how big this business is getting and how it is not cannibalizing physical product which is a great story for fans, retailers, and all publishers. When are we going to start celebrating all the great things that all publishers are doing as opposed to doing a line-item criticism of everything that is wrong? Seriously there is a lot to be optimistic about.

    The End. ((excuse typs etc.)

  23. Ruwan Jayatilleke says:

    @Marc-Oliver Frisch The thing is no one has any obligation to present proprietary information to anyone. It’s within my right to discredit them unless you’re calling me a liar. And lastly, I don’t see any publisher creating that sort of transparency on their print or digital business. I don’t see myself being beholden to you in this reality or the 616 in terms of having to provide this info to you, I don’t see that changing. I mean stranger things have happened. But I can pretty much state that my tenure at Marvel will determined by how I measure up to the standards set by TWDS not by a hyphenate on a comic book news site.

    @Bon Bon! How are you–and thank you! The bottom-line (hammer’s point) is as you kindly stated w/o having to state it is Marvel is running a business measured by it’s internal goals and those set by the TWDC. Fortunately (knocking on wood) we have been doing that and continue to strive to do that across print, digital, and elsewhere. Look at the sampling on this talkback it’s been an endless torrent of negativity from all people who never “industry” at a major publisher. Sad.

    Thank you as always and you have always been aces in my book! Stay well, amigo.

    @Jonny R. I will say fairly openly I am not obsessed w/ periodical sales. We just do it well. And as Heidi or anyone at any other publisher will tell you, I never talk about market share except to make light of it because it’s only one measure of any publisher’s business.

    @BobH apparently you don’t know who the chairmans Marvel is . no one is “bamboozling” anyone. We hit aggressive marks. The only fuzziness here is your perception of what is vs. what isn’t.

    @Heidi Thanks for the heads-up on placing the article as always, But as I told you f2f and via email this is is exactly why no one gets interior views of what is going on bc they aren’t interested in the truth just a version that fits their own myopic vision of what publishers are doing wrong.

    @ All Please keep in mind you have no complete grasp on what the size of any publisher’s true trade retail, mass retail or digital business is unless you work for said publisher. I’d emphasize that because of this is a big part of where the connection between internet journalism commentary and what reality is in terms of actuals breaks down. Everyone is mum on digital bc print still drives the business by a huge margin, but myself and other publishers do not want to give away how big this business is getting and how it is not cannibalizing physical product which is a great story for fans, retailers, and all publishers. When are we going to start celebrating all the great things that all publishers are doing as opposed to doing a line-item criticism of everything that is wrong? Seriously there is a lot to be optimistic about.

    The End. ((excuse typos etc.))

  24. Ruwan Jayatilleke says:

    @David Thank you bc it is true. I wouldn’t expect any more or less from our competitors.

  25. The Beat says:

    This thread is like Alfred Hitchcock explaining Psycho. “People always ask me ‘Why didn’t they go to the police?’ so I showed it and it was boring.”

    People ask why Marvel runs its trade program the way they do. As Ruwan has explained, they run it that way because that’s how they do it. We are free to criticize or comment, but it is’t going to change the actual metrics.

    I do ask that commenters be respectful here and elsewhere on the Beat. I do run provocative content, but every comment doesn’t have to turn into a “Dan Buckley Didio shot my dog!” whine fest.

  26. Charles says:

    @Ruwan- thanks for your response. Just a quick one, we got a teaser about Marvel first, when are we are going to get the full announcement?

  27. Stephen says:

    @Ruwan Jayatilleke
    So essentially what you’re saying is: we don’t have enough information to make reasonable comments about the effectiveness of Marvel’s policies; you’re not required to give this information; because you’re not required to give this information it will never be forthcoming, but we should accept comments about said information as being 100% true and not slightest bit slanted based on your word, because you’re willing to give that to us. Further, any concerns about shoddy proofing of trades, lack of availability, and lost sales to retailers, (essentially a key, unpaid component of the Marvel promotion machine), should not be discussed because we don’t know the internal economic dynamics of Marvel. Is that about right?

  28. There is lots of candor in what Ruwan has contributed to this discussion.

    As any comic book retailer can attest, there are many ways to do what looks like the same thing. I might question why another retailer does things his or her way and not *my* way, but it doesn’t reduce the validity of how they do they do it.

    Same goes for publishers. While most retailers have been spoiled to a degree by the dependability of the DC/Vertigo book program, and the books programs of many other publishers (Image with the Walking Dead juggernaut comes immediately to mind), if Marvel’s book program is meeting its goals, then more power to them.

    Yes, I’d like to sell more Marvel trade paperbacks, but we only get to work within the system we’re given.

  29. There is lots of candor in what Ruwan has contributed to this discussion.

    As any comic book retailer can attest, there are many ways to do what looks like the same thing. I might question why another retailer does things his or her way and not *my* way, but it doesn’t reduce the validity of how they do it.

    Same goes for publishers. While most retailers have been spoiled to a degree by the dependability of the DC/Vertigo book program, and the books programs of many other publishers (Image with the Walking Dead juggernaut comes immediately to mind), if Marvel’s book program is meeting its goals, then more power to them.

    Yes, I’d like to sell more Marvel trade paperbacks, but we only get to work within the system we’re given.

  30. George St. Louis says:

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with anything, but I’m Canadian and my local library has about a 3-1 ratio of DC to Marvel trades. Dynamite gets lots of representation too.

  31. Evan Meadow says:

    Marvel responding to anything Brian Hibbs says:

    “We are still incredibly pissed you successfully sued us in a class action lawsuit and we’ll forever slander anything you say in perpetuity as a consequence.”

  32. argh... says:

    There are plenty of places where Marvel could fine tune the methods they use for their gn publishing program. It is always surprising and confusing as to why Marvel does not have a book program that leverages the visibility of the next, latest, last movie event. Seriously? They leave hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars on the table here.
    With the library market, Marvel seems to completely misunderstand and undervalue the contribution this segment of the market plays in overall sales.
    While I do appreciate Ruwan taking the time to defend Marvel’s policies I dont think anyone in the building there really understands what it takes to publish books for the real world.

  33. J Brent says:

    what a STUPID article. You lost me as soon as you called the 70s and 80s Guardians as Irrelevant. They are GREAT readings and in no way do we know that they won’t use the current team with one of those storylines or won’t have any of the original members.

    I’m sure Marvel knows what they are doing and likely have a release schedule for them to come back again. It probably helps interest they are so hard to find. Go buy a digital copy if you can’t afford the trades or the original comics. As for us real fans we don’t have that problem because we already own the issues.

  34. Christopher says:

    @Runwan: Look at the sampling on this talkback it’s been an endless torrent of negativity from all people who never “industry” at a major publisher. Sad.

    That is a terrible thing to say. Basically, you state that those of us who don’t actually work at a major publisher have no right to criticize how that publisher goes about its business. Yet as consumers, we have every right to criticize. Without us, you have no business. Sure, my dollars won’t make or break Marvel but I know I am not alone (as the depth of this thread shows) in wanting to spend money on product you seem unwilling to give us.

  35. MBunge says:

    Just to restate.

    1. Marvel is the #1 publisher of periodical comics.

    2. When it comes to graphic novels, Marvel gets its ass-kicked by not just DC but other much smaller publishers.

    3. There are some glaring problems with how Marvel handles its graphic novel business and those problems have been pointed out over and over again.

    4. For some reason, Marvel doesn’t care about 2 and 3.

    Mike

Trackbacks

  1. […] Of The Galaxy hasn’t been available, all while everyone is getting excited by the film). Comics Beat gathered a bunch of criticism in one, including Marvel’s Ruwan Jayatilleke (becoming Marvel’s rotweiler on this kind of […]

  2. […] better known behind the scenes, Jayatilleke was a frequent message board poster, as a recent post here revealed. He was also looking forward to debuting Marvel’s new and still veiled #1 initiative at […]

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