The Retail View: DC’s 3-D’oh

044.DCC .DdshotFC.1.0 The Retail View: DCs 3 Doh

by Leo McGovern, Crescent City Comics

Growing up, I wasn’t very good at complicated Math. I’ve got the basics, I can balance a checkbook and pay my bills, but I understood high school Geometry and Physics like a good ol’ comic book expository splash page of science–it totally sounded right while it was being explained but don’t ask me to repeat or apply it because I won’t make any sense. The DC 3-D allocation fiasco has left me feeling like I’m in Algebra class, staring at an equation that sounded easy when the teacher explained it but seems impossible to solve now.

If you’re confused, that’s how I feel. I’m going to try and recap what’s led us to this point.

DC announces Villain’s Month, where regular titles are to be replaced by villains and each copy is to have a 3-D cover. Info starts to trickle out at the Retailer Summit, DC Roadshows, etc. that due to the complicated nature of printing the 3-D covers the print-runs on all titles would be set before initial orders were due and (as my understanding from being at DC’s presentation to retailers at C2E2) it was highly suggested retailers get their numbers as high as possible at Initial Order, because FOC obviously wouldn’t be an option. (Brian Hibbs laid out DC’s botched communication with retailers.) What I’m wondering about is the mentality and purpose DC acted with when they set the print runs and how that reflects against what they should’ve expected retailers would order. [Note: I’m operating under the notion that DC is not losing money on the 3-D covers, rather they’ll earn less profit than they would on a normal $3.99 book—both sides have been reported but I think DC wouldn’t put together a massive event unless it looked to be profitable.]

Retailers had every reason to believe that September 2013 would be an outreach month for DC Comics. The New 52 launched in September 2011, September 2012 was #0 month and promoted as a jump-on point. This September they’ve put most of the New 52 on hiatus in favor of up to four issues of their best-selling titles, with 3-D covers. All this can be viewed as being aimed at gaining more readers, which is what I’d expect out of DC come September. Conceptually, it’s sound logic–when you need a sales bump, promote and expand on the stuff selling well and forget what’s not doing as well. As a retailer, I would expect sales to be bigger than normal–moreover, it’s logical to assume DC would expect sales to be bigger than normal.

The Initial Order was tricky–how do you order four Justice League issues when none of them purport to feature the Justice League? Ultimately we decided to treat the 3-D covers as an event rolling out in tiers. We thought Week 1 would be biggest, as customers would want to see the crazy covers and begin to determine how “important” the whole thing was. We thought that by Week 4 everyone would be used to the gimmick and sales would trend more towards regular levels, with the exception of issues more pertinent to Forever Evil, the upcoming DC event, like Secret Society, or big-time name villains like Joker, Bane and Harley Quinn. Until this weekend we had just a single customer want to get “one of each”, so I felt good about our gambit– it seemed folks were interested in the stunt but leaning away from completism. That was our logic in placing our order, and overall our DC order was higher than normal–what they wanted, yes?

Since Initial Orders were due, we’ve learned that allocation on these 3-D covers would be heavy, but retailers didn’t know to what extent. Added to the mix was the revelation that standard, regular-covered versions would be made available. Adding to the confusion was the appearance of all first-week 3-D covers on last week’s (Monday’s) FOC. We didn’t know allocation was so likely, so this was out of the blue. We debated but didn’t change our orders much. On Tuesday the allocation news hit, and the internal debate on what we’ll order on the “regular” covers began. Friday night retailers learned the quantities of 3-D covers we’ll actually receive, and here’s where it gets complicated.

It’s been speculated that there’s (oh, boy) a formula DC used to determine the level of allocation on these 3-D covers, and that it was based on our average orders for the flagship Justice League title and our orders on all other New 52 series, relative to Justice League. If this is close to correct, it means that a) DC decided to release four Justice League issues with all the bells and whistles, b) asked us to order at top tier levels across the board for 52 titles, c) we did, with a reasonable expectation that even with print-runs set ahead of time, surely DC would anticipate a big response and be ready to meet demand, d) only to learn that DC crowbarred Justice League into the title of Dial H so retailers would order it like Justice League but then set the print run at Dial H levels. DC told us to order more like Justice League and we did–and we’re being rewarded with shipments matching our traditional Dial H orders. Our Diamond fulfillment list reflects this logic.

I’m repeating myself, but I can’t believe I’m writing this about the second-biggest comics publisher in America. DC set their print runs at a level that will only fill the 3-D covers at a rate we’d have ordered the series they decided not to print in September due to low sales! The notion that they didn’t believe in their product enough to practice what they preached…well, it’s depressing. It’s the biggest mistake made in the comics industry since Eric Stephenson said Image wouldn’t second-print Saga. I understood Stephenson’s frustration, which stemmed from a great series experiencing quick sell-out after sell-out despite a gross overprint supply Image expected to last for months, not days. He reversed course, but his frustration was just. Retailers were creating a low ceiling on the potential of Saga, which was steadily selling well. Stephenson wanted us to love the book and believe in it as much as the publisher did, and now it runs neck-to-neck with Walking Dead on the sales charts. Saga Vol.1 is our top-selling graphic novel of 2013, for what it’s worth. And Saga #12 our best-selling single issue.

It would’ve been nice if DC believed in their product the way Stephenson believes in his–their September sales could’ve been much higher. They may yet be, though–our orders for the non-3-D covers for Villain’s Month were on FOC and due Monday, August 12th. Now that the 3-D covers will be coveted by speculators due to the rarity that DC has created, the question is how many non-3-D covers to order. Our allocation on first-week 3-D covers was lowest of the four weeks, so for simplicity’s sake I took the difference and rounded up to the nearest double-digit, with the exception of Green Lantern #23.1, which writer Robert Venditti promoted himself and might move a few extra copies. I hope and think it’ll be enough, but we’ll see.

All is not dire! This Wednesday promises to be especially fun, with a new issue of the Walking Dead, the debut of Infinity, the return of Saga and the “actual” Batman #23. What a perfect time for consumer feedback–we’ll have a lot to talk about this week, after I bang my head against my desk a few times.

[In addition to running Crescent City Comics, Leo McGovern is the publisher of Antigravity Magazine, and a character in Josh Neufeld’s New Orleans After the Deluge.]

Comments

  1. So there will be fewer copies available than anticipated demand. But retailers are stuck charging cover price for the book. Or are they?

    But what if an unscrupulous retailer receives his small allotment, claims to customers that “sorry dude” he has NOT received full allotment, and sells some copies at a higher price on EBay? Those are the things we will hear about soon… money being money.

  2. comicsatemybrain says:

    @Al: If you are a customer who normally buys their DC books from a shop that engages in that kind of behavior, take your business elsewhere.

  3. Johnny Memeonic says:

    If not getting a gimmick cover is an honest problem then you’re part of the problem with the comic industry.

  4. Our philosophy is that no regular new comic should cost above cover price for at least the first month of release. It would definitely be crappy for a store to charge more than $3.99 for a 3-D cover on the day of release, even knowing complete sets sold for $350 on eBay.

  5. We really have now reached the point where DC could put out a press release announcing that the sun will rise in the morning, and I would have a nagging doubt that the moon would turn up instead.

  6. Chris Hero says:

    Good column, Leo! I agree with you that setting the allocation to match the sales of one of the worst selling comics is stupid at best, especially after DC hyped these covers so much.

    I don’t agree this has been the biggest mistake since Stephenson’s Saga thing because that was fixed pretty quickly. Stephenson’s emotions got the best of him and he corrected himself very quickly. DC’s kinda bumbled the communication of this every step of the way and then dug their heels in. This is more on the level of Marvel pissing off Morrison so badly he won’t go back or some other level of long-term ill will. Every time this sort of thing happens, the market suffers another small hit that have added up to make the market a place with less consumer good feelings.

  7. September might be a great time to heavily promote comics from publishers that keep their promises, that don’t have expensive false-scarcity-inducing gimmicks, and that don’t feature villainy and horrifying violence as their front-cover selling point.

  8. Also, that cover above reminds me that I never, ever want to wind up on Deadshot’s to-do list.

  9. Point of clarification and at the risk of sounding like a PR shill for DC:

    Due to the long lead time needed to produce the 3D covers, DC management needed to set the total print run based on how much raw material they were able to acquire for the covers.

    It is my understanding that the print run was set at New 52 issue #2 levels, which would have meant a 30% increase in sales from August ’13 to September ’13. Who wouldn’t love a 30% increase??

    But when the roadshows kicked into gear, all many retailers heard was “the print run is set and limited” not the “30% overall increase” part. Some retailers then said they wanted to actively ‘game the system’— hoping to buy huge amounts of certain titles to try to make speculative profit.

    When retailer orders came in— and that 30% increase was met with initial orders that were 60%+ higher, with no more raw material to make more 3D covers in time, DC management went about the task of ticking off everyone with allocations.

    As for speculating comics consumers, the only way to deal with them is the way we’ve done it for more than 20 years— through the fake boom of the early-mid ’90s to the doldrums of the down market in the late ’90s—
    and that is we actively manage our stock and actively advocate that no one speculate!

    Just as no retailer should be allowed to “game” the wider market by over-speculating (now shot down by DC’s allocation), no consumer should be allowed to just grab all of any store’s stock on any of these 3D covers. And for those who don’t care about shiny covers— DC is offering 2D covers for a buck less—and 100% returnable for retailers.

    It’s a fairly major cluster all the way around. As for me, I still expect my September DC sales to go up significantly… and with more people coming into the store to be part of the craziness, I fully expect other publishers to also be up in September, as well.

    This too shall pass…

  10. Chris Hero says:

    I find it extremely hard to believe DC needed an extremely long lead time to make these covers since this process is over 20 years old.

  11. My old shop pushed me away from comics when they started bagging/boarding and marking up “important” or “short supply” issues to 20-35 bucks the wednesday they came out. I never got to buy that issue of Fantastic Four where something happened to Jonny because of that. Was the last time i set foot in a comic shop on a regular basis.

    I’m back now, but i go digital for my monthlies. I’d say to retailers, be careful of all the stunts you want to pull with short supply things. You might be pushing a customer out the door, and we’ll rarely let you know that was the reason why. Short term win but a long term loss for you.

  12. Heidi MacDonald says:

    Joe, you may not be DC’s pr shill, but since they haven’t really made themselves available for comment, someone has to fill the bill.

  13. Chris Hero: I’m just relaying what’s already been reported. Apparently, while this looks a lot like a standard lenticular cover—and that process would be 20 years old, this is reportedly a new technology with five layers of plastic per cover to give a much more 3D feel to them (without the funky 3D glasses).

    Given that DC had Final Order Cut-Off (FOC) for complete sets of the 3D covers this last week, but the sets are not shipping until December, would certain implicate that the lead time needed to produce these is a lot longer that normal.

  14. comicsatemybrain says:

    If one believes DC that the lead time necessary for these covers is longer than the usual solicitation cycle, then it still stands to reason that DC should never have been so stupid as to set the print run without first taking orders. They could have easily changed the solicitation schedule for that particular month’s comics.

  15. The one thing we can all agree on is these 3-D covers have turned into a disaster for DC–whether the blame falls on a lack of communication with retailers, a shortage of kryptonite somewhere or whatever the case may be. I think in general retailers’ frustration with DC boils down to not knowing anything concrete about what’s going on with them at any level–including editorial. I mean, last week Axel Alonso gave a very succinct explanation of Marvel’s publishing strategy in his CBR column. Whether you perceive them as a giant corporation or a classic publisher, there’s the Marvel strategy on a website known by anyone who’d want to read about Marvel’s publishing strategy in the first place. No relevant equivalent on DC’s side (I know an editorial column exists, but I might as well read Previews). Solicitations can’t be trusted (I know Marvel has its own issues, but at least you generally hear about them in press releases, not as posts on Bleeding Cool) and it’s easy to get the feeling like we just don’t know where DC is going, other than pumping out Batman, Superman and Justice League. The only way DC will get me to begin to believe differently is to be more open and honest all-around.

  16. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Leo – so do you only purchase products from companies that tell you everything that goes on behind the scenes? That must be exhausting to keep up with. Seems to me like an unrealistic standard just because one is frustrated with current events.

    @comicsatemybrain – do you think DC should have taken orders for these books two months earlier than normal? Because that’s the impression I get in terms of when they had to decide on print quantities. Heck, we barely knew any details about Trinity War at that point, and we’d be finding out about books that were coming out afterwards.

    Did DC screw up? Yes. They shouldn’t have done this promotion at all. But once they made that initial bad decision, I don’t see where they’ve done anything other than make the best of a bad situation.

  17. Chris Hero says:

    I was mistaken earlier, lenticular printing is actually very, very old. 3D lenticular printing has been around since like the 1940s. The process DC is using is over 20 years old. It’s not like this is some new, innovative thing they had to invent. There is an established process with an established lead time. So, my question is why didn’t DC have a longer lead time for orders? It’s my understanding these are all one-shots more or less seperate from the titles they’re replacing.

  18. comicsatemybrain says:

    @Glenn Simpson – Sure, why not? DC and other publishers solicit some collected editions 6 months in advance, so it is doable. In terms of the solicits, there are ways to handle that. Marvel does “Details Classified” solicits fairly often. There are ways to handle these things. It isn’t rocket surgery.

  19. @Glenn: Yes, they should have either set the order deadline at a point where they would be able to fulfil the orders, or they shouldn’t have done the stunt at all. DC has put itself in the position of soliciting orders it can’t fill. That’s a disaster and – barring some scenario like a supplier being lined up but then falling through – it really does fall on their heads. At the very least, no matter where the fault ultimately lies, they should be doing a lot more grovelling to the stores they’ve screwed over.

  20. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Chris Hero – so given that you haven’t actually seen one of these covers, you actually think it’s more likely that DC is lying about how long they take to make, rather than assuming that there’s something about them that is different from what you’re aware of? Wow, that takes ego.

    @comicsatemybrain and @Paul O’Brien- the notion of Villains Month is tied to the fact that the JL’s are disappearing at the end of Trinity War. This is not a collected edition that already came out in some other form already. Comics creators are already generally angry about how much information is given out ahead of time – putting it out two months earlier is ridiculous to suggest. As for me, I hate it when Marvel puts something out with “Can’t tell you the name or what’s in it – but please buy it!” I’m glad DC didn’t try such a thing for an entire month’s worth of comics.

    I am not excusing DC from screwing up. But the only solution to the problem would have been “DC shouldn’t have done it at all” – all of the other so-called solutions people keep throwing out don’t make any sense.

  21. Expect comic stores to have a lot of activity in september. I like that dc is offering the regular editions at a dollar less and all returnable. If i was a store owner, why not stock up on thise books for the customers?

  22. jonboy says:

    My biggest complaint about the retailers complaining about this (and I speak as an ex-comic book store employee):

    Retailers will NOT lose money on these 3-D issues. They just will not make as much as they could have.

    Frustrating? Yes.
    But not as nearly as frustrating and potentially financially devastating as buying 5000 comics that you cannot sell and cannot return.

  23. comicsatemybrain says:

    I agree that returnability is a pretty decent deal, but it isn’t totally risk-free. My understanding is that store owners pay for the shipping on all books that they receive (as is usual for all of the product that Diamond ships) and they pay for the shipping on books that they return. (Or do they only ship covers back, not the whole book, as was done in the old newsstand days? If so, then it is a indeed a pretty good deal.)

  24. @Jimmy Palmiotti:

    One reason not to stock too heavily is that DC hasn’t even bothered to tell us the terms of returnability. Most DC offers like this include a “restocking”-type fee, say 10-15 cents per copy returned. If we order too heavily and have to return a lot of stock, it could end up *costing* us money.

    Another reason is that most of the people who were really excited by this stunt wanted the 3-D covers, not the 2-D covers. While a few of my sub customers were glad to switch to the cheaper 2-D when the news dropped about allocations, most have opted to stick with the 3-D editions. Those are also the editions that any “civilians” who hear about them will want.

    The third reason is that DC is (usually) pretty good about overprinting issues so that copies are available for reorders. That allows us some wiggle room to hear more from our customers about whether there is real interest in the 2-Ds or not. We normally have a full month between initial orders and FOC; for the 2-D covers we had 3 days to gauge customer demand.

    All in all, I prefer to order what I am confident I can sell rather than lean on returnability like a crutch.

  25. @Glenn: There are indeed good reasons why you might not want to solicit the books so far in advance. That does not mean that the correct solution is to solicit the books on the normal schedule. It means that the correct solution is not to do the 3D covers, knowing that you can’t be sure of delivering.

  26. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Paul O’Brien – I agree completely, which is why I think talking about moving the order dates up is not worth mentioning, as it would not have been possible. People might as well suggest that DC should have used psychics to determine the print runs.

  27. Glenn Simpson says:

    @comicsatemybrain – my local shop was giving away coverless books for Free Comic Book Day, so based on that I believe that the shops only have to return the covers. As much as it makes my stomach turn to imagine covers being ripped off of comic books :)

  28. comicsatemybrain says:

    “People might as well suggest that DC should have used psychics to determine the print runs.”

    How is that different from what they actually did?

  29. Glenn Simpson says:

    Based on the numbers I’ve heard, what they actually appear to have done is print based on the perceived popularity of the characters who would appear in the series. Not nearly as outlandish a suggestion as moving up order dates by two months.

  30. @Glenn “so do you only purchase products from companies that tell you everything that goes on behind the scenes? That must be exhausting to keep up with. Seems to me like an unrealistic standard just because one is frustrated with current events.”

    A column by an editor isn’t necessary, but for the Big Two it helps to understand the comics side of these corporations. I don’t need that clarity from smaller companies–after years of ordering, I know that Avatar is going to have at least three covers per issue across the board–I don’t like it, but I’ve learned how to order from them because they’re consistent (when in doubt, order the Wraparound!). Same with Dynamite. DC seems to change the rules fairly frequently–for example, I’ve got to pay extra attention to DC variants, because sometimes they’re tied to a ratio (1:25, 1:50, etc…), but sometimes you can order only as many as your lowest-ordered New 52 title (which, if you have 5 customers who want the Batman variant, it means you have to order at least 5 copies of Threshold, Sword of Sorcery, Savage Hawkman or whatever detritus is at the bottom of DC’s sales charts–even if you’re selling 0 copies of said series).

    To be fair, Marvel also does this to a certain extent–now that the Skottie Young variants are desirable they’ll sometimes make qualifying for them tied to ordering more than we did of a prior title. We had to order 150% more Infinity #1 than Age of Ultron #2 to be able to order the Young variants in any quantity. That’s nowhere near ideal, but because I’m able to follow Marvel’s editorial philosophy I can better gauge whether I can move 150% of Age of Ultron numbers.

    Ordering from Previews is mentally exhausting, there’s no doubt about that.

  31. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Leo – I didn’t realize you were speaking as a store owner – I thought you meant as a customer. I do agree that the rules for ordering the variants does sound a bit odd all around. “You need to order 135% of what you ordered of Batman #300 back in 1978…” :)

  32. comicsatemybrain says:

    “Based on the numbers I’ve heard, what they actually appear to have done is print based on the perceived popularity of the characters who would appear in the series.”

    From the article (and as reported elsewhere): “…DC crowbarred Justice League into the title of Dial H so retailers would order it like Justice League but then set the print run at Dial H levels.” So DC solicited a book as if it were part of Justice League but then set the print run as if it were an issue of Dial H. And my understanding is that this wasn’t the only title like that, either.

    I’m still not convinced that the order cycle for these particular issues couldn’t have been altered, and that doing so could have even been part of the hype. “It’s a big event that focuses on New52 villains, and we’re celebrating with 3-D special covers. Order now b/c we need extra time to print these 3-D cover issues, and they will be printed to order with no overage.” The solicit text can be as vague as they feel necessary to preserve any spoilers… nobody will really care because, hey, it’s an event and there are these nifty 3-D covers to distract you. Let folks know that the non-3-D version will be solicited during the normal cycle. Everybody knows how much to print, everybody gets what they ordered, and DC’s solicits for the regular solicit cycle don’t look like a ghost town. Again, this isn’t rocket surgery.

    But we’ll probably have to agree to disagree on whether that would have been a better approach over what actually took place. :)

  33. Glenn Simpson says:

    Considering I saw tons of people who wanted to order based on the particular characters, the artists, etc. they would want more information than that.
    In fact, I notice that the creators’ names don’t show up on that sample with the article, suggesting that DC may not have known who was going to writing and drawing them at the time the covers had to be produced. There are tons of people who care very much about that who wouldn’t have ordered a $3.99 book without knowing who was going to write or draw it.

  34. comicsatemybrain says:

    Which is fine — those customers would have still had the opportunity to order the $2.99 version on the regular solicitation cycle.

    And let’s be honest — since the New 52 launch, there have been lots of times where DC changes the creators after solicits, so pre-ordering based on creator lists is a calculated risk. But if DC needs to get their stuff to the printer early b/c of production timelines at the printer, then DC should be able to provide the necessary creator info for the 3-D books on the early timetable. If they can’t, then it means that the printer won’t have a completed set of comic files to print!

  35. grubba says:

    everybody here sounds like a bunch of booger eaters!!! arguing about comic books??comic books. what will your mothers say when you march down to her basement tonight to eat your hot pockets, and watch big bang theory? get a grip man, its a comic book. why not look around the world and pay attention to something that matters?

  36. Glenn Simpson says:

    @comicsatemybrain – just to be clear, the printer who did the 3-D covers is not the same printer who did the insides. The covers are being shipped to the regular printer who does the insides and that printer applies the covers to the interiors.
    But to your main point, so now DC has to decide on all of the creators of the 52 books (reasonably) two months earlier than normal? Which includes a ton of people who aren’t doing regular work for DC already? At the same time they are still producing the rest of the books? Again, by the time you do all that, you’re back to the best thing for DC to have done is not do the promotion at all.

  37. Glenn Simpson says:

    @grubba – you can’t come on a comic book Website and give people a hard time for being comic book fans. Get a life yourself.

  38. grubba says:

    the above post proves my point very well, i would say. LOSERS!

  39. The 3D cover promotion is setting up the perfect storm: rare plastic printing medium that is only available in limited quantities; off shore printing that reduces cost but increases shipping time; changing creative teams; unknown sales potential; retailer and collector insecurities. Wow.

  40. @grubba is just jealous because our basements are better than his and we get Hot Pockets but he has to eat the store brand.

    Excuse me, Big Bang Theory is on.

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