One Mistake Later

Brian Hibbs offered his latest Tilting at Windmills column over at Newsarama last week and it turned out to be a fairly scathing, apparently drug induced attack on DC's approach to their One Year later event, particularly with respect to print runs. It's not his best work (which Hibbs admits up front) and it contains at least one factually incorrect statement regarding Marvel's FOC program (though Hibbs corrected himself in the discussion thread that followed), but the central theme of the piece, that DC chose not to overprint this event to a significant degree, is a sound conclusion to draw. He gets a bit sidetracked trying to determine why DC made such a change without informing retailers and discussing the differences between Marvel and DC policy, but the strongest point he makes is this:

To me, this is an epic and catastrophic bungling of the sales potential of most of these books, from the very top of the supply chain. Why? Because this was the best single chance, this entire decade, to get people to sample DC's line, free and clear of continuity (or, at least, where every reader was on exactly equal ground)

Remember: the publisher (at least in the case of a Marvel or a DC) generally has a lower Cost of Goods, and a high Gross Profit Margin than a retail store. Especially so than a single storefront retailer. It is far far easier for them to take a risk on inventory position that it is for any retailer.

This is the crux of my problem with DC's approach to OYL. This should have been an event on par with (or really much improved upon) their Zero Hour relaunch in the mid-nineties (you remember the first time DC tried to fix Crisis on Infinite Earths, Bad Hal, etc). With the momentum DC had been building for the last several months (or years) this initiative offered the possibility to hook a much larger number of readers on DC titles (and clearly would have worked to a larger degree than it has considering the sellouts). Instead they seem content with offering second prints. That's a fine stopgap measure and I for one appreciate both Marvel and DC's willingness to keep work in print and available. Unfortunately, when dealing with periodicals, the more momentum the better and DC sacrificed momentum.

Yet, in his response to Hibbs' column, Bob Wayne indicated that providing a jumping on point was never DC's intent:

For fans familiar with some of our characters, or fans sampling the DC Universe through the Infinite Crisis series, most of the One Year Later titles are strong entry points. We absolutely believe that One Year Later has been effective in reaching those readers. The fact that we're reprinting issues is a sign of faith in One Year Later and how it is being received at retail. But I don't think DC ever said or intended that the One Year Later titles were designed as a tool to bring in new readers who were unfamiliar with comics and/or our core characters.

But just in case, I checked in down the hall with the DCU's Senior VP -- Executive Editor, Dan DiDio. Dan's reply: "Never intended for that. As a matter of fact, it was the opposite, it was designed to create mystery around each character and allow us to get back to separate storylines coming out of Infinite Crisis. It was certainly a better jump on point than a jump off point. But that's not the same as bringing in new readers. If we had been trying to bring in new readers, we would have done all origin issues!"

A couple of issues here. First, reprinting issues shows confidence in one thing: unmet demand. Well, anyone with one eye and half a brain can see that when 19 out of 22 OYL titles have sold out there is unmet demand. Not exactly going out on a limb there to show their confidence in OYL. Wayne and Didio both indicate that OYL was not intended to bring in new readers which absolutely boggles my mind. For a company that seems devoted to dragging comics back to "gotta get it Wednesdays" you would think they'd take every opportunity possible to bring in new readers (and lets be honest how many people have zero familiarity with Superman or Batman).

Seems pretty clear that DC simply missed the boat here, right? Well, several Newsarama members commented in Tilting at Windmills discussion thread that it's ultimately retailers fault for not understanding their customers enough to order more copies of these issues. Bob Wayne doesn't go quite place outright blame on retailers but he certainly nudges the discussion in that direction when he says:

I don't think this is a question of "blame." The reality is that the demand for the OYL books was huge. As was noted earlier, retailers as a group didn't order as many copies as their customers apparently wanted to buy. We overprinted these comics, some of them by a substantial amount. Some retailers increased their orders substantially on many titles. A significant number of retailers seem to have decided that their customers would not be sampling any new titles as part of One Year Later.

The main idea? Retailers told us this was how many copies their readers wanted. In reality, what retailers told DC was: this is how much money we're willing to gamble on you right now because we can't afford to order 22 titles at Infinite Crisis numbers and be wrong. I would further point out that retailers are a superstitious, cowardly lot. Whether we should be willing to or not, as a group we don't take chances. Personally, I'd like to see that change, but many retailers were trained by the rollercoaster 90's that "no one ever went out of business selling out." Ignoring the ridiculous nature of that statement, it seems to apply perfectly to this situation. Both retailers and DC took the approach that there will be increased demand so we'll bump our numbers up a bit based on historical data of similar situations, but we'll rely on our "partners" to show a little faith in this initiative, leaving almost no one taking a chance on these books.

In the end it's not a catastrophe. Both DC and retailers saw percentage point gains. But a huge opportunity was missed by everyone because retailers assumed DC would take a chance on their line-wide initiative and significantly overprint most of these books. Meanwhile DC assumed that the burden would be on retailers to set the sales ceiling on these books by better predicting their customers interest in the event. Had a bit more planning and communication gone into the event beforehand, both sides may have been willing to take a bit more of a gamble and seen much greater rewards. Mr. Wayne, however, feels differently:

NRAMA: Okay, then from the retail perspective, was there a lack of communication between the retailer and publisher in regards to what the demand would be for these issues?

BW: No, I don't think so. We have to strike a balance between informing our retailers about the importance of an issue or a group of issues and maintaining an element of surprise when our readers buy the actual comic and read it. We've been talking about One Year Later for months, and how the weekly 52-part series 52 fills in the events of that missing year.

As long as DC (and Marvel for that matter) choose to treat retailers as fans who should also act as their sales agents rather than as commercial partners, significant growth for their publishing efforts and the direct market will be difficult to come by.


Post a Comment

<< Home