DC Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio spoke with ICv2 (Internal Correspondence version 2) at this year’ San Diego Comic-Con about current market conditions, the future of DC Universe, the new brand strategy, the Mad Magazine decision, content trends, and mass-market expansion plans.
Jim Lee started the conversation by speaking about the bright side of the current market conditions.
“We’re actually doing really well in periodicals this year. We’re above budget in that. We’ve recently launched our Middle Reader/YA line, and we’ve got a breakout book already in Raven have gone back to a second printing. The fans have really flocked to that book, in particular, so we’re buoyed by that initial success. To do that line, we had to shift internal resources, but I think it was the best bet to do given the growth in that category in the book market. I think we’re positioned pretty well for the year.” Jim Lee said.
Dan DiDio had a glass-half-empty point-of-view but started off positively.
“I agree with Jim on a lot of good things. The periodical numbers have been strong for us. Out idea to bring down the number of books, I think, is working for us. It allows us to spend more time to improve the creativity of the material, which is what we feel is important right now. The Young Adult line starting to really catch fire with the Raven book has been really exciting for us. I think we’ve been more than pleased than what we’ve seen on the Black Label material so far. All those things considered, it’s been going good.”
Here’s where DiDio gets negative.
“Graphic novels have been a weak spot for us that we have to address because that has been such a mainstay of our publishing schedule and publishing plan. If that’s changing in any way, shape, or form, whether it’s because of lack of interest or because digital is cutting into that business, we’re not really sure. We have to explore that a little bit further. Where my concern comes from is more about the overreliance on nostalgia, speculator marketing, variant covers, and a lot of things that seem to be driving numbers in sales to give the appearance of a healthy industry, but it’s not built on the ongoing success of the individual titles in order to keep those numbers successful and maintained. If we’re creating these artificial highs on a continual basis, if something pulls that apart, does it break the infrastructure overall, and how do we change these buying patterns in that fashion to build something that is a more healthy business going forward?”
Jim Lee proceeded to comment on the disheartening flat growth of the digital side.
“A lot is moving to subscription, and that is having a downward pressure on transactional sales. But I think it’s discouraging in general because everyone talks about digital being the future. If there’s anything that should continue to grow year-in, year-out, it should be that channel. The fact that it’s kind of plateaued and we’ve hit a wall speaks to a lot of different things. We need to reinvent what we’re doing digitally. The subscription service that we’re doing on the DC platform is part of that. We just have to get better at marketing to people that know our characters, love our characters, but aren’t buying comics.”
And on the topic of digital, it is only natural for DC Universe to come up.
“I think there’s always going to be room for a tool that allows us to engage directly with fans. That is the future if I could borrow that line from digital. We have nothing really like it, so creating something that is the place where all DC fans can come together, buy, read, enjoy, connect, and communicate with or share community with one another is vital and important. We’re still going to have original content going through, but that slate is still being worked on. There’ll be announcements going forward. There are a lot of readers that are just reading the comics as well, so it’s a great value proposition. We love being able to communicate directly with the fans, and so we’ve been building up the real-life experiences and rewards that you get out of being a member. It’s not just being able to watch what you want when you want, but actually coming to conventions like this and being able to go to activations, get behind-the-scenes tours, special products, meet-and-greets, all that kind of stuff.”
In regards to dropping the Vertigo brand and establishing DC Kids, DC, and DC Black Label, Dan DiDio explained the overall brand strategy.
“The strategy’s very simple. The marketplace is very crowded and very noisy, to be very honest, and to fractionalize sales and separate ourselves, we lose the strength of our characters and our name recognition. We can spend a lot of time and energy creating new brands and identities, or we can spend all of our energy strengthening one overall marketing idea, which is Dc, which is the most recognizable one of all. And from there, we’d be able to feed out into all these areas. I think we have a much stronger message if we go out and say that DC Comics or DC provides products and stories for everyone of all types, all cuts, and all slices. Jim mentioned “ages and stages.” We have things for young readers, older readers. We have every type of iteration of our characters. We have a shared universe in the center of that. There’s so much you could see and do with the DC characters and worlds that all you have to do is see that DC logo and then find the book that fits you. I think that’s the best way to do it. That way, we’re going to spend all our time making sure that DC stands for so much in regards to storytelling and diversity, and that our characters come to life in so many different ways. If you don’t know or don’t expect it just to be a superhero title and want more, we have it all there to offer you.”
Dan DiDio spared no time in getting right to the root of the circumstances that led to the decision to deemphasize Mad Magazine.
“Let’s go right to the core of it. There are two changes taking place. The first change is coming off the newsstand. The newsstand business is challenged. The sell-through isn’t enough to support the magazines on the shelf. It’s no different than any other magazines coming off the shelf. It was supermarkets, airports, and similar locations. It’s been a very challenging business to get anything into a newsstand these days. That’s been a tough decision for us, but we still have the direct market to be able to put product out in a non-returnable basis, so it allows us to manage our material better. We also have a very strong subscription base fro Mad Magazine. Between those two, it allows us to continue publishing. Our choice right now, though, is to go primarily with mostly reprint material because we feel that the nostalgic material is really what people have been enjoying most, and we want to go back with again. There’ll still be a smattering of original material in several of the books going forward. We have a plan that still pushes out for the next year, and we’ll be reviewing how this strategy has worked over the next year to see whether or not we continue on moving past that. Right now, we’re still publishing. We’ll still have new material. We’ll still have the Mad 20. We still have other things that people come to look forward to in Mad. The biggest change was that we had to get it off the newsstand. It was bleeding the magazine, and unfortunately, we have to make tough business choices sometimes. That’s a tough one because Mad touches so many people and is so important to so many folks. We understand that. This is not a decision we made lightly. This was not a decision we made haphazardly. As a matter of fact, we want to make sure that Mad continues in some way, shape, or form moving forward. And right now, we’re going to make sure that it exists through subscriptions and direct market.”
With a new Chair and CEO coming into the role at Warner Bros., Jim Lee was able to bring some history to light.
“Ann Sarnoff also has connections to DC. Her father-in-law was the person that purchased DC and brought it into the Warner Publishing Group back in the day. So there was that connection. An internal video greeting was sent out, and she specifically called that out. But she wasn’t started yet.”
With the growth in graphic novels specific to manga and child-oriented material, Jim Lee addressed the stagnancy for both corporate-owned and creator-owned IPs.
“I think all of us have been around long enough that we’ve seen the ebb and flow of all these different genres and the types of books out. I remember the days of Tokyopop and how they were tearing up the sales charts, and then that kind of went away and now it’s back. I think our Middle Reader and YA line was designed specifically to tap into this growth market. Rather than using our internal talent community, we went out and found great TA writers and paired them with artists that hadn’t even drawn comic books before to create something new and unique for that marketplace. We seem to be on the right track, so I see it as an opportunity. We still have our core fans that love what we do, but we are interested in growing our business by producing this type of content for new readers and also going out there and exploring new channels that haven’t been explored before, like even the Walmart specials that Dan spearheaded. We’ve learned a lot from doing that program, and we’re going to continue exploring and trying to grow the business any way we can.”