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Joss Whedon - "Astonishing X-Men" Comic Book - Dean Buckley Newsrama.com Interview

Wednesday 21 July 2004, by Webmaster


Month in, month out, Diamond releases the Top 300 listings of what actually shipped the previous month. It’s a point of near-endless analysis, speculation, and out and out guesswork for many.

But what does it mean for a publisher? Are there high fives all around when a book comes in at #1? Does someone have to sit in a corner when a book drops below #100?

We spoke with Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley about May’s numbers to get his opinion, as well as view of what was one the main movers for the top-selling titles that month - variants.

Editor’s note - before you go in, yes, Buckely is an executive at a publicly traded company, talking specifically about the performance of said company’s publishing division. With that in mind, onward.

Newsarama: Sitting back and taking more of a global view - in your eyes, how did May look for Marvel, by the numbers?

Dan Buckley: We were very happy with our May numbers. The response to X-Men Reload was great.

NRAMA: What met your expectations?

DB: Pretty much all the numbers met or exceeded our expectations. The really good news is that the feedback on the product indicates that the content also met or exceeded the expectations of our fans. We were especially pleased with the feedback on Astonishing because of the high expectations placed on that book, however I would also ask that people who have not picked up District X do so because everyone who has read it loves it.

NRAMA: That said, where do you see room for improvement?

DB: First and foremost, we need to improve on keeping the sales momentum we generate from these events like X-Men Reload. Second, is figuring out the best way to make sure that the perceived lower tier books that are getting rave reviews — like District X and She-Hulk — find a home in this marketplace.

NRAMA: Estimates put Astonishing X-Men #1 at a bit over 200K. Obviously, you can’t say the exact number, but is that in the correct ballpark of what shipped through Diamond?

DB: Yes, you’re in the right ballpark.

NRAMA: And that met expectations?

DB: Yes. Why are you letting me off so easy?

NRAMA: To catch you off guard, obviously. Is it possible for you to give a ballpark of how AXM #1 broke down in terms of regular and variant covers, percentage-wise?

DB: Now this is the Matt Brady I know......and this is a ballpark I’d rather not get into.

NRAMA: Are we talking 80% of what shipped was regular cover, with 10% and 5%...something like that?

DB: The total was in the 10% to 15% range.

NRAMA: You’ve got sales numbers being goosed by variants, so, in your view, how do you break down the sales on AXM #1? Obviously, it’s nearly impossible to figure, but is there any ballpark that you can figure of how much was due to actual demand in a 1:1 reader to comic way? Or, more simply, how many readers of AXM #1 were there, given the number of copies shipped?

DB: There really is no hard and fast rule on this, but the retailer feedback we have received gives us the sense that Astonishing X-Men is picking up new readers every week. Many of the top retailers have had AXM #1 in their top 10 in sales since it launched.

This combined with the fact the "variants" were designed for collectibility tells me that the books reader ratio is closer to 1:1 than a book with a 50:50 cover variant. I’m saying this because the rarity of the variants quite simply does not allow for the casual "double" purchase.

NRAMA: So the variant covers significantly increased numbers on #1?

DB: I can say that the book had a great deal of ordering activity in the final couple of weeks, but I am not sure if this was created by the variants or if it was generated by the previews of the book finally hitting the consumer press or if it was a combination of both. I won’t deny that variants are used to generate incremental sales and excitement, but I am not sure the term “significant” is appropriate. For example Ultimate Fantastic Four had a comparable volume, and it had no variants.

NRAMA: That’s a fair point. Let’s talk about variants a little more - they seem to be a polarizing phenomenon in comics, with very few walking the middle line in regard to them. From a publisher’s standpoint, what purpose do variants serve?

DB: We use variants because they do generate excitement in the retail and collecting community, which in turn generates volume. We are very judicious with this tactic in that we limit it to the products we are very confident about.

NRAMA: But they’re not for everyone - who do you see them appealing to?

DB: For the most part I believe that they appeal to collectors and completists.

NRAMA: Some worry that a customer buying a variant cover of a comic they already own won’t be buying another comic, even from the same publisher - is that a valid argument, that variant covers/editions can cannibalize Marvel’s sales?

DB: Well, first, I can’t say that’s not a valid argument because it is probably happening with some folks, however I believe that most every consumer and retailer can get on board with something that feels special or is unique. Which is why we are taking a very limited approach with this tactic. Presently, our variant approach appeals to collectors who are spending significant dollars on something that is truly scarce. This strategy does not distract the reader who collects because he or she probably looks at the price point of the variants and figures everyone has gone insane.

NRAMA: Joe [Quesada, Editor in Chief] has made a point of saying that Marvel’s approach to variants is better than DC’s, that is, incentive variants are better in the long run than 50/50 variants. Why does Marvel prefer this model over the 50/50 model?

DB: The main reason we do this is to provide the retailers with a product that will provide them a great deal of margin. I’ll admit that we have not made every retailer happy with this approach, but we are doing our best to incorporate everyone’s suggestions.

NRAMA: While they may be the more militant, some retailers and readers are claiming that we’re seeing a bald-faced battle for market share between Marvel and DC with variants serving as the infantry on the front lines. Is there truth in that analogy?

DB: First of all, I’m not quite sure where the term bald-faced battle came from because I am not quite sure of its context. Regardless, I‘m not going say that the two of us - Marvel and DC - don’t take a look at each others numbers. I don’t think you could give me an industry where the #1 and #2 players don’t compete. And you are correct in stating that variants are used as a tactic to generate sales for the specific titles that they are associated with.

I will also state that we use several tactics, with variants being a recent addition, to generate sales for our books that we feel need some attention, however I feel that the market share that we have achieved is done by putting out the best product in the industry. Very good product tends to be the best marketing tactic.

NRAMA: You were in comics in the early ‘90s, and so was Joe. Joe’s already gone on the record that he does not like to see Marvel using variants, but feels he’s being pushed to that point by DC’s use of them, citing the bust of the ‘90s as evidence of their potential damage. Are the lessons from that time still in effect?

DB: Yes. Very much.

NRAMA: So is there a point where it’s too much?

DB: Well, not to be too glib, but too much or too little of anything is not healthy in any business.

NRAMA: So there is a point where variants could do damage to the industry again?

DB: Yes they could, because an over saturation could quite simply turn off or confuse our core constituency of readers, and that would, clearly, not be a good thing.

NRAMA: Moving away from variants straight on, and looking at your May debuts. Did the variant incentive ordering of some of the other X-titles work, in your opinion, say, on New X-Men #1? In your view, without being tied to the variant of AXM #1, would that issue have seen as high of orders as it did?

DB: The tie in promotion did help with the sell in for New X-Men #1, and let’s be honest the orders for this book would not have been as high without this retailer incentive. The objective of this tie-in was to elevate the orders for a book we felt would be ignored without the help. District X was not part of the variant incentive program, but grouping in the marketing efforts of AXM definitely helped this book sell also.

NRAMA: Looking at some other titles - Secret War is doing gangbusters for you, given its placement...but its schedule means that you’re seeing an uptick from it only once a quarter. Why not boost its schedule?

DB: Let’s be honest - this is a quarterly uptick that we are all happy with, and pushing the schedule of the book would only hurt the end product. Gabrielle and Bendis are creating a masterpiece here, so why rush it?

NRAMA: Marvel obviously dominates the Top 10 titles, but month in, month out; we see just two or three franchises represented there. Some point to that as a dangerous thing, with the bulk of the market’s eggs in just a few baskets. How do you see the domination of the Top 10 by really, four franchises?

DB: Obviously it is a good thing for us.

NRAMA: Compared to April, how was the month of May for Marvel?

DB: To be quite honest, they were very comparable.

NRAMA: How does the year to date look so far for Marvel’s numbers in terms of books sold?

DB: We’re pleased with what we have been able to do this year. The editorial and creative teams have pulled together an incredible year. They have made me and Gui look much brighter than we really are.

NRAMA: Well, there are those pictures of you in the hat...What were the challenges in May for Marvel in regards to sales? Aside from boosting X-numbers as high as you could, were there any other specific goals set for the month?

DB: The biggest challenge in our industry is to keep consumers and retailers interested in the mid-level books.

NRAMA: Previously, it seemed to be fairly easy to tick off where on the Top 100 Marvel’s death zone was...but now, the Marvel Age books are spread towards #100 and above, and Thor: Son of Asgard is at #99, and it’s been continued as an ongoing. What changed? Are there different performance levels for different tiers of books?

DB: The objectives and expectations of these books are a bit different than the core hero and Ultimate line. These products have been designed with different markets in mind. We hope to use this content in markets and/or promotions that will provide us with the opportunity to bring new readers in.

NRAMA: What does the Top 100 tell you, in terms of setting your editorial and publishing plans?

DB: The Top 100 is not a gauge we generally use to determine the success of a book. We look at each book’s fiscal impact, and what the content can do to expand our readership. Another variable that we consider would be talent development.

NRAMA: Along those lines, ballpark - how much of Marvel’s publishing of monthly comics output is shipped through Diamond? What are some of the other venues, and how are they performing?

DB: The large percentage of our volume is shipped through Diamond. The other venues include bookstores, specialty shops and some mass merchandisers, and we are pretty happy with their performance. They will never offer the breadth and depth of product of hobby market, but these venues are imperative to the development of new readers.

NRAMA: How high is high, in your opinion for the charts? Is there a ceiling, in your opinion to how many copies a book can sell? Is there a level of books sold through Diamond that make you nervous? That is, is there a number, above which, the numbers are "artificial," in a way - that is, speculation coming in, or is that something you worry about?

DB: I generally don’t think about the ceiling because that would be rather defeatist, however I would admit that I book that suddenly jumped 20% to 30% higher than AXM or Batman #509 numbers would probably make me a bit nervous at this point, because I’m not sure if the industry has the mechanism to move that many dollars that quickly without hurting the cash position of the retail community.