March 2011 was a milestone month for sales gimmicks. Topping the comics list was the relaunched "FF" #1 and the top comic not by Marvel or DC was "Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters" #1 with a staggering 75 or more covers. Both of these items are example of what I consider to be one of the big questions around marketing comics: Is the marketing goal to sell just that single issue or is it to sell that series? It seems to be the form while it should be the latter.
The sales of "Fantastic Four" #587 and "FF" #1 were clearly successes in terms of the sales of those particular issues. But were they successful in selling the series?
This chart shows the sales of "Fantastic Four" from March 2003 through the end of the run in February 2011. The red line is the sales for "FF" #1 from March 2011. The sales of both "Fantastic Four" #587 and "FF" are clearly well above the average for the series. In addition to the spikes on a number of key issues show on the chart, "Fantastic Four" #60 sold over 700,000 units thanks to the 9 cent cover price at the start of the Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo run on the title. The average sales level (to retailers) for the series is around 56,000 units within the direct market. My expectation is the new "FF" title will be selling around this sales level within the next six months.
As the "Fantastic Four" chart demonstrates, sales boosts can happen as a result of a new creative team, loss-leader pricing, alternate/variant/incentive covers, event tie-ins and/or killing a character. Clearly selling an issue is possible. But selling a title is another thing entirely.
If a reader is truly sold on a title, not only will they get the current issue but they will get the ones after it. This sales trend at the reader level then bubbles up to the retailer level resulting in better sales on these charts. Granted, there might be a delay between readers getting sold on a title and the retailers following suit.
The best example of readers being sold on a series is "Walking Dead." Two issues sold this month with "Walking Dead" #82 in rank 51 selling an estimated 31,174 units. "Walking Dead" #83 broke into the top 50 with approximately 33,686 units at rank 42. The average sales for "Walking Dead" is a little over 21,000 units and rising with each issue released. While "Walking Dead" is selling fewer units than "Fantastic Four" in terms of individual issue sales, a strong case can be made that readers are more sold on "Walking Dead" than on "Fantastic Four." After all, the above "Fantastic Four" chart illustrated how sales dropped during the runs written by Mark Waid, Joseph Straczynski, Mark Millar and Jonathan Hickman yet the entire run of "Walking Dead" has been written by Robert Kirkman.
"Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters" #1 landed at rank 16 with an estimated 58,879 units. The promotional gimmick for this issue was a retailer incentive cover featuring the retailer location being smashed by Godzilla for any retailer that ordered over 500 or more copies. There were 75 retailers that took advantage of this opportunity (or were taken advantage of by this opportunity). Some of the large stores might be able to move 500 units but most stores are probably not going to have 500 paying customers for "Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters" #1. No doubt the retailers expected that and are planning on giving the issues away on Free Comic Book Day. A clever as this gimmick was, it would not have worked as well had it been offered after Free Comic Book Day instead of before it.
The cover gimmick ensured that at least 75 retailers order more copies than they would have almost certainly would have otherwise. The upside of this is those 75 stores were able to gauge the full extent of the demand for the series at their stores. The irony is there is a second printing of the issue implying some stores, presumably those retailers which did not get a store specific cover, may have under estimated the number of copies they needed. This means some retailers needed more copies while other retailers were likely sitting on hundreds of copies over what they were able to sell. This is both unfortunate and short-sighted on the part of the publisher. IDW sold the issue but potentially at the cost of selling the series. It seems there has been more talk about the covers of the issue than the contents of the issue.
One of the things which makes comic book unique is the ongoing nature of reading them. The habitual purchase of a title every month over the long term is something not seen in books, music, DVDs or video games. Television comes close with the weekly airing of new episodes but since there is no cash outlay as you watch a new episode, those episodes feel like there are free despite how much you might pay for cable.
Comics are typically being marketed like video games or movies with a promotional campaign leading up to the release of the title or event. Even the house ads for comics are done like movie posters. The difference it the movie poster has the movie trailers to back it up. Not so with comics. There is very little in these house ads to entice a potential reader to pick up a series they aren't already getting. Even if that wasn't the case, most of the marketing about comics is done to existing comic book fans. The reader base is never going to grow that way.
"Thor" #621 sold an estimated 42,104 units in March. With the movie coming out soon and seeming to have good buzz around it, it should be possible for Marvel to increase the sales of the title. Or, more accurately, the sales of the replacement title: "Mighty Thor." Or is "Astonishing Thor" the replacement title? And were does "Journey into Mystery" fit into things? Those of us who read comics know "Mighty Thor" is the replacement title while "Astonishing Thor" is just a mini-series and "Journey into Mystery" will feature Loki. Any potential new readers coming in from the movie might see all of those and give up in confusion. If they even set foot inside of a comic book store in the first place, that is.
Instead of selling individual issues of particular titles, the publishers need to take a step back and look at the big picture. They need to be selling existing readers on titles, not issue and they need to be seeing non-comic book readers and comic books as a storytelling medium. This can be done with the existing comic book marketing budgets but not with the current comic book marketing mindset. The first step is redefining the goal of comic book marketing as convincing readers they need to be getting the title every month, not just when it gets mentioned in the cable news channels.