REBIRTH: Good for Sales, Bad for Readers?

by | Mar 28, 2016

While looking at the top 25 titles in sales from October 2015 only three DC titles were large enough to crack the ranks. Other than Paper Girls from Image Comics, Marvel had the remaining 21 spots. Other publishers must find Marvel hard to compete with, especially when eleven of those Marvel books were #1 issues. If readers wonder why publishers are constantly “rebooting” or “relaunching” or “all-new-ing” then one could conclude it’s because #1 issues sell better then most, and this is definitely a valid reason to create more #1 issues from a sales perspective. Which leads me to DC Comics “REBIRTH” – beginning in late May all the DC titles will be dialed back to #1 (other than Detective and Action Comics, which will be dialed forward to #934 and #957 respectively, in a completely different marketing strategy). Co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, along with Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns claim this not a reboot, stating that Rebirth will aim to take “the best of DC’s past, embrace the stories we currently love and move the entire epic universe into the future”. Unfortunately this sounds worse than a reboot, mashing together bits and pieces of the past into current character stories will presumably end in a bunch of confused readers.

In a statement directed towards retailers DC claims “we will continue to create and cultivate new opportunities for retailers to thrive and prosper, grow readers, fans and customers”. It appears that their plan is to support retailers by attracting new readers, and clearly we all want more people reading comics, however will this Rebirth appeal to long term readers? In order to satisfy readers familiar with the current content it seems DC will attempt to take the specific elements of the past that would interest these readers and insert those ideas into new stories. On the surface this seems like an okay strategy, but will this not create endless amounts of retelling stories that could just be read by picking up an older Trade Paperback? For those new readers that DC is potentially targeting, these past elements would have to be explained and put into context, which requires space that could be better used telling new, quality stories. With a limited amount of pages per issue, space is already becoming a premium. But wait, DC has an answer for that too! “Doubling-down” with the main titles, by releasing two issues every month.dcuRebirth

Action Comics, Aquaman, Batman, Cyborg, Deathstroke, Detective Comics, The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lanterns, Hal Jordan & The Green Lantern Corps, Harley Quinn, Justice League, Justice League America, Nightwing, Suicide Squad, Superman, and Wonder Woman will all provide fans with “more story, more often”. Is more story the reason people are currently not reading comics? With further consideration perhaps “grow readers, fans and customers” indicates merely a goal to get ongoing comic readers buying more, as oppose to drawing in new readers. I currently read only four DC titles, three of which ship monthly with Batman & Robin Eternal shipping weekly. Focusing on my personal reading habits with three monthlies, I would go from buying 36 issues in a year to 72. From a retailer stand point a boost in sales is good, but as a customer this is a hard hit to my wallet. I try to keep a weekly budget on comics, which I am sure many do, and when faced with the decision to commit to purchasing twice as often, this will result in me buying one title and not another. In anticipating this reaction DC also announced that all titles will be set at a $2.99 cover price, as opposed to $3.99 – lucky readers!

dcu_drawingtheline_adThough I am familiar with many of the DC stories of the past, I only regularly started reading comics prior to New 52, DC’s last line wide reboot. This was in 2011 when DC also launched “Drawing the Line at $2.99”, with this initiative DC aimed to boost sales numbers during a time when the comics market was struggling. So this is in no way a new tactic for DC, since lowering prices from $3.99 to $2.99 was only temporary, eventually most titles returned to a $3.99 price tag during New 52, without a growth in market share. So what is different this time around? If $2.99 comics didn’t bring in new readers then, does DC really think that it will now? Maybe charging current readers an extra two dollars per month/ per series will lead to better sales?

While the $2.99 price appears to be appealing on the surface, when you budget your comic allowance you might be surprised. Before Rebirth, a reader would spend $3.99 an issue per month, or $47.88 annually (this is of course USD for those of us Canadians who spend an additional 30-35% on top of this). After Rebirth, the same reader can thank DC for only having to pay $2.99, but twice as often, or $71.76 annually, approximately a 50% increase.

In the past couple years DC has also had a few titles ship on a weekly basis, Batman Eternal, The New 52: Futures End, and concluding this week Batman & Robin Eternal. These three series had a rotating writing and art staff and were also priced at $2.99 each. Because of their frequent shipping schedule and $2.99 price they provide valuable sales data which can be applied to the DC Rebirth publishing model. Batman Eternal and Futures End both saw a substantial decrease, 19,000 and 13,000 respectively, in sales between issue 1and issue 2, but this is common with most new titles. Each of these titles lasts approximately one calendar year, 52 issues total for Batman Eternal and 48 for Futures End. During this time sales continued to decline, though not to the severity as the first week. On average these books saw a drop in sales of almost 600 printed issues per week, which works out to be approximately 1% per week. This being said, Batman Eternal frequently reached the top 25 sales totals for all comics per month, with issue 50 having the lowest total unit sales with 43,982, a number only 3 other DC titles were above that month.

The main Batman title is by far DC comics best selling title, averaging retailer sales 117,000 copies per issue, over the last year approximately 1.4 million copies. Its sales fluctuated between issues but didn’t drop below 100,000. At the same time, Batman Eternal averaged 55,000 units per issue, but shipped four times a month. During Batman Eternal‘s year long series the total number of issues sold was above 2.8 million, twice what Batman did.

batmannew52When DC comics last relaunched their titles for New 52, Batman #1 sold 188,420 copies, again #1 issues sell well. Using this number as a projection for what Rebirth Batman #1 will sell, even after a decline in numbers similar to the 1% weekly decline Batman Eternal experienced, by Batman #24 sales could be around 140,000 issues, similar to what they sell now. But remember, they are shipping twice as often, at $2.99.
It is safe to estimate that the Batman series will not see much of a drop in sales even when the more frequent shipping schedule means spending more. For example, using previous numbers mentioned, Batman sold about 1.4 million copies over the last year, at $3.99, which would put total sales around $5.6 million. If sales were to average the lowest totals from the last year, 100,962 copies of issue 48, it would still result in 2.4 million copies per year, a 70% increase in total issues. Further, a total of $7.1 million in issue sales, 27% increase when compared to pre-Rebirth. Based on these sales projections DC could, in theory, afford to allow sales numbers to drop as low as 78,000 units per issue without sales dropping below the $5.6 million they were producing prior to Rebirth.

is obviously an exception for sales, having iconic status to both readers and non-readers. However, if we look to the bottom of the DC sales numbers we see the Cyborg title, units sales have dropped from 45,187 to only 18,092 in only 8 issues, yet with Rebirth, Cyborg will be shipping twice a month. This title currently already has the $2.99 price as part of the DCYou launch last summer, averaging only $80,000 in sales each issue, and seeing sales decrease as much as 24% (after the conclusion of the first story arc). I wonder if “more story, more often” is going to be enough to keep readers buying a book like this, twice a month.

During WonderCon last weekend DC announced many of the creative teams that will be working on their books once Rebirth launches in late May. While it would appear that DC is mostly attempting to improve sales by more frequent publishing, given these creative teams they seem to desire well written, quality stories. A relaunch like Rebirth is not some revolutionary comic event and if a company is truly committed to good story telling above marketing tactics, why are they so easily discarded and restarted. Sure the numbers show that rebooting, relaunching and/or some combination of renumbering these books boost the total number of units sold, but for how long? After that big #1 issue, most sales numbers fall about 30% and then continue to slowly decline. Could a boost of sales from a more frequent shipping schedule of best selling books like Batman, selling 100,000 copies of each issue, allow for longer runs of less purchased books like Cyborg? If this is true, will we see an end to the cycle of publishers attempting to revive a series by putting a shiny new #1 on the cover? Probably not. DC is a publishing business and like any business it needs to grow, so regardless of whether Rebirth succeeds or fails, in a couple years I’m sure I will be writing another article about a bunch of new #1 titles relaunching. Again.