With trade editions and graphic novels representing the largest and fastest-growing segment of the $1.1 billion–per-year comics publishing market, it’s surprising that Marvel Entertainment, which dominates comics periodicals and enjoys a gigantic media footprint for its IP, has not made the book business a priority—until now. Marvel, which is owned by Disney, is starting to flex its muscles with a multipronged approach to the book publishing market, targeting every segment, from teens to hardcore collectors. We recently spoke with Sven Larsen, director of licensed publishing for Marvel, about the company’s vision and programs for the book market.
How has the overall trade book program evolved since you’ve been at Marvel, from a management vision standpoint?
In terms of strategy, our management team is trying to respond to and anticipate trends in the market. We’ve all seen the emergence and strengths of middle grade and YA graphic novels, for example. They’re the future readers of our core product, so we’re very interested in reaching that audience. It’s one of our increased areas of focus. We’re also looking at formats beyond the traditional trade paperback to expose new readers. That coalesces into our Rising Readers line, done in the 6”×9” format, popularized by Smile and the Amulet series. They carry a distinctive trade dress and are designed for great value.
We’ve expanded our trade program for teens with our most inexperienced-reader-friendly material [Marvel characters that even noncomics readers are likely to know], with characters that have enjoyed success in TBP format, and in other storytelling formats, like Miles Morales [the Afro-hispanic version of Spider-Man], who was popularized in Into the Spider-Verse, and Ms. Marvel [the Muslim-American version of Captain Marvel]. We do some very young reader stuff through Disney Publishing. There are some other projects in the works, but it’s a little early to talk about them.
Is there a smooth path for readers to move from the young reader books into mainstream Marvel comic book continuity? Is that a priority?
It’s about developing a reading habit. The idea is to take advantage of heightened awareness of the characters from the films to enable people to become lifelong consumers of Marvel storytelling. Rising Readers is one program. There’s also a licensed prose program with Scholastic. Not everyone starts out as a comic book reader. By creating middle grade prose titles—starting with a title featuring Shuri from Black Panther, by YA author Nic Stone—we create another way for fans of Black Panther to enjoy the character. We’re also publishing Avengers Assembly, featuring Miles, Squirrel Girl, and Ms. Marvel.
Are you concerned about cannibalizing or undermining monthly single issue sales with trade paperback editions?
For us, to use the movie analogy, traditional comic book periodicals are our box office releases, and the trades are a home entertainment product, like the DVD that comes out a few months later. Periodicals create a lot of excitement around story lines.
The best recent example is writer Jonathan Hickman’s work on X-Men. That created a huge buzz in the comic shops. Fans said, “I need to talk about this with my fellow fans. I need to read it before the spoilers show up online.” It’s like the people who need to watch a movie on the first screening.
In terms of value, it figures into our pricing decisions. We don’t want to overprice those editions, but if we’re collecting in that format, there’s a sense that it’s an important story line that will impact Marvel for years to come. We want a quality edition that reflects the expense of creating an edition like that.
How about the archival and collected print editions?
Our Marvel Select line is intended as basic stock items [that offer key titles as an introduction to Marvel’s characters] for anyone carrying graphic fiction or for a well-stocked library. They’re in hardcover because we know librarians need hardcover to hold up to wear and tear. Comic retailers and bookstores need editions that can take people pulling it off the shelf, looking through them. They’re meant to be the core of any reader’s library.
One new program we’re very excited about is the Marvel King Size editions, which are printed oversize in the dimensions of the original artwork but in full color. We want to create more of a luxury reading experience, like seeing a film in IMAX. With that degree of resolution, you pick up on things that you wouldn’t see. We use our crispest digital files to replicate the power of the artwork of Jack Kirby or Jim Lee.
On the business side, how would you characterize the performance of the trade books relative to periodicals, or general trade bookstores vs. the specialty direct market comics shop channel?
We’ve had a very successful year in the comic specialty market, both in periodical and trade. Graphic novels have bucked the trend in trade book sales. It’s been a rough year in the overall market for trade books, which is down 5%, but we haven’t seen that impact.
We’ve seen a nice performance for our specialty market periodicals, as well. Comics retailers are pretty happy with the product that Marvel is producing right now. Also, we’re seeing a blurring of the lines that have traditionally separated comic shops and bookstores. Comic stores are acting more like independent book stores, servicing casual customers as well as the every-Wednesday fan customer, and indie bookstores want more of our titles to keep on the shelf.
Young reader material is going great through both channels. We had a bunch of books tying in to the Spider-Verse film doing well across channels. We’re at the point where graphic novels have penetrated mainstream culture enough that it’s become intergenerational, and parents are sharing this material with their kids when they go to the bookstore.
Your digital program, Marvel Unlimited, offers online access to thousands of Marvel back issues for a monthly fee. Has it had any impact on trade book sales?
We don’t have a lot of data on MU consumption patterns. We have a dual path for digital consumption—Comixology for day and date digital release and MU for the hardcore Marvel fan who wants access to everything. We suspect there are customers who won’t spend money on a trade book collection, but if they see it on MU, maybe they’ll buy the book. It’s great for raising awareness and providing people with background on events. That said, we’ve never seen a problem with digital sales cannibalizing print sales.
The other thing about digital: we’re dedicated to making Marvel available in whatever way readers want to consume it. I read a lot on my iPad because I don’t want 200 [cardboard storage] longboxes. It’s a perfect example of letting people have the same Marvel reading experience even if they don’t have room to store so many comics.
What’s ahead for 2020?
Two things: First is the Scholastic licensed books, which we’re really excited about. [In 2019 Marvel and Scholastic announced a multiyear deal for Scholastic to create a series of middle grade prose novels based on Marvel characters. The first titles will appear in 2020.] Also, we’re experimenting with collecting Jonathan Hickman’s Dawn of X titles in a couple of different ways. Because the story goes across multiple titles, we have a trade collecting all #1 issues, then all #2s, across six different stories. That’s a different way to collect books.
We also have traditional linear series, all the X titles forming bigger interlocking titles. We want to give readers options about how they process it.