Marvel Comics is finally getting its book-publishing act together. Since the mid-'80s, the comics behemoth's reprint program has been legendarily disorganized--its backlist of series reprints like Spider-Man and X-Men is theoretically huge, but most of it was be out of print at any given time, and new releases consistently turned up late. But new collections editor Jeff Youngquist has gotten the mandate to ramp up Marvel's trade paperback program: "We're finding that the trades are a great way to get casual readers, and we've initiated a massive back-to-press effort."

Marvel will issue or reissiue 12 to 14 titles a month and, as of July, is rolling back its softcover prices by $2 or $3. Marvel has also launched a series of oversized, $30-$35 hardcovers that's been enormously successful out of the gate, beginning with Ultimate Spider-Man, The Complete Frank Miller Spider-Man and the long-awaited Origin (which isn't quite done yet, but that's another story.)

The company's book difficulties were exemplified early this year by the problematic publication of Captain Britain. Comics author Alan Moore wrote the series for Marvel's U.K. division in the early '80s, before he became a star with Watchmen and From Hell. For years Moore had declined to republish the collection. When Joe Quesada took over as Marvel's editor-in-chief, he convinced Moore to authorize a collection, but Moore insisted that the edition include a "small, non-humiliating" notice that the copyright was his. When the book finally appeared (at a chaotic moment, when Marvel had fired most of its book division), the notice was missing, and Moore was furious. Marvel apologized and scrambled to sticker corrections onto the book, but the error seemed symptomatic of its book department's woes.

Barely two months later, Marvel has a new book staff and a new hardcover program. "We've almost never done hardcovers," said president Bill Jemas, "but every time we've done one, it's been spectacularly successful. We do the $49.95 Marvel Masterworks hardcovers in small print runs, and they sell out immediately. The light bulb didn't go on until about three months ago. It's like watching a whole new category develop."

The first and most successful new hardcover is Ultimate Spider-Man, an oversized book that has already sold more 100,000 copies in softcover. Jemas fends off questions about Diamond, a distributor to the book trade accustomed to selling to comics specialty stores on a nonreturnable basis. "Diamond's had a learning-curve issue," Jemas told PW, "and we've had a learning-curve issue. I think the bookstore buyers have been very open." Marvel is planning to print at least a dozen oversized hardcovers over the next year, and to compensate retailers for the hassle of shelving an unusual graphic-novel trim size, for the first month each one is available, the house is discounting the wholesale price for comics shops and (on a volume basis) bookstores. Upcoming hardcovers include Brian Bendis's darkly funny adult detective story, Alias, and The Best of Spider-Man, which should be in stores in time for the upcoming Spider-Man movie. The film is likely to be a major cash cow for the company--Jemas noted that Marvel's book orders for the next two months are as big as they were for the entire year of 2000.

Marvel's head designer, Matty Ryan, is redesigning the books' covers to give them a uniform look, while differentiating the appearance of the main Marvel Universe line, the edgier Marvel Knights books, the mature-readers-only MAX books and the Ultimate series that are the house's best sellers right now. With more than 40 years worth of material to choose from, it's a delicate job to figure out where to allocate Marvel's reprint resources. The company's main goal, though, is bringing in as many new readers as possible.

"We've focused our energy on making good products and offering samples like crazy," Jemas said. "We're 10% better on everything we do than we were two years ago, but in content we're 100% better."