So Far, Digital Comics Are Not AWESOME
I have some fundamental problems with the way comics publishers are approaching their digital publication strategies. Marvel and DC – the two biggest publishers on the block – seem to be the most egregious trespassers against the simple 2.0 adage of “Everything: anytime, anywhere.” Here then follows a discussion of some of the ins and outs of the issue.
The Instant Catalogue
The thing that bugs me the most about how The Big Two have handled their digital offerings involves the massive back catalogue both companies possess. I should be able to download Paul Levitz‘s entire original run on Legion of Super-Heroes at a reasonable price. Currently, virtually all digital comics run about $1.99 and day-and-date releases can cost up to $3.99 depending on the publisher. With so much available content in their vaults, comics publishers can EASILY adapt whole swaths of comics runs for mere pennies in overhead.
Instead, what we’ve been seeing so far are limited runs or storylines from popular comics that get offered in digital stores and are sometimes taken away after a period of time. There are so many comics runs that I would pay for to have digitally on my iPad, but I’m leery of the cost… especially if they’re only available for limited amounts of time and there exists the possibility that the publisher may offer those comics again at discounted bundles.
The bottom line comes down to ABUNDANCE: there are so many comics available, why not sell them ALL digitally? I know there are obvious business reasons for this, and we’ll get into those in moment. But for a fan and reader – someone who is going to spend their scratch on comics – to not offer these extensive catalogues digitally and at reasonable prices is simply retarded.
Price & “Bundling”
Traditionally, comics are sold at a per issue price and then discounted for graphic novel or trade paperback collections. This has become the common practice in the comics business particularly because publishers make more money off trade collections (which can be reprinted) that are sold in traditional bookstores (versus scary comics shops). This has created two separate classes of comics readers: the periodical reader who buys issues as they come out, and the “wait-for-the-trade” reader who wants to read an entire serialized story in one volume.
Digital stores can go either way here. Dark Horse Comics – which will launch its own online comics store very soon – is actually undercutting other comics publishers by offering individual issues of their comics for $1.49 and larger discounts for “bundles,” which will contain multiple issues comprising a full storyline. Dark Horse has also been experimenting with releasing graphic novels and trade collections as separate apps in the iPad store at prices much lower than their print counterparts.
Dark Horse’s example provides the best look at how well this digital comics economy can work. At the end of the day, there is NO REASON why digital comics should cost as much as their print versions. The overhead has already been spent (aside for some small costs in adapting the print version to digital readers), so it’s almost pure profit, which gets split between the company and the creators (and Apple). Dark Horse’s comics become a much more attractive buying option for those readers who are looking for affordable ways to get into comics, stories, and characters.
I still believe these prices are overinflated (music costs $0.99 generally), but I also understand that the economics of the comics business are such that some compromises have to be made. We’ll get more into that later.
The Direct Market
The comics industry pivots on the direct market, which is best defined as comics specialty retailers who preorder, stock, and sell comics out of their own stores. Beginning in the 1980s, the comics direct market sprung up to replace newsstand publication as the primary source of sales for all comics publishers. As such, comics publishers court comics retailers because that’s been their primary method of sales.
Digital comics changes all of this. The third party between me and the comics I love switches from the high-touch retailer to the virtual comics store app like ComiXology and the platform on which I’ll read them (i.e., Apple). This has created a huge uproar in the retailer community, which cannot compete with the prices digital comics can promise to readers. Some retailers offer discounts off regular subscriber orders, but digital essentially kills further instances of the walk-in customer, which has been on the decline anyway for years. Because of the relationship comics publishers want to maintain with their retailer industry, I can understand how it’s important for them to price comics similarly to what they charge in the direct market… so as not to shoot retailers in the back.
However, I believe digital comics is a needed wake-up call to retailers. Look up your nearest comics store and go visit. It’s not very pretty, is it? Usually, it’s a dark, scary hole in the wall run by swarthy longhairs in white-stained T-shirts full of unkempt pop culture product that may or not include statues of anime babes getting tentacle raped. There are exceptions to this perception of comics retailers: James Sime’s excellent Isotope in San Francisco, for example, is designed as a lounge instead of merely a comics store. But for the most part, comics retailers are the same subhuman basement-dwelling nerds they’ve always been. If digital comics don’t force them out of business, then maybe they will force them to at least take a shower and start selling comics as respectable professionals. Speaking as the former manager of a comics store myself, I can tell you that this is a kick in the pants the direct market industry sorely needs. Otherwise, they deserve to close their doors.
Periodical Versus Collected Reading
The great thing about digital comics is that you can have your cake and eat it too. Love a series so much you HAVE to get the latest issue on the day it comes out? BOOM. Buy it at full price from the digital store. Want to wait instead to read that comic when it’s been collected into a larger storyline? BOOM. Buy it as a discounted collection. This is possible RIGHT NOW. It just takes comics publishers having th balls to do it instead of catering to their direct market fanwanks.
One of the greatest examples of this is Robert Kirkman‘s AWESOME zombie epic The Walking Dead. Through its own iPad app, Kirkman sells every issue of this comics series for $1.99 and $2.99 for brand new issues that are available on the same day as their print release. Furthermore, he offers collected editions that contain full storylines at $9.99. I still think this is too expensive, but the availability of the comic and the options Kirkman gives readers is what’s important. He GETS that the more options he can give his fans to consume the content – and the more barriers he can lower to new fans’ entry – will result in more downloads and more access.
Stupid Sales Tricks: The Perception of Scarcity
Probably the worst, most offensive sales tactic the big comics publishers have tried out with digital comics involves the perception of scarcity. Marvel, for example, has developed a “Vault” in which they’ll place digital comics after making them available for a short period of time. Similar to what Disney does with its home video releases, this creates a false sense of scarcity– “If I don’t buy Daredevil #24 before February 1st, it’ll be gone forever!”
This tactic completely defeats the purpose of Long Tail-inspired digital product sales and marketing. It does nothing but demonstrate that the comics publishers do not understand digital content at all. NOBODY owns the comics you download from an app or a digital comics store. They are merely CONTENT one CONSUMES. Scarcity and value only have meaning in a physical world where only so many copies of a given comic are available and must then be traded at prices determined by the collector market. To try and engineer this system within digital comics stores is flat-out wrong and stupid.
The worst offender of this tactic lately has been DC Comics, who made a huge to-do about all the great new digital comics offerings they were going to sell via their online stores. Sure enough, they released initial runs of some very popular older comics like Preacher and Transmetropolitan. Go look for those comics now. They’re gone. With nary an announcement or a discussion, DC simply pulled them from their digital stores. So now, the next time they decide to put them up, there will probably be a run on digital sales as digital consumers rush to get these titles before they’re taken away again.
This is terrible, offensive practice that needs to come to an end immediately.
So What’s Next?
The good news is that digital comics are still in their infancy and have a lot of room to evolve. I think within the next year, we’ll see a drop in prices for most digital comics. Within 2 years, we’ll see more innovation in terms of bundled or collected editions. DC or Marvel will probably release an entire title’s run as an experiment at some point, possibly at a high price point or as a separate app to determine how well something like that would sell. While this happens, smaller comics publishers and independent comics creators will beat the big guys to the punch by releasing their comics at the same time as print editions and even exclusively online.
For my money, here are a couple comics publishers that I think are doing it RIGHT:
- Dark Horse currently offers some Frank Miller graphic novels (Sin City, 300) and a Serenity collection as inexpensive iPad apps.
- IDW has separate apps for many of its licensed titles (e.g. Transformers, G.I. Joe) and is beginning to offer original graphic novels as apps (e.g., Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations The Hunter and The Outfit).
- Boom! Comics, while not quite day-and-date yet, are beginning to offer more and more of their comics close to publication date.
Got any good digital comics recommendations? Send ‘em to me in the comments section!
- Dark Horse Comics’ Digital Initiative Promises Innovative Ideas, Lower Prices (wired.com)
- Trade Perspectives: DC Comics/Comixology Digital Comics Announcement (collectededitions.com)
- Win Dark Horse Comics for a Year (wired.com)
- They’re Selling Comics On The iPad The Wrong Way [Comics] (kotaku.com)
- Is ComiXology The Future of Comics? (eoghann.com)
- Digital collections make comics on your iPad easy and cheap (tuaw.com)