Comic Book Publishing Follies

Sun, November 18th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

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Digital, Digital, Digital

Everybody knew Digital was going to be the big story this week, right?

Marvel Rents the DCU

So Marvel finally went Digital, as in DCU. Yes, Digital Comics Unlimited, ah, you have to love a semi-subtle dig at the competition. Always good for a smirk. We can only hope DC has a counter-pun up their sleeves. Makes reading press releases more interesting.

The full details of what's online and what the content of the weekly updates for Marvel's DotComics upgrade are still being held close to the vest, so instead of breaking apart what it means for everyone, I'm going to put the program in context with the rest of the web. There will be plenty of time to analyze the inner-workings when we have a better idea where they're going, in terms of audience and on-going material.

The deal is $9.99 for a month or $59.88 for a year. No downloads, just online viewing in a customized Flash browser. Which is also to say, not intended for off-line viewing. The best way to look at this is in the context of digital music.

Generally speaking, there are two models for commercial music online. First you have your iTunes model, where the user pays on a per download basis and keeps the file. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the subscription model, commonly associated with Rhapsody. Here, you're paying a monthly fee for unlimited access to the online catalog, but when you stop subscribing you're left with no files to listen to. The trade off being you can potentially listen to a massively larger variety of music for a lot less than if you bought each song. Thinking of it as renting a library card is a good way to envision it.

Marvel is taking the Rhapsody approach. Price-wise, Rhapsody is a flat $12.99 a month for the online plan (you can download files for an additional per-file fee), so Marvel's priced lower on the one-off months and a lot lower on the annual deal.

That's the Internet entertainment media/ business context of Marvel's DCU model. Comics differ from music, in that the physical merchandising (i.e. the monthly comics and especially trade paperbacks) are a much more immediate jump, once somebody starts dallying in the field.

The questions to watch here are four:

  1. Where are they headed with the content offering (more current or more classic; available in book-format reprint or non-reprinted material)?

  2. How does the price point sit with the non-traditional comics audience ($9.99 may or may not be an impulse buy, $59.88 is definitely not)?

  3. How does the audience feel about the rental vs. owning files question?

  4. Can Marvel effectively channel new readers into print?

It will be interesting to watch this one play out, as the largest commitment of a print publisher to the digital format to-date, and they certainly didn't lack for mainstream publicity on the launch.

How Is It I Make Money Again?

Marvel's pretty clear on their new revenue model: subscription. Not all the new webcomic ventures with a print pedigree are, though. When advertising is one of your revenue streams, the amount of money comes down to two things: number of page views and ad rate. After all, your income statement is page views multiplied by ad rate.

Consider Zuda. At random, I've clicked on the "Battlefield Babysitter" comic. Go ahead, click over there and then come back to the column.

Seen the page? Good. Notice with the Flash interface when you advance from page 1 to page 2, the only thing that changes is the comic inside that Flash application. The rest of the page doesn't change. So, effectively, if you read the entire 8 page sequence at that URL, Zuda has only generated one page view to charge advertising for, leaving 7 pages of material unmonetized by non-Flash display methods.

What? You don't see an ad on the page? Yeah, Zuda has all the ads at the bottom of the screen, so there's a chance you won't see one unless you scroll to the bottom of the page, and in the case of the comic pages with lots of comments between the actual comic and the ad, that's not the most advertiser friendly placement in the world.

Now Flash isn't the only technology that can bring up this sort of problem. AJAX can, too. Consider ComicMix, which has a number of comic book format webcomics online by people you may remember from print. Take a look at the new "Jon Sable, Freelance" comic by Mike Grell. Go ahead, click over and come back.

If you click through the comic, the only thing that changes is the comic page. Again, that's not Flash, that's AJAX, which you might oversimplify by calling a programming language that can simulate Frames with smoother results. That means, you guessed it: 9 comic pages, one ad view.

Now, on this particular page, it's potentially not as bad, because they're running Google Ads, which only pay when you click on one. They're in the left hand navigation bar if you missed them (they don't exactly jump out at you). If Comic Mix decided to run traditional advertising that paid according to traffic, this is a revenue minimizer. It also only generates one set of Google links for the reader to connect with and click on, but that's a more minor issue in the greater scheme of things.

The take-away from this, if you're planning on doing webcomics, is simple. If you want advertising to be a major part of your revenue mix, make sure you get a an ad impression every time somebody looks at a new page of the comic. Otherwise, you're effectively cheating yourself out of revenue.

Webcomics and Display

Here's another complaint that's been cropping up quite a bit in the last month, in regards to traditionally print creators going online: size and readability.

Everybody's figured out that the computer screen and the comic book page have different dimensions. This is probably one of the reasons many of the people who start their comic work online gravitate towards formats more in line with a newspaper comic strip, which typically has less issues with screen height and width. Computer screens have lower definition than print (72 dots per inch vs. 300+ dots per inch, depending on how something is printed). With the common size of comic book letters, the page is going to need to be at least full size on the screen, if not blown up a bit. Digest size just doesn't work.

Now, when print people do webcomics, they sometimes keep the same sized lettering, and that just doesn't work. This has been a common complaint with Zuda, people having to blow the comic up to full screen to be able to read it (which, of course, is a page without advertising). I personally haven't had the problem as frequently, but I might have my screen set at a higher resolution. This does however outline a problem.

If you are designing a comic for the web, you need to have the lettering be a little larger and you need to view the comic at a default screen resolution, not a high-res artist screen view, but somebody who ordered from Dell and didn't fuss with the settings (which is the majority of computer users).

On a similar note, and here's something Zuda got right when they conformed their creative unit to the size and shape of the screen, don't go overboard with comic book 2-page spreads and splash pages if your entry audience is online. Unless they have a very large monitor (and yes, many artists, do), by the time the average reader shrinks the page enough to have the two-page spread fit, forget about reading dialogue and a certain amount of detail will be gone.

These things are unavoidable when converting old print issues for online viewing, but if you're originating something online, you need to think about the audience.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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