With the announcement this week of Apple's new iPad device, the comics community has been ablaze with debate over whether or not the full-color eReading computer will open up new avenues for sales and readership or whether the iPad is only a small step in the broader push to bring traditional comics to computers. However, while speaking with IDW Publishing's Director of ePublishing Jeff Webber for our extensive roundup of industry plans for the iPad, some often overlooked details of how a company navigates the current mobile comics platforms came to light that help illuminate the real shape of that very new piece of the market place.
While far from the only publisher in the mobile comics game, IDW was one of the earliest adopter's of comics for phones from their release of recognizable franchise comics to more coordinated media tie-in pushes. And beyond general IDW partnerships with early mobile comics adopters such as iVerse Media, the publisher has made efforts to release their comics branded around specific franchises with interesting results. "We've had a really good year this past year on the iPhone, and we've got well over 300 individual issues out there," Webber explained to CBR. "And along with those, we've launched four different comic shop storefront apps. We've got IDW Comics as an application, and we have separate applications for Transformers, G.I. Joe and Star Trek. That way, we're able to appeal to casual readers that may be more familiar with brands like Star Trek and Transformers who may not be your typical comic book reader. But then we collect all those titles in the IDW application. That way we're able to reach different audiences."
Webber said that what IDW has found first and foremost in releasing comics in the heavily competitive iPhone app market is that as it stands, there's little within the structure of Apple's current buying structure to make comics specifically stand out as strongly as many promoters of the medium would like, and that issue is something that should be addressed when moving forward with the iPad. "I think a lot of how this affects comics whether it's in iBooks or it's in the book category in the App Store is that, frankly, the promotional range of getting comics out there means that on the iPhone right now, comics are just part of a very huge category. There's probably a good 25,000 books in the Book category, and there's no breakout in genre like there is in the Games category. I always liken it to the idea that if you walked into a Barnes & Noble and 'A' started on your left and went all the way to 'Z' on the right and the whole store was in alphabetical order. That's what it's like.
"So what we found on the iPhone is that the big brands do well. Like, we did a 'Legion' comic that is doing well this week after the movie came out. A lot of the comics that have other media associated with them are doing well on the iPhone, but it's a difficult space for creator-based content – stuff that we really love – to get exposure."
Webber continued to explain that, perhaps surprisingly to many, a format that has done a better job placing comics front and center for emerging eReaders is the Sony PSP handheld gaming system. Though it's comic-reading application only launched on December 16 of last year, a strong lineup of publishers has already signed up for the PSP comics store (found online at www.playstationcomics.com) including IDW, Marvel, Archie and more. "What's nice is that when you go to the PSP store through your actual device, comics is a huge button on the device. When you come to their website and see their e-mails, you're very much seeing comics promoted as its own genre [rather than being a smaller part of books]. Sony has created a proprietary authoring system here so all the comics are read in the same platforms."
What that means for a publisher like IDW is that they may have an easier time promoting specific titles rather than the idea of "comics" in general or specific mega-franchises. Webber explained that in a few months on the PSP, both video game-specific titles like the Ben Templesmith-drawn "Wormood" and EA tie-in "Army of Two" and original properties like Joe Hill's "Locke & Key" and "Aleister Arcane" have drawn new sales. "That's the kind of thing you wish you could get more people to see," he said.
"What's amazing here is that it's not strictly superhero-based. We've got a nice showing there, and we're finding that on that platform, people are very receptive to creator-based content. I wouldn't say it's at the exclusion of others – Transformers is still very popular on the PSP – but what's really interesting is that we're finally able to break out some content that looks really nice in digital but that people haven't found."
Aside from the fact that, as Webber puts it, "Sony promotes comics," he believes that the growing gaming audience who are being drawn towards comic-specific titles are proof of a new audience for comics in general online. "Game people on a PSP are rabid purchasers just like on an iPhone. Both of those people are anxious to get new content. The game audience is not to be underestimated. And often, games that do well aren't always based on well-known IP. They're sometimes brand new concepts. We'll see. It's a brand new category for Sony, but I think they're happy with the results for now, too."
Ultimately, if comic publishers want to see their content not just exist but thrive on a mobile platform, they'll have to find the best outlet to draw the attention of the digital consumer. "I think what we're set for with the iPad launch is that 2009 was a real formative year, but 2010 through 2012 is going to be a breakout time frame," Webber concluded. "That said, IDW is really behind this all the way. In the end, if you look at the numbers of people who are reading on this platform along with the fact that last year we had our best year ever in sales, I would argue 100% it's not taking away one audience from another. The good thing about these handheld platforms is that people are willing to buy the content."