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Tue, June 8th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: June 9th, 2010 at 11:59am

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
16

DAY AND DATE: A WORTHY EXPERIMENT?

The Comic that Launched A Thousand Columns

Late last week, Marvel announced a day-and-date digital comic. The Matt Fraction-written "Invincible Iron Man Annual" is coming out next month in digital format for download the same day as the print version. And while this is a great step forward and shows us that Marvel is open to experimentation, there are a couple of looming questions that might spoil it.

The biggest is that Marvel has not released a price for its digital version yet. Anything equal to or more than the $4.99 cost of the print version would sour the test. No, not sour it. It would destroy it completely. In fact, I'd say pricing the digital comic for more than $5 is a sign that Marvel is attempting to prove a point - putting out a digital comic they know will fail miserably just so they can say they tried it and now leave them alone. Either that, or Marvel is clueless and still trying to protect the Direct Market at the expense of growing its own audience. (One could argue, I suppose, that they've been going down that road for two decades already, so why change now?)

There is reason to believe the book will be more expensive digitally. All they've announced so far is that the digital comic will be three separate downloads, or "chapters." So you'll pay for the book three times before you can read the whole thing. Is this a limitation of Comixology's system? Is 80 pages' worth of comics too much for Comixology's servers or programming to handle? Are their systems currently calibrated for 22 page files, roughly, only? Is this decision possibly made in anticipation of higher-than-usual download activity crashing their servers? Some people who are just experimenting with this might only download the first file, after all. Or some might wait until they've finished the first part before downloading the second one, perhaps hours or days later. Both situations will help spread out the server hit, or lessen it entirely.

Marvel's more modern comics currently retail for $1.99 on Comixology's platform. That's $5.97 for the annual, or 98 cents more than the $4.99 that the print version is on sale for. Marvel also has 99 cent comics. Making the book $2.97 would be reasonable. Let's hope they go for that.

The experiment is already suspect, though. What kind of information will they get from this test? I suspect that there's not much to come out of this. A single comic is not a great test. It's a tease. Everyone still has to go to the comics shop for the rest of their Wednesday comics, so you potentially lose 95% of the Wednesday Crowd on this comic, who'll just buy it on paper along with the rest of their comics. Talk to me when Marvel releases every comic for a week and the Marvel Zombies don't need to stop at their comic shop at all that week. That will be a true test. Or, talk to me when there's been a long enough build up of this kind of material that word spreads more virally across the internet and newbies start showing up more. I have no doubt that this experiment will land on Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, and other internet geek tastemaker sites. That's the first step. But this book is a curiosity item.

I'm reminded of my oft-cited example from the mid-90s, when Marvel tested the waters of higher price points with slicker paper. They released several comics - X-Men issues, as I recall - in both plain white paper format, and glossy slick paper format. The latter carried a higher price point. This might have been a good test for what production values the comics reading populace was interested in, or what price point they'd want to read their comics in. Except - the higher cost comic came out two weeks before the cheaper one. Did anyone expect the core X-Men fans to wait two weeks?

Statistics are dangerous things, oft wielded by people who make sure to get the results they want before they start testing.

Still, we all must vote with our wallets. So if you do want more digital comics, but this one as soon as it's available. It's about the only thing you can do today to help encourage the big comics publishers to put things out there digitally.

If this is truly a one-off thing, then not much will come of it. If it's the start of a new campaign, then it gives me new hope not just for digital comics, but also for the industry as a whole.

RETAILER REACTION

I didn't expect this to be pretty. Obviously, digital comics are a pretty big threat to those who make their livings at comic shop owners. I don't envy them their positions right now, and I don't blame them for being scared about comics going digital. But some of their comments on this one comic being available are bordering on this histrionic.

My favorite, though, goes to ComicsPro. I don't have any bones to pick with the organization. In fact, I think their goals are laudable and their programs are great for up-and-coming retailers. But their reaction to this news made me laugh:

"In light of Marvel's 'day & date' announcement for the Iron Man Annual, we are hopeful that any digital reader sampling the first chapter online will then visit one of our many member stores in the U.S. and Canada to buy the whole story in printed comics format."

Go ahead. Read it again. Pick your jaw up off the floor and let's follow the logic here:

ComicsPro suggests reader buy a third of a comic digitally, then go to the store and buy the whole thing. They want you, the reader, to effectively buy the same comic twice to keep themselves in business. Someone is completely missing the point here.

Look, this isn't going to be easy. I know that. Retailer reaction is going to be mixed to negative. They want to keep their businesses going, and who can blame them? But the twisted leaps of logic they're espousing in an attempt to make themselves look like the Golden Children who should be honored above all others, and whose interests are #1 in the comics industry - well, it's just embarrassing.

ComicsPro is not alone, though. From the same CBR article, check out what Mike Malve of Atomic Comics has to say:

"And yes, as much as I am for trying to increase our readership, this will definitely negatively affect the sales on this book for retailers across the country. In my opinion, if Marvel were to make the price of the download equal to, or more expensive then the comic book, sales may not be as adversely affected."

The logic here being that Marvel is producing day and date comics so as to make them completely unattractive to regular buyers to force them back into the comic shops. So, uhm, why make digital comics?

It gets worse, though. From Bleeding Cool's roundup of retailer reaction, check out what Tim Stoltzfus has to say (with emphasis mine):

"As long as the digital price stays at or above the same price as the physical comic (which it absolutely should), I don't see a problem with day and date simultaneous releases."

Now that's a parenthetical that's all about self-preservation while completely missing the point. "Which it absolutely should?" Under what possible brand of logic should digital comics cost more than print comics? Again, except for protecting the Direct Market.

Phil Boyle is either in "wishful thinking" mode, or in complete denial:

"I'm betting that Iron Man Annual will be available at a 100% discount the day it is released in either print or digital so nothing there has changed except maybe Marvel asking pirates to pay for the booty they take. Good luck with that, Marvel."

So now the logic is that digital distribution won't hurt comic shops because Marvel is only aiming them at pirates who won't pay for them, anyway. Hey, ostrich, go bury your head in the ground and ignore the nuclear bomb going off behind you. Nothing to see here.

The most interesting analysis regarding the survival of comic shops comes from Flashback Universe, whose informal survey at Heroes Con last weekend broke it down into three types of retailers. The conclusion there is that the smallest shops in rundown strip malls are the ones most in danger. Sadly, I think that counts for a significant percentage of the Direct Market. This is a large part of the reason the Direct Market should no longer be granted a stranglehold on the comics industry.

ROAD TO DIGITAL

I've talked to a lot of people in the past couple of weeks about digital comics, and have seen a few spin-off conversations in other on-line fora that likely started with Pipeline a couple weeks ago. It's been an interesting time to talk about comics, and there's a lot of angles at play here.

First, I was gratified to hear from a number of relatively new parents who find themselves in the same boat as myself - young kids, less money for the hobby, etc. Sometimes, I worry that it's just me or that I've lost my interest in comics. I really haven't. I'm only changing how I buy them. How often. Where. On what schedule. It's a much more relaxed schedule, with more interest paid to value and economy and a more selective stack of reads to allow for the insanely little time I have for them. I think I actually appreciate comics more this way, rather than shoveling as many of them into longboxes as possible, as I once did.

Second, the $3.99 price point is really hurting people. Now, the standard response to this from Marvel - the company that took ownership of that price level first - is that it hasn't hurt their sales. But overall sales in comics are down 20% year on year while the average price is up 33%. Don't tell me there isn't a correlation there. Raising prices on the top-selling books is the easiest way to keep sales from going down. Raising prices on #1 issues of short mini-series that won't have the chance to dip below 10,000 sales because there will be no issue #5 is easy. When everything is $3.99, though, it'll be more than just the mid-level books failing.

Third, there's a reality to contend with. I still think the end goal is an iTunes for comics: DRM free files that can be shared on multiple computers owned by the same person. All publishers in one system. Exhaustive catalog going back all the way to the beginning. Lower price point than print.

But how do we get there from here? Expecting all the publishers to agree to one platform for their wares is not reasonable, and might not even be a smart business move. But if the comics are in such a format that they're cross-platform compatible (DRM free, open format), then the platform doesn't matter. Let the developers compete on who has the best reader for your comics. Let the storefronts compete on who has the best sales experience.

It won't happen overnight. There's an intermediate step that needs to come first.

I HAVE A THEORY

One of the problems with digital comics from a publisher's point of view is that the publisher will see less money per sale. I'm not sure what the exact number is, but let's say in the world of print that the publisher sees 50% of the cover price. With comics up at $3.99 a pop today, that's $2.00 a comic to pay all the creatives and the rest of the infrastructure cost. (I'll even be nice and say that the advertising pays the print bill, though I'm not sure I believe that.)

A $1.99 digital comic, though, would only earn the publisher $1 per sale, assuming the same 50% split. I don't know what the actual split is. I'm not sure I've ever seen that mentioned in an interview anywhere, but I imagine mine is a reasonable guess.

In effect, the publisher has to double sales to generate the same revenue. In the long term, I think that's possible. Have comics publishers ever thought in the long term, though?

There's a simple fix for this, though. Marvel needs to buy Comixology. If they control the platform, they get ALL the money. And maybe then Comixology continues its business with the rest of the publishers, using the moneys made there to keep it afloat. Basically, Marvel gets Most Favored Nations status, gets free distribution, and keeps all the money from its $2.00 products. So long as there's competition to Comixology (and there's a lot of it today), this isn't an anti-trust issue, right? I am not a lawyer...

The comics industry tends to react to such big maneuvers in the way most businesses do: Follow the leader. DC, with nothing in the digital distribution world going today, then buys up a competitor (Longbox, Graphic.ly, someoneā€¦). That gives them instant access to a market they have zero share in today. You can't legally buy a DC comic digitally anywhere. They're very far behind. While there are always rumors of "something" being developed behind closed doors, there's a big lead right now enjoyed by every other comic book publisher in the digital space. Buying up and rebranding an extant platform is the quickest way for DC to get in the game.

In the meantime, more publishers have to take advantage of more of these platforms. Each one might have a unique percentage of the possible comics-reading population. Going exclusive to one platform might work for a Marvel or a DC, but won't work for BOOM! or Image or Zenescope. It only helps them to be everywhere for everyone. They are not the destination publishers than The Big Two are.

But it does look to me like we're embarking on a future in which the Big Two act as their own distributors, and tribes of smaller publishers come together to distribute themselves. With any luck, some kind of common format will be arrived at so that we don't need to run five different programs to read five different comics.

Maybe Marvel buying Heroes World was just an idea two decades ahead of its time?

FINAL RANDOM THOUGHTS AND LINKS

* This open letter to me amused me greatly.

* To be fair, Brian Hibbs' comments in the CBR retailer roundup are fairly level-headed and rational. He's right about Final Order Cut-Off dates and the weirdness of hiding this announcement on a Friday without the most crucial detail: digital comics price. That fact makes me think this whole press release is a trial balloon to give Marvel an idea of what they should charge, or might be able to get away with charging.

* Take heart, retailers: Cheaper comics availability doesn't mean the Direct Market goes away instantly. There are discount retailers on-line who ship weekly who have not yet usurped you. And then there's Amazon...

* I'm not alone in thinking all of this, it seems. Scott Kurtz also rebuts the silly idea that digital comics should be more expensive. He even finds a story quoting a retailer who has some kind of entitlement complex, and finds a slippery slope where someday digital comics will be out weeks before print comics. At first, I found that notion laughable, but then I thought about it and - hey, why not? The digital files that make up a comic are finished a couple weeks before they're printed up, shipped to distribution centers, and then out to comic shops. So why not earlier digital comics? Timing it out with print versions is only delaying Marvel from making money...

* My homework for this week: Josh Dysart comments on Vertigo's trade policy and hints at DC's trade program having cut-backs. Truth be told, it's not an all together bad idea. When you trade everything you print monthlies on, it dilutes the specialness of the trades. And not every book is something that needs to be marketed outside the Direct Market or kept in print indefinitely. ("Arsenal" is best kept under Direct Market wraps, right?) It's the same argument about superhero movies and which comics you direct a movie fan to. With "Watchmen," it was easy. With "Batman" and "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," there are too many choices. How can the line be refined? (via)

* iPhone 4: What's interesting in the new phone for comics fans? Well, the iBookstore app has a built-in PDF reader. We'll have to wait and see how it fares against current competition from the likes of Good Reader, though, to know if it makes for a good comic book reader. And the new crisper display should show off the art even better, though the screen is still so small that you'll be resorting to that panel-to-panel transition stuff that the digital comic platforms employ.

This column only touches the surface of the discussions about digital comics I've had in the last couple of weeks. I get the feeling we'll talk more about them in the weeks ahead. May we be cursed to live in interesting times, eh?

Plus, we can all have a good laugh over my Marvel/Comixology theory. Unless it comes true. Then you may crown me King of Geeks.

Meanwhile, I'm over on Twitter to talk about this some more.

Meanwhile, catch my photography at AugieShoots.com and AugieShoots.tumblr.com.

E-mail me! Or come chat at the Pipeline Message Board, and catch up on nearly 13 years of columns in the Pipeline Archives.

Discuss this story in CBR's Pipeline forum.  |  16 Comments

TAGS:  pipeline, marvel comics, invincible iron man, digital comics, ipad

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