This past week, Marvel announced its intention to go day-and-date with all of its family-friendlier Marvel Universe comics. That qualification is in place, I bet, to save them any bother with Apple's approval process.
This is big and happy news, in that now most of the world of serialized comics is available digitally on the same day as print. DC is already there. Archie is there. Marvel will now be mostly there. Image is largely there. And the rest are hit and miss, but the trend is clear and the end result will be total day-and-date availability.
There are two more steps remaining now to complete this digital transition:
First, the comics you download have to be yours to keep. This will likely be the last battle in the war. It's going to be tough to convince companies who refuse to hand out review PDFs for fear of spoilers and piracy to sell those PDFs to paying customers. They like the control they have by relying on digital comic stores' DRMed files. That's a foolish system that even the litigious music industry finally abandoned. I have faith that the comic book industry will open its eyes to that, too, though I fear they're in no rush to do so. Inevitability in the comics industry doesn't mean there won't be lots of claws digging into backwards ways until the fight is lost.
Second, pricing needs to become a priority. $2.99 and $3.99 for a 20 page comic is too damned much, doubly so when the product is digital. Forget for a moment the logistics of that price point. Yes, there are perfectly valid reasons for those price points, but they don't matter. It's an untenable position to hold. Marketing is more about emotions than logic. If you insist on charging a price for your goods that your customer base feels is onerous, your audience will never expand past the dwindling numbers of die-hard fans. If you think comics are a niche industry meant to appeal to only a small group of readers, then your wish is already granted. If you think comics should be read by a wider base, then something needs to change. The fact that Marvel has standard comics at $3.99 while DC has gone to 20 pages across the board for $2.99 shows you how nutty the industry has gotten.
And, yes, I realize there are non-superhero books that are read by non-comic book readers, and that there are comic book fans who have no interest in Marvel and DC. "Bone" has sold in the millions; I get it and I'm glad for it. The problem is, those are the outliers and those are the books that are blips on the radar of larger pop culture. Mostly, though not exclusively, they only get praised or popular when there's a media tie-in.
I want comics to be a habit for more than the two or three hundred thousand people who frequent comic shops. And I think the two companies most synonymous with the form need to lead that charge mostly by pulling their heads out of dark holes and looking more forward than they ever have. They're showing signs of life, but they usually flinch the second there needs to be a line item added to the budget for it.
But since we're still talking about the baby steps needed on the road to a true digital comics revolution, I have three ideas on how to handle 99 cent comics that might help facilitate their adoption by more publishers more often.
FIRST: PRIME MEMBERSHIP
I want to buy into a program that I'm calling "Marvel Prime." For $25 a year, I get to buy every day and date digital Marvel comic for $1.99 each. This effectively guarantees Marvel that I'll be buying two of their comics a month, but in reality I would buy more than that, because the $2.99 barrier would be eliminated. Think the dollar difference isn't that great? People pay $80 for "Amazon Prime" to avoid $3 shipping charges for a year and wind up spending more money on the site. Now, Amazon is going so far as to release its own tablet this week so you can shop at Amazon more. I'm not holding my breath for a Marvel or DC tablet, but the point is there: make it easier and cheaper for people to buy your stuff, and they'll buy more of it, making you more money.
DC will enter the fray with its own version of "DC Prime," of course, at which point "Marvel Prime" would go one better to include 99 cent comics from all $1.99 comics. DC would match it, and we'd have a horse race.
The only problematic thing here is that you'd have to buy two separate subscriptions and you'd be locked into one digital comics distributor, but I think so long as you keep the annual price low enough, readers wouldn't mind. (Is there really anyone using multiple platforms to read digital comics just for the fun of it?)
Please note that if they just sold you non-DRMed files, moving between digital comics distributors wouldn't be an issue. Right now, the problem with digital comics readers is that they're attached to the digital comics stores. If you prefer the reading mechanics of one reader over the other, you have to do all your shopping at their store, which may not have the selection of comics you prefer. Removing the DRM removes that distinction, and gives the consumer the chance to choose the best store and the best reader technology. It would also allow third parties to create new and potentially better readers without the need to build an entire store infrastructure behind it.
Things like "Panel View" would be what today's comic distributors could use to incentivize its readers to stick inside its own ecosystem. Those wouldn't be available outside the home app. But for those who don't care about those grafted-on panel-by-panel reading functionalities, it's not a problem.
In any case, these "Prime"-like memberships would be a problem is they got too expensive. I can't see too many people spending $79 for a Marvel membership and then $79 for a DC deal. But I think at a low enough price, current fans of both companies wouldn't mind buying both. I consider myself more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy, but at $25, the pricing might be low enough to justify both subscriptions. For most comic readers, I think it would be.
This might not be the path towards greater readership, but it would certainly be popular amongst the tried-and-true, and they're your first marketing foot soldiers. Throw them a bone. As readership expands, the plan will get more popular and keep more of those new readers around. Everyone loves a bargain.
Ultimately, this can't be the long-term answer to the 99 cent comic problem. Hopefully, it can be used for a couple of years so Marvel and DC can use it as market research and realize that expanding the program to include everyone for free is the way to go.
SECOND: THE 99-CENT-COMICS APP
I want to see dedicated 99 Cent Comics apps. Comixology, for example, has a number of apps catering to specific niches. Besides their main warehouse, they have publisher- and character-dedicated storefronts. Why not create one more that's populated solely with 99 Cent comics? That could be the app current readers use to specifically try new stuff without the high price barrier, but could also be the app that those who don't want to spend $3 and $4 on the latest and greatest could use to fill their comics reading days and nights. Marvel already spotlights specific releases on Mondays with 99 cent price tags, and those could easily appear in this new app for a day. The other publishers with Comixology-powered apps could each stake a claim for the other days. I'd leave Wednesday free, because there's enough going on that day already, but wouldn't it be something to see someone try to make a name for themselves by selling their new #1 issue on release day as 99 cents digitally? That would be the ultimate test of Direct Market versus Digital, wouldn't it?
Perhaps a price point-specific app would also encourage the publishers to create additional material for it, in an attempt to "own" the app?
Such an app might be a bigger boon to the industry. DC's day-and-date digital comic program has been the biggest boost to the comics industry since the invention of digital comics in an indirect way. Comixology, the app that carries those digital comics, has been the #1 top-grossing iPad app for the past seven Wednesdays.
Anyone who's ever shopped in the App Store knows that the apps that sell the fastest are the ones that make the Top 10. Many apps set up their marketing specifically to quickly enter the Top 10, if only for a small period of time, in the hopes that others will notice it and sales will skyrocket. The Top 10 lists are the best advertising in the app world. Being on that list has brought more new and lapsed readers into comics than any superhero movie released this year, I'd bet. That's with the $2.99 barrier in place. Imagine selling 99 cent comics to that same readership.
THIRD: THE WEB SITE FOR 99 CENT WAITERS
When we finally get to the point where digital comics are $1.99 day-and-date and 99 cents a month later, I look forward to the spin-off of this web site, ComicBookResources99.com, where all the news stories and spoilers are published a month later to accommodate those who wait 30 days for the 99 cent versions of the comics. I wonder if such a blog might exist out there today for the DCU digital comics? I know there are people who are a month behind on reading the New 52 just for that dollar savings. Surely, someone is catering to them?
This week sees the release of the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Amazon Kindle Fire tablets. Both have deals with comics publishers for content: DC for the Kindle, and Marvel for the Nook. For people who complain about the iPad being too small to comfortably read the text on a comics page, these two new entrants with their screens in the seven inch range ought to be painful. I hope they try before they buy.
I had an even crazier idea for digital comics that fell apart as I attempted to argue in its favor. I hate when that happens, but it did spur on a couple of ideas you read above. Life is filled with dead ends, but in running into them, we often find new paths. (That's so profound it should be a tweet.)
Next week, I'll hit my head against the wall several times, get lost twice, find ten dead ends and come out with a column I hadn't predicted I'd be writing when I started it in the first place. Ain't life grand?