EXCLUSIVE: Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley talks Digital Comics Unlimited

Tue, November 20th, 2007 at 12:00am PST | Updated: April 2nd, 2008 at 2:58am

Digital Comics
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited home page
Marvel Comics launched its new Digital Comics Unlimited service last week, a new system by which fans and new readers can purchase digital versions of 2,500 items (with more promised to come in the near future) from the publisher's immense and valuable back catalog for a monthly or annual subscription fee. It is the first time a major comics publisher has made so considerable an amount of its products available for digital delivery.

Since the story was broke by USA Today, the response to the MDCU initiative has been enormous, with readers overwhelming Marvel.com's Web servers and making the site all but impenetrable for nearly two days. Marvel anticipated a high interest, but nothing of the magnitude.

Based on the Web traffic alone, readers appear to have embraced Marvel's online subscription service, but many questions remain unanswered. Certainly, the first on nearly everyone's mind is simply, what specific Marvel comics can be found on MDCU? It's a question CBR News can answer. Marvel has provided us with a list of those initial 2,500 comic books available now on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. Click here to see the entire list.

What is the reaction to MDCU from traditional retailers? Why a subscription model instead of a payment-per-issue model? Why offer the products exclusively in an in-browser interface without a downloadable option? Is MDCU expected to undercut the illegal downloading of pirated comic books?

To get the answers to these questions and more, CBR News spoke directly with Marvel Comics Publisher Dan Buckley in this exclusive interview.

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To begin with, let's talk the Digital Comics Unlimited launch. Clearly, it attracted a lot of visitors, more than Marvel.com is obviously used to handling, resulting in some server downtime. Were efforts made in advance of the MDCU launch to reinforce Marvel's server network? Will further enhancements be needed to minimize this downtime?

Yes, a lot of work was done in advance of the launch to test our server network, but the testing scenarios never reached the level of traffic we experienced the day of the launch. No one foresaw a scenario where the traffic would be a multiple of the "Death of Captain America" traffic.

Panel from a Marvel digital comic seen with Smart Panel zoom feature
The enhancements and structural changes needed to minimize our downtime was designed and implemented in less than 48 hours. The site's performance has greatly improved since the implementation of the redesigned server network last Wednesday evening. Any interested fans can access the Digital Comics Unlimited site right now!

While this information is generally held close to the heart, can you share any traffic numbers about the launch?

All I can state from a traffic standpoint is that it was multiple of any traffic that we ever experienced in the past. We truly appreciate the support from all our fans.

Marvel has for a number of years offered a handful of digital comics available online for free viewing, usually about 20 products at a time. Digital Comics Unlimited currently offers 250 free products as an introductory promotion. How will the freely viewed material be changing in the coming months?

We will always have free comics for people to view, however it will not exceed the 250 being offered at this time. As noted on the site, the access of 250 titles will be for a limited time, only.

Double-page spread as seen with the MDCU reader
The amount of comics offered to paying subscribers will expand weekly. What sorts of books are scheduled for the weekly updates and how many books are Marvel planning to add each week?

We will be putting up at least 20 new comics per-week. The choice of those books will be determined in a variety of ways. This will include providing marketing support for our publishing and entertainment initiatives, editors/staff choices and feedback from fans.

One of the big questions about the launch of MDCU is how the store will affect Direct Market retailers. How much discussion, if any, did Marvel have with brick-and-mortar store before the launch? What sort of reaction did you get from them, positive or negative?

Marvel remains committed to our Direct Market retailers, who've supported us for decades and remain important business partners. To that end, we had discussions with some of our retail partners about this initiative. The feedback was very positive and they also provided us with a great deal of information on how we can continue to improve the program in the future.

The beginning of this digital issue advises readers to seek out a print collection of more "Captain America" comics from a Direct Market retailer
You've previously indicated that MDCU is in part an attempt to engage new, younger readers in an avenue with which they're more familiar than a comic store, the Internet. Let's talk about converting digital readers to print readers. Is that a primary goal, and how does Marvel plan on making this happen?

Creating awareness and trial with new readers is our primary goal and converting those new readers into print consumers is definitely a key derivative of this goal. I think you can easily see how we are trying to make this happen with the "Read it in Print" pop-ups that include the Comic Book Store Locater Service phone number.

Clearly, a controversial element of MDCU is its business model. Marvel seems to be following the lead of initiatives like Real Media's Rhapsody music store, where users pay a subscription fee to listen to music online on-demand, but which has met with decidedly mixed results.

Subscriber's "My Must-Read" page
I don't really feel that it is a fair comparison, but I can see why people are jumping to it because [music] is the industry that everyone compares digital business models too. I feel it is unfair for a couple reasons: unlike music consumption, reading a digital comic online is a very different consumer experience than reading it in print. Second, we are the only place you can "officially" get Spider-Man, FF, X-Men, Cap, etc. online.

That being said, I would say a better comparison would be "pay-per-view" or a HBO-type subscription for TV.

Third, for the most part, online music subscription sites are not looking to introduce the product of music to people. The people that they are targeting are people that currently listen to and enjoy music. We are trying to introduce comic books to an audience that doesn't currently read them but whom we think would greatly enjoy them if they had access to them in a manner that is consistent with their lifestyle. The primary targets are entertainment fans that have been engaging our characters through our movies and video game releases. We have found that many of these loyal fans have not had the opportunity to experience our comic stories. We feel by bringing the books to them that we have a better chance to make them into regular comic readers.

MDCU comics must be viewed online via the Marvel Reader and are not available for download. Why did Marvel opt to go this route, which, again, hasn't been a great success in other areas of entertainment? Are digital downloads a possibility in the future?

We chose the streaming model because it best fits our overall publishing plan. Downloads are a possibility, but are not presently in our publishing plans.

It's time to mention the elephant in the room -- illegal comics downloading. It's no secret that comics pirating is rampant andthat it's been going on for a long time.One of the problems the music industry had when person-to-person file sharing -- or pirating - came alive was their disastrous reaction to it and extremely slow progress in developing an alternative that listeners would actually want to use instead of the various illegal sources. Is MDCU intended as a response and alternative to illegal comics downloading? Does Marvel believe it can help curb those activities?

One of the benefits of this launch is that it provides many of our fans with the opportunity to "legally" read our comics. We sincerely hope that this service offering will curb these "illegal" downloading activities. The music industry's reactions to the illegal downloading did help us with us the formation of our business strategy, but it was not the driving factor behind our business model.

Illegal comics downloading won't be going away anytime soon. Now that Marvel has entered the digital space in a major way, will Marvel pursue legal action against facilitating sites?

We will be reviewing and evaluating "illegal" downloading activities on a case by case basis.

Traditionally, a reader purchases his or her comic and, if they enjoyed it, hands it to a friend to read. By virtue of their unrestricted nature, pirated comics are a shared experience as well, as is much of the modern World Wide Web, from social networking sites like MySpace to music sites like Last.fm.

Yet with MDCU, we're speaking of a very singular experience -- assuming the subscriber doesn't hand over his access information to a friend.You're likely to have users who've paid for large runs of books they have no way showing to a friend and saying, "Hey, I read 12 issues of this book and it's great, you should read this." Is a sharing component of some sort being considered for the future?

Sharing and community building are an important part of our future plans. We can't reveal those plans yet, but we're constantly focused on evolving and offering the best experience for our fans. This is something reflected in both our digital and print initiatives.

What expectations does Marvel have for Digital Comics Unlimited in its first year? Is there a measurement of success your striving for?

Initially we wanted to generate excitement, and I think we can check that goal of our list. The secondary measurement will be registered users and paid subscribers.

The launch of MDCU comes at an interesting time, when television and film writers are striking primarily over digital residuals issues. In light of these events in other areas of entertainment, the obvious question is, are digital royalties in place for creators whose work is being sold on MDCU?

Digital comics will become a part of our incentives package in the near future. We are at present discussing the calculations and implementation of this package. It may take several months to implement. However, the first thing we need to do is make sure that the offering is profitable.

DC Comics recently launched their first major digital platform with Zuda, which is only offering original comics created specifically for the digital realm. Are there any plans for original digital comics with MDCU?

Maybe.

Finally, what about plans for pre-release digital previews? Any chance we'll see comics published in their entirety online prior to print publication?

Not at this time.

Thanks for your time, Dan.

CBR Staff Writer Andy Khouri contributed to this article.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.

 
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