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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thoughts on DC Comics' Recent Big Announcement, Part 2


At it's core, both parts of DC's announced plans for September (the re-launching of all of its titles and the same-day availability of its comics as digital downloads) are about one thing: attracting new readers. As was discussed in the comments section of one my recent posts, the modern day comic book market is a shade of what it was once, and more disconcerting, it is a market that is increasingly shrinking, as existing buyers leave the hobby or cutback the number of titles they buy (for a variety of reasons) faster than new buyers replace them (we existing comic geeks can only churn out so many kids and turn them onto the hobby ourselves, after all). So more than anything, DC is after new readers; after all, they know there is a willing audience out there, or at least an audience open to the idea of stories involving superheroes. My last post discussed the cancellation/re-launch/re-tooling of DC's stable of comic book characters as one part of that new reader drive. Today, let's look at the other element of their strategy: the digital side.

So, hey, this internet thing is pretty cool, huh? Like almost every other facet of the entertainment media, it's taken the major comic book companies (including DC) a while to embrace the internet as anything more than a marketing avenue for their physical product. While the music industry has, finally and grudgingly, adopted the internet into its business model, for the most part, in one form or another via iTunes, Pandora and whatnot, and Barnes and Noble and Amazon are busy trying to convince you that you MUST own an eReader, traditional comic books on the internet are still coming into their own (and I stress traditional, that is, comics initially published in print form; original web comics are entirely different, and already have a rich and varied online history).


DCs announcement that it would make available downloads of its comics the same day the print versions hit the stands makes it the first major comic book company to use that model. Currently Marvel, in addition to much (but not all) of its vast back catalog, makes available many of its most recent issues via a monthly or yearly subscription service. However, these recent releases arrive online several weeks or months after their print counterparts hit stores, and with no real regular release schedule. DC's announcement marks the first time new comic books will be made available online at the same time as their print counterparts on a regular schedule.

This is, arguably, bigger news than the re-launching of the comic books themselves (something, as discussed in the last post on this subject, DC has done before). In fact, I've seen some speculation that DC's "month of #1s" is just that: a month, and that DC intends, after September, to revert to their old titles, using the publicity of an apparent reboot to draw attention to their true innovation: the digital releases. As more and more info is released, it seems less and less likely that is the case, but there is no doubt that the digital initiative is a big deal. Like the re-launch of the comic books, the annoucement comes with some big questions that, as of yet, have gone unanswered. For me, these are some of the biggest:

1. Price
It seems the biggest key to success for the digital counterpart of a physical product is pricing the digital product significantly lower than the physical product. Songs on iTunes are mostly $.99 a pop, with whole albums available for download at prices several dollars less than the price of a CD at Best Buy or Target. EBooks sell for the fraction of the price of a hardcover, with many older and public domain books available for free. If digital comic books are going to not only stand alongside print floppies but draw in new readers (as DC surely hopes they will), then the digital version needs to be cheaper than the floppy. Rumors are swirling that DC intends to sell its digital downloads at $3.99, the same price as the print copy. Doing so would likely guarantee a failure of the initiative. For $.99 a pop, I'm willing to try digitially what I may not be willing to plop down four bucks for in print. Charge me the same for a computer file as you do something tangible, and I'll opt for the tangible (or, depending on the title, nothing at all). Simply put, for DC's digital comics to succeed, they MUST be priced lower than the print comics.

Of course, a lower price point would also help combat piracy, as pretty much every comic ever published is already available online illegally through Torrent sites. In the early days of online music sales, no one thought consumers would pay for music they could download for free, albeit illegally, through places like Napster. Yet iTunes manages to do alright for itself by selling music at a price lower than the physical product. Internet piracy will always exist, but I honestly believe most comic fans would choose to pay $.99 for a comic instead of downloading it illegally, just as most music fans are willing to pay that for a song on iTunes. The higher the price of an individual comic though, the fewer people willing to turn down illegal downloads.


2. Ownership
DC has thrown the word "download" around a lot, but it remains unclear if they truly intend to sell a downloadable file of their comics, or rather something more akin to Marvel's current subscription service, which allows users to read comics online but not technically own them (with Marvel's subscription service, users are given access to read Marvel's digital files but not to (legally at least) download them. In general, I prefer a system that allows me to get something for my money, even if its just a computer file. I am terribly Western in that way: I want to own something. And though I currently subscribe to Marvel's digital service (its a handy reference for the blog), it makes me wary in other ways: Marvel can, theoretically, pull any titles they want from the service, making unavailable now something I may have previously been able to read. They could also cancel the service entirely, leaving me with nothing for my money aside from the memories of reading the books online. Computer files may not be as tangible as an actual comic, but at least they are mine; I can move them from computer to computer, and if DC suddenly goes belly up, well, at least I have those existing files available to read whenever I want.


3. Format
Both Marvel and DC currently have apps available for mobile devices that allow users to purchase and download comics (usually priced at $1.99) to read on their iPhones or what have you. However, for Marvel, their mobile app exists entirely independant of their online subscription. Despite paying for Marvel's online subscription service, if I want to read a comic on my iPhone via their mobile app, I have to purchase that comic separately via the app. And because Marvel's online reader is Flash-based and Apple stubbornly refuses to acknowledge Flash exists and is used by millions of people, there's no way I can take advantage of my subscription via my iPhone (seriously, Apple, I'd probably have bought an iPad by now if they weren't Flash-uncompatible).

Bottom line: those kind of shenanigans aren't going to fly if DC wants their digital product to succeed. Digital comics need to be handled like music files: download-able and able to be transferred from one device to another, just like you can move music from iTunes to your iPhone to your iPad. Forcing would-be readers to buy the same digital issue multiple times across multiple platforms and multiple devices is a sure way to keep the entire venture from ever taking off.


Ultimately, the digital side of DC's big September plans could prove to be the more exciting element, but it remains to be seen how DC is intending to approach it. We could be looking at the beginning of a successful initiative that finally puts digital comics on equal footing with other forms of electronic entertainment media (because if this works, Marvel and the other major comic book companies won't be shy about borrowing the business model). Or, like the re-launch of the comics themselves, DC could just be putting a new coat of paint on an existing model that doesn't generate nearly the amount of sales that it could (and should) be generating. 

11 comments:

  1. I read and collected actual physical comic books for about two years when I was young. I'm not interested in the format anymore, but I do still love the style of storytelling, and watch all the movies when they come out.

    I would love to see actual novels based on superheroes, as long as they weren't cheesy.

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  2. Hey Matt showed up! Lucky you Mr. teebore has a few superhero novels up his sleeves...

    I would totally consider reading digital DC comics if they were priced reasonably. I'm not going to drop 3.99 for digital though. It's not going to happen

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  3. @Matthew: I'm not interested in the format anymore, but I do still love the style of storytelling, and watch all the movies when they come out.

    Sounds like you're exactly the kind of reader this digital initiative is trying to target.

    I would love to see actual novels based on superheroes, as long as they weren't cheesy.

    As Sarah said, hopefully I'll be able to help you out there before too long (and I'm glad she shamelessly plugged me first, so I didn't have to :) ).

    In the meantime, there are some interesting ones out there. Superpowers by David J. Schwartz and Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman are both worth checking out.

    In terms of books starring existing superheroes, things are a bit more hit-and-miss (and I'm not terribly familiar with much of them) but there are some good ones out there.

    There are prose novel adaptations of Superman and Batman's big 90s events, "Death of Superman" and "Knightfall" and both are readable and entertaining, and Greg Rucka's adaptation of Batman's "No Man's Land" story is also very good.

    @Sarah: I would totally consider reading digital DC comics if they were priced reasonably. I'm not going to drop 3.99 for digital though. It's not going to happen

    Exactly. They need a low price point to entice new readers to try it out, and also to get people who bought the print issue to also buy the digital version (believe me, it'll happen).

    But if people aren't willing to drop $3.99 NOW to try a print comic, they certainly aren't going to do it for a digital one, and at $3.99, the existing fans will be forced to make a choice between formats, and most likely, print will continue to win out.

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  4. "For $.99 a pop, I'm willing to try digitially what I may not be willing to plop down four bucks for in print."

    My sentiment exactly! I would gladly try a lot of current stuff that I normall wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole if it only cost 99 cents.

    And thanks for mentioned Marvel's subscription service being separate from their app, and Apple incompatible. I bought an iPad 2 a few months ago. I love it. I'm not exaggerating when I say it has, in some small ways, changed my life. I almost never turn on my PC any more. If Marvel's digital subscription service worked on the iPad, I would gladly subscribe. I don't care if Apple allows Flash or if Marvel switches to a format the iPad supports -- either way, I'd be on board. But I will not go into my Marvel app and spend $1.99 per issue to gain access to the comics that digital subscribers have as part of their regular monthly fee.

    I do have some of those Marvel DVD-ROMs from 2005, though, and I got a nifty comic reader app for the iPad that reads the file format from the DVD's, so I can cram bunches of old comics onto the iPad, so that's cool.

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  5. I'm no business man, but when people suggest 99 cent comics that seems a bit low to me. I understand the reservation about not owning a physical copy, but at the same time, to say they should price digital comics at 99 cents is suggesting that $3.00 goes into the cost of printing and distribution. (And make no mistake, it costs money to distribute things in digital form too, it's just the money goes to different places.)

    Is it a good business plan to price a digital form of something the same as its physical counterpart? Probably not. Although, ticketmaster gets away with charging $2 to have a ticket e-mailed to me when having the physical ticket shipped to me is free....I have yet to figure that one out.

    Anyway, I suppose my point is that there's a lot of costs that go into a comic book (paying writers, artists, editors, etc.) beyond the phyiscal printing and shipping which doesn't take into account the additional cost of web development and maintenance that physical comics don't have.

    So maybe $3.99 isn't unreasonable? At the same time, the public won't go for that. So for this to succeed maybe they need to go to $2.99 or even $1.99. They basically need to go with the smallest profit margin they can afford to have (whatever that may be). At least to start out with.

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  6. I've noticed magazines and other print media are as much if not more online. I'd thought about getting a subscription to PC Gamer and reading it on my iPad, but the subscription is forty dollars. I curently get the magazine for twenty. Not smart business.

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  7. @Matt: I do have some of those Marvel DVD-ROMs from 2005, though, and I got a nifty comic reader app for the iPad that reads the file format from the DVD's, so I can cram bunches of old comics onto the iPad, so that's cool.

    Hmm, that's good to know. I too have some of those DVD-ROMs (most of my X-aminations screen caps come from them). I'm intrigued to know there's a way to read those on a iPad.

    @Dr. Bitz: So for this to succeed maybe they need to go to $2.99 or even $1.99. They basically need to go with the smallest profit margin they can afford to have (whatever that may be).

    I guess the way I look at it is, we know $3.99 for a floppy covers the cost of printing/creators/distribution and still allows for profit, so the cost of a digital version of that comic only needs to be enough to cover the cost of digital distribution (since the cost of the creators and making a digital copy has already been covered by the price of the print issue) plus room to turn a profit.

    (If we're talking a wholly original webcomic, then its a different deal, of course).

    $1.99 is probably a fair price. That's roughly the price of most of the issues you can buy via their mobile apps, so we know there must be some kind of profit for them built into it.

    Obviously, the cheaper the price is the more I'm going to buy, but $1.99 wouldn't totally turn me off the way $3.99 would.

    Ideally, it'd be nice to see multiple price points, like $1.99 an issue, or $15/year for a digital "subscription" to a series (just like how, in the old days, you could subscribe to print issues via mail) or maybe even some kind of uber yearly subscription that gives you access to everything.

    @Alex: I've noticed magazines and other print media are as much if not more online.

    Interesting. The only online subscriptions I've ever looked into were for magazines that no longer offered a print version, and I chalked up the higher price (relative to the old print version) to the fact that the digital subscription now how to subsidize the entire cost of the venture (not printing, but distribution and paying the talent involved) rather than sharing the cost between print and digital versions.

    It seems odd that magazines offering both formats would upcharge the digital version so much.

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  8. "I guess the way I look at it is ... the cost of a digital version of that comic only needs to be enough to cover the cost of digital distribution..."

    That was basically how I figured it'd work, too.

    I agree that $1.99 is probably a fair price for new comics. Part of what bothers me is that they charge the same price for old comics. For example, "The Dark Phoenix Saga" was recently released in Marvel's app at $1.99 per issue. I see no reason why that storyline can't cost 99 cents. It's surely paid for itself many times over by this point as one of Marvel's few "evergreen" collected editions.

    That may be an extreme example, but even stuff like Simonson's Thor, which also just hit the iPad, has also been reprinted in a run of trades and just last month in a huge, expensive Omnibus. I feel like they could get away with charging 99 cents an issue for that, too... but as I noted previously, I'm totally ignorant of how business works, so I could be wrong.

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  9. I don't think I was clear on what I meant in my last post, so let me elaborate:

    I use material that's already been reprinted as an excample, because the creators have already been paid -- decades ago, in some cases. Furthermore, since this material was recently reprinted by Marvel, they should already have high quality, ready-made digital versions of these books. I don't know what's invovled in converting them to the app's format, so maybe that's the sticking point -- but I still feel like 99 cents should be doable.

    If we're talking about something that's old but has never been reprinted, or at least, not reprinted recently, then I think a $1.99 price point would make sense since you'd be looking at art restoration and re-coloring before the conversion and distribution.

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  10. @Matt: I use material that's already been reprinted as an excample, because the creators have already been paid -- decades ago, in some cases. Furthermore, since this material was recently reprinted by Marvel, they should already have high quality, ready-made digital versions of these books. I don't know what's invovled in converting them to the app's format, so maybe that's the sticking point -- but I still feel like 99 cents should be doable.

    Very good points all around. I have been thinking about this entirely in terms of new issues (issues that have yet to be reprinted) and in that case, I can see DC wanting to subsidize the cost of the comic (be it print version or digital) with a higher price.

    But I agree that the profit margin on older, already paid for issues, especially issues that have already been cleaned up and converted to a digital format must be larger, and thus, those issues can be priced lower.

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