With DC Entertainment's entry last month into the digital comics realm, the first phase of the Digital Era of comics is complete. DC was the last major player to get into the game, but their launch of a line of hundreds of comics for iPad, iPhone, and Sony PSP has brought them quickly to the forefront of the digital comics evolution. But with the players all in the game, the usual questions have come back to the forefront: Will digital sales kill paper sales? How do you set prices and release dates? Is the digital reader a new kind comics consumer? And how will it affect the creative end of things?
In addition, publishers are increasingly taking aim at tamping down digital piracy (see Manga Publishers Face Uphill Battle Against Scanlations) which many feel has had more impact on the bottom line than the official switch to digital.
DC co-publisher Jim Lee and executive v-p of sales and marketing John Rood were reached soon after DC announced their new initiative—a standalone app for iPad and iPhone and comics on sale via the popular ComiXology app—and were already excited about the possibilities to reach new readers while remaining careful to make sure their traditional retail partners are comfortable—or at least relatively comfortable—with the change. In DC's case this took the form of a Retail Advisory committee. Rood said it been a very "collaborative" experience, and DC plans to put some of their digital profits back into strengthening the retail stores via "a mixture of things, from shared revenue to consumer incentives that close the loop to marketing funds that draw attention to the comic book shops as the epicenter of fandom." Rood, like many others, feels that digital is a means to create new consumers.
Part of the move is sheer evolutionary force, both Lee and Rood acknowledged. "Retailers know that digital is here to stay," said Lee. "They don’t want to be ignored—they want a way for them to survive and be healthy and grow within this new market. It’s not that we are fleeing from a dying marketplace into the arms of something that saves our industry. There’s already cool stuff -- it’s an additive thing."
Along those lines, Lee notes that an early bestseller on the ComiXology app was Neil Gaiman's Sandman #1 which has already sold hundred of thousands of copies through other channels. "People may follow him on Twitter and say 'Oh, it's $1.99 and a new Neil Gaiman book,'" said Lee. The Losers and Jonah Hex titles also did well, showing that while their movies had underperformed, people were willing to sample the comics.
Both DC and their biggest competitor, Marvel, have also begun offering, for the first time, day-and-date release comics in both the digital and print editions. Marvel released their Invincible Iron Man Annual #1, while DC has made its bi-weekly series Justice League: Generation Lost available as well. Both are priced well above the digital norm of $1.99 however: Iron Man is posted in three parts for a total of $5.97 as opposed to $4.99, while JLA costs the same as the print version, $2.99.
While DC's move made headlines, digital distribution has already been much in the news, spurred by the debut of the iPad. Marvel's first downloadable comics app arrived installed on the iPad at the device's debut and has remained a top download. IDW has been a leader in the digital download space, with several storefronts for individual series developed by iVerse Media, a digital comics vendor. IDW also recently announced that they would be selling digital editions of their comics 30 days after the print editions hit.
Boom Studios last month became the first publisher to announce that they would make all of their catalog available for sale via download, but publisher Ross Richie say this was in many ways a preemptive strike against those who are reading Boom comics for free via piracy. "I just don't want to get ripped off," he told PWCW. While digital is a way to reach "fans who read their comics digitally, whether it's because they live in a foreign country or don't have access to a comics shop, I have no interest in replacing what is a strong business in print."
Boom has had success in the past boosting print sales via digital sampling, but it's still a sideline for them. Richie says the publisher has no plans to go day-and-date and will maintain a strict window between print and digital release. Nor do they plan any original content for download until the audience is big enough to justify it. Still, he said "digital is a place you have to be in."
While most of the focus on digital comics had been for paid download on the ubiquitous smartphones, iPads, Androids and some gaming consoles, the next frontier will be the home computer. While ComiXology, the category's leading app developer, is planning a computer store, several other products are being readied to jump into the digital retailing fray. Longbox, a long planned digital comics shop, is in public beta testing and will launch a finished version during the San Diego Comic-Con according to president Rantz Hoseley. Graphic.ly is another desktop system which has been in the works for a while. Although both are late getting into the game – and haven't announced as wide a range of content as ComiXology – Hoseley points out that the desktop and laptop market still dwarfs the handheld device sphere, no matter how sexy the iPad looks right now. He points to a Microsoft press release that stated that there are 150 million Windows 7 users worldwide, compared to 7.1 million iPads sold in 2010. "That’s not diminishing or trivializing the success of the iPad," says Hoseley, who has a mobile version of Longbox in the works, but "it doesn’t change the fact that if you sold to every single iPad user you would not be getting 10% of just the new 2010 Windows users."
While everyone has gotten excited about the iPhone and iPad, many publishers admit that digital sales are still a very small part of their business. At the Diamond Retailer summit in April, IDW's president Ted Adams stated that digital makes up only 1% of IDW's sales. Few see digital editions of comics completely supplanting the print versions. "People buy tradebooks because they look great on a coffee table and can be read in collected form," said Lee. "Digital is a different niche."
Much of the question of digital comics goes back to who will buy them. Most observers hope that people who live far from brick and mortars stores – as well as those who don't want print comics cluttering up the den – will be among them. But Hoseley cautions that the individual publisher storefronts may be limiting, as opposed to the more iTunes-like grab bag of a ComiXology or Longbox. "If it's a Marvel or DC store, you’re guaranteed to be targeting someone who lieks Marvel or DC, as opposed to someone who wanders in because they found a link to buy a digital Scott Pilgrim."
An even larger question for the future is what shape original content for the digital download marketplace will take. While individual webcomics creators have developed their own model of ancillary merchandising and sponsorships, for larger publishing companies this model isn't as sustainable. There has already been one casualty of the digital revolution: DC's online-only Zuda Web comics imprint, which turned some of its Web comics into print editions, has moved from a free website to being available through their app storefronts. And Zuda's most successful strips have been most profitable in the print model.
And it's a wide-open world for creativity, says Lee, who is also a hugely popular artist in addition to his co-publisher duties. "The way it’s impacted me as a creator is the desire to create stories that are platform optimized. In print, people look for pullouts, double page spread, the giant Wednesday Comics you can’t do anywhere else. But there are also things you can do for the iPhone that I would love to try like single panels and quick breezy stories."
While everyone knows that digital distribution is going somewhere, no one really knows what will be the breakout. "It’s a frontier right now," Richie said.