The last major comics publisher to launch its digital program, DC Entertainment made hundreds of its titles available last month through the iPad, iPhone, and Sony PSP. Despite concerns about the viability of digital comics, publishers are gearing up. DC Comics plans to use its digital initiative to also support traditional retailers, and both Marvel and DC plan to release digital and print comics simultaneously. Many publishers believe desktop computers offer a larger potential market for comics than handheld devices, and publishers are also taking aim at digital piracy, which some think threatens to have more of an impact on the bottom line than legitimate digital sales.
DC Comics copublisher Jim Lee and executive v-p of sales and marketing John Rood said they were excited about the possibilities for reaching new readers while looking to make their traditional retail partners relatively comfortable with the change to digital. In DC's case, this took the form of a retail advisory committee looking into ways to put some of its digital profits into strengthening retail stores.
"Retailers know that digital is here to stay," said Lee, who is also one of DC's most popular artists. "They want a way to survive and grow within this new market." Rood said the retailer program will entail "a mixture of things, from shared revenue to consumer incentives that draw attention to the comic book shops as the epicenter of fandom." Rood, like many others, believes that digital will create new comics consumers, and Lee pointed out that Neil Gaiman's Sandman #1, which has sold hundreds of thousands of print copies over the years, still became an early bestseller on the DC app.
Most important, DC and its biggest competitor, Marvel—which launched its own popular app with the iPad in April—have also begun offering, for the first time, same day-and-date releases for both the digital and print editions. Marvel released its Invincible Iron Man Annual #1, while DC has made its biweekly series Justice League: Generation Lost available as well. Both are priced well above the digital norm of $1.99. Iron Man is posted in three parts for a total of $5.97 as opposed to $4.99, while Justice League costs the same as the print version, $2.99.
Among independent houses, IDW Publishing (which uses digital comics vendor iVerse Media) plans to sell digital editions of its comics 30 days after the print editions hit. And last month Boom! Studios became the first publisher to make all of its catalogue available for sale via download.
But Boom! publisher Ross Richie called the move more of a "pre-emptive strike" against digital pirates. While Boom! has had success boosting print sales via digital sampling, Richie called digital a "sideline" and plans to maintain a strict window between print and digital release. "Digital is a place you have to be in," he said, but he does not plan to offer original digital content until the audience is big enough to justify it.
Despite the focus on handheld devices, many publishers believe the home computer—desktops and laptops—to be the next frontier. Comics app developer ComiXology has launched a Web-based digital comics store, and other long-anticipated digital retail ventures like Longbox and Graphic.ly are currently in public beta testing. Although the latter two are late getting into the game and don't offer as wide a range of content as ComiXology, Longbox CEO Rantz Hoseley said that the desktop and laptop market—150 million Windows 7 users versus about seven million iPads sold in 2010—dwarfs the handheld market.
Publishers acknowledge that digital sales are still a very small part of their business. At the Diamond Retailer summit in April, IDW's president Ted Adams said digital makes up only 1% of IDW's sales. Everyone knows that digital distribution is going somewhere, but no one really knows what will be the breakout event, device, or channel. "It's a frontier right now," Richie said.