IDW, April's third largest comics publisher, according to Diamond figures, has hired Jeff Webber to the new position of director of e publishing. Webber was formerly vp of product development at uClick, following stints at Hallmark and Shockwave. At IDW he'll help explore the growing opportunities for comics to be sold via various electronic formats.
It's an area where IDW foresees significant growth, says publisher and owner Ted Adams. "We're looking at ebooks, iTunes applications, direct-to-desktop downloads similar to what Marvel is doing, and the Kindle," says Adams. "But within those ebook formats, what we're focusing on now is iTunes apps." IDW books have previously been sold on iTunes via deals with both uclick and iVerse, but in the future will sell their comics electronically directly via iTunes.
IDW's focus on iTunes results from their e-publishing strategy over the last year. "I've quietly been testing all kinds of formats and opportunities with a variety of partners," Adams explains. "Any time anybody has approached me with a deal, I've done a deal with that person." As a result, Adams has been able to see what works and what doesn't, and now iTunes has proven itself as a legitimate way to sell comics.
Comics as a whole are doing very well on iTunes, says Webber, with many issues charting in the ebooks category. While the iPhone has been the breakthrough gadget for much of this, other phones such as the Google Android are also catching on, leading to a bigger potential audience and a more satisfying experience for those reading comics on mobile devices.
IDW's breakthrough title is Star Trek: Countdown, a prequel to the eagerly awaited Star Trek reboot film (opening this Friday, 5/8/09) and distributed via iVerse. The comic, like the movie, is written by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and J.J. Abrams, and reveals the origin of the movie villain, Nero. The comic's place as "canon" within the Trek universe has helped drive a lot of interest.
"We will sell as many iTunes apps [of Countdown] as we will of as the print version," says Adams. "That's a lot of apps." The book—each issue is sold as an individual app—is regularly listed among the top 100 apps on iTunes and the first print issue of Star Trek: Countdown sold about 15,000 copies upon initial release, according to figures at the comics business site ICv2.com.
IDW promoted the iTunes version of the comic via Star Trek fan sites and tech sites that cover iTunes apps. They also did a small cross-promotion with Electronic Arts which is producing the Star Trek game. But still, the success comes down to basics, "good content that ties into a movie that everybody is really excited about," says Adams. And sales via iTunes are not taking away from sales for the print comics, he points out. "This is a new audience. Comics are being downloaded by people who don't go into bookstores or comics shops." The Countdown trade collection, which just came out in April, is one of IDW's best selling graphic novels ever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, IDW's future promotions will focus on comics that tie-in with the GI Joe and Transformers franchises, both of which have major movies coming out later this year. Titles include Transformers: Revenge, an adaptation of the film.
However, that won't always be the case. For Webber, his new position is a place to explore new frontiers of both technology and content. "I feel that IDW has a great collection of content that's going to make a difference, not just with the licensed material but as a chance to promote some very creative new content," he says. One of his duties in his new position will be to work with editors on new and original content and developing print books with an eye for how best to translate them for digital distribution. "We've got editors on board who are developing print books and at the same time we're all taking about how to prepare for both mobile and print."
He also notes that Apple itself seems to be getting more interested in comics as content for iPhones--Apple created a page just for Star Trek Countdown, something that they decided to do on their own.
Problems with Apple regarding mature content are also gradually being smoothed out—comics which contain adult or controversial content have been rejected by Apple, even though iTunes regularly sells R-rated movies. Such popular but violent IDW books as 30 Days of Night are still problematic for iTunes. However both Adams and Webber see these problems eventually getting solved—a ratings system is in place for games, and eventually this kind of system may be applied to other content.
There's obviously much more to come in a field where changes are arriving rapidly. Star Trek: Countdown is in some ways a special case, but as Adams points out, "I think with Countdown we've proven there's a business. Now we have to prove that it can be replicated."