In a move that will likely be closely examined far beyond the comics marketplace, Diamond Comics Distributors is teaming with digital comics vendor iVerse to launch a digital program that will give physical comics shops the ability to offer exclusive digital delivery of a select group of comics that can be viewed on a variety of device platforms.

In a phone interview, Dave Bowen, director of DCD’s Diamond Digital program, said the comics in the program will be solicited in May/June and will be available for download in July. The digital program will be offered to the 2,700 or so physical comics shops served by Diamond Comics Distributors, the dominant distributor in the comics shops market. The new digital program will give the shops the ability to offer a selection of comics that will be released in print and digital editions on the same day and date. These comics will be offered exclusively at physical comics shops for 30 days before they go into broader distribution through iTunes. The digital comics will be priced at $1.99 each and shops will also be able offer Digital Plus Editions—a digital copy priced at 99 cents bundled with the purchase of a print copy.

iVerse CEO Michael Murphey said, “We are proud to be helping Diamond develop systems which will immediately enable comic shop retailers at any level of technical ability to easily sell digital comics. We are also very excited about the potential of this new venture to create many creative print-to-digital and digital-to-print promotional possibilities.”

Bowen told PWCW that Diamond Digital is not an “affiliate program ” in which websites receive compensation for linking to a retail site. “The money is more robust than an affiliate program. The program has no risks for the retailers, there’s no inventory charges and we’re offering a generous margin that the shops will find attractive,” he said.

Bowen said that DCD has approached a number of publishers asking them to provide a selection of comics to be sold through the program. The initial group of publishers who will participate includes Archie Comics, IDW, Tokyopop, Top Cow, Top Shelf, NBM, Studio Foglio, Titan Books and Moonstone Comics. Bowen said that DCD is in talks to add more publishers to the program including Marvel and DC, who currently are not involved. Bowen said publishers are asked to “provide all or a portion of their line. All we ask is that publishers give comic shops a 30-day head-start on selling whatever digital content they chose to make available through the program.”

The program will use a code redemption system designed and administered by digital vendor iVerse that will allow a customer to visit a physical comics shop and buy a code that will allow them to either download the comic via wireless connection directly in the store or do so later at home. Bowen said the system is simple to use and doesn’t require a huge technical infrastructure or investment. Retailers will need an Internet connection and a printer. “You don’t need a lot of technology and any store can get involved. Once you have the code you can download the comics immediately,” said Bowen.

The program is also offering a digital widget for stores that have a significant web presence. The widget can be placed on Web site and will allow the retailer to offer a selection of back issue comics for sale and download. Independent comics publisher Top Cow, Bowen said, plans to offer its entire backlist of comics through the digital widget. Diamond is also offering stores a variety of in-store promotional materials for the new program that includes sell sheets, shelftalkers and much more.

Much like general bookstores, comics shops are apprehensive about the effects of digital delivery, fearful that digital editions have the potential to undermine print sales and destroy their businesses. While the comics shop market (also known as the Direct Market) specializes in periodical comics by superhero comics houses like Marvel and DC, comics shops now offer a wider variety of comics in both book and periodical formats and are looking to find a role as digital delivery becomes a real revenue stream. DCD’s new digital program, Bowen said, along with other programs put forth by digital vendors like Comixology, is an effort to bring physical retailers into the discussion and business of digital delivery.

Bowen said the program will be on display at the ComicsPro annual meeting, a retailer convention for comics shops starting today in Dallas; as well as at the Diamond Retailer Summit, an annual event for comics retailers held at C2E2, the newly launched Chicago comics convention scheduled for March 17-18.

Bowen said the new digital program is intended to “decrease the downside effect on monthly print comics as digital sales start to grow. Digital is a small part of the market right now but some retailers are panicking a bit and we’re eager to offer a solution that brings physical retailers into the digital sales process. We want to empower stores to join the process.”