With Barnes & Noble announcing a partnership with Marvel Comics for their Nook Tablet and Amazon rolling an exclusive with DC Comics for their Kindle Fire, consumers now have more choices for digital comics formats than ever before…but is more choice really better?

Amazon has announced “Kindle Panel View” as part of the new “Kindle Format 8” software update coinciding with the announcement of the (color) Kindle Fire. Kindle Panel View looks to be a version of Comixology’s Guided View™ system of moving from panel to panel. Further, it looks like Amazon is going to be making this a self-service technology. When the instructions come out, assuming you’re technically savvy enough to follow them, anyone should be able to set their comic up in the Panel View by themselves. There’s been talk of both Comixology and Graphic.ly releasing self-service models and its likely we’ll hear more about that in the near future as the reality of Amazon throwing down the gauntlet sinks in.

There’s good news and bad news for comics publishers with this Kindle offering:

Good news: This Kindle Panel View should make digital comics via Amazon available to be read on any platform with a Kindle Reader app, which includes the iPad, Android tablets, smart phones, laptops and desktop computers.

Bad news: Amazon hasn’t announced any change to their download fee policy of $0.15/MB for eBooks priced between $0.99 - $9.99, the price range where you get a 70% royalty. If you do not have an agency level agreement that negates that download fee, either you opt for the low 35% rate or you pay a fee.

How prohibitive is this download fee for color comics? Let’s say a relatively low-res digital version of a comic is 12MB. Let’s say you’re releasing a 12-issue compilation like Watchmen. That would be 144MB at $0.15/MB. That’s a $21 download fee for a $9.99 book. 70% isn’t an option. Let’s say you opted for the 35%/no download fee bracket. You (as a publisher) are only getting $3.50 from a $9.99 purchase.

DC will not comment on their arrangement with Amazon, but given that their graphic novels are priced at $9.99 and $9.99 is the upper limit of the 70% bracket in the traditional agency model, it’s a good bet that is what they have.

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Stew

So how many proprietary formats are we looking at for comics? Apple tweaked ePub a little for their home brew. Comixology, Graphic.ly, iVerse and Panelfly are all out there with apps. And now Amazon enters the fray. That’s six different proprietary formats and we’re not even mentioning more universal formats like ePub, .cbz/.cbr or .PDF. Barnes & Noble is currently just selling graphic novels as ePub or as downloaded apps (Graphic.ly and iVerse being first out the gate with them), they also just announced a partnership with Marvel on the new Nook Tablet, but it isn’t clear is this is standard ePbub, a slightly tweaked ePub or their own new system for a seventh format.

Will Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble start pulling users away from the comics apps like Comixology? That isn’t clear. Initially, Amazon seems focused on graphic novels, not monthly issues and Graphic.ly is the one putting Walking Dead in the Apple Newsstand. There is a possibility that readers will not want to switch between multiple browsers to read their comics. If you want to read monthly comics in a digital format and also some of DC’s higher profile graphic novels (where Amazon has an exclusive on 100 of them for the Kindle Fire), you’re going to be forced into multiple browsers, at least in the short term.

Comics fans have complained from the beginning of digital downloads about multiple formats, not actually owning the files and the mystery of how to read these proprietary formats if a company goes out of business and the browser isn’t updated for new operating systems. The more apps that enter the picture, the more likely it is we’ll see the owner of at least one proprietary format go out of business.

Perhaps the strangest competition is the Kindle App on the iPad. Amazon has always had an App to purchase and read Kindle-formatted eBooks on the iPad. With the DC graphic novels exclusive to the Kindle, and by proxy the Kindle App, that app is now another option for the comics read and a potential distraction from the iBook store and the other comics app publishers on the iPad. While the iPad comparison is still apple to oranges with graphic novels vs. monthly issues, the real battle being set up is Amazon vs. comic apps for the emerging Android tablet market, which should start to reach a more significant size (in no large part due to Amazon’s efforts) in the next 6-8 months.

Still, there’s a hint of the old Apple vs. Microsoft rivalry when Apple and Amazon both start having comics-related tweaks to their eBook formats. Add the Barnes & Noble rivalry with Amazon and the fray gets even larger. Amazon is aligning itself with DC. Marvel has aligned itself with Barnes & Noble, though it remains to be seen how exclusive that is. Powerful forces are circling around digital comics and it isn’t clear where the independent publishers and the original wave of comics apps will be when this approaching storm settles out. Will a rising tide carry the day or will the audience be spread too thin?