Trade Perspectives: DC Comics/Comixology Digital Comics Announcement

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I'm interrupting the Collected Editions Flash Week, of course, because today is a momentous day in DC Comics history. I wonder if one day we'll look back on June 23, 2010 (or late evening June 22, 2010, to be technical) as a date like June 1938 when Superman first appeared -- a day after which comics were never the same again.

And, as primarily a DC Comics reader, I'm fiercely proud of any number of aspects of DC's new digital initiative, from the ability to read comics on multiple platforms to their stated intent of using some of the revenue toward local comic book stores, to how close DC played all this to the vest before the announcement. At a time when it seems there's no surprises left in comics, this was a shocker.

That said, for the time being, this new initiative changes my comics reading habits not at all.

Neither Faster Nor More Powerful
I in no way mean to take away from the wonder of DC's announcement. If you're a monthly comics fan with an iPad, and you live far away from or otherwise don't have access to a comic book store, and you don't mind your comics in digital format, this seems like the thing for you. You get your comics on time (Justice League: Generation Lost at least) and at no greater price; I read the Superman #700 preview on the Comixology website (no iPad here, unfortunately) and it's a quite fine, readable interface.

But as a wait-for-trader, today's issue of Justice League: Generation Lost online holds no more value for me than the issue in the stores; I haven't read Blackest Night yet, so I'm not about to pick up Generation Lost. And, even once I've read Blackest Night, there would be no more draw for me to read Generation Lost online than to get it at my local comic book store -- the release date is exactly the same as the physical issue, and the price (on the release date, at least) is exactly the same.

Good for DC, that is, in giving readers more choice in terms of how they want to read their comics -- but without sweetening the deal in relation to the existing sales model, I have no reason to make a switch.

Whose Comics Now?
In addition, whereas I like the Comixology interface, I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone online talking about the digital rights issue yet. Near as I can tell (and feel free to educate me further), you don't receive copies of the comics files yourself, but rather you log in to Comixology to view your comics library. The same questions that apply to digital books apply here: What happens if Comixology (no offense to them) goes out of business? What happens if they lose your account? What happens if you want to replace your iPhone with a Droid -- will you feel locked into the iPhone so as to retain mobile access to your comics collection?

Certainly there's good answers to these questions, and the fact that Comixology and DC already offer iPad, iPhone, and web access is more than other mobile reading paradigms offer. But, the fact that something that's "yours" isn't yours -- especially when considering often-massive comics collections -- gives me initial pause.

Directions for Digital to Go
Again, however, we're just at the beginning of this. I don't see anything necessarily bad about DC's initial digital announcement -- and as a matter of fact, they're doing many things better than other companies -- I just don't see its breakthrough application for me yet. Here's what I'd like to see next from DC's digital comics:
  1. 1. Drop the price point. I know creators have to get paid and I know there's some labor involved in digitizing these comics, but selling digital comics at the same price as the physical issues in the absence of shipping and printing costs doesn't make sense. If I have to pay the same amount, I might as well just get the physical copy.

  2. 2. Expand the backlist. Obviously this is coming, but I'll be far more enthusiastic about all of this when the Batman offerings aren't the first issue of Batman: Year One, already reprinted everywhere, but rather all of Batman: Year Three (or Flash: Hell to Pay, as we were discussing here recently).

  3. 3. Offer a subscription service. I don't necessarily want the digital rights to a full Comixology-held copy of Blackest Night for life, but I wouldn't mind reading the whole series now in advance of the hardcovers, and then enjoying my hardcovers in perpetuity. If DC/Comixology offered a subscriber service where for a flat fee or monthly rate I could read all comics published in the last twelve months, but when they're gone, they're gone; or I could "check out" so many titles at one time but then had to "return" one before I could read another, that would be attractive to me. To some extent, this might be the Netflix approach to DC's digital comics.

  4. 4. Sell series at a discount. We begin to get into the realm of trade paperback collections here -- even if the individual issues of Batman: Hush are discounted at $1.99, I expect a certain reward if I sign on to buy all the issues at once -- even one issue free might be a possibility.

  5. 5. Give new life to old series. Invincible Super-Blog's Chris Sims wondered aloud what would happen if cancelled series Manhunter or Blue Beetle did well in the digital comics format -- might that spell a return for those titles?

  6. 6. Start with the digital. Matter of fact, I think DC should go farther and offer new content starring these fan-favorites -- co-feature-sized Manhunter or Blue Beetle stories, priced at $0.99 (or get all twelve stories for $11) that start at DC Digital and then are collected in trade paperback later on; this is, I believe, essentially the Zuda model. That is, let's not just see DC Digital as a repository for what's also coming out every week, but let's also see DC Digital as a launch pad for series that might not otherwise survive in the monthly market.
(Things are moving fast today! As I'm writing this, I noted that on Comics Alliance, Laura Hudson interviews Jim Lee and addresses some similar items with him. Two salient excerpts:
CA: In terms of pricing, will there be any digital versions of trades – bundled collections of digital comics that sell for less than their price as singles?

JL: Right now we're focusing on the periodical side of things, but obviously we have had many detailed discussions about graphic novels and how those are best served going forward in the digital space and we'll have announcements shortly as we get to them, but our initial release is focused on periodicals, and there's a reason for that. That's as much as I can say about it . . .

CA: Have you given any thought to the possibility of releasing digital-only content, perhaps for critically-acclaimed titles with small but loyal followings like "Manhunter" or "Blue Beetle"?

JL: Not in the short term. Part of our mantra with all this is to make sure it's as additive as possible, so the idea of doing something where you're limiting it to a certain channel doesn't really speak to that strategy. But I would say, never say never. There could be some sort of compelling reason to have it be digital only – some level of interaction only digital could provide that wouldn't be well served by print. But initially, there is no plan to do that. It's really about making it an additive experience and making sure our traditional brick and mortal storefronts are well-served by us promoting and selling more comic books to more people. Ultimately we are building the audience, and that will build an entire marketplace not just for the digital channel but the brick and mortar channel.)
In essence, I'm really excited about DC's digital announcement today -- but I'm more excited about what DC's digital announcements will be tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Dare I say it?

... Just imagine.
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15 comments:

  1. I'm all for this. The race has officially begun.

    I imagine since DC (and by extension, Marvel) are just now dipping their toes into this and have a lot of pull in the physical market they won't quite get into the digital trades yet.

    But plenty of other publishers are already there. For example: the first Hellboy trade is only going for $2.99(!) while the first two books of Atomic Robo are going for $3.99 each. Incredibly good when considering these collections would usually go for over $10 at retail.

    What I find most interesting is that DC has their content already available through the comixology site while Marvel is nowhere to be found. DC even has their own dedicated button at the top. I wonder how long this will last?

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  2. Yeah, we've been talking about the whole "Whose Comics Now?" issue a bunch on the cbr forums. It is a hot topic.

    I personally think that collectors might start being more trade collectors, like us, as the monthlies start being more and more digital and waiting for trade becomes more and more common.

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  3. "If I have to pay the same amount, I might as well just get the physical copy."

    I think that's the whole point of this! The digital comics are there for people who can't (or won't) go into a local comic store to buy the periodicals. It's to increase the market beyond the people who are already going to comic stores. If they priced the (new) digital comics lower than the print versions, a percentage of people (probably small, but certainly significant to retailers) will outright switch just to save money. But DC doesn't want that, what they want is to either drive new people to the comic stores, or sell to the people who aren't going to the stores anyway.

    One of the big appeals to me is the back catalogue; older hard-to-find issues that you can buy for $0.99 or $1.99 (like those issues from the out-of-print trade paperbacks we keep talking about!).

    I would also love to see a subscription service; however, again, I think this would cannibalize comic book store sales as people would switch to this rather than buy the issues in their local store. I know that's what *I* would do; then I would buy trade paperbacks of storylines I wanted to keep "forever."

    I'm sure discounted digital collections will happen eventually; as MisterSmith mentioned, other publishers are already doing this.

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  4. If they're going to promote website-based access, maybe they should actually link to it. I had to open iTunes to get to something that told me I could look at comics.comixology.com

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  5. @Kelson: Yeah they're pushing the site on their twitter, but as far as I can tell it's nowhere on their main comixology site.

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  6. Seconded that I had to back out of the Comixology website and Google my way into the digital comics section. And maybe Comixology is trying to keep their website app-like, but once in the digital comics section, there's no "About" or FAQ that I could find that answers the questions above, like how one's comics are archived.

    Obviously Warner Brothers has some faith in Comixology (and I've seen no reason why they shouldn't) and their interface is pretty slick, but it's this kind of awkwardness that gives me pause about buying a comic held somewhere else (on a site that's hard to get to).

    It'd be nice if there was a way to get updates when they add new comics, too, if not already.

    Kelson - Separately, that page of Flash in Superman #700 -- to me this looked like Barry, but sounded like Wally ("You really stopped to ask me that?"). Wonder if that'll be a problem for a while.

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  7. The comics.comixology.com is actually still beta, they are just doing it as a very open beta. That is why it is not linked off the home page or other spots

    http://geeksofdoom.com/2010/06/08/comixology-releases-beta-app-for-desktop-computers/

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  8. Thanks for the clarification. Amazing that Warner Brothers, as a large corporation, partnered with Comixology while their system is still in beta. I wonder how close this might mean they are to going "live."

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  9. But isn't it just this desktop app that is in beta? Their iPod/iPhone/iPad app wouldn't be beta, and that's the big driving force behind this, right?

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  10. I read somewhere that the three dollar pricepoint is for the first month of the day and date comic, as told by Jim Lee. After a month has passed since it's release, the issue in question - saying Generation Lost #4, the first day and date comic - will drop to two dollars. So DC's clearly been thinking ahead in regards to all of this, which means that they weren't screwing around while Marvel was starting up it's own thing; they very clearly really were behind the scenes figuring out the absolute best way to do this for everyone.

    Some people are pissed that it costs the same as a print comic, but I think those people are the same ones that thought outright that digital comics should automatically be cheaper. Which is kind of a folly. DC does not want to cannibalize the direct market; they want both to work and quite honestly this is a much smarter plan than the dumb "move all the way to digital" crap some fans said would "save the industry" (more like put it six feet under). They're still going to drop the price after a month, which is a very good compromise.

    Best part? As Chris Sims put it, free Batman. Five free Batman Black & White stories. That just blew my friggin mind, I swear, because it's such a genius idea that I can barely believe I didn't see it coming. Those stores had top notch creator teams and were frequently great, so putting them up there for free? Great way to get the curious hooked; there's something to be said for putting your best foot forward.

    Honestly, as long as digital doesn't kill print - which, really, I very highly doubt it will, despite what the people behind digital say it will - I could care less. I collect trades anyways, partly for the collectors thing, partly because it's tidy and fits nice on my shelf and partly because it's tangible.

    If comics went all digital - monthlies and trades - I can very honestly say I'd leave the hobby. I'm not exagerrating. I straight up do not like digital thing in general. I hate being forced to buy games that way and it's killed my enthusiasm for many great titles that went online only. I hate not being in control of my purchases; with digital, even DRM free, any number of things can happen to wipe it away. I just straight up hate it; and an all digital comics market would truly drive me right out of it.

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  11. I understand new digital comics being "additive" -- released at the same time and at the same cost as physical comics, at least initially -- and agree that's an approach that makes financial sense and is good for the publisher, stores, and fans.

    At the same time, I have dreams of a digital DC backlist, priced low -- not two dollars, but $0.99 -- of old Suicide Squad issues and classic Batman/Two-Face battles. Books like Superman Chronicles, collecting Golden Age stories no regular far could buy in a story any more, are on the shelves; frankly I'm just surprised the initial digital library wasn't larger. But -- I know we'll get there.

    Tomorrow will be a week ... I'm curious what if anything we'll see added to that library tomorrow. Some Wonder Woman, to celebrate issue #600?

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  12. After playing around with an iPad for a bit, I decided I still preferred having a physical copy (despite the storage problems with a large collection of books). However, I am definitely interested in a digital back catalogue; being able to read books that are either impossible to find or too expensive to reasonably buy (I'm looking at you, Flash: Blitz). I might pick up a cheaper Android-based tablet at some point, if the DC app (or Comixology) ever makes an Android version.

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  13. I've been running the app for a few weeks now and I've discovered a way to send a message on behalf of the trade-waiters. I've spotted some decent issues that have gone as yet uncollected - Superman/Batman #7 and Action Comics #850. Good issues, not in trades, auto purchase!

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  14. I've been casually using the app since it launched. I've started sending a message on behalf of the trade-waiters by buying some decent issues that have so far been excluded from collections, such as the Tim and Connor centric Superman/Batman #7 and the LSH/Supergirl focused Action Comics #850.

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  15. I was impressed to see Batman #659-#662 listed on Comixology; that's a four-part, uncollected story by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake that came out as a filler in the early days of Grant Morrison's Batman run (the issues are between those collected in Batman and Son). Not a super-relevant storyline, but it is something you can't find in collection, and I think that's a good use of the digital initiative.

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