Are Marvel and DC Trying to Sabotage Their Own Digital Comic Sales?
I know, I know--it's a dumb question. But when you actually look at what Marvel and DC are doing in the digital space right now, you have to wonder.
First, Marvel launches iPhone and iPod apps that are not compatible with their Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. This means that while MDCU subscribers can access thousands of comics on their computers for the subscription fee they pay, any of those comics that are offered on the iPhone and iPad will have to be purchased individually.
This week, DC announced that Batman Beyond #1 was going to be available on their iPhone and iPad apps, as well as the PlayStation Comics store, the same day the print version was available in comic shops. Great news, right? Not when you see they are keeping the $2.99 price for the digital version.
So what gives? Well, I think it's a combination of things, although none of them will make hardcore comic fans feel better.
Part of the issue is that retailers would be furious if cheaper digital versions were available day and date with print versions. They are right to be concerned, as this would definitely cost them sales. Another issue is that Marvel and DC's current forays into the digital market for handheld devices are not aimed at hardcore comic fans--they are aimed at new or "lapsed" readers, who have these digital devices and are looking for content to consume on them. These are the same consumers who will pay almost cover price for ebooks, or purchase movies on iTunes for $15--they want a variety of content and they want it conveniently. So, if they can go on the Marvel or DC comics app, download a couple of free older books and pay $3 for a new one, that's not a bad deal in their eyes. To them, they don't see it as something of less value than the hard copy they could have at the same price. Lastly, since both Marvel and DC are in business to make money, why not launch at the highest price point possible? If the sales from casual or "lapsed" readers don't pan out so well, they can always start dropping the price incrementally. In the meantime, they will continue to make money on their print comics, and the digital sales are just icing on the cake.
That's a shortsighted plan though, and at some point, marvel and DC will have to face some real decisions about how they deal with digital. Comic sales were down almost 6% in 2010 in terms of dollars, and that's a misleading number, because many books were $3.99 this year. That means fewer comics were sold to make up the total dollar amount, so comic sales overall were down more than just 6%. In November 2010 alone, there were about 675,000 less comics sold than in November 2009.
So, what to do?
Everyone has their theories, which is good, because there needs to be more discussion about this issue. For my two cents, I think the magic price point for digital comics is $0.99. I don't even care if they are day and date with the print version. I would gladly accept a one or two-month delay to get the digital version of a book for a dollar. Anything in the past calendar year could be priced at $0.99, and older books would be priced down from there. I would even go as high as $1.49 for new books, if they were day and date. My point is, there's no way I would move to digital unless downloadable books were at least half off the cover price of the print versions, especially print versions that are easily available. You could almost justify charging a little more for out of print or hard to find books or collections. I also believe that the comics should not be restricted to one format. If I buy it, I own it, and I can read it on my computer, put it on my iPad, burn it to a DVD, whatever. Restricting formats and locking down digital comics will not reduce piracy, it will encourage and increase it. Make them cheap, make them accessible and I will buy them.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there are some models out there that have been working quite well. Drive Thru Comics is home to a lot of smaller independent publishers, but some of the bigger companies like Top Cow, Moonstone and Archaia have put a lot of their back catalogs up there as well. Most of the books are between $0.99 and $1.99, and you get a watermarked PDF that you can port to any device. If your computer crashes, you can go back to your account history and download all of your purchases again. We use the platform to post episodes of Secret Identity, which you can download for the price of FREE. Wowio also offers PDFs of comics at reasonable prices, many at $0.99.