When DC announced the all-new, digitally enhanced universe last month, I was left with very mixed feelings.
On the one hand, a huge push into digital content, especially making new digital issues available the same day as their print counterparts, is an idea whose time is long overdue. On the other hand, the way DC is going about it leaves me doubting as to whether it will succeed.
On the positive side, if DC truly wants to appeal to new readers and not just long-time comic buyers like me, digital distribution is the way to go. I know some wonderful comic book retailers might be badly hurt but the reach of the direct market is inherently limited while the reach of the internet is world-wide.
And as personally bummed as I am about the loss of my favorite comic as it currently exists, Birds of Prey, I can see why DC wants to make Batgirl with Barbara Gordon in the costume as one of the cornerstones of the new launch. Ask a non-comics reader about Batgirl, and you’re likely to get a lot of recognition and perhaps far more of a “wow, cool” response than even with Wonder Woman. (Of course, if DC wants to appeal to new readers, especially women, it should have more than ONE female creator contributing regularly but that’s a subject for another post.)
But I’m worried DC is setting itself up for failure, first by its digital pricing model, second by not starting with a clear slate for new readers nor staying with current situation to keep older readers happy, and, lastly, by failing to go outside the 18-35 year-old male demographic.
I’ll address the other two issues in separate posts.
Right now, I’m extremely concerned that the digital initiative is never going to get off the ground because of pricing: DC is offering first run comics on the day the print versions are released to stores for $2.99 each. After a month, these comics will be $1.99 each. Keeping the price at $2.99 is being done so the digital price isn’t lower than the print price. The hope is that digital sales will add new sales, not cannibalize sales that happen in comic shops.
The good news for readers is that all comics released will stay available for perhaps an unlimited time.
In the current direct market model, a consumer has to order comics three months in advance to guarantee receiving an issue. If you’re interested in, say, Demon Knights or Grant Morrison’s new Superman series, you have to order it from your local retailer within the next couple of weeks to guarantee receiving a print copy in September. That’s because chances are that on release day, hot titles will be gone from the shelves in a day or two. And retailers won’t re-order as a general rule because of cost issues. Neither will they over-order because returns can cut into their bottom line. They have to perform a special alchemy combined of guesswork, previous sales, and new interest in order to decide how many of these new comics to order. And they’ll be wrong sometimes, leaving many readers without a chance at a new series unless they have pre-ordered a copy.
Digital completely alters that equation: DC is not going to run out of downloads. If I want to wait until release day to grab Batgirl #1, I can. And it’s a way to grow an audience for a lesser known title. If, say, Mister Terrific sells out in comic shops on release day because the retailer ordered only two or three copies, a print reader is out of luck. But with digital, a reader can always find it, allowing word of mouth to build and perhaps increase sales of issue #2.
That’s all good.
The problem is that $2.99 price tag. The digital audience is not used to paying that much for content that takes them such a short time to read. I’m concerned that even dropping the price to $1.99 after a month might not be enough to attract new readers.
Most songs on iTunes are $1.29. There are many books available at the Kindle store for 99 cents. No doubt that low price point is driving sales of the Kindle itself. That low amount might stay as the standard, it might not, but the point is that 99 cents or even free books made people excited about getting a Kindle and checking out the content.
Angry Birds is only 99 cents.
Marvel Comics already has a number of titles either free or at 99 cents. An even greater deal is a year-long subscription for only $59.88 (that’s $4.99/mo). Buy that and you can read any comic in their digital catalog all year long with no additional fee.
It’s true that these are not comics released on the same day as the new print comic but if you haven’t been reading comics for a long time, all the content is going to be new or nearly new to you. Getting all the current stories at $2.99 on the day of release isn’t going to mean much to someone who has a lot of catching up to do.
Another competitor, Dark Horse, has a number of digital titles free and the others priced at $1.99. Comixology already has many DC Comics for $1.99 digitally. And DC already has some digital content but not at $2.99. $1.99 is slightly better, especially if DC advertises the heck out of this new digital content but it’s still not ideal.
I realize DC is counting on the fact that they’ve re-started all their titles at #1 to be less intimidating and more exciting to new readers. But I don’t know if getting the first issue of a comic is enough incentive at that price.
They might do better to follow the example of The Baen Free Library. Baen is a publisher who right away recognized how to use free digital content to push sales of new books. Their free library offers backlist stories or novels by some of their most famous authors for free, on the theory that once a reader has read a particular author, they’ll pay money for later books.
I’m not saying DC should put up their new books for free — I can see all kinds of piracy problems plus the issues with cutting into comic retailers profits — but DC should seriously think about putting up a large amount of its backlist for digital distribution.
Want to get fans hooked on the new Batman and Robin, now Bruce Wayne and his son, Damian Wayne?
Offer for free the digital version of the trade paperback that introduces Damian or the storyline that brought back Bruce from the dead, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. Want people to get hooked on Scott Snyder’s Batman? Offer an issue or two of his current run on Detective for free. Want people to read the new Green Lantern comics? Give those who buy the digital issues at $2.99 a free digital trade paperback of Blackest Night, the last big Green Lantern event. Or even offer subscriptions in bundles. Pay $10 a month and get all the various Batman titles. Or something similar for all the Green Lantern books.
The point is to hook readers on the current stories by giving them value. Once readers are hooked on the new stories (well, hopefully), $1.99 or even $2.99 is not going to be an obstacle because they’re already sold and wanting more. I don’t know all the internal profit figures for DC but it’s entirely possible that the $2.99 price tag is needed to pay creators. If so, DC must figure out a way to entice people into paying that amount and a whole host of first issues isn’t going to be enough. Because $2.99 and even $1.99 will make potential new readers pause before downloading.
What do you think, GeekDad readers? Ready to jump into DC’s digital content at $2.99?
All images copyright DC Comics.