DC Comics wants my money on the iPad. Happy to oblige!
On the occasion of the DC Comics announcement today that they will be going to day-and-date releases of all their DC Universe comic titles starting in September, I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at my “wish list” for digital comics written in March 2010.
The original piece was written prior to Comixology coming out with digital sales apps first for Marvel and later for DC and other lines, which have set the standard for how digital issues will be distributed. I’m pleased to say that some of the features I most hoped for (most notably one-click purchasing, perpetual cloud storage for one’s digital purchases, readability across a variety of platforms, and consistent format from publisher to publisher) came to pass with the Comixology-developed system used by almost all the major companies at present.
I was a little surprised that Comixology pulled this off on their own, sewing up deals with both Marvel & DC that essentially made them the Kings of Digital Comics. I wasn’t surprised, however, when the Comixology apps made the iPad into the digital comics reader of choice. For my money, there is no better way to buy and read digital issues. Without Comixology and the iPad, I doubt DC would have moved to all-titles day-and-date digital releases so quickly.
I still believe, however, that there is much that can be done to make the digital comics experience more compelling, expanding the comics market multifold. The excerpt below from my original article on the subject (edited and expanded just a bit here) is what I still hope for, and soon, from DC and all the majors.
Many choices building one fanbase: multiple purchasing models
Comixology’s apps for Marvel and DC have set a de facto standard for issue-by-issue purchasing, but I still maintain that the ways digital comic books are purchased could benefit from more variety. Many complimentary models are needed to support both the casual browser, the dedicated enthusiast, and everyone in between. I propose an expansion into a three-level marketing method for digital comic books, selling them as singles, subscriptions and compilations.
SINGLES would remain as they are now, but — as DC is pioneering — they would go on sale as digital releases the same day they come out as printed comics. I firmly believe they should sell for less than the cover price of a printed comic. Day-and-date releases through the DC/Comixology app are currently $2.99, older comics are normally $1.99, and frequent sales bring some collections down to 99 cents per issue for a limited time. Ho early, I think this is too expensive to maintain. I’d like to see day-and-date releases at no more than $1.99 and I think the increase in sales volume at such a price would more than make up for the lower per-copy price. Special-value issues (Annuals, Giant-Size issues, etc.) would be available at higher prices.
The Comixology apps offer some singles as freebies or loss leaders to launch new titles, support flagging sales of older titles, or hook fans of one title into trying another that is related or has similar appeal, and this should be expanded The availability of singles makes it easy for casual consumers and enthusiasts alike to try out new things without major commitments — something which is essential if the digital comics market is to be anything more than a side issue for the existing market base.
SUBSCRIPTIONS should be available for those who want to buy a longer-term run of a title. Buying a subscription should be a substantial savings over paying the single-issue price for the same set of comics — consumers should be rewarded for commitment. (Top end on a 12-issue commitment should be about 99 cents per issue.) Annuals and other specials might be included in a subscription or available only as singles.
A subscription could be a simple prepayment for the next X number of issues in advance, but a more flexible system would allow you to start with issues already available. A latecomer to a hot series could try out issue #1 of a series (that is now at issue #7) as a single purchase, then decide to “subscribe” for 12 issues, downloading #2 through #7 immediately and getting #8 through #12 as they are published. He already purchased #1 as a single, so he is automatically credited with the subscription cost of the issue he already has, which goes back into his account as a credit, to be used for future purchases. (Or the subscription cost of that one issue might just be discounted off the purchase price of the subscription — but the credit-back method would be a marketing tool to encourage more purchases without being unduly unfair to the consumer.) Also, nothing says that a “subscription” commitment has to be to only a single title. A Batman Family subscription might include all the Bat-titles at one special annual price. (Also, see the section on “Intermarketing” below…)
COMPILATIONS are, essentially, the digital equivalent of the trade paperback. Once a run of a title becomes available in this form, that run would perhaps no longer be available as a subscription item. It would still be available as individual issues at the higher price, because you still want an easy introductory entry point for newbies, and you also want those who hear about a classic story and want just that issue to be able to purchase it. (“Oh, man, you really have to read Muskrat Man #47! That’s the one where President Obama is entrusted with the Rodent of Righteousness’ secret identity!”) If you own the entire run of a comic as it appears in a compilation (having subscribed or bought it as individual issues), you could even be offered bonus materials included with the released compilation free as a loyalty bonus. If you have holes in your collection, you can still buy the missing issues as singles. Original graphic novels that are not compilations of single issues come out this way to begin with, of course.
SPECIAL PRODUCTS in digital format have the potential to offer things that have always been unwieldy in print formats. Imagine a subscription to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe or Who’s Who in the DC Universe, with these being living, growing, constantly updating databases with art and info of interest to dedicated continuity fans. As long as you keep updating your subscription once a year, you keep getting new and frequent updates.
A spinoff of this idea that’s close to my own heart would be a digitally-sold set of role playing game rules tied to an optional subscription that would get you game stats for new characters, new game maps, and new scenarios even as the matching storylines and characters are being introduced in the comics themselves. My VISA card is practically jumping out of my wallet to order that and I don’t even have time to play pen-and-paper RPGs all that often these days. (Dear @comixology — please tweet Chris @Pramas at Green Ronin Publishing, publishers of the DC Universe role playing game. I gotta get you folks together, somehow…)
Intermarketing: Selling the Blackest Secret Crisis Apocalypse War
The opportunities to gradually, indetectably and painlessly turn the casual fan into the deeply committed spendthrift fanatic are nothing short of legen — wait for it — dary. The easier it is to buy, and to find more things to buy, the more the consumer will spend. (No? How many MP3 music tracks have you bought from iTunes or Amazon? Have an iPhone? How many apps have you bought? How much have you spent, overall? Have you bothered to keep track? Now that you think about it, do you really want to know?
First of all, there is a lot of room for improvement in how I can keep track of my digital purchases. It should be ridiculously easy for me to see what series and issues I own and what holes there are in my collection. I should be able to set up a quick background download of any “playlist” I want and have them moved from the cloud database to any of my digital devices so that I can carry them around and read when convenient. Comixology’s storage-space management tools are good, but if my whole library is going to be digital, it needs to be more flexible.
Buy a single issue and there should be a link inside to take you to a purchase page for a subscription. Other links may take you to pages offering to sell you other titles featuring the same characters or that are part of the same overarching storyline. The very existence of easy-purchase interlinking like this will massively increase sales overall. If it is easy enough, people will buy more.
Furthermore, since you are storing each customer’s personal purchase record in the cloud, you can always push new things to him that you think he will like. Did he buy Muskrat Man last year? Offer him Power Platypus #1 from the same artist at a small discount next time he opens his comic reader app and you may hook him on an impulse buy. (If the discount is only available by acting right away, so much the better.)
The social side: making your fan your salesman
Social interaction at the comics store is great, but your untapped market is the folks who don’t have time to hang out on Wednesday — but still like to talk comics with friends and fellow enthusiasts. The smart digital comics distribution group will build digital social interaction right into the same software that organizes and displays the digital comics. When you finish reading an issue, one click will take you to that titles digital forums where you can share your views on the issue — or to your personal homepage where you can share reading lists, recommendations, ratings and reviews.
Your personal profile will share as much or as little as you choose to make public about your reading habits, likes and dislikes. It will also let you brag a little about your collection by awarding you badges for completing runs, commenting frequently, and participating in ongoing trivia quizzes, games and contests. (For real fun, steal an idea from GetGlue and offer real stickers or other physical trophies for completing collections or reading milestone issues. Maybe there’s a partnership worth looking at, actually. Linking GetGlue to the Comixology comics apps could be just the social link that is needed.)
Sharing is caring and it is also a great way to sell more comics. The system should encourage sharing. I envision a way to send a sharing link to a friend, allowing them to view perhaps the first four pages of a comic you want to recommend, along with an immediate purchase link for the full issue or a subscription. If your friend subscribes based on your link, you might get a small credit toward your own future purchases. This sort of “instant affiliate program” can spread good comics virally, tapping the immense power of the fanbase in a way that benefits both the publisher and the fans. And, of course, don’t forget the marketing power of offering easy gigging of individual issues and subscriptions to your digital comics enthusiast friends!
You need not leave out your print fans in all of this. They should be able to use the apps to participate in the social fun even if they never buy a single digital issue, posting reviews and ratings for the print version of every title and every issue right alongside those for the digital release. Now that DC has revived their letters pages, these should also be linked to the digital distribution apps, allowing fans to send comments instantly from within the app as soon as they finish reading it.
Here is a chance for the publishers to help out the loyal local comics shops, too, giving them easy access to the digital fanbase. The social interaction pages can be easily set up to display ads for comics shops only to those who are in the appropriate locality. When I log in, I’ll see ads reminding me to visit Comic Quest in Evansville, IN, while Andy Ihnatko will get ads for The Outer Limits in Waltham, MA. Smart local retailers will use these ads to link to special sales and offers for things that can’t be bought digitally, such as spinoff merchandise like t-shirts, figurines, and other collectibles. Make these ads cheap or even free to the local stores on a simple rotational basis for their local customers. Everyone will benefit.
The Comixology apps have already brought me back from the nearly dead as a fan, and day-and-date releases at reasonable prices is likely to pull me call the way back in again in no time at all. You are already seeing older fans reborn and new fans created, and teaming the digital model further will only accelerate the process. It is raining soup, publishers — grab a bucket! But you have to do it right and reach out for the dollars from the customer who you don’t already have in your pocket (or don’t have any longer) instead of just trying to squeeze more dollars out of the shrinking fanbase you still possess.
Come on, DC & Marvel — take my money. Please.