After months where the only real question surrounding DC Comics plans for digital distribution of their comics was, “When?,” the publisher today rolled out a heavy slate of releases, formats and tie-ins via their official blog, The Source.
Launching today for immediate sale, DC has a full slate of comics stories ready for Apple’s suit of devices such as the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, both through a dedicated DC Comics application designed by comiXology and on the regular Comics by comiXology sales platform. These titles will include perennial hits like “Batman: Hush” and “Fables: Legends In Exile” as well as a day-and-date release for all new issues of the currently serializing bi-weekly “Justice League: Generation Lost” series written by Judd Winick and Keith Giffen. The app today also provides a ten-page preview of J. Michael Straczynski’s new run on “Superman” from this week’s anniversary issue #700 and will release one new issue of Neil Gaiman’s classic “Sandman” series each week from here on out. To top that off, DC content will also be on sale on Sony’s PSP device where the available issues will draw heavily from WildStorm’s collection of video game tie-in comics like “God of War” as well as the first 25 issues of Jeph Loeb’s “Superman/Batman” series. Issues will be priced in a range between $0.99 and $2.99.
Additionally, DC announced that their digital sales profits will see royalties paid out to the creators of the comics in question, and members of the Direct Market system of comics retail shops will earn benefits through a new “Direct Market Affiliate Program” with other additions and programs to be added in the months ahead, through both DC’s own homepage and through partnerships with the Warner Bros. Digital Distribution arm of the Warner media empire. To help unpack all this news including more particulars on how creators will be compensated and what retailers have had to say, CBR News spoke with DC co-publisher Jim Lee and EVP, Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood who headed up the digital push.
CBR News: Jim, we spoke just last week, and when I asked after a digital announcement, you said that there wasn’t much you could say at this point. Now, here we are a few days later, and you guys have your plans ready to go out. So I guess my first comment is, “Well played, sir.”
Jim Lee: [Laughter] I have very selective memory, so I don’t even remember saying that! I think I was doing the very slow cadence which usually means I’m reading from a script in my head. So ignore what I’m saying. [Laughs]
Well, whatever way we got here, the rollout is certainly an ambitious slate of releases.
John Rood: [Today’s] going to be a huge day. We’ve let the consumers tell us what they want in digital comics price point and what they don’t want in user interface. Globally, they’ve told our partners who wants to ready comics, but everything is going to change when Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the gang enter the fold.
DC has taken time developing these releases internally before today, obviously, and it seems as though you two have been prepping for this since day one in your new jobs. For each of you, what were the things that you said “We need THIS in place before we can go public”?
Rood: Well, one quick correction is that it was the work of our colleagues that were on board before us. This is months in development, and so when Jim and I came on board in February, we were very excited about the plans and the relationships put together specifically with Sony and comiXology. My answer in terms of what I was looking for is “additive.” Is this additive to the retailer business? Is this adding to the consumer experience? Is this additive to an audience who we can start telling about DC Entertainment’s films, television shows, merchandising and video games across Warner Bros.? Additive, additive, additive…
Lee: I think the other key components we wanted in our digital rollouts were talent compensation -Â that’s something we hadn’t heard or read a lot about in the press, and we wanted to make sure like every business we get into that we treat our talent fairly and with paychecks. That was a big part of it. And on a purely creative, artistic level we wanted to make sure that the partners we chose best showcased the work that we have in our library. And that comes down to the authoring software, the level of customization that you have in terms of how you navigate through the stories, the fidelity at which the artwork and text are seen on the screen -Â those all played a role. And then we also sat down with retailers from the get go and really shared our plans and got their feedback and comments on every component of our plan, and that was extremely helpful.
Rood: One thing I’d say is that this is step one of a journey. And it’s a great step, but there will be more steps. We’re continuing our retailer dialogue formally and informally, and we are continuing our partnerships on behalf of Warner Bros. Digital Distribution to add formats and vendor partners beyond those we’ve launched with. We’ll certainly be adding to the roster of our backlist and from the breadth of our traditional publishing offering -Â we’ll be offering original graphic novels and collected editions and magazines into what right now is a periodical-focused launch.
Like I said, there’s an awful lot to unpack here, so let’s take each piece of this news in its own time. To start, Jim you already mentioned this idea of creator incentive payments being a key factor in the launch for you. I know that you probably can’t reveal too much in terms of actual contracts or metrics, but will the payments being given creators be like the royalties they get for book sales in that they’ll be compensated based on how many units sell digitally?
Lee: Correct. It’ll be comparable but different because of the way our partners are paid through this channel. So without getting into the details, I can say that it’ll be comparable and that the freelance community will be happy that they’re being compensated in every way their stories are being sold.
The first thing fans will ask after when they hear this news is “What is available for sale?” A few things were mentioned to me at the start, including Jim’s “Batman: Hush,” “Green Lantern: Rebirth,” “Fables” and “Planetary,” and it felt like the going rate for how you picked launch comics was “What do we have in the current catalogue that is new-reader friendly?” Did you want to pick comics that appealed to lapsed or new readers for this backlist?
Lee: That was definitely the thinking, and a lot of it was also in terms of thinking about this prospective new digital consumer -Â who they would be, what kinds of material they’d want -Â we really felt that we’d be best served bringing a diverse line. So we have stuff in there that’s for kids. We have stuff that’s tied into multimedia events like movies, video games or direct to videos. And then we pulled from this enormous backlist of critically-acclaimed work that we have, from “Sandman” to “Kingdom Come” to “Watchmen.” We have an unparalleled library to draw from, and it’s funny -Â we put out a lot, but there’s still so much more to put out that it’s going to be an embarrassment of riches, I think.
You guys seem to be very cognizant of how this program affects brick and mortar retailers, and so I wanted to ask about “Justice League: Generation Lost” going day-and-date starting this week. Why was that a book that you wanted to get online ASAP, and how does making said book a simultaneous release fit with the discussions you’ve had with retailers?
Lee: Creatively speaking, I think it was ideal for our day-and-date experiment because it has some of the world’s most recognizable and well-known characters. So if you’re interested in pulling in a lot of new readers coming in via a Justice League cartoon or game they’ve played, and having seen these characters in other media, that title will showcase those characters first. The fact that it also comes out on a bi-weekly schedule is something that speaks to the digital environment. Having something that comes out more frequently helps because, as we know, everything online happens at a quicker pace. The idea of a book coming out every two weeks works well in that format. And also the fact that it’s launched more recently meant that it would benefit from the additional press attention and marketing that this announcement would garner, and that will help drive not only digital sales but print as well.
Sticking with retailers for a moment, you’ve got an endorsement from ComicsPRO in the form of retailer Joe Field. I know that a number of DC reps went to the ComicsPRO summit earlier this year. John, can you speak to how their involvement has helped shape things?
Rood: Well, they certainly entered into our discussions. They’re a valued organization, but they aren’t absolutely representative of our retailer audience. So we’re talking to ComicsPRO members and non-ComicsPRO members alike, and certainly they’ve been valued partners in helping us figure out what listening to the retailer means when figuring out digital publishing. What would make a retailer program more than just lip service? Because I’ve seen a lot of lip service to date. So we’re excited to be working with folks to really craft something that feels additive and feels like it has the future of the comic book store in mind -Â and again, not just as a showcase for our publishing but as a showcase for all of DC Entertainment in all its manifestations from film to television to merchandising and interactive entertainment.
Tell me about the Direct Market Affiliate Program. I’m sure there are specifics to come to light as this rolls out, but with the idea that profits from digital sales will be injected back into the DM, what form will that injection take? Will it be promotion and advertising mostly, or is it in a way that will be affecting retailers on a one-on-one basis?
Rood: It’s really going to be a mixed economy, from a return of royalties directly, to the stores to advertising and consumer marketing programs that touch the stores individually, to measurable incentives that get the consumers to act upon what we’ve promoted online. So “Superman” #700 is promoted in the launch on Wednesday with a ten-page excerpt, and that intent is to stimulate demand for the book and get people into stores, which will always be the thrust of our digital strategy, closing the loop.
Is that something that will be a growing part of the program? Sending releases and teases to the digital applications as advertising as much as entertainment?
Rood: Yeah, and the beautiful thing is that our retailer partners and our consumers will both be telling us what’s working. We’ve been very encouraged by research to date in the market that says that digital publishing is stimulating the traffic at comic book shops. I say “to date,” because in a couple of days, everything will chance because DC has entered the game. It will change the game, but our game will be to let the comic book shops see this digital publishing strategy of ours as additive.
One element mentioned in the press release is expanding on the whole program through the Warner Bros. Digital Distribution division getting involved. Does that mean we’ll be seeing other applications centered around digital comics or other platforms on which this material will be released?
Lee: This is the first step, and we want to best promote the departments and divisions that make up Warner Bros. And we see this as an opportunity for example going forward with the “Green Lantern” movie to be going forward with a lot of one-off apps and things we can do to integrate Green Lantern content and activities across Warner Bros. including digital comics.
Rood: They have such strong relationships born of Warner Bros. content heft across film and television. So they have the Apple relationship and the Microsoft relationship and the Sony relationship that we only want to feel enhanced by DC and not competetive with. They’ve got great platform solutions for us and great marketing savvy that we’re going to utilize. Now, we are going to get into things that Warner Bros. hasn’t, like eReaders and relationships with our current partners like Amazon and Random House and such, but there are many steps left on this digital strategy, and where it’s additive we’re going to have Warner Bros. Digital Distribution as a partner.
One thing that’s occurred to me is that while there’s been a lot of growth in the digital comics space in the past year or so, so much of that has been focused solely on Apple products. And while those are really hot items, they aren’t the only phones and computers that people own. Do you see DC expanding beyond that market as part and parcell of working with Warner Bros. Digital Distribution?
Rood: Well, Apple is excited to have Superman, Batman and Green Lantern and the rest of the DC Universe in their mix now, but you are correct that consumers are telling us in numbers that there are many other ways to enjoy digital comics and digital content born of comics. Certainly the Droid and the Kindle and XBox Live -Â I’m just mentioning a few of dozens [of platforms] that deserve our attention because consumers have given it their attention.
Jim, when we spoke the other day you had said that what was exciting to you in building this launch was the idea that the market for digital comics will change in a year, three years, five years, what have you. What are the facets of this broad sweep of content and platforms that you feel really prepares DC to meet the coming growth and change that this market is primed to undergo?
Lee: I think one of the benefits to the timing of our releases is that we had a lot of time to do market research and see what the consumers wanted. I think some of the tiered pricing structure that we have in our offering is a part of that. The amount of material that we were able to convert and author into the digital format was also a part of that, as well as the conversions we have where you can get it on your iPhone and bring it to your iPod Touch or your iPad or your desktop. So I think that the waiting was worth it, and we feel that a lot of what we’re doing allowed us to take advantage of all these benefits.