Dark Horse Digital Celebrates Its First Year Anniversary

It seemed like it was a long time coming: Dark Horse announced its digital comics service at New York Comic-Con in 2010, but the original concept, which bypassed the iTunes store with comics priced at $1.49 per issue, fell afoul of Apple's terms of service and had to be rethought. The digital store finally launched six months later in April 2011, both as a web store and iOS app. Today, Dark Horse graphic novels are now also available for the Kobo and Nook e-readers in addition to the iPad and iPhone.

With its digital comics marketplace celebrating its one-year anniversary, it seemed like a good time to talk to Dark Horse director of public relations Jeremy Atkins about how the first year has gone for the publisher as proprietor of its own digital comics site. Atkins opened up about dealing with pricing issues, the storefront's biggest sellers, the recent free edition of Brian Wood's "The Massive," the future of Dark Horse's initiative and more.

CBR News: Dark Horse started out a year ago with 300 comics and plans to add 45 to 60 a month. How many do you have on the service now, and have you kept up that rate of expansion?

Jeremy Atkins: I don't know an exact number, but it's between 1,000 and 2,000. Everything Dark Horse is currently releasing is being released same date. We are still pushing for a schedule that is similar to back then, around 60-plus comics a month, including all our new releases.

The site launched with backlist titles priced at 99 cents to $1.99, and when Dark Horse started doing same-day digital releases, those comics were priced at cover price or slightly below. Has that model changed?

With books that are $3.50 [for the print edition], many are $3.99 digitally due to Apple's pricing structure and due to [Dark Horse] not wanting to raise prices in print to $3.99 and not having it be economically feasible to lower [the digital price] to $2.99, and also to make good on the promise we made to retailers [not to undercut them]. We are pricing them at $3.99 and dropping to $1.99 after the first month. We have yet to see any evidence that digital comics, for us, are cannibalizing any sales on the direct market. If anything, some of our numbers are going up, and if you add digital to that, it means more people are reading our books. At the same time, we are doing our best to ensure good partnership with our friends at retail, because we know in this market selling the monthlies becomes more difficult with people waiting for the trades, and you've got DC publishing 52 books a month. We are competing with a large number of titles monthly, and we can say to our retailers that we are not undercutting you in any way.

Which have proven more popular, the bundles or the individual comics?

At this point, it's pretty much 50-50. We do a lot of sales on our bundles as part of our weekend sales, and we see a big boost on them in those time periods, which kind of skew the numbers to make them look more popular, but on a weekly basis they are neck and neck. Everything is driven by title more than anything. While some of your traditional comics readers are starting to read comics digitally, it seems a lot of this can be a new audience because the titles that are selling best for us are the big licensed tie-ins: "Star Wars," "Mass Effect," "Buffy" and the Whedon titles, more than the creator-owned titles like "Hellboy" and "B.P.R.D."

Can you give us some idea of the numbers: How many comics you have sold, how many downloads, or the gross dollar amount?

At this point, the only way I could quantify it is to say that digital is still less than 10% of our overall sales for comics revenue in total. As far as actual numbers, we are not in a place where we are ready to disclose that. But the numbers do continue to go up month to month, and we see some consistent growth. We haven't seen any down months yet.

What are the best-sellers on the site?

It's definitely the licensed stuff. "Mass Effect" has been hugely successful for us digitally, mainly due to having the support of the Bioware social media. They are monsters in the social sphere with Facebook and Twitter. Any time we are doing any sort of promotions with them, we see huge spikes in our numbers digitally, and our print numbers stay consistent, too. That audience, if they are gaming fans and not necessarily comic fans, they are predisposed to reading a comic digitally because most are pretty tech savvy people.

If you look at our top ten titles, a good portion of it is going to be "Star Wars," with the Whedon stuff not far behind. When we have a new "Mass Effect" release, we see that dominate for the week.

If we do believe that these are new comics readers, if they are searching in Apple or whatever, I think in many cases they are looking for content. In many cases the price point is key, because they are looking for a good value. It could be a comic, a game, a novel, whatever catches their eye at the time and whatever price seems most appealing. That's why we continue to see good sales with "Star Wars." There is a lot of Star Wars content available for multiple platforms, and when you have a Star Wars fan just looking for a fix, comics can be a cheap way to do it.

What percentage of your digital comics are sold via the storefront versus the iOS app?

I think the iOS app is still where a good majority of [readers] go, but our store continues to grow in business. At this point I wouldn't say we have overtaken sales in iOS in total. However, it is a growing number. We quietly did a soft launch for our beta Android app last fall, so we are starting to see that as a consistently growing part of the overall digital business as well. We are getting closer to doing an official launch of that, and when that happens, we are going to see a big spike in sales. There is definitely a good chunk of Android users out there that represent a somewhat untapped audience for us.

When we talked last year, Matt Parkinson said you would be advertising on non-comics sites to bring in new readers. How well has that worked?

We do a lot of advertising through the Google content network, and we have had a lot of success. Our best performing ads in many cases tend to be through Facebook. Much like you are able to do with Google, you are able to exactly cater to the audience you are looking for and make sure you are showing up in all the right places.

Is there any thought of combined print-digital releases, such as the download codes Marvel is including in its print comics?

That is something we have discussed internally. It's a matter of sorting out how the fulfillment would work on our end. We don't have any firm plans to do so, but coming from the music industry and having watched the advent of digital media there and how, in many cases, vinyl was treated the same way that Marvel specifically is treating their print comics--buy the print version and get a coupon for the digital version free--it's an interesting proposition. It's a way to hopefully ensure your print sales become strong, and it makes digital an added value as opposed to a competing product.

Dark Horse recently made Brian Wood's new comic "The Massive" available digitally for free on Earth Day. How did that go?

It went really well. We saw downloads in the thousands in a single day, which is not something we typically see with some of the free books on the site unless we are doing something in conjunction with one of our licensed partners like Bioware. I would say it was one of the more successful promotions we have done. Given the fact that what we have seen thus far is that digital customers gravitate toward familiar IPs, I quite frankly think that for many of the digital comics readers, this would be their first exposure to Brian Wood. It seemed like a good way to launch the series and push people toward picking the issue up in June.

We also announced that Brian is going to be adding material to the print issues that will not be included digitally and will not be part of the trade.

What sort of material?

Basically, it is going to be world-building material, the kinds of pieces that ran in "Watchmen" originally, written material as opposed to sketches or a digital comics page. It will be very design-y, some different blueprints, a lot of stuff getting into the backstory of the characters in a way we won't be doing in the comic storyline. Effectively, Brian's goal is to make print the premiere format for "The Massive." He wants to make sure we are continuing to pay close attention to how monthly sales are doing and ensure that retailers feel confident that regardless of the advent of digital, he is doing everything he can to make sure people go into their stores.

What sort of adjustments have you had to make to the model along the way?

For the most part, the only real major adjustment was when Apple made the policy statements they did about pricing models. That was the biggest change we had to make. Aside from that, there was some confusion and misinformation about pricing, but that wasn't change so much as clearing up misinformation.

Recently, Dark Horse announced a partnership with ePlate, a digital payment device. Can you explain what this is?

Essentially, it's taking the experience of a smart phone and the shopping experience of a credit card and combining them into one thing. The card has a motherboard in it. If I am going out and purchasing something, I can choose, from my phone or laptop before going out, that I want to earn points toward Dark Horse comics. You can earn existing Dark Horse comics through purchases, or at specific dollar points you can earn exclusive content. They have partnered with MBI Bank out of Kansas City, and we are one of the initial group of partners from whom content will be available. We are still in the process of determining what comics will be available as exclusives.

How did Dark Horse get involved in this?

They approached us. They are big Dark Horse fans, and I think that because we are in control of our own digital distribution, we were an appealing partner in the comics industry. We are always looking for new ways to grow the new comics audience, whether digitally or in print, and this potentially offered us another way to get out in front of a new comics audience. There are significantly more people carrying a credit card in their wallet today than are reading comics.

What's coming up next for Dark Horse Digital?

I don't think that the digital platform has been fully exploited yet in terms of what can be done with it, in the same way that there are certain aspects of the print experience that can't be replicated digitally. We are very interested in adding functionality to our app and adding features to the books that take advantage of the digital format. Nothing firm as of yet, but we are looking at developing some features that hopefully we will be announcing shortly.

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