How Humble Bundle is Changing the Face of Digital Comics Buying

While Amazon continues to tussle with the major publishers over ebook pricing, Humble Bundle has built a name for itself by allowing readers set the price for digital games, comics and books, get them DRM-free, and contribute some of the price to a worthy cause. The first comics-only bundle, featuring Image Comics titles, ran in April, and there have been five comics bundles since then, featuring Doctor Who, Dynamite, BOOM! Studios, Valiant Entertainment and, currently, Oni Press. In addition, its May e-book bundle included several Top Shelf titles. Each one has pulled in more than a quarter of a million dollars, with publishers banking on a lot of those buyers being new readers who will return for more from the regular channels.

The model is simple: Humble Bundle offers digital "bundles" of comics, all from the same publisher, for a two-week period. The comics are offered DRM-free (that is, without digital rights management that restrict sharing or moving them to different devices) in a variety of formats. Customers can pay what they want -- as little as a penny -- but there are incentives to pay more. Not only that, the customer is allowed to divide the payment between the publisher, Humble Bundle itself (as a "tip") and one or more charities. Buyers of the Oni Humble Bundle, for instance, will find a portion of their bids benefiting Direct Relief. So far, Humble Bundle has raised over $46 million for a variety of charities.

The top selling comics bundle so far is the Doctor Who bundle, which brought in $563,351.99 from 50,139 bundles, purchased at an average price of $11.24. The very first bundle, the Image bundle that ran in April, raised $399,194.11, with 39,074 bundles sold at an average price of $10.22 per bundle. While digital comics distributors seldom offer hard numbers of sales or downloads, Humble Bundle puts those numbers right on the website, and uses them to encourage readers to beat the average price.

While it's possible to get the core comics bundle for as little as one cent, Kelley Allen, director of ebooks for Humble Bundle, says the average amount spent on a digital comics bundle is between $10 and $14. "We bake in incentives into the bundle," Allen told CBR. Those incentives are in the form of tiers: The first tier is the core bundle, the basic assortment with a minimum price of one penny (game downloads that use Steam have a minimum price of $1). Customers can unlock more books by paying more than the current average price -- which goes up as time goes on, encouraging early purchases. The third tier, usually priced at $10 or $15, unlocks even more titles or premium content. "We found 30-40% of people pay for the premium tier," Allen said. Finally, there is the mid-promotion addition, another set of titles added at the beginning of the second week. Customers who paid more than the average price initially will get these additional comics automatically; those who didn't get an e-mail inviting them to upgrade.

Even with these incentives, the comics are deeply discounted. The Oni Press bundle would cost over $360 at full retail, but the average price as of this writing was just over $11. For the publishers CBR spoke to, though, the true value of the Humble Bundle is the opportunity to reach out to new readers and donate to worthwhile causes. "Humble Bundle offered a great combination of reaching a new audience, since their loyal users were more of the video gamer type, and an opportunity to pair offering our books while helping a charity like the CBLDF," said Ron Richards, director of business development for Image Comics. And he believes the books did find new readers: "In looking at the bundle sold, both in volume and from geographic location (users from many, many countries purchased), it's clear that we connected with a large audience."

That aspect was important to Valiant as well. "This is a 24-year-old brand that is really two years old in the marketplace," Russ Brown, Valiant's president of consumer products, told CBR, referring to the fact that the publisher is releasing new comics based on properties that were developed by the original Valiant Comics in the 1990s (as well as reprints of the earlier comics, which are in the premium tier of their bundle). "We started publishing two years ago, we got critical acclaim, but now it's all about eyeballs and readers. [Humble Bundle] was a great opportunity to get in front of people who may not read comics."

Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing at BOOM! Studios, said their Humble Bundle, which was offered in August, was a way to bring in readers who might be fans of their creators who are better known outside the comics world, such as musicians Max Bemis and Claudio Sanchez or actress Alyssa Milano, as well as creators who have built followings on Tumblr, such as Noelle Stevenson and Natasha Allegri. "Because of the way Humble Bundle is set up, if you are a fan of Alyssa Milano and you are not sure if you want to spend $16 on four issues of 'Hacktivist,' but you can spend $5 and get a hundred other things to sample, it becomes pretty compelling."

Humble Bundle started with games, and that remains its core audience with the majority of their offerings still bundles of indie games. The first bundle was developed in 2010 by Jeff Rosen and John Graham of Wolfire Studios, who were looking for a new way to promote their games. It was so successful that they started a separate company, Humble Bundle.

"Humble Bundle came out of the fact that there were three or four big players in the video game industry making all the noise, putting out premium content, but there was a lot of really interesting content coming out of smaller publishers," said Valiant CEO Dinesh Shamdasani. "They were trying to fight those giant marketing engines, so they banded together to allow you to at whatever cost you were comfortable with try these new games from independent publishers. We have the same dynamic in the comics industry, and I think it's a natural thing. That's why you saw the success with the Dynamite Humble Bundle; it's a way to try books that are outside the Big Two."

While other digital distributors have been slow to drop digital rights management, which is designed to reduce piracy, the DRM-free aspect has been part of Humble Bundle from the beginning. "In addition to making the customers feel awesome, we didn't want to treat them like criminals," Humble Bundle director of communications Lizzie Cuevas told CBR News. "We wanted to put trust in our customers. People could pirate, but we are giving them the opportunity to pay what they want."

"People really respect Humble Bundle because we respect our customers," Allen added.

Valiant recently began offering its comics DRM-free through several channels, including comiXology and DriveThruComics, and Shamdasni admits that piracy was one of the first things he thought about. "It's something we spent a lot of time doing research on. The data shows us that what generally happens is there is no additional piracy. In fact, there is a lot of data that proves that in other industries, music for instance, piracy will decrease if you give customers the content they want at the price they want on the platform they want. It took us a while to see that data, but we embraced it wholeheartedly."

Competition with a publisher's other digital sales channels doesn't seem to be an issue either, partly because the sales are limited to two weeks, and possibly also because the audience is different. Chris Ross, director of digital publishing for Top Shelf, said he saw no evidence that Humble Bundle sales cut into Top Shelf's other sales. "We were monitoring our digital sales at the same time the Humble Bundle was going on, and we were expecting those sales to be muted, and it wasn't happening," he said. "The folks that were going to the Humble Bundle column weren't the folks who were going to the comiXology column, or the Amazon column."

Sablik agrees. "The analogy is, I'm an Apple guy and I'm in that Apple ecosystem," he said. "I have no idea if there is some fantastic deal happening on Google Play for music. I don't know, and I'm not going to take the time to look. I think that's what it is, as explosive and as big as this piece of the business has been, ultimately Humble Bundle, well, we sold 10,000, 11,000 bundles, so we reached an extra 10,000 people, but if you think of the population of the U.S., it's such a drop in the bucket that whatever cannibalization there is is incidental."

With this in mind, most of the comics publishers design their bundles to be new-reader-friendly, and often gamer-friendly as well. "What we have done with Humble Bundle is give people starting places," said Shamdasani. The Valiant bundle includes the first two volumes of a number of their core series as well as the Shadowman video game (originally published by Valiant's then-parent company Acclaim in 1999); Valiant was introduced to Humble Bundle by the distributor Night Dive, which currently holds the license for distribution of the game. In addition, Valiant gave away a different comic every day via the Humble Bundle site -- no purchase necessary.

Ross told CBR that the Top Shelf bundle included Ed Piskor's "Wizzywig," a graphic novel about phone hackers, specifically to appeal to the gamer audience, as well as Eddie Campbell's "From Hell," because "it's one of those classics everyone should have," and Rep. John Lewis's civil rights memoir "March," because "it's one of the most important books we have published."

Image took a more diverse approach. "We wanted to highlight both the titles that would attract readers based on popularity, like 'The Walking Dead' and 'Saga,' while also introducing this audience to the first volumes of great books like 'Fatale,' 'Revival' and 'Chew,'" Richards said. "We selected a wide range of titles crossing multiple genres, with the hopes that someone buying the bundle will find something they like ranging from sci-fi to crime to horror."

Sablik sees the key question for the future as whether Humble Bundle will function like Kickstarter, as a place where people are actively seeking new content, or like Groupon, where they are bargain shoppers: "When we did research on Kickstarter, the information that we have seen, and that we have garnered from folks like Paul Jenkins, whom we worked with on 'Fairy Quest,' is that most of the pledges and referrals come from within Kickstarter," he said. "For all the marketing and press and social media that everybody does, the bulk of the money comes in from people who are regulars on Kickstarter and looking for projects to support." The question is whether readers will move on to buy comics in other channels once the deal is over. "I remember reading an article saying Groupon was having trouble getting businesses to participate because they were finding it is its own ecosystem," he said. "The Groupon customer is buying bargains and not coming back. Is Humble Bundle its own ecosystem, with people coming on every two weeks or so and saying, 'What comics can I get that will be interesting?' It is too early to say, and at the end of the day, if what it is is an opportunity for publishers and creators and charities to generate an extra quarter million or half million dollars a year, then that's certainly an amazing thing and something that's really additive."

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