Invincible Iron Man: Will paper be cheaper than digital?

With the digital revolution's glacier period just about played out, I fully expect at least one of the companies (probably Marvel) to adopt a more-aggressive-than-some-hoped-for same-day publishing philosophy when it comes to on-line iterations of their comics, and I expect them to adopt it soon. And then I expect the rest of the companies to do something similar.

Take the million iPads reportedly sold to date, divide it by the number of actual long-term customers Marvel would likely have (as opposed to the curious bystanders who downloaded a few introductory freebies or sampled a 99¢ comic or two out of sheer novelty), and I don't think the remaining customer base is nearly large enough to justify the sheer rage that such a move would engender among retailers.

Marvel's announcement today that it will release Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 simultaneously in print and on the iPad provides a glimpse at the possibilities of digital marketing for comics, but the crystal ball remains cloudy.

Marvel chose to leave one key detail out of their press release: The print edition will retail for $4.99 (for 80 pages), while Marvel has not given a price for the digital version. They have said that it will be split into three "issues," so if they charge the standard $1.99 for each, the iPad version could be more expensive than print, which would certainly turn the standard model upside down.

My question about this to Marvel elicited a friendly but firm "No comment."

Commenters at The Beat are pushing back heavily on a higher price for the digital book, but that would actually make sense, in a way. No, hear me out!

If Marvel goes this route, the hard-core comics fans will get pissed off and buy it on paper in their comics shop just to spite Marvel. Maybe they will even buy two copies, to drive the knife in a little deeper!

However, the vast majority of iPad users don’t know where their LCS is and may not even live near one. Buying this comic on paper is not an option for them, so they may not even know the difference. All they know is that there is this interesting thing that they were only vaguely aware of before, that looks sort of cool, and that they can sample for two bucks.

It’s not like Amazon selling a paperback for less than the price of the Kindle edition. It’s two totally different audiences.

That sort of segmentation is important because people will be watching Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 closely to see whether it brings new readers into the comics fold or merely cannibalizes the existing audience. In a way, it's a good choice for Marvel, as the Iron Man movies have already introduced the general public to the character and the franchise. If it becomes a featured app in the iTunes store, it will be seen by many more people than if it is placed in the window of a comics store. And it will benefit from the instant gratification aspect of the iPad—does this look interesting? Here it is! Your credit card is already in the system, so you can have it in seconds. No driving to an out-of-the-way part of town, no pre-ordering, just one painless click and it's yours.

As it happens, there has been a lot of discussion around this particular point lately. Here is retailer Brian Hibbs, less than a month ago, worrying that same-day digital releases could harm the Direct Market—and by extension, the industry as a whole:

I think there needs to be at least a six month gap between print and digital release for the overwhelming majority of releases. Even a small amount of cannibalization between the channels could have catastrophic impact on small stores - I don't think the majority of the DM could absorb even a 10% permanent loss of traffic from migration. If stores begin to fold, that is more likely to lead to a lowering of regular and dependable readership than any gains in new Digital customers would offset.

Hibbs's argument for making only older comics available on digital rests on the assumption that digital media will be the new newsstand, where people discover comics for the first time, and then they will be steered to their local comics shops, where they will buy the comics in print, as they should.

A few days later, Augie De Blieck, Jr., made just the opposite case. He fears that the publishers are treating the retailers as partners and are limiting their audience as a result.

The audience at the local comics shop isn't growing. It's an increasingly smaller portion of the possible readership for comics. But, for some reason, publishers are afraid to reach out to the rest. The publishers hem and haw and make excuses and skirt around the issues, but none of them truly do anything revolutionary, remarkable or productive.

They're leaving a huge bag of money at the side of the road, so as not to tick off their extant readership/business partners.

And he points out why:

Is there any better sign that the Direct Market is well and truly $%^#ed than that you, as a reader, need to buy a $5.00 300 page catalog and order everything you want to read a couple of months in advance, sight unseen? Isn't it even crazier that your local comics shop is just as likely to sell out of the best-selling comic as it is the lowest-selling comic? You can forget about the "long tail" effect of collected editions when you don't even have the product to sell to the people who want it today.

It's hard to imagine iPad users adjusting to that type of business model. On the other hand, a user-friendly store (conveniently located, large stock, welcoming attitude) could benefit. Remember that sales of Girl Genius trades went up after the creators stopped making pamphlet comics and switched to a free webcomic, and that when BOOM! Studios released the first issue of North Wind simultaneously online (for free) and in print, it boosted sales rather than hurting them.

Tom Spurgeon answered Hibbs's column by noting that he is the ideal comic book customer, except for one thing: He lives far, far away from any comics shop. And that's a compelling question: If customers like Spurgeon are more numerous than the Wednesday crowd, then yes, the comics publishes are leaving a big pile of money on the table—and they are most likely leaving it to bootleggers who make the comics available for free.

But here's another one: Could the industry survive, and even thrive, by serving a larger number of less dedicated consumers, perhaps people who don't buy every issue but just the ones that interest them?

Ideally, of course, they will sell to both the hard-cores and the more casual readers, but that depends on digital and the direct market finding a way to coexist.

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