Another week, another digital platform: Marvel announced last week that it will make its comics available on Graphic.ly. It has been almost three years since Marvel launched its first digital initiative, the subscription-based Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. Since then it has also made its content available through a few different iPhone/iPad applications, including a Marvel-branded one created by comiXology. Like the Marvel app (and unlike Marvel DCU), Graphic.ly allows readers to download comics and keep them; what makes it unique is its social networking aspect, which lets readers post comments about the comic directly on the pages.
I checked in with Marvel's Ira Rubenstein, executive vice president of the global digital media group, to see how all Marvel's digital initiatives are going and how Graphic.ly fits into the mix.
Do you anticipate releasing comics on the same day and date on Graphic.ly and in print, either regularly or occasionally?
We have done it with a few of our books, and I can't speak for future plans but I think we will continue to experiment. Graphic.ly is just another outlet, and we believe in as wide distribution of our content as possible. The big news for Graphic.ly is this is the first time we are on a PC in a sell-through model.
How will the Graphic.ly lineup compare with the Marvel DCU?
That's a different business model and that's a different offering for consumers. There we are saying, "If you would like a subscription service, like Netflix, here's a service for you." And if you want to buy and own, similar to Best Buy, that's Graphic.ly and the Marvel app.
The Marvel app is doing very well. It is consistently in the top 10 for downloads for apps in books for Apple, consistently above all our competition. I go to Twitter and I type in the words "Marvel app" and look at the feedback, and I always see positive feedback — always. We're happy with where the sales are. The downloads continue to grow, downloads per app continue to grow, all positive signs that people are using the app and enjoying the app.
Which is more popular, download or subscription?
I don't think I can put it that way. They are both popular and they both continue to grow. The Marvel DCU has continued to positively grow week after week, month after month, since its launch. We really see digital as the new newsstand. And we are seeing digital as a way people are sampling books and consuming books for the first time, especially in the Marvel DCU. They are discovering new characters and new books they didn't know about, and we do have some new evidence of them turning around and going to local comics stores and buying books, and telling people "I'm buying this because I saw it online." That's the real win of digital for comic books, that ability to enhance discovery of content.
Graphic.ly's big selling point is the social networking — it allows readers to comment directly on the comics. That can be a double-edged sword. Do you have any way of moderating comments or preventing the social networking from going negative?
I think that's the excitement of comic books. That's why comic books live on strongly in this digital age, because there is that online portion of the discussion, where people are arguing and discussing books, and storylines, and the real world discussion that happens every Wednesday in comics stores and once a year at Comic-Con. The real world discussion is important and critical to the industry. I believe as the digital revolution takes hold across all media, comics will grow and not be cannibalized.
Do you see your digital initiatives as money makers in themselves or as marketing efforts that bring in new readers and boost name recognition?
Digital is profitable, and I think of anything we do as a business it has to be profitable. Physical print books or digital there is no difference. I don't think you can separate it. It's all combined. Digital is like the newsstand, and it is offering discovery of content. Even the newsstand business is a business to make money. It's all intertwined. We are thrilled it works on all levels.
I'm trying to figure out the best consumer experience with these products.
What have you learned so far?
I'll be honest, I was a little surprised that consumers expected that the Marvel app would work with the Marvel DCU product from launch. I saw on Twitter and feedback from consumers that they expected that, and I was a little surprised. In our thinking, we were offering two different offerings, because consumers can subscribe to Spider-Man or they can buy it individually in store. I figured there would be a few people, I was surprised by the level of feedback we got.
We have no announcement to make, but we are continuing to work on our product and hopefully down the road we can make them better for consumers.
I think the other thing we have learned is that people have embraced that two-way conversation, even more than I thought they would, with our efforts on Twitter and YouTube. We have over two million followers on Twitter.
What do you think the future will look like?
I don't like giving away plans, but we are continuing to look at viable platforms and how we can bring a good consumer experience to them for comic books. We are always trying to be an experience better than a scanned PDF. That is the competition. There is only so much you can do. There will always be piracy. What we have to do, working with our partners like Graphic.ly, is offer a consumer experience that is reasonably priced and better than what you can do with piracy. If you do all that, I think at the end of the day, you will have a viable business.