Retailers React To Marvel's iPad Move

With their announcement late last week of a "day-and-date" trial which would see the upcoming "Invincible Iron Man Annual" on sale on Apple's iPad device the same day it hits in comic stores, Marvel got a lot of people talking. From the unheralded move to a same day release so soon after the iPad's debut to questions about how much the 80-page comic will cost in both formats (reached by CBR, a Marvel rep offered no comment on the final pricing), there seems to be a lot left to say over the move. And as with all things relating to comics online, the brick and mortar retailers of the Direct Market of comic shops have their own unique concerns and opinions when a move like this is made.

Prominent coalition of comic shops owners ComicsPRO released the following word shortly after Marvel's announcement: "The primary reason for the existence of ComicsPRO is to be a help to professional storefront comic book specialty retailers. In light of Marvel's 'day & date' announcement for the Iron Man Annual, we are hopeful that any digital reader sampling the first chapter online will then visit one of our many member stores in the U.S. and Canada to buy the whole story in printed comics format. 

"ComicsPRO retailers want to work with all of our suppliers to continually find ways to bring new readers into comics and to re-energize latent comic book buyers. Each publisher's digital marketing strategy will no doubt be part of that. ComicsPRO retailer members will continue to be proactive in insisting publishers to be as aggressive or more about getting consumers into our stores as they are about building digital sales."

For a more in depth response from the retail community, CBR News reached out to a number of prominent Direct Market shop owners and asked for their individual opinions on the "Invincible Iron Man Annual's" digital availability. Read on for a look at how the sale could affect their businesses, what models for digital sales they hope for and what questions they still have.

CBR News: What's your first response to the news? Is this something you anticipated? Something you thought would come this soon? Something that will or will not affect your business immediately?

Joe Field, Flying Colors Comics of Concord, CA: It's not a total surprise at all. Since many publishers have launched digital initiatives, "day & date" release has been looming out there. I don't see this changing my business immediately.

Aaron Haaland, A Comic Shop of Winter Park, FL: Marvel's been on top and out front of the iPad from the start, so it's no surprise to me that they are already testing simultaneous iPad and print release. They have one of the most downloaded apps, it makes sense to have current content. Making their first new release download one written by an Eisner-winner and featuring Iron Man, who happens to have a blockbuster movie currently in theaters, is a great move.

Mike Malve, Atomic Comics of Mesa, AZ: I am not shocked at all! Marvel is leading the way with the digital revolution. The company is led by many progressive thinkers who are looking for ways to increase their readership and brand. So yes, I have been expecting this. What does surprise me is that they did not help launch the iPad with a new X-men or Spider-Man book with top talent like Bendis and J. Scott Campbell. And yes, as much as I am for trying to increase our readership, this will definitely negatively affect the sales on this book for retailers across the country. In my opinion, if Marvel were to make the price of the download equal to, or more expensive then the comic book, sales may not be as adversely affected.

Brian Hibbs, Comix Experience of San Francisco, CA: It wasn't any major surprise to me - I think most industry watchers have been assuming that Day-and-Date announcements would be coming from both Marvel and DC not later than San Diego, in worst case.

I found what Marvel chose not to release in their Press Release to be nearly as telling as what they did - there's no direct mention of pricing of the Digital release, which has lead numerous people to make several assumptions which may or may not prove out to be accurate. We also don't know the nature of the "parts" they say they're releasing - is it the lead story split into thirds, or is some of it just ancillary material?

I am fairly disturbed, I must say, that this announcement came in the fashion that it did, both from it arriving just before the weekend starts, so there will be a lot of gnashing of teeth over the weekend, with no clear answers; and coming on an already announced book that is on the bare cusp of being FOCed ("Final Order Cut-off" - the drop dead deadline for orders) - there's really not enough time for retailers to deeply consider how they might approach or order this book, or to gather information from their own customers as to the best way to react.

There's a general "tone deafness" that effects most publishers; seeming to believe that all/most of their retail partners are wired in to their every online utterance, rather than properly putting the information in PREVIEWS where it belongs: that's the "paper of record" for ordering and ordering decisions. It's like with IDW's announcement that many/most books will be Digital within a month of release - Which books? When is that happening? Does it impact things we've already ordered? Will there be notifications on future books? I strongly believe that we have a right to be aware of what channels the products we order non-returnably will be offered in, when and at what price - those are data points that can potentially impact the way we order. It is a real shame.

I think we're going to see more and more experiments on Day-and-Date release this year, while the publishers try to figure out what works and what doesn't, and what kind of impact it is going to have both on their print sales, as well as how the digital customer reacts. Does the hypothetical "new reader" even care about "Invincible Iron Man Annual" #1 as a day and date object, versus, dunno, "Extremis" or some other storyline? What are comparative sales on week one, and what are they on week 10? 20?

CBR News: In general, have you heard from your customers on whether or not they've bought books on the iPad or would be interested in buying serialized product online?

Joe Field: I've had customers bring their iPads into the store with them and - in a couple of cases at least - have opened the Marvel Comics App to show me what they like and don't like about it. But I haven't yet heard from one customer who has said they are giving up printed comics to buy their Marvels online. I think it should be noted here that the "Iron Man Annual" is a stand-alone story, so Marvel is still not rolling out "day & date" releases of series just yet.

Aaron Haaland: Only a very few of my customers have an iPad, and my base is tech savvy college kids at Full Sail, the new media school across the street from me. The few who have the pad do love Marvel's comic interface.

Mike Malve: No. I have not heard this from any customers. But again, there has not really been any new content available. This could be the real test. I have lost many regulars over the last three years due to our economy who just ended up downloading new comics illegally. So those folks most likely won't purchase this download either.

CBR News: On the flipside, one statement folks at Marvel have made in the past is that outlets like the iPad will function as "the new newsstand" and serve to drive new readers into comic shops and into physical comic buying/collecting. What's your take on this? Have you seen any new customers come in after online sampling?

Joe Field: Everyone in the business of comics hopes that digital comics will be the rising tide that lifts all boats. But in reality digital comics are simply just another revenue stream for publishers. More readers for comics in any format should lead to more readers and buyers for the comics I sell. I have seen a few people come into the store wanting comics, trade paperback compilations of stuff they sampled online.

Aaron Haaland: I think retailers who see this and digital in general as "the sky is falling" and gear toward selling other things than new comics are missing an opportunity. First, their store has to be a brand into itself and the highlight of every customer's week, and they have to be knowledgeable on everything they sell or why shouldn't the existing customers they have now buy online to get the stuff cheaper. After they have that covered, it's time to win over the thousands of people who are exposed to comics for the first time digitally. It's the job of the retail shop to get the attention of these people by any creative means imaginable to get them into their shop. We've used door hanger flyers on the college apartment complexes with blurbs on Vertigo comics and the links that DC has to read the first issue digitally for free, that sampling (or digital newsstand) has led to new people in the shop buying all of "Y the Last Man" or "Fables." Comics aren't like newspapers and magazines, those had 100% awareness and penetration in the marketplace and are information not pop culture entertainment, the only similarity is that they are also printed on paper. Pointing to periodical magazines decline caused by digital and using that to predict digital's effect on print comics doesn't take into account the differences of the product and their market saturation at the time of digital.

Mike Malve: Here is my main concern. It appears as if they are going after our current customer base. By having this be a Matt Fraction, "True Story of the Mandarin" story, with a top named artist as well, this is appealing to people who already read Iron Man and weekly comics in general. If this was just about gaining new customers...why use Fraction? And for the record, I am not aware of gaining any customers off of any of what Marvel has done so far. But last year with IDW and their "Star Trek Countdown" downloads, I had many people come in looking for that comic and the collected trade afterwards. The movie was super hot, and this helped us retailers get new readers into our shops. Especially with what IDW did...it was released as a download one at a time. So many people got to try it, more as a sample and then find the comic if they enjoyed it in retail shops across the country.

CBR News: Overall, it's safe to assume that simultaneous sales are a thing that we're going to see more of rather than less of. Do you foresee any way in which companies can do this that would prove fair or beneficial to readers, or do you have any advice for publishers like Marvel on what you think they should do with their digital product?

Joe Field: Sure, we'll be seeing more simultaneous releases - and my hope as a dedicated professional comics specialty retailer is that publishers do not forget or neglect the specialty market. I do want to give Marvel props for pricing the Iron Man annual in three chapters of $1.99 each. That price comparison of $6 for the whole digital comic as opposed to $4.99 for the printed comic will hopefully drive more people to actually buy the print version.

Torturing metaphors here, we all love to play with new toys and we casually toss cast aside our old favorites. Well, the direct market has proven time and again that it is a resilient market. We'll be there after the allure of the new toy wears off. While the specialty market may not be the sexy new girl in class right now, we're the ones that publishers asked to the dance to begin with.

My advice echoes what's in the ComicsPRO statement: I want publishers to be as or more aggressive in promoting the sale of printed comics as they are in promoting any parts of their business.

Aaron Haaland: I think that retailers should get a marketing game plan now for how they are going to reach people who legally read digital comics, and the publishers should assist in that goal. I think publishers shouldn't go after the low hanging fruit of current comics buyers (meaning no ads for it in print comics), but should focus on getting every Netflix user to sample downloaded comics as entertainment. From there it's my job to offer people added value and a sense of community in my shop.

Mike Malve: Again, I rather see publisher not just cannibalize our marketshare. Where is Marvel advertising this? If this is just to comic fans...how is that growing my customer base? Go back to IDW. THEY advertised the Star Trek download on all the sci-fi, Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry sites. It brought us new readers. Marvel needed to launch this with the "Iron Man 2" movie or the DVD release. Advertise ON SITES that share the same target audience. Are they putting the comic shop locator service somewhere in all of this to direct people to us? Publishers should be looking at retailers as partners, not competition, if we truly want to see continued growth in this industry.

For more on Marvel's iPad plans and the entire scope of digital comics as they relate to the Direct Market, keep your eyes peeled on CBR!

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