Taking a closer look at Marvel's latest day-and-date moves

Marvel announced this week that starting in February, the comics carrying the "Death of Spider-Man" arc will be available digitally via the Marvel app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch on the same day they are released in print. The specific issues are Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #153 and 154 and Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #1.

Marvel got the day-and-date train rolling in October, releasing Ultimate Comics Thor #1 in print and digital on the same day, and on January 5, Ultimate Comics Captain America #1 will follow suit. According to ICv2, Ultimate Comics Thor #1 sold almost 50,000 copies in the direct market, although that number dropped to just under 32,000 for issue 2.

If Marvel is trying to protect the direct market, it's certainly going about it the right way. The day-and-date comics are priced at $3.99 each, the same as the print comics and two bucks more than most of Marvel's new digital releases. (And, while we're talking price, three bucks more than an awful lot of digital comics.) Reaction in the Comic Book Resources forums was pretty negative toward the price. On the other hand, in an interview with David Brothers of Comics Alliance, Amanda Emmert, executive director of the retailers' organization ComicsPRO, expressed the opinion that price parity does protect retailers:

About the particular day and date books which have already been released, our polls and anecdotal evidence are showing that day and date digital comics are having little to no effect on print orders and sell-through. The main concern there is pricing. If books go day and date and the digital price is more than a $1 cheaper than the print book, or a digital book has a lot of value added to it for a lower cost, then I think many retailers feel that will affect print sell-through.

Blogger Sean Kleefeld thinks Marvel's choice of the Ultimate line is another reason why retailers don't have to worry:

First off, Marvel's just starting with a single event. It's not their whole library or anything. Second, it's an event within their Ultimate line, which is kind of a side-step from their main publishing concern. It's not the "real" Spider-Man. So it's impact against retailers is about as minimal as they can reasonably make an experiment like this. Anything smaller and the resulting data wouldn't be that significant.

And he predicts that the increase in digital sales will more than offset any loss in print sales. In the long run, though, he does see this leading to more comics shops closing, unless they can offer something more than just print comics, such as a shared experience.

It's nice that everyone is so concerned about retailers, but how is this for the average comics reader? An awful lot of people live in areas that have no comics store at all, so it's great that they can now get new comics on the day they are issued. What's not so great is that the selection is still very limited and the price is high. There is a reason why people perceive digital comics (and books) as being worth less than their print counterparts: They are worth less. As Brothers pointed out last week, just because you download a comic doesn't mean you own it. The publishers are really just selling you a license to read the work. There are limits on how much you can share it, there's no guarantee that the comics will still be readable in 10 or 20 years (because of technology changes as well as the possibility that the provider will go out of business), and the publishers can take back "your" comics if they want to, as Marvel did with Benjamin Simpson's digital copy of Ultimate Thor #2, which was accidentally released a week early on the iPad:

I did not discover the glitch until Wednesday morning when I went to look at the issue again, and found it had disappeared from "My Comics" in the app.

Later that day he got an e-mail from Marvel saying "Unfortunately, we've had to temporarily lock your copy until next week's scheduled release date." This could not happen with a printed book.

So for the fan who already feels that $3.99 is too much for a comic, this is bad news; with the digital product, you are paying the same price as print and getting less for your money. (Admittedly, some people feel the lack of a physical book is a plus, as it cuts down on the longbox clutter.) On the other hand, Marvel usually drops prices to $1.99 after about three months, so if you don't have to get your comics right away (and you're willing to stay off the internet to avoid spoilers), you can save quite a bit. And for some readers, the convenience of buying comics from the comfort of your sofa trumps any discount.

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