It was the hope of many tech enthusiasts that touchscreen tablets like the iPad would bring salvation for American comic books. Marvel Comics raced to have a Comixology-created digital comics app available for the iPad at launch, and DC Comics followed with their own app soon after. While neither publisher has discussed specific sales numbers, it is the lack of information and hype for digital comics that tells a very unfortunate story about the vitality of these comics apps. While I initially greeted these apps with reserved hopefulness, I was immediately presented with a number of fundamental errors concerning the way DC and Marvel were approaching digital books. After months of following the progressive development of their app stores, I'm sincerely sorry to report that the dream of a digitally-rejuvenated comics industry is no closer to reality.
This was the initial complaint by many who tried out Marvel and DC's apps. The price of a single digital comic book simply cannot be $2. It makes no sense to have to pay $2 for a nearly 50-year-old issue of Fantastic Four with a big 12-cent price marker on the cover. The unfortunate reality is that a number of the collections available in these apps are actually cheaper to obtain in print form - how can this be? How is it possible that Marvel and DC could set such misguided price points for content which literally costs them nothing to produce? Moreover, in a digital economy where $2 can get you Angry Birds and a Talking Baby Hippo, what rational person would instead choose to spend that money on a retconned Superman comic that, at best, could provide maybe twenty minutes of reading entertainment?
To be fair, I applaud DC's frequent efforts to spotlight certain comics at temporary 99-cent price points, and I think both companies have been smart in providing the beginnings of certain story arcs for free. However, if they're not willing to accept sub-$1 dollar price points, then they need to seriously consider contentsubscriptions. If consumers can't justify the cost of owning a digital comic, then rent the comics to them in unlimited subscriptions, like Netflix does with our old TV shows. With an all-you-can-eat rental model, digital comics can be just as horrendously addictive as Netflix Instant Play.
Instant Play makes it impossible to get anything done.
Don't Sell Them In Custom Apps
Good pricing isn't enough if people don't know where to buy your digital comics. This is the problem with having custom Marvel and DC 'apps' - you have to be a pre-evangelized Marvel or DC fan to seek out and download these apps in order to purchase the comics. If the goal of digital comics is to reach new readers, this has to change. Since Apple's iBooks store, Amazon's Kindle store, and Barnes & Noble's Nook store all sell full-color e-books, why aren't Marvel and DC just selling their digital comics in these well-established book stores? Reading-minded consumers already know to check out the iBooks or Kindle store to buy reading material, so doesn't it make more sense to sell comics in those stores, instead of expecting them to find and download the Marvel and DC Comics apps? If you look around on iBooks right now, you can find that there are a number of comic books available for purchase from other companies - including an excellent reprinting of some old Captain Marvel comics. This is where Batman: Hush and Ultimate Spider-Man should be located.
No Incentive Against Print Comics I've spoken with a number of comic fans who think the solution to all of this is for Marvel and DC to include a digital copy of the comic with a purchase of the printed copy. I actually don't agree with this idea; sure, that's what we see happening in DVD and Blu-ray sales, but I don't actually know many people who are redeeming their digital copies. More often than not, they buy the Blu-ray telling themselves that they're willing to pay extra to get the included digital copy, but never actually transfer it to their computers.
If DC and Marvel want digital comics to work, they have to be willing to let their digital books compete against their printed books. By that, I mean that they have to politely ignore the grumblings of comic book retailers and price digital comics far below their paper equivalents - and brand new issues have to be available digitally on the same day that they're available in comic book shops. This is going to upset a lot of retailers, but spoiler alert - comics are going to continue in a death-spiral if we don't remove these comic book stores from the equation. Buying music digitally did not become popular until it made sense for consumers to go digital; it took the arrival of an MP3 player far superior to a Discman and consumer-friendly digital album pricing that trumped most retail CD prices. Comics can make the same successful leap to digital distribution, but it will continue to be a failed experiment until Marvel and DC are willing to change their business models for digital content.