The most interesting element of DC’s announcement this week that they’re entering the digital-comics sales fray is that they’re trying out tiered pricing: selling individual full issues of serial comics for 99 cents, $1.99 or $2.99. The question of what a digital comic book is worth–and whether its value to a reader is correlated with the value of the same thing in print–is wide open right now. As proof of that, over at DC’s own site, you can download copies of Fables #1, The Losers #1, The Sandman #1 and The Unwritten #1 for free, in PDF form. Alternately, you can pay $1.99 for each of them on the DC/comiXology app. (To add to the confusion, Vertigo just published a $1 print edition of The Losers #1 in April.) So what’s the going rate?
There’s not a standard yet for how much money a name-brand digital comic commands, and part of the reason is that there’s a crucial distinction between what you as a customer are paying for and how that payment is actually allocated. The specifics of where your three or four dollars go for a new print comic book–editorial and production costs, risk, profit, the distribution chain, and so on–are semi-opaque, and publishers like to keep it that way. It’s safe to say, though, that half or more of the cover price goes to the retailer and distributor, and that another sizeable chunk of money goes to printing the comics and shipping them to distributors. The editorial costs of a print comic’s digital incarnation are identical, but its “duplication” and “shipping” costs are comparatively infinitesimal, and it’s a safe bet that the “middleman” costs are significantly less. (By way of comparison, the iTunes Store is reputed to collect about 35 cents on the dollar for music it sells.)
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What you’re actually paying for, on the other hand–where the value resides–is different for physical and digital comics. Here’s how it breaks down. For both physical and digital comics, you’re paying for:
Access to the work itself. If you want to read the new issue of Justice League: Generation Lost on the day it’s released, one way to do that is to give somebody three dollars for it.
The impression, true or false, that you are supporting the creators of particular work you enjoy –and that you are therefore encouraging more such work to be produced in the future. The idea of supporting a particular physical retail outlet, or alternately the idea of digital comics, might also enter into this calculus.
What you’re paying for when you buy a printed comic book that you don’t get with a digital comic:
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The work in its intended form (most of the time). The comiXology reader displays a single panel or two at a time of material that was drawn and composed as a page. There are very few comics currently available in America that were created to be viewed on a mobile phone; the effect is a bit like watching a View-Master reel of a dance performance. Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman stories are some of my favorite superhero comics in recent memory, but I suspect that reading them chopped up into individual panels would be painful.