If you’ve ever been tempted to start reading comic books via digital distribution, this may have seemed like the perfect month to do so; in addition to DC Comics relaunching its superhero line with simultaneous print and digital releases throughout September, Marvel Comics has also relaunched its “Ultimate” line this month, including a simultaneous print/digital release for its much-hyped new Spider-Man series featuring Miles Morales, instead of Peter Parker, in the titular role. But the true development of the format is actually happening elsewhere.
Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of gems to buy in both Marvel and DC’s line of new digital releases (I’d recommend DC‘s Action Comics and Wonder Woman, personally), but there’s a very clear barrier in both cases: Price. For both publishers’ simultaneous “day and date” digital releases, the digital price is identical to the print price in an attempt to support – or, at least, not actively undercut – the “direct market” network of specialty comic stores, which currently represent almost the entirety of individual monthly issue sales for the industry. Which, while it may be an admirable tactic, is not exactly one that’s welcoming for newcomers to the medium: Does anyone really feel that the 20 pages of content in Ultimate Spider-Man #1 is worth $3.99 digitally?
DC, at least, has a policy to drop digital prices by a dollar four weeks after release, meaning that you can wait a month and get a better deal; Marvel doesn’t offer anything similar, currently. Far better in terms of value for money has been Archie Comics, the first major publisher to push an entire line for simultaneous release in print and digital with a digital price of $1.99 against a print price of $2.99.
One publisher has managed to avoid pricing questions between formats by abandoning print for digital altogether. SLG Publishing announced at the end of last week that it would be switching to what it’s calling a “digital first distribution policy” that will see periodicals released in digital format only, with print being reserved for eventual collected editions. “Digital has the virtue of being a great way to market and see if new creators and concepts can gain any traction and also has the potential to be a real growth area for the medium,” explained president Dan Vado.
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As if to prove that prohibitive pricing wasn’t enough to reassure specialty stores of the industry’s desire to keep them happy in the oncoming digital revolution, direct market retailers have been invited to the digital comics party in a surreal example of misunderstanding the value of digital distribution.
Both Diamond Distribution, the near-monopoly in charge of print distribution for periodical comics, and ComiXology, slowly becoming a near-monology in charge of digital distribution for periodical comics, have announced the option of creating digital storefronts for direct market retailers, giving them all the benefits of digital comics, but with the added benefit of a physical location (Diamond’s offering will actually require consumers to buy the digital comics at the physical store, and then download them later). ComiXology’s option rolled out earlier this month, and was met with something between apathy and anger by retailers over contractual terms and conditions.
Just like print, the best entry point for new readers in terms of price and content may lie in archival material. Marvel recently issued an excited press release announcing “the first major digital release of super hero comic collections,” with the launch of ten collections starring the X-Men, Spider-Man, Thor and other characters familiar to mainstream audiences through movies. Each collection is offered at a price lower than buying the digital issues individually or, as Marvel calls it, “an unbeatable price”—unless you want to buy the print versions through Amazon, which discounts them to an even lower amount.
While Marvel’s effort does amount to the “first major digital release of super hero comic collections”—plural—it’s not the first major digital release of a comic collection, or even a superhero collection by a major publisher. Its main competitor, DC, offered a limited release collection of the series Planetary earlier this year, and at a much better example of “an unbeatable price”: 27 issues of content for $24.99, or less than $1 per issue.
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More troubling, perhaps, is that the Marvel collections are only available on Marvel’s own app, meaning that they’re aimed at an audience that already knows about the books, and is at least somewhat interested in the characters, mythology and fictional worlds of the Marvel Universe.
For more useful digital outreach, we need to look at IDW Publishing, the California-based independent publisher whose output splits between well-known media franchises (Transformers, Star Trek and True Blood all have IDW series) and lesser-known fare such as Locke & Key, The Rocketeer and adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker crime novels.
Earlier this month, IDW announced that it would be offering graphic novels and collected editions through Apple’s iBooks store, starting with titles written by prose writers who may have an established iBooks audience (Books by Anne Rice, James Patterson and World War Z author Max Brooks are amongst the initial releases). As director of ePublishing for IDW, Jeff Webber, explained in the announcement:
“While our various comic storefront apps, such as IDW Comics, TRANSFORMERS Comics or Doctor Who Comics, are extremely popular with experienced comics readers and fans of those brands, having this significant presence in iBooks will help readers discover creators and titles, much the same as browsing in major book retail chains.”
This seems to be the most obvious—and most reasonable—way to hook in a new audience for comics as a medium, and digital comics as a format: Put material that people might want to read in a place where they may already be looking. IDW isn’t the only comic publisher looking at iBooks as an outlet; Top Shelf and manga publisher Viz are already offering material through the store, and others will inevitably join as time goes on.
Digital comics could—and, let’s face it, probably should — be the future of the comic medium, and between DC Comics’ extensively-promoted relaunch and IDW’s iBooks launch this month, seems to offer their best chance at convincing newcomers to try them out. It’s a shame that such promotion comes at a time when the format is still in such a state of flux.
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.