A few weeks ago, DC Comics began selling single-issue comics via iTunes, Kindle, and Nook. Previously, DC only sold single issues via the comiXology platform (both the comiXology store its own branded store and apps, which are run by comiXology), although it has been selling graphic novels via Amazon for quite some time.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, single-issue comics and collected editions (or graphic novels) are two different markets. People who buy single-issue comics are generally serious readers who buy an installment a month and are dedicated enough to their favorites that they will check in every Wednesday for new releases; in the brick-and-mortar world, they probably go out of their way to go to a comic shop, and in the digital world, they use a dedicated comics app and pay the same price they would for a print comic in order to get the comic the day it is released.
The comics market is unique in that the only significant retail outlet for the product is small, independent comics shops, and the margins in a business like that are notoriously thin. At the moment, the vast majority of comics sales are still in brick-and-mortar stores; although digital comics are growing, they are still less than 15% of the total market.
This presents something of a paradox for publishers in that they have to grow the digital market without cannibalizing print sales. We have seen disruptive change in the music, video, and book markets with the advent of digital media, but in comics, if the retail stores all go out of business before digital is firmly established, the industry as a whole could be threatened. The conventional wisdom right now is that digital sales are additive, and the fact that sales of both print and digital comics were up in the past year seems to back that up. Furthermore, the serious comics fan who bothers to make a pilgrimage to the comics shop once a week tends to be conservative and prefer print. (Anecdotally, many digital customers seem to be lapsed comics-shop customers who are drawn back by the convenience of digital.) But it is in retailers’ best interest to be wary of changes that may draw customers away.
One compromise that publishers have made is that digital comics sold via comiXology were not available until 2 p.m. Eastern Time on the day they were released in print, in order to give retailers the edge on timing. That worked fine for comiXology, but in the Kindle, iTunes, and Nook stores, DC doesn’t have the power to specify release times. Consequently, when DC comics appeared on the book platforms for the first time, they showed up much earlier than 2 p.m. Unfortunately, DC didn’t let retailers know in advance that this would happen. They did send out a memo a few weeks later, basically saying that they have no control and comics may appear digitally as early as 12:01 a.m. on Wednesdays; comiXology’s release time has been moved to 3 a.m. ET.
That may or may not be a significant change. In its memo, DC said that the vast majority of sales before noon were made outside North America, and it seems unlikely that a dedicated comics fan would switch from print to digital because of a few hours’ difference—although that could be one of several factors pushing in that direction. DC senior vice president of marketing John Cunningham told CBR last week that
We’re not of the opinion that [the earlier release times are] going to provide that much of a statistical advantage because there’s still no consistency as to when, where and how these titles go up digitally. And we’re watching things on a very close, day-to-day basis to see if we have to make any adjustments, but I think we went into this fairly comfortable in the notion that this would prove to be additive just as well as day-and-date was.
Nonetheless, this signals a change in the publisher-retailer relationships. Retailer Brian Hibbs wrote a bitter column for Comic Book Resources in which he alleged that when DC began releasing digital comics the same day as print, they promised retailers they would be given “most favored nation status” as long as print was the primary market. In his eyes, DC’s actions broke that promise, and he concludes, “Ultimately it shows the retail community that, all of their pretty words to the contrary, DC Entertainment really doesn’t care about any of our businesses.”
Hibbs rightly makes the point that this whole affair isn’t just about release times, it’s about a relationship that is shifting. Digital sales may be additive, and they may be small, but they are also the way of the future. Although they have very loyal customers, comics shops are a limited outlet—many communities don’t have them, and many people aren’t aware they exist. The e-book platforms allow DC to put their comics out in the mass market. There’s a significant chance this won’t work—publishers have experimented with putting print comics on the newsstands in chain bookstores, and I don’t believe that was a resounding success—but DC is apparently willing to risk its relationship with brick-and-mortar retailers in order to give it a try. The cold, hard fact is that publishers are in business to make money.
And that’s the real timing issue. There is no question that digital comics are growing; the question is when is the opportune moment for comics publishers to stop limiting their digital initiatives in order to keep their relationships with retailers. Apparently, DC has decided the opportune moment is now.