It’s obvious to me that the way to expand the audience for comics is by expanding into digital comics. The casual reader is unlikely to visit a specialty shop, as I’ve written in other posts . However, if the comic is already available on their iPad, Kindle Fire, or smartphone at the press of a button, hey, why not? I firmly believe that this is where the growth will come from—by appealing to the casually curious, and turning them into enthusiastic readers.
Beyond the general challenges of marketing to a new audience, I believe there are two other factors limiting the possible adoption of comics by a digital audience. The first is price. While comic book fans such as I don’t have a problem paying $3-$5 for each new 20-page story, the fact is that’s a lot of money for a non-fan. In the digital world, 99¢ – $1.99 has become the preferred price for a “single” (song, short story, TV episode, etc).
Nearly all the comic companies either already have (DC Comics) or are going to go day and date with their digital releases—but at the same price as their print comics. Dark Horse Comics, another one of the major independent comic companies, announced last week that Dark Horse was going to price their digital comics from 99¢ to $1.99. Yeay Dark Horse! Smart move, Dark Horse! Clearly, they get it. To appeal to a different audience, a casual digital audience, they understand they need to price their products at the levels that the audience would be most comfortable with.
Unfortunately, the retailers didn’t get it. At all. They saw nothing but their own sales being undercut. And so a significant number of retailers decided to boycott Dark Horse. And Dark Horse caved into them, saying that they weren’t really going to price digital cheaper, just kidding, we love you, for the love of God please order our books again.
This makes me very sad. For a number of reasons:
• Dark Horse was right. To grow the market, comics need to be at a lower price for a general audience. I don’t blame them for caving in as right now nearly all sales are print sales, and they can’t risk a huge retailer backlash. But I am deeply saddened that they were bullied into it.
• The retailers are simply wrong-headed. I understand and appreciate and sympathize that they are worried about digital cannibalizing print. But general figures and research shows that this isn’t what is happening. The people who love and collect print comics don’t want digital. They want the feeling of the paper, the double-page spreads that they can open up their books and turn them sideways to admire in larger form than a tablet screen. They enjoy bagging and boarding them, buying and trading them. Digital is for people who just want to experience the content, not the hobby. Sure, some collectors who aren’t really that into collecting, or would rather have comics on their tablet or phone so that they can travel easily with them, might leave. But the numbers are small. As DC Comics has proved, going day and date with digital comics has expanded their digital sales and their print sales are also expanding.
• Limiting digital comics ultimately limits the future audience for specialty retail comics sales. Why is the specialty comics market not growing? As I said above, it’s because not too many new people are interested in a new specialty hobby. So as older readers leave the hobby, where are new readers going to come from? From digital, of course. Comic retail should be doing everything they can to try and get people who have no interest in comics to try them on their tablet, and then come into the store for more if they like them.
I love my local comic shop, have a pull list of print comics and I want them to thrive. I firmly believe, however, the only way this will happen is if fresh new fans discover the joys of the graphic storytelling genre for themselves, and that discovery is going to happen in the digital realm. From there, some will go to the comic shops. So to get a new audience into the comic shops, I think cheaper digital comics are a smart way to do it. Penalizing those companies who want to experiment with it will ultimately hurt the stores far more than letting them experiment with pricing.