- Posted by Johanna on April 13, 2010 at 1:13 pm
- Category: Digital and Webcomics
Media sources have been seizing on the new hardware as a way to get people to once again buy media (although the ridiculous prices won’t help) instead of downloading stuff for free, since the iPad is a relatively closed system with a built-in store. While Marvel has been experimenting with digital comics for a while now — their subscription service launched in late 2008, but didn’t give readers what they wanted, since the comics could only be read while connected online — this app seems to be a major step forward (if you’re part of the limited audience able to drop big bucks on this new toy).
However, it still has one of the same problems as the previous effort: no new comics. That would be competing too much with their print retailers. (Newsarama asked several their opinions on the iPad, by the way, and the reactions run the full gamut.) The selection is relatively limited. The promoted “over 500 of Marvel’s greatest comic books” sounds like a lot, but when you consider that they’re putting out, what 50 issues a month?, you quickly realize that that’s only a drop in the bucket, especially when it’s split between “classics” and more recent issues. They promise new titles weekly, but no specifics on which ones or how many. (When I was webmastering, one of the biggest lessons corporate never learned was that you had to put as much planning into ongoing maintenance and updates as you do into project launch. Too many people would have these great ideas for something to start with, but no one considered that someone would have to keep updating their site/project regularly for the foreseeable future.)
Key quote from the Marvel press release: “[W]e believe it will drive these new fans into the App Store and local comic shops each week to find even more.” You hope. They’ve incorporated the comic shop locator (which, remember, retailers are only listed on if they pay) as a means to help those new fans find stores, but if the new fans are enjoying the digital reading experience on their shiny new toy, nothing says they’re going to want to buy print comics. Unless it’s collections of storylines they can start but not finish online (legally, anyway). And if that’s the case, why not just order those books from Amazon or other retailers with an app for that?
The actual reading experience sounds good, as I’d expect, since they’re using software by Comixology, already the industry leader. Comixology also has its own iPad app (shown to the right), with a good sampling of publishers. Their store is bigger than Marvel’s, with “more than 1,300 comic books from over 30 publishers” and over 150 free samples. They’ve better integrated retailer functions; if a user’s local comic store participates, the customer can preorder directly from the app to their store. Plus, comics are available across participating platforms — what you’ve already ordered on your iPhone can now be accessed from the iPad.
Their biggest handicap is the inability to use their app as a universal reader. You can’t import your own CBR/CBZ files. Also, I don’t think you can get digital comics the same day they’re available in print; that’s a limitation most publishers are imposing. And remember, you’re only selling to an audience roughly the size of the population of New York City.
(Some companies are trying to go it alone, with comic apps that show only the comics they publish, but I suspect that approach won’t last for long. It’s too much clutter for the user, who would rather learn one interface and manage their comics in one place.)
The part I’m most interested in is price. (Cue Tom Spurgeon once again calling me comics’ consumer advocate.) Marvel online comics are $1.99 an issue. That’s half-price, if you compare it to the soon-to-be-standard $3.99 an issue price tag. Most of Comixology’s comics, on the other hand, are 99 cents (although some publishers ask more).
I’m not the target audience for this — even though I could afford one, the iPad is too much of a consumer-only device for me. (By which I mean that it’s intended for watching video, reading the web or email, and so on. If you want to create content back, it’s more difficult, with no hardware keyboard, no camera, etc.) But I find $2 too much for content you don’t really own. You can’t loan out the comic or resell it if your interests change. You can’t risk reading it in the tub or leaving it on the bus. (Losing a $4 comic is a lot easier to take than losing a several-hundred-dollar device.) It’s DRM-protected, so you can’t move it to other devices now or in the future. As I see it, the main reason left to buy (instead of download) comics is that people want to support creators — but there’s a big question over whether the creators are getting anything from these Marvel digital issues. I believe they aren’t, or someone would have said otherwise by now.
Andrew Bayer makes the argument that $2 is a price Marvel had to set to protect itself and maintain existing profit expectations. That makes sense … from the company’s perspective. But the company’s interests are not the reader’s. From a customer viewpoint, the pricing should be set in comparison to the alternative, which is “free”. Especially since Marvel isn’t adding value but removing it by imposing limitations.
That’s another interesting thing about the digital business. With paper, something new is full price, but something that doesn’t sell after a few months may be marked down by being put in the dollar box. Retailers have a limited amount of space, so stale material has to be cleared out to make room. Online, that doesn’t matter, so will issues ever be marked down? Or is their starting price the price they’ll have forever, except for promotional free or discount offers?
What do you think? I’ve put up a poll.