How Much Will You Pay for Online Comics?

Much press has been given to Marvel’s comic app on the recently released iPad.

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.

[polldaddy poll=3049082]

42 Responses to “How Much Will You Pay for Online Comics?”

  1. Joshua Macy Says:

    Iirc, $1.99 is the price of most TV episodes via iTunes. I don’t think that Marvel comics are on the winning end of that value proposition.

  2. Jake Forbes Says:

    Not offering digital editions on the same day as print seems like a terrible move. It only encourages digital comics early adopters to stick to pirated torrents, and denies Marvel their best leverage for charging a higher price point, which is urgency.

    re: price, as someone who “waits for the trade,” any price per issue is sort of a hassle. I’d rather someone lumped together the relevant story arcs and put a nice price on the package. Currently I get most trades at around $12 on amazon, so $7.99 for a 10 issue collection seems about right.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Good point, Joshua — it’s not just comic alternatives that customers may compare, but other things they can spend their money on digitally.

    Jake, it seems that $9.99 may be the price point for digital “trades” so far. That’s a little more than you suggest (but I find that that’s happening with most things online — they’re all a little more than I expected). And that’s an issue with Marvel’s releases so far. I can’t recall where I read this, but someone was complaining that several of the choices allow readers to start a storyline online but not finish it, since all the story’s issues aren’t available.

  4. Nick Marino Says:

    i think $1.99 is okay… if i get to own the book, that is.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Nick, what do you consider ownership?

  6. Ralf Haring Says:

    How much would I pay? $0.50 would probably be a sweet spot. If they think they can charge over $1 per issue, they’re kidding themselves.

  7. exar Says:

    $0.99 is my limit even if they delay the release of new comics by 2 months, that’s fine with me)…=)
    if its above that, then i tend to buy it in HC/tpb form…

  8. David Oakes Says:

    I would be really interested in seeing the breakdown of “I don’t pay for digital” into “I don’t like the digital format, and so will never pay for it no matter how inexpensive” vs “I don’t pay”.

    Though I am probably fooling myself that it will really change the overall numbers.

  9. Roger Says:

    The Marvel app is kind of a letdown for several reasons:

    (1) I quit reading floppies because $2.99 was impossible to justify for as little as ten minutes of entertainment, particularly when the goal is to get me sucked in to buying the next issue. But at least I could sympathize with the printing and shipping costs involved, as well as LCS profit margins. So $1.99 for a wholly digital, DRM’d product? No way.

    (2) The Comixology engine is definitely neat, and is finally, fully useful on the iPad. But it’s still more pleasant reading a CBZ in Comic Reader Mobi, since it selectively zooms thought/speech bubbles and captions rather than whole panels.

    (3) I don’t care about the inability to sell/trade comics, but I still have enough of a collector mentality to know that I want my purchases to outlive the iPad and the platform on which it is based. However, that can be addressed by simply buying a copy for my ethical side and downloading a scanned copy for my practical nature.

    (4) A seemingly randomly assembled, limited catalog doesn’t help.

    (5) One thing that would help would be social features. For example, letting me forward a two page sample to a friend.

  10. Johanna Says:

    There are other platforms, like, that are trying to incorporate social elements, and I think Comixology has some pull list features to share your interests with others at their site.

    David, every time I post a poll, there are always more options I should have added that come up later. :)

  11. Chris G. Says:

    It would be a little too whimsical for them to just charge the cover price of everything, I suppose, but that would lead to lots of purchases from the back end of the backlist (the whole Lee-Kirby FF would be under 20 bucks or so, I think) without cannibalizing current sales (which would be better served by being sold in larger chunks, I’d think).

  12. Bill D. Says:

    I have yet to encounter a comic that I would pay to read digitally. Of course, some of the freebies offered through Comixology or iVerse have led me to buy print collections of those stories, so the system works – the publisher ends up selling me comics – but maybe not the way they’re intending.

  13. Alan Coil Says:

    Not that it matters, but because I am anal, Marvel puts out over 100 comics a month.

    I’m not a fan of putting existing comics in a digital format because of the viewing problems. A new style of comic created specifically for the computer screen might be enticing. Each page would have to be similar to a Sunday newspaper comic in shape, about 2/3 the height of a standard comic and as wide as a 2-page spread. And the words would have to be readable without having to glide over or zoom, the lettering about the size they appear in this Comment Window. Any smaller letters cause me too much eye fatigue.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Wow, over 100? I didn’t want to overestimate with my guess, but I had no idea.

  15. Suzene Says:

    Anymore, I treat floppies as an advertisement for the trade, if even that. If I hands-down love a book, I’ll double-dip; if I like a book, I’ll pick up the first issue, then make a note to tradewait. Anything less than that I avoid unless I hear a ton of good stuff from other sources. At $1 per chapter, I’d be following a lot more stories start to finish instead of waiting for the collection. I view superhero comics a bit differently; I have an enormous, nostalgia-fueled soft spot for them, but I think that they’re disposable entertainment by nature and what the market currently asks for them is more than I’m willing to pay new for floppies or TPBs — with a few exceptions, I usually wind up buying the trades used months or years after they’ve come out without feeling that I’ve missed out on much. For $1 each, I’d about feel I was getting my money’s worth on the new stuff.

    What I’d prefer even to getting new digital comics would be for the publishers to put up a comprehensive back-catalog of titles for download, especially the stuff that doesn’t have enough interest to warrant any sort of new collection. I’d like to see a model where a dollar gets you a publisher-approved .cbr file of whatever C-list title you’re looking for without the company having to worry about clean-up, restoration, shipping or printing. Pigs will probably fly first, though.

  16. Hsifeng Says:

    Has anyone else here tried Pullbox Online? I got the anthology Siglo : Passion, edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Michael Vincent Simbulan, there for $4.99.

  17. James Schee Says:

    I voted 99 cents, though I might consider $1.99 if the books were more recent and had complete runs. Since most comics, superheroes from the big 2 especially are only relevant for a short amount of time. (the great runs I buy in collections)

    I have the Marvel Ap on my Ipod Touch, and it runs nicely. The thing is that there aren’t many, if any, comics from the last year. I think the most recent comic I saw on it was the first few issues of Brand New Day. So its basically a pretty package with nothing in it.

    Comixology is nice tho, I downloaded a free first issue of The Middleman to read. i liked the show and have been wanting to see if the comic is something I’d like.

    I found it sort of interesting that at a recent panel DC’s newest execs were asked about digital comics. Jim Lee seemed to say they had no plans, and even said something about not wanting to just do scanned comics because that stuff was out there already. (kind of giving legitamacy to the pirates?)

  18. Johanna Says:

    Good point. DC is being very cautious, as is typical of them. The attitude “although we have the legitimate product, we can’t compete with free” is also typical of old-school conservative media thinking.

  19. Max Vaehling Says:

    As a reader, $1 is about the maximum for a 22 page comic, especially with DRM. But I can see the other side, too: As a publisher, it’s hard to make downloads pay at that price, or more to the point: to make the venture into a whole new avenue of publishing worth the hassle.

    I’d pay $1,99, too – if I was sure the title’s worth it. At $1, I’d be much more risk-friendly. Also, the less I already payed for a series, the more likely I’ll buy the printed TPB, too. I’d feel scammed if I’d already payed $12 for a six-issue miniseries.

    I never buy TPB collections of books I already own as single printed issues, because, well, I already own them. Done right, digital comics could actually lure me into buying the same comic twice. If more people think like that, a lower price might actually pay off in the overall product range.

  20. Johanna Says:

    Your point about risk raises a tough question: how much to focus on the popular, “people will always buy these” titles and how much to cover unusual books. Amazon demonstrated the viability of the “long tail”, that allowing people to find lesser-known books will be profitable. A digital comic library might be a way to shed new light on lesser-known fan favorites, but it would require the company have a commitment to make those available. And an “all you can eat” flat-rate subscription plan would probably be better for that approach.

  21. Fabricari Says:

    I voted “Pay Nothing,” but should clarify, that I often buy the printed collection of my favorite web comics. I’ve used the iPad interface, it’s sexy, no doubt. But if this were the only format for comics, a format you can’t share, then we might not see comics in libraries. And that makes me sad.

  22. Johanna Says:

    Oh, me too! I still like having book versions of strips I like, and it’s also great being able to borrow or lend them, as you point out.

  23. Max Vaehling Says:

    Personally, I think a digital library that fails to offer anything beyond what’s on the shelves anyway isn’t really worth discussing. At least that was my reaction to most online video rental thingies. If they only carry what I can get at the place down the street, why bother sign up?

    A good digital store should offer both, or rather all three: Current mainstream, out-of-print comics and long-tail stuff. One because ideally it helps sell the printed editions, the others because you can’t get them at the store down the street, and offering them will set your store apart from others.

    Filtering may be an issue, though. If anybody can offer their self-published crayon-fest on your site, it may tire willing-to-pay customers out before they get to the ‘good’ stuff. But there’s more than one way of focussing visitors. Maybe a special section for larger publishers?

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  25. Sean A. Veira Says:

    Think that digital comics should only be $0.49 max.

  26. M Says:

    my take on it, i can preorder stuff and pay half price let’s say an omnibus if i preorder can get for $50 instead of $100, i have the book, i own it.

    If i have a digital copy, im paying $50 for the digital, (saying its a 24 issue omnibus) so the only thing im saving is space, and actually i can’t lend it others, and if its restricted wtf? i payed for it, i can do with it what i want. Just like music publishers tried to impose that shit on their music got sued over it.

    I really want to support the comic industry i’ve grown really fond of it, and really love it. But paying $50 for a 24issue book i can do whatever with, and $50 for digital thats restricted blows. If i don’t like a book i can always sell it, with digital im stuck with the $50 dollar bill.

    I may as well download the torrent comic first, if i like it then pay for it, but if im being restricted on what i own, it really makes me not want one. I can afford a ipad, but will stick to buying books until something is improved.

  27. Chad Says:

    Honestly, if Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, the subscription service, had a more complete and current catalog, I’d drop Marvel’s floppies entirely and just pick up trades of what I wanted to reread — and that would be a very short list, as I find that I forget most current superhero comics not long after I read them. Not that I don’t enjoy them while reading, just not every monthly rewards a return trip. Given that, I can completely understand companies’ reluctance to offer a much-cheaper digital alternative for recent comics.

    I find the onscreen translation of comics originally intended for print to be less than ideal, but I’d deal with it if it meant huge cost savings, which it would for Marvel Digital Comics, which is $60 a year. (As I remember it, I signed up during some Cyber Monday promotion for much less than that.) At $1.99 a pop, I don’t know that I’d be saving enough to make it worthwhile, given the discounts I get from an online retailer.

  28. Nate Horn Says:

    I vastly prefer digital over print (and maybe I’m in the minority, but oh well). I read a lot of digital comics and I find the experience much more enjoyable. That being said, $1.99/issue is just asinine. I don’t buy any Marvel books as it is and I probably won’t start (they don’t publish anything I’m interested in), but I’m all for either 99 cents an issue (the Comixology model) or anywhere from $5 to $10 for a trade (depends on the content). Digital costs less to produce, so I don’t want to pay the same as print. I just wish there was some legal system of .cbr/.cbz files. Even if you slap DRM on them so they can only be read on devices I own (the Kindle model), that’s cool. I just like that viewing format the best.

  29. Johanna Says:

    Chad, you may have identified why Marvel doesn’t have more comics in their “all you can read” program. Everyone’s afraid of cannibalizing the core business. They want you to spend more (perhaps buying digital AND print), not less (your desired cost savings).

    Nate, I’m fascinated to hear you say that you prefer digital. For me, online comics don’t seem “real”, but I suspect that attitude is going to make me a fogey very quickly. I’d love to hear more about why you prefer them.

    I think the statement “Digital costs less to produce” is arguable, from their perspective. They still have to pay the writers, artists, editors, and overhead (accounting, legal, executives, etc. – at least, they still have to be paid from the publisher’s perspective). They don’t have to print or transport or distribute, true, but they do have to code and store. And that discrepancy in what’s considered true costs of production is why publisher and consumer attitudes on pricing differ, I suspect.

  30. Hsifeng Says:

    Now I wonder about international markets. How much of a delay, if any, is there between a paper American comic hitting the store and library shelves in the U.S. and hitting the store and library shelves overseas?

    As for me, I bought a digital copy of Siglo : Passion in part because I don’t live in the Philippines and because the only volume of the series in a North American library is Siglo : Freedom, so I couldn’t get it through interlibrary loan either.

  31. James Moar Says:

    Hsifeng, in Britain it’s a one-day delay for comics. Graphic novels are either a one day delay, or sometimes a couple of months if they’re going through a UK publisher (which may only amount to slapping a sticky label on the book).

  32. Nate Horn Says:

    Hey Johanna,

    I prefer digital because I feel it’s just a better experience. I have a 17″ Macbook and the digital comics I read (mostly .cbr) look soooo much better than their print counterparts. The colors are richer and the pages are much, much bigger. Also, storing and transportation is soooooooo much easier. (My collection resides on a portable hard drive I can plug in anywhere.)

  33. Johanna Says:

    That makes sense. While traveling, I’ve found myself wishing more of my comics were on my hard drive. It would make reviewing much easier.

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  36. NeoStar9X Says:

    $1 or $.99 is the max for me. There is no shipping or publishing cost involved when it comes to a digital product. The length of time it takes to read a comic is less then 10 minutes. You can push that if you are an art person and like staring at it but for the amount of entertainment value anymore then that is unjustified. I can understand $2 since it’s a physical product but even $3 is to much.

    I agree it will be compared to other digital products. I can subscribe to NetFlix for less then $10 a month and stream movies and TV shows. It cost around $2 for an episode on iTunes for a episode that last for around 22 minutes of actual animation or live acting. Songs can be gotten for $.99 and they last just as long as most comics do.

    I don’t see the justification in selling digital comics at $2 a pop or more then that. Even $1 is questionable but understandable. That’s the problem with comics for a long time now. The cost doesn’t match the amount of entertainment they provide with compared with other things. For example some physical comics are $4 now. I can buy a paperback novel for $6 or $7. No art of course but 22 pages compared to 300 pages. Even page count in comics can easily be made up of no dialogue just characters in action poses and that can’t at times be counted or compared to setting and action descriptions in novels.

  37. Johanna Says:

    Good point, that comic publishers — who are used to competing mostly with each other due to a captive audience — need to start thinking about other competition for reader attention and how their pricing compares in that area.

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  39. shawn Says:

    “Even $1 is questionable but understandable.”

    How is $1 for something that takes so much labor questionable?

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  41. cary porter Says:

    I am a comic book creator. For what it takes to generate these things, $1.99 is a bargain. But I agree the consumer should own the product.
    Johanna: Printing costs WAY out way publishing to the web that is why it is such a good idea to use the web as a platform for publishing. The creatives still need to be compensated, sure, but printing, shipping, and handling are massive costs not trivial ones.
    What I am hearing here though is perhaps if the online content were somehow original and not mirror images of the printed version it might be worth more.
    My approach is to use the online interface to generate sales off line by giving previews for free and seeing if anyone is willing to shell out a couple bucks to receive a printed version in full. Does that sound useful to anyone?

  42. Johanna Says:

    That sounds like typical marketing — free taste, ask them to pay to see the whole thing. And whether it’s successful depends on whether the material interests the viewer, I suppose.




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