Marvel Releases Iron Man Annual Online, In Print Same Day

Last week, Marvel announced that Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 would be released online, through the “Marvel Comics app” (I assume that’s their branded Comixology application), at the same time it is available in stores, June 30. (Weird — in the time I’ve been writing this article, the Marvel press release, the “announced” link above, has been made login-only on their site.)

Invincible Iron Man Annual

Why am I covering it now? Because this is incredibly significant, but at the same time, it doesn’t really matter. (Plus, last week, I was distracted by Heroes Con, where the more important topic of discussion was how horrible Rise of Arsenal #3 was.)

It’s significant because retailers are madly concerned about the risk of losing sales with “day-and-date” simultaneous releases. If print and digital comics are released at the same time, they fear, people won’t buy the print edition. (The usual assumption is that digital will be cheaper, and customers are driven almost entirely by price. However, last time I checked, retailers also asserted that customers didn’t shop by a comic budget, instead buying whatever they wanted bad enough. But regarding price, see also below.) They seem to believe that their customers are disloyal, that their stores don’t provide any value to shopping in person, and that all shoppers care about is price. I don’t think those things are true — I value good customer service and the relationship with my retailer, and I much prefer the print product to an online copy. Especially since …

It doesn’t matter because Marvel is rigging the results. (As Augie points out, it isn’t the first time they’ve done so.) This “double-sized” comic is not even a true Iron Man story, but the origin of one of his villains, the Mandarin. (Who is known for two things: having ten magic rings, and playing off of racist “yellow peril” fears. I’m curious to see how writer Matt Fraction handles that last piece for a modern audience.) The print issue is $5 for 80 pages (of which some are ads — I don’t know the exact count of story pages) and has an ugly cover.

For digital, they’re dividing the story into three chapters, each of which will be $1.99, making the whole thing about a dollar more expensive than the print copy. Which is Marvel being greedy, since their costs are lower. But then, if digital app users (who are restricted to certain platforms, not the wide-open web) are a new market, then they don’t know what price comics “should” be. They just know whether they find $2 a pop a reasonable price for pretty pictures to put on their expensive status symbol. (Related question: was the book written with this plan in mind, so that each chapter is satisfying to the online reader? I’m guessing not.)

Contrary to fears, it’s not at all clear that print comic buyers who shop in direct market comic stores will switch to digital. For pay, anyway. Many are already downloading for free as storylines encompass more of a company’s titles and they can’t afford to add more books to their pull list.

Plus, many buyers are tired of storing chunks of paper that they don’t like enough to reread, or they want to keep reading comics but their environment — no local store, or a crappy one, or in another country — makes it very difficult, or they want to easily travel with a bunch of comics to read. I don’t normally play Pollyanna, but the digital market could be the source of those hypothetical new customers who just need a convenient access method to make comics easy to buy. Sales online may be a net add, not a change from one format to another.

The thing that annoys me most right now is when publishers try to force you to one format or another, as when Archie released an iPhone-only comic. The changing market should be about more customer choice, not less. (Another downside of digital: issues don’t get cheaper as they age.)

I don’t know where I come down on predicting what will happen in the future as more digital releases are put out. I do remember that two years ago, Boom! did it first, with the much-discussed North Wind. Only theirs was free online.

With that experiment, they learned that retailers are very fearful of how future changes may affect them, and they react badly as a result. Some are sticking to their beliefs — digital will put them out of business — instead of the facts — digital promotion can increase print sales, in some cases. Few are interested in exploring different business models and differentiating their store. I don’t blame them, on an individual basis. Many of them got into the field a long time ago and have stuck it out through some difficult times. The idea of publishers eliminating both retailers and distributors to sell a new product straight to customers is understandably frightening to them. But fingers in the ears and yelling “stop it! don’t you dare try anything new!” at publishers, even when they’re willing to listen, is not a strategy.

Of course, neither is DC’s unwillingness to do ANYTHING with online comics. Marvel at least is trying, with additional experiments mentioned as coming later to refine their approach.

Ultimately, no one knows the facts, because no one’s been willing to impartially study the subject with actual figures. Everyone’s already got a predetermined position and strategy to support. Me, I like the examples where digital makes sales go up, because I believe that most comics are tanked by obscurity instead of copying. In other words, if someone wants to read your work, even for free, that’s a good thing and a chance to convert them into a customer. More titles die because not enough people know about them than because of free unauthorized distribution. But then, I give my writing away for free and have for the past 18 years.

18 Responses to “Marvel Releases Iron Man Annual Online, In Print Same Day”

  1. Mark Cook Says:

    Marvel’s costs might be lower online, but there isn’t any advertising in the online version either. I don’t know how much of a difference that makes for them though.

  2. Bill Williams Says:

    When you’re trying to crack the market and sell comics, your biggest problem is apathy. There are a few people that have been able to overcome that inertia, but they did it by building a cult-like following. That takes time which is sometimes better spent meeting deadlines.

  3. Nick Says:

    “Of course, neither is DC’s unwillingness to do ANYTHING with online comics. Marvel at least is trying, with additional experiments mentioned as coming later to refine their approach.”

    See, I find this statement amusing, given that for the 2010 Hugo Voters Packet, DC has made the entirety of their nominated works available (Fables and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader), while Marvel only provided a *link* to a *sample* of their comic.

    In this case, at least, DC is trying a heck of a lot more than Marvel. I know, I know, I’m shocked too. In any case, this does mean it’s slightly unfair to say DC isn’t doing ANYTHING.

  4. Johanna Says:

    If Marvel works like DC, they don’t sell ad placements per title but across the line (so they have a higher impression count). So Marvel could make that up with ads on the website.

    Bill, thank you, apathy is the word I was looking for.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Nick, that’s fascinating, but the award voters are a very limited paying audience and not at all what we’re talking about here.

  6. Bill Williams Says:

    One of the things that I did to combat that apathy was to give away over 1000 digital downloads on FCBD this year. It has helped increase the numbers on our sponsored downloads through WOWIO.

    The spread of better .pdf readers is widening the customer base as well.

  7. James Schee Says:

    Is there a reason they can’t have ads in digital comics? I use Hulu a lot and every 15 minutes there is a 45 second ad. In order to keep costs down I wouldn’t mind an ad every 5th page?

    Right now charging more for digital seems kind of dumb to me anyway. Which I say as one of those pepople who’d like to shop digitally.

    Of course I also think that a long term digital strategy is going to take a change in the entire format of comics. 22 pages formatted the exact way paper comics are will only go so far. (paging Scott Mccloud:))

  8. Suzene Says:

    I sincerely hope this is just a bungled experiment. If I started buying comics digitally, then one day made my way to a shop to pick up the paper version for whatever reason and found that I’d been charged more for downloads than for the physical copy, I wouldn’t start buying print, I’d just feel ripped off.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Isn’t it ironic? Marvel’s goofy pricing strategy is safest if customers *aren’t* converted to buying print, when they’re telling retailers that that’s what they’re trying to do.

  10. Suzene Says:

    And, really, I think I’d have to be a very isolated reader if it took me actually getting to a physical shop to hear about the price disparity. Information travels fast these days.

  11. William George Says:

    Current state of the print market = Rising floodwaters.

    Comic publishers = People rushing for higher ground.

    Direct market = The 50 kg. lead weights they’ve tried around their neck.

  12. Greg McElhatton Says:

    “But then, I give my writing away for free and have for the past 18 years.”

    I’d always assumed that Comics Journal paid its writers. Another illusion shattered, I suppose.

  13. Bill Williams Says:

    Crack dealers and Joe Konrath have proved the validity of the ‘first one is free’ approach.

    I’ll be testing that with a free bundle of short stories later this year. The hope is that happy readers will buy the novel.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Greg, gracious, that was so long ago I’d forgetten. They do pay, and so did PiQ and Comicology and the various other defunct periodicals I contributed to. But I was referring to this site online, of course.

  15. Dirk Deppey Says:

    Although given how little we pay, the confusion is understandable,

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