Dark Horse Goes Same-Day Digital, Raising the Price Debate Once Again

A week ago, Dark Horse became the last major American comic publisher to announce that, beginning December 14, they would be releasing new comics on the same day in print and digitally, attributing their “huge success with digital sales” so far. Unlike many other publishers, they run their own online store, with frequent giveaways and a usual price point of $1.99 an issue, plus bundled discounts. This new policy includes collections and graphic novels as well.

Dark Horse Digital

The combination of those two factors — a rather generic same-day announcement and their prices offered so far — caused great consternation among some specialty comic retailers, who hate hate hate the idea that digital comics should cost less that print does. (One might assume that they don’t care to compete on anything other than price, but that can’t be right, since shops can provide so much more.) Five days after the press release, Dark Horse released a clarifying letter from CEO Mike Richardson in which he “apologize[d] for the confusion and concern”, made reassuring noises about the importance of the direct market, and stated that

We have chosen to release all new single-issue comics digitally for the price of $2.99 for the first month, dropping to our standard digital pricing of $1.99 after that.

As I’ve mentioned before, pricing equality between print and digital means that digital comics often end up costing more than their physical counterparts, since the hard-core comic buyer often gets a 10-20% discount from their retailer. Or there are the more obvious price discrepancies once you start looking at collections available used vs. individual digital copy prices. Since digital have no storage issues, back-issue prices don’t have to drop to clear out dead (non-moving, no longer in demand) stock.

Dropping the price after a month reminds me of the silly way movie studios are delaying DVD releases to rental outlets in an attempt to “force” customers to buy. What ends up happening is that customers get what they want when it’s available at a price they find reasonable. Attempting to “drive” their behavior just makes a company look old-fashioned and in the extreme, a bit ridiculous. You also risk fans feeling resentful over the attempt to manipulate them.

Noted comic creator Brian Wood tackled the question in a sympathetic way, while arguing for lower digital prices:

Everyone I know loves comic shops. Everyone I know who makes comics, especially creator-owned comics, is hurting, financially. … So to what extent does digital as a publishing format represent an additional revenue stream, one on top of print sales through shops, one that can ease some of the suffering?

Don’t know. No one knows, because we aren’t seeing true sales numbers yet. No one’s figured out what the magic price point is, because none of the big players have taken the risk and offered a 99 cent comic, or a 1.99 comic, etc., in a meaningful way. The price point is being kept artificially high out of deference to our retail partners. The price that fair-minded readers WANT to buy digital comics at is starkly different from what’s they are currently set at.

He goes on to mention that Dark Horse’s clarification came out after threats of boycotts from retailers and that he suspects “my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future.” He’s going to be working on a Dark Horse comic, so he’s got a horse in the race, but he’s being creative about it, looking at ways to make the print version special. It’s still dismaying to him, seeing retailers threaten to refuse to order his work because of a disagreement he has nothing to do with.

The sooner we realize that print and digital are not equivalent substitutes for each other, the faster we’ll be able to move forward instead of spatting at each other. Each has strengths and weaknesses (instant gratification with digital, but no ability to resell later, just to mention two factors), and the smart analysis believes that digital readers are additive to the market, not simply print buyers switching. As Wood says, though, we can’t prove that yet because no one’s willing to risk the retailer outrage, even though customers are pretty clear about what they want. Ignoring the customer never makes good business sense, does it? (That’s when I remind myself that the traditional customer of the comic publisher is the comic retailer, not the end buyer. And that’s why things are particularly complicated in the comics industry.)

Note that Archie was one of the first American comic publishers to go same-day digital AND their digital books are cheaper than the print ones. Why didn’t retailers go after them? Because Archie has strong outside-direct market sales, meaning they’re not as dependent on retailer opinion, and because many comic shop owners don’t care about what they see as “kiddie books”.

Retailer Brian Hibbs weighs in about the potential risks to stores like his and boils it down brusquely, with contempt for the product and a demand for “price parity”:

I don’t think the problem is actually the price — I think it is the content. Most mainstream comics are ineffably shitty. And I totally get you have nostalgic love of a, b, or c, and that keeps you buying ineffably shitty comics, but the general public isn’t going to do that.

The majority of what is sold in comic stores is not going to sell to a wider audience, even if you literally tied people to chairs and MADE them read it. Seriously, charge $1.99 for most of the content we offer, charge 99 cents for it, you’re not going to move the needle as much as so many people seem to think it will.

He also asserts, in all caps, “BOOKS DON’T SELL AS MANY COPIES AS PERIODICALS.” In his store, at least, which makes sense, since there are more places to buy books and thus less of a concentrated audience to funnel to him. He also berates decision-making based on “people who are trying to fulfill their own desires, instead of what’s best for comics. And, right on, you do get to express those desires, but the people making actual decisions in this business need to take a longer view.” The problem with that approach is that there is no one who isn’t deciding based on “their own desires”. His desire, for example, is to keep running his store based on existing customers. There is no such thing as a completely disinterested party.

Similar Posts: Dark Horse Digital Comics Should Be Cheaper: Brigid Makes the Case § Dark Horse Tries to Get Retailers Onboard With Digital Exclusives § Business Followup LinkBlogging: Retailers Dislike Price Drop, Wayne to Stay in NY § What a Digital Comic Retailer Should Be § Diamond Digital Calls It Quits


9 Responses to “Dark Horse Goes Same-Day Digital, Raising the Price Debate Once Again”

  1. Anthony Says:

    I’d think comics being overpriced *and* their quality are both problems… $3-$4 for a 10-minute read of a 52-part storyline doesn’t scream “general public appeal” to me.

  2. Brian Hibbs Says:

    “Note that Archie was one of the first American comic publishers to go same-day digital AND their digital books are cheaper than the print ones. Why didn’t retailers go after them? Because Archie has strong outside-direct market sales, meaning they’re not as dependent on retailer opinion, and because many comic shop owners don’t care about what they see as “kiddie books”. ”

    I think rather that it is that there is extremely little “time sensitivity” to Archie comics, nor, for most stores, any number of collectors who purchase Archie comics serially.

    I can say that a year+ old Archie comic is as likely to sell as a new this week Archie comic o the demographic who purchases them (largely prepubescent girls who don’t have iPads anyway)

    “In his store, at least,”

    In any store, Johanna. Compare the sales of (virtually) any serialized comic with the same sales of books (feel free to combine bookstore and DM, even), in the same relative period of time, and it’s pretty clear that this is the case in the overwhelming majority of cases. It is easier to sell a cheaper product, then a more expensive one.

    -B

  3. Johanna Says:

    Excellent point about the different Archie structure. Stand-alone stories have less time sensitivity, it’s true. Which leads to the next discussion:

    I didn’t go into this when I posted (moving too quickly this morning, sorry), but regarding book sales vs. periodicals, I think there are two more factors that have to be considered. The first is, why would you consider sales over the same period of time? Books have the potential to sell over a longer time period than periodical comics do because they’re less time-sensitive. Very few people are making lists in December, for example, that say “hey, you should seek out this comic issue from February”, but plenty of best-of lists include books from earlier in the year.

    I know, you’re going to say that that’s not always the case, and I agree, when one of the two biggest superhero publishers can’t keep their books in print, that’s a problem.

    The second point is the pricing. I would imagine publishers and retailers care more about profit than pure sales numbers. If I sell 20,000 copies of something at $4 and 5,000 copies of something at $20, then I’ve done less work to make more money in the latter case. Which ties into your point about how discounted digital pricing can be dangerous — you have to sell more to make the same amount of money.

    Brian, given your immense experience in this area, I’m curious to know — how would you conduct a real-life experiment to determine if digital customers are additive instead of replacing print comic buyers? Or how would you answer that question?

  4. Steely Dan Says:

    “How would you conduct a real-life experiment to determine if digital customers are additive instead of replacing print comic buyers?”

    ———

    I can only speak for myself as a reader, but I hate “floppies” (too fragile, too difficult to store, and I hate, hate, hate how the ads interrupt the story), so I haven’t bought any in five years or so. And before that it was only sporadically.

    I am, however, buying digital versions of some of DC’s new titles (no storage issues, no ads, and I love reading them on my iPad). I actually cancelled all of my previous print magazine and newspaper subscriptions (New Yorker, Economist, NY Times, Wall Street Journal) and re-subscribed to them as iPad only delivery because of this.

    So I’m someone who was not buying print floppies but who is now buying digital.

    When it comes to works I want to keep I still buy collected editions. And I usually buy them from Amazon. I have a local comic shop that I frequent occasionally (a well-regarded shop, too) that 85% of the time doesn’t have what I’m looking for when I go there, and if they do have it, they can’t compete on price with Amazon. On top of that, on Amazon I don’t have to deal with the weirdo, socially awkward customers, the garish and cramped store layout, and the obnoxious television playing all the time.

    Despite liking the new digital comix reading experience, digital comix are too expensive. I’m not paying for printing costs, warehousing costs, or shipping costs, so they should not be priced the same as print. If I decide to stop reading comix digitally at some point because they are too costly, I’m NOT going back to print periodicals. I would be a lost customer, which I don’t think is good for the industry.

    I sympathize with retailers. But it’s not my job to subsidize your business. You need to make my experience shopping with you superior to other alternatives. Even though I read prose books digitally (with my iPad Kindle app), and buy a lot of physical books from Amazon, I still buy other physical books at brick and mortar stores as well because the experience of shopping there is pleasant. I rarely get that from comic book shops (and the few that do are a minimum of an hour or two drive away).

    Just the two cents of a reader.

  5. Brian Hibbs Says:

    “I would imagine publishers and retailers care more about profit than pure sales numbers. If I sell 20,000 copies of something at $4 and 5,000 copies of something at $20, then I’ve done less work to make more money in the latter case. ”

    Speaking for myself only, I’d rather have MORE customers spending LESS, because it gives me more chances to sell them something ELSE :)

    “Brian, given your immense experience in this area, I’m curious to know — how would you conduct a real-life experiment to determine if digital customers are additive instead of replacing print comic buyers? Or how would you answer that question?”

    “More than I have time to do for free”, I guess? Though, oddly today I did just write an email to a big two publisher about some digital metrics I’d like to see reported at the ComicsPRO meeting, during their presentation.

    -B

  6. IDW Dumps iVerse for ComiXology, Goes Same-Day Digital at Full Price » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] expected, given the recent outcry over the Dark Horse pricing confusion, the IDW press release was careful to note that “All new digital comics will be offered at [...]

  7. Dark Horse Digital Comics Should Be Cheaper: Brigid Makes the Case » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] of the month, when Dark Horse announced it was moving to same-day digital release, there was confusion over their pricing. It took several days and a good deal of retailer anger before they clarified that digital comics [...]

  8. IDW Launches Digital-First Series at 8 Pages for 99 Cents » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] an issue is too much to pay for a virtual read they don’t own. Companies prefer $1.99 or even cover price ($2.99 or $3.99), although many run regular online sales, where a selected group of titles is [...]

  9. Digital Exclusivity Returns, With Marvel Singles Exclusive to Comixology » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] platform, more seem interested in not dealing with the diversity of formats. (Unless they’re Dark Horse, who’s rolled their own strategy and seems to be doing quite well with it.) Handing those [...]

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to comment feed.




Categories:

Pages:



Meta:

Most Recent Posts: