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

Dark Horse Digital

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.

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.

Dark Horse Digital

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 (link no longer available) 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.

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