The Future of Comics? 'BUNDLES' Offer Publishers New Customers

Loot Crate
Credit: Loot Crate

What a difference a bundle makes.

Over the last several months, comics publishers have been reaching audiences in a new way that significantly increases sales and sampling — subscription bundles.

How it works? Genre fans either subscribe to a service that sends them a box, or they browse bundles of electronic games, books and other geek-themed materials — and among those products is a comic book (or two or more).

The Walking Dead #132 Loot Crate Edition
The Walking Dead #132 Loot Crate Edition
Credit: Skybound

The bundling practice really caught the attention of industry watchers when, in October 2014, The Walking Dead #132 was estimated to have sold a whopping 300,000-plus copies overall, because it was included in a Loot Crate — making it by far the best-selling title that month.

Yet the practice is ongoing, and it isn't just confined to physical copies. For example, this week comic book fans can purchase digital Transformers comic books from Humble Bundle in a "pay what you want" grouping from Hasbro and IDW that allows readers to also donate to charity.

Humble Bundle, which started as a video game bundling company but recently expanded into e-books and comics, usually sells "from 10,000 bundles per promotion, all the way up to 50,000," according to Kelley Allen, Humble's director of books. "Due to the economics [of Humble's pay structure], the publisher will probably make about one dollar or two dollars per title sold, but they make that up in volume. It's a lower price point, but overall, they're selling more."

Credit: Marvel Comic

Although exact sales numbers for comics included in bundles aren't made public, the Walking Dead sales indicate an impressive audience for the approach. It was the second comic the company had included in its subscription box — the first being Rocket Raccoon #1, which also produced a sales bump.

"The comic that we provide [in Loot Crate], we purchase from [the publisher]," explained Marissa Zaenger, head of marketing and PR for Loot Crate. "And people might be like, oh, well, that's kind of inflated a little bit, because they purchase 200,000 or 250,000 or 300,000 comics for their subscribers, just from one company.

But Zaenger said the comics are meant to be more than just an extra perk that's thrown into the box. "We're really good at hyping it up," she said, using the example of the Star Wars comics launch by Marvel in January. "We were able to create our own variant cover and hype it up even further to our own community."

Loot Crate was created in 2012 because the founders noticed lines at Comic-Con. "So they just kind of, like, paired the whole Birchbox idea with the whole geek and nerd audience, obsession-types of people that they are," Zaenger said. "Since that time, we have grown to over 350,000 subscribers."

That's quite an attractive number for the comics industry, where even the best-selling paper comics sell less than 200,000. And although figures for digital sales aren't available, opportunities like Humble Bundle offers publishers the opportunity to not only sell brand new comics, but also their extensive library of already released material.

Humble Bundle, which has a charity component attached to its sales, sprang from a marketing idea from some indie video game developers, just to market their products. When the group's first bundle had sales of more than a million dollars, the founders decided to start a company. In January 2014, the company expanded to include e-books and comics.

"Roughly half our bundles have been comics," Allen said of Humble Bundle's selection, which includes prose books, comic books, comic collections and audio books. "I think last year, 60 percent of our bundles were comics. We have a fantastic relationship with comic book publishers."

But that relationship took some time to build, because there is no digital restrictions management (or DRM) on their products.

"There is no security on our books. We do not offer DRM of any type," Allen said. "When I first started talking to publishers about a year ago about Humble, I would go into these meetings, and they would tell me, we're only going to give you 15 minutes because you're really wasting our time; we can't deal with you because you don't have DRM.

"But by the time I would leave these meetings — usually an hour later — they're like, where do we sign?"

"When we first started talking to Dark Horse, they were like, absolutely not," she said of the comic book publisher. "And a few months ago, we had our first bundle with them — the Star Wars comics book bundle, which did very, very well; I think it did about $350,000."

Zaenger said publishers are attracted to the chance to reach new audiences. "They're getting people who may not have ever read this comic series, or may not even been that super into comics, but they're just like, well, now that I have this literally sitting in my lap and it's already completely available to me, I'm going to read it… and then they're like, oh, I need to buy more comics."

While Loot Crate comes out once a month, Humble Bundle offers multiple bundles at a time, usually with a two-week week for customers purchase. "This is our first one-week book bundle," Allen said of the IDW Transformer offering. "The content is very fresh and very recent, so we're experimenting and trying our first one-week bundle."

The company also raises millions of dollars for charity by allowing the customer to denote where their money is going. Although there's a default — 65 percent to the publisher, 20 percent to charity, and 15 percent to Humble Bundle — consumers can tweak the numbers. "Charities often match the bundle," Allen said, "and sometimes publishers get to pick which charities."

For the current IDW Comics bundle, the publisher is working with Transformers toy manufacturer Hasbro. So they charity involved is the Hasbro Children's Fund, which helps kids in need.

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