It's only been five days since Apple's iPad went on sale Saturday morning, offering consumers the first mass-marketed color tablet, but the device has already made an impact on the world of digital comics.
"It's been great. The response has been terrific. I think Marvel's app was as high as No. 14 in all apps. I think they're No. 18 now. And I don't mean just book apps – I mean all apps," said David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology, which produced both the Marvel and Comics by ComiXology apps for the iPad. "We've been one of the best-selling apps on the iTunes store forever. So right now, we're part of the two best-selling comic apps on the iTunes store. So yeah, it's pretty exciting."
Both apps are available for iPad and iPhone, and the publicity Marvel has received has benefitted the visibility of digital comics on more than just tablets.
"The Marvel app has been everywhere from CNN to Jimmy Fallon... and Apple's got a video of it on their website. Apple's really behind it. And you know, it's Marvel. It's a huge brand. They obviously do well," Steinberger said. "Both of these apps work on the iPad and the iPhone. So we're getting a tremendous amount of downloads on the iPhone as well."
While news and book publishers have long been in the throes of a digital revolution, comic books haven't been as affected because they're so dependent on color and a full, vertical screen reading experience. But the availability of the Apple iPad has changed all that with its touch screen that offers a viable option for reading digital comics.
Now the industry is braced for how this will affect the current distribution of paper comics and whether the shake-ups seen in other print industries will be experienced by comics. Currently, most print comics are distributed through local comic book stores, and just like CD and DVD stores, there's a concern in the industry that those specialty stores won't be able to compete.
But there's also a school of thought that believes digital comics might grow the audience of readers so exponentially that comic book stores may not only survive, but thrive.
"The question is one that we really haven't figured out yet. Are we getting new readers? Or are we only getting readers that are already buyers of print comics? That's the big question. Until we can answer that solidly, I don't think anyone can say whether this is competition or something that benefits retailers," Steinberger said.
For example, Steinberger pointed out that not all markets have retailers, and there's an audience of only a few hundred thousand loyal readers who buy most comics, visiting their local shops to pick up the latest monthly issue of their favorite serial. The potential to reach currently unserved markets and a wider audience of new readers means there could still be a future for specialty comic stores, particularly in a market that has a high level of collectability.
"The comic book store experience is completely different from this, and collecting and having something on your shelf is completely different from this," Steinberger said. "There's been this resurgence of boutique record stores lately. And if you think of comic retailers as already being a boutique industry that already gives a special experience to their customers, then you can see where the guys who are providing a great environment, and culture and expertise, and a positive customer experience could do really well with this. It's the retailers who don't provide those kinds of experiences that are going to be in trouble. Really, they're in trouble anyway. But there's opportunity here too."
Steinberger said one of the most frequent emails he received over the weekend was from readers who haven't read comics in years but are picking them up again thanks to these apps. In fact, the apps direct digital comics readers to visit local stores to buy print comics if they're interested, and one retailer told Newsarama the shop has gotten customers from digital comics.
"As a retailer, one of the benefits of being a ComiXology partner is being listed ahead of other stores in my market in the Comics by ComiXology app, no matter where in town you happen to be," said Kendall Swafford, owner of Up Up and Away in Cincinnati. "The sales opportunity has happened twice, and both cases were essentially identical; both customers had read Walking Dead #1 for free on Comics by ComiXology, pressed the "Buy In Print" button, and found my store. Now, it's an easy sale, because we're very enthusiastic about The Walking Dead around here, Tony Moore is from Cincinnati, and the first volume is a measly ten bucks!"
Despite Marvel's launch of its own app, ComiXology continues to offer a selection of Marvel Comics on its app, where customers can purchase digital comics and collections from dozens of other publishers -- including everyone from Image Comics to Devil's Due. The cost for most comics is currently 99 cents, with many first issues offered free. And there are comics offered as individual apps by several other publishers on both the iPad and iPhone.
So far, ComiXology hasn't offered DC Comics, and there's been no announcement concerning the company's presence on the iPad.
"DC is DC, and we try to work with everyone we can. We would be glad and excited to do any kind of work with them. But I don't have anything to tell," he said.