The future of paper comics -- and the comic shops where they're sold -- just got a little more unpredictable.
Marvel Comics, the publisher that holds the largest market share in comic book stores, announced that Invincible Iron Man Annual, a new in-continuity, 80-page comic, will go on sale both in print and on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch at the same time on June 30th.
The move isn't entirely unprecedented. Marvel released episodes of the in-continuity Spider-Woman motion comic before the print copy hit stores. And Marvel's online subscription service has featured several comics that were unavailable in print that were also considered in-continuity.
But this is the first time the publisher has targeted users of the new app for Apple's iPhone and iPad with a same-day release, and retailers are taking note.
"The decision of Marvel to release Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 digitally and in print on the same day could be taken two ways," said Dean Phillips, owner of Krypton Comics in Omaha, Neb. "If a person that normally wouldn't go to a comic store buys the 'book' for their digital reader, then great. Maybe a new comic book reader will be born.
"If a person that actively shops at a comic book shop buys the digital "book" instead of buying at a comic book store, then this spells trouble for the comic book stores," he added.
Yet most retailers we polled were encouraged by the higher price Marvel chose for the digital issue.
"I see the simultaneous release of Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 as a test of the market. The most encouraging part of this release is that Marvel decided to price the comic competitively with the print copy," said Shawn Demumbrum, co-owner and manager of SpazDog Comics in Phoenix. "Dividing the comic into three parts and pricing each part at $1.99 makes the retail price of the digital copy more than the print copy. Pricing the comic this way is the assurance that retailers need that the digital versions won't devalue the print versions based upon price point."
"If comic fans fret over being charged $2.99 for their favorite characters, it's hard to imagine someone casually interested in Iron Man will pay almost $6 to read about him online," said Adam Casey, manager at Ssalesfish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Others questioned whether the comic will have a way to find a retail store, and David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology, said that service is built into the app.
"We're proud to be the partner of choice for Marvel on the iPhone and iPad. Besides our Guided View technology, one reason we're a good choice for publishers is our close ties to retailers, as demonstrated by the in-app retailer finder on both Comics by comiXology and Marvel Mobile Comics apps, and our brick and mortar retailer services," he said.
But some retailers voiced a concern that the publisher could have waited to release the digital version and chose not to.
"Digital comics are a great tool to drive people into brick-and-mortar stores," said Jason Pierce, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. "However, there is a protocol that I feel must be followed in order for this to happen. Releasing new material the same day it hits direct market stores is not part of that protocol. Digital distribution of content is something that the publishers need to consider heavily."
"The next step will be to release books days or weeks before the print versions, driving customers to 'download' rather than trek to the comic book store," Phillips said. "The step that follows will be to have a minor book released only to digital readers. Then after that success, you may see an X-Men or Spider-Man book exclusive to digital. You know it's coming! What effect will this have on the comic retailer? Start looking for another job! Perhaps you can work for a comic book news website or something."
Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz., said he sees this as the beginning of the end of staple bound comics printed on paper.
"It's inevitable. The less expensive option of providing art and literature digitally saves what's left of our forests, cuts production costs across the board and other than we retailers who will go the way of the dinosaurs (and Blockbuster Video), the only ones who lose out are those of us who, for reasons of nostalgia, would rather read from paper than from hand-held computer screens," he said. "I hope everyone has considered changing their business models if they wish to continue in this industry."
Yet others weren't as quick to give up on paper comics, instead seeing Marvel's pricing choice on this issue as a signal that digital comics may have a different format and, perhaps, a completely different price point.
"People are always comparing comics to record albums when a ten dollar record can be easily be divided by tracks. Look for comic books to be divided by chapters with several chapters in a single comic each sold at 99 cents per chapter with the whole book costing around the same price as the printed comic book," Demumbrum said. "This could have as great an impact on comic book story writing as the trade paperback had on the decompression of comic book stories. Paying more for the digital copy for the convenience of not having to store the comic in comic boxes or to be able carry hundreds of comics in a compact device is no different than paying more to buy milk at 7-11."
Others just see this as part of a shake-up of the comics retailing industry that will benefit good stores, but be detrimental to those who don't serve the digital customer.
"People who see something digital can go to a comics store to get professional advice and help with whatever they are seeking," Pierce said. "It also exposes them to a vast array of material they might not have otherwise discovered."
Besides, Steinberger said, day and date releases are to be expected, but it's the way retailers respond to this new technology that will decide their fate.
"Retailers who have built great, welcoming stores should be able to take advantage of digital as the 'new newsstand,' turning consumers new-to-comics via digital into long-term customers," he said. "We're excited to be a part of it and will continue to work had on our innovative retailer tools and digital comic platform."
Digital and in-store the same day: does this spell the end for monthly print?