DCNu Same-Day-Digital: A Digital Market Game-Changer?

The Impact of DCNu Same-Day Digital

While all eyes this week have been on the announcement that DC will "reboot" its comics as new #1's this fall, the other part of the publisher's news might actually make a larger impact on the comic book business over the long term.

Beginning in September, DC will release all its comic books digitally at the same time as its print comics. The publisher is the first major company to do so, and the announcement could be a game-changer for digital comics.

"DC is removing one of the biggest obstacles for its digital customers by simply saying that, if there is a comic with a DC logo on it, you can count on the ability to buy this at your usual digital retailer," said Andy Ihnatko, technical writer and contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, MacWorld, and the CBS Early Show. "That's a real step forward."

What's the Big Deal About Day-and-Date?

DC, which is a division of Warner Bros., previously used its digital store for back-issues only, with very few exceptions. The digital marketplace was utilized as a sampler, encouraging people to visit their local comic shop to purchase new comics after reading an older issue.

The move toward all comics being released digitally is significant because the comic book business relies heavily on cliffhangers, enticing readers to anxiously wait for the next issue. In the past, that next issue was available first in print, then later digitally, encouraging its loyal customers to buy print. Now, a reader can make the choice to get a DC comic first on either a digital or print store.

Ihnatko said the move to day-and-date had to happen for digital comics to be a viable marketplace, particularly now that the iPad has made it so convenient to read color comic books on a digital device.

"Unless [publishers] live under a rock, they've got to understand that the iPad has gone from a whole category that didn't even exist to the hugest success story in tech in the past four or five years," Ihnatko said. "If they thought, as an industry, that they could just keep their entire business on paper and think that would work out for the over the long term, then my goodness, that's corporate Darwinism."

David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology, which runs DC's online and handheld device storefront, told Newsarama that he "absolutely" anticipates more publishers following DC's lead to move toward all day-and-date releases. Some smaller publishers already offer their digital comics at the same day as their print comics, most significantly Image Comics with its popular The Walking Dead.

Reaching New Readers

DC's digital initiative has always been positioned as an effort to reach new readers, and this latest move is no exception. According to DC, the entire move toward new #1 issues is an effort to give new readers a "jumping-on" point to stories about their characters, and that includes digital readers.

Joe Field, president of the comic book retailer organization ComicsPRO and owner of Flying Color Comics in Concord, Calif., said he's spoken to DC executives since the announcement, and he believes the day-and-date move is an effort at marketing all DC Comics -- not just digital.

"They're trying to make the strongest first impression they can. This is, without a doubt, and incredibly bold and risky move," Field said. "They're trying to get as many eyes on these new titles as they possible can, in the hopes of converting as many new eyes as possible to become new buyers."

Ihnatko said there's also a huge segment of the population that can't readily get to print comics, because they're sold at specialty stores -- very few of which have more than one location.

"Not everybody has access to a really good comic shop," he said. "I think for DC, it's just a case of, if people have money and they want to give you their money, especially if they don't have another way to get your product, then by all means sell them your product however possible."

But Gerry Gladston, CMO/CLO of the New York area chain Midtown Comics, said he thinks day-and-date isn't important to the new consumers that DC is trying to attract. "Those folks don’t even know the direct market release date, and probably wouldn’t care," Gladston said. "It’s not like the movie or music business at all. In any case, out of deference to its retail partners, perhaps the industry should adopt a 30 day window before digital release."

Battling Piracy

Steinberger said the new move by DC also "gives a convenient, real alternative to piracy."

After all, finding free copies of comic books online isn't that tough, since all it takes is a scanner and a site to host the illegal copies.

"They've got to do something," Ihnatko said, "because the only concrete thing they've learned over the past year, if they have any intelligence whatsoever, is that piracy is not going to go away if they just plain ignore it. They've done almost nothing to try to fight it directly. The big two companies have done almost nothing to give readers an alternative to piracy."

The move to day-and-date removes one incentive for illegally downloading a comic, because some digital readers didn't want to wait to buy it legally.

Digital vs. Print?

DC announced Thursday that its prices for the day-and-date digital versions of its comics would be the same as its print prices, although they will be offered for a dollar less after they're out four weeks.

Under that scenario, Field believes believes the vast majority of current print readers will still want to buy print, even if they can get DC's digital comics on the same date.

"Why would you pay for the rental, which is digital, when you can buy to own in print? And even have the chance to resell later?" Field said.

The storeowner acknowledged that he's aware other print media is struggling with the digital revolution, but he thinks comics are different.

"There are a number of things that I think make the transition to digital more difficult in comics than it is for magazines or newspapers," Field said. "The hope that you can resell the comic later is part of it. But also, there's that basic hunter-and-collector sociological thing that is part-and-parcel to comic book readers. We hunt what we want. We bring it home. And it's ours. And that's not really something that happens with digital."

Ihnatko agreed. That's one of the reasons people are so attracted, unfortunately, to pirated comics," he said. "They want to have an unprotected, unlocked file that they will be able to keep forever, without worrying that their $1.99 comic from an app may or may not work with what they have in two or three years."

Ihnatko thinks it will be many years before that changes.

"There's a phrase that I keep coming back to with all aspects of technology, and the phrase is, 'It's a great idea, but a lot of people are going to have to die first,'" Ihnatko said. "That doesn't mean somebody bursting into a room and gassing everybody like the Joker. It means there are certain technologies that are only going to become the norm when a new generation of people age into the system.

"What really has to happen to elevate [digital] to the next level is the first generation of people whose first comic book was a digital purchase," he said. "I think that's partly what DC is going after this fall. It's not only that every DC comic is going be published digitally, but every issue we sell is going to be a #1 issue, every issue is going to be a jumping-on point. I think their hope is that they're going to get a whole new era of readers who never thought about buying a comic book before, never really thought about finding a local comic book shop."

Digital Evolution

Right now, digital comics are in their "infancy," Ihnatko said, although DC's move puts the industry one step closer to growth. But before digital comics can become truly unique and pull in vast numbers of new readers, some changes have to be made, including competition.

Currently, ComiXology has emerged as a digital comics leader, and it will handle all of DC's day-and-date releases for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Android and DC's online storefront. Working with both DC and Marvel on their digital stores, as well as the "Comics by ComiXology" app with dozens of other comic publishers, ComiXology has made their comics available on several digital platforms.

"The advantage of ComiXology is that they are really ecumenical. They're not just for people who have iPads. If you have an Android device, that’ll work just fine too," he said. "And I'm pretty sure they would support any other handset or tablet too.

"But hopefully in the next two or three years, the industry will open up a little, and I won't have to worry that I'll always have to have my ComiXology account, that I'll always have to have a ComiXology app to use all these comics I spend hundreds of dollars a year on," he said.

Ihnatko said the other change that has to happen is that digital comics cannot be just a copy of a print comic. They have to be something unique.

"People who buy digital only are going to expect more than just a duplication of the paper comic book," Ihnatko said, pointing out the various limitations to the current digital delivery system. "They're going to wonder, why can I only read this comic on this one device with this one app? Or why can't I follow through a storyline, when there's a crossover point between one story and another, even if they were on different comics? Why can't I just simply tap a button and continue reading at the point where, 50 issues later, it turns out this was a pivotal event for this character?

"We're so locked into the first experiences that we have, that it unfortunately defines what we expect and our limitations on what we expect during our entire history with that product," he said.

Check back soon on Newsarama as we continue our discussion with industry experts to examine what this all means for the future of the local comic book store. 

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