Retailer Roundtable: Marvel's Digital Moves

Cerilli on Marvels Online Comics

With the news last week that Marvel will add original, online-only content to its existing Digital Comics Unlimited service, Newsarama contacted retailers to get their reaction.

The future of digital comics vs. print comics is still uncertain, but magazine and newspaper publishers have already seen the effect of the internet on periodical print publishing. And while it's true that "ebooks" haven't replaced novels, comics are a more visual and usually shorter medium, making the potential for computer distribution different from longer-form stories. As Marvel begins testing the waters for original online content about its characters, retailer reactions were mixed. Most understand the decision by the company, although some believe this is a step in the wrong direction.

"My reaction to the news was one of a business sense. For Marvel to make their online service work, it only makes sense," said Ralph DiBernardo, owner of Jetpack Comics in Rochester, N.H. "I think it was the next logical step for Marvel. It seems to be the only way they could draw more readers to their pay-to-use site. Since you can find almost every Marvel comic online without paying, this would be the only way they could draw a large number of people to their service. That being said, it still won't work."

"Honestly I am torn between the positive side, which is more exposure to comics for younger readers and the negative, which is loss of potential sales for my store," said Bret Parks, owner of Ssalesfish Comics in Winston Salem, N.C. "As a comic shop owner, I can’t help but cringe a little bit as Marvel’s online digital comics will surely take a huge bite out of back issue sales. I guess it just depends on Marvel’s goal -- do they want to replace us or help us? Personally I think Marvel is just testing the market and if they can make more money with their digital comics than with print, I’m certain they will turn their backs on comic book retailers."

"This may be a new way for Marvel to try to amortize the production costs of the eventual printed collected editions of what might otherwise be lower-selling printed series. And to that end, I wish Marvel success," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif. "I am a big believer in the old line that says 'dance with the one that brung ya' -- and to that end, the lack of consideration on Marvel's part of a way for direct market retailers to share in the promotion and sales of these new digital comics is a bit disconcerting. But my business will live on and still thrive despite this -- the extinction of the periodical is still a long ways away."

Retailers believe more publishers will try similar programs now that Marvel has started. But they point out that a lot of publishers already put new comics on their websites, plus there are tons of webcomics available on the internet. Those types of comics don't seem to affect comic shop business significantly so far, retailers said.

"There is a lot of original material on the web already, so it's not like Marvel re-invented the wheel here," said Carr D'Angelo, owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

"Dark Horse has already done a few MySpace original comics. I don't think it's a stretch to see other publishers doing original material online. Zuda has been doing original stuff for a year," said Jason Pierce, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. "I don't think that putting existing characters in their own original web comics will hurt the sales of the comic titles at all."

However, several of the retailers we polled said they've heard customers talk about downloading comics illegally online, and it's difficult to know for sure if that's impacting sales.

"There are anecdotal experience but it's hard to see major trends yet," said D'Angelo of Earth-2 Comics. "We have seen positive effects from online previews of new comics or long-running series. My business partner, Jud, has also had customers recently tell him that they were reading comics online and not buying periodicals. Of course, they said this as they were buying trade paperbacks. There is still a wealth of quality material in book form that people have not read.

"But when customers say they are reading online, they are downloading the pirate copies that are scanned in, not necessarily signing up for Marvel's Digital Comics. They like illegal scans because it's free and easy, and they get to keep on top of the big storylines," he added.

Based on the buzz they hear from customers, a few retailers questioned the success of Marvel's online initiative and wondered if this move toward original content wasn't an attempt to drum up business and offer something illegal downloads can't.

"I think that if Marvel were to reveal their true numbers on this initiative, you'd find it to be less of a moneymaker than you'd been led to believe. I haven't seen too much of a massive push outside of the comics market to drive people to the digital subscriptions at Marvel," said Mike Wellman, co-owner of The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Others said they foresee these original online-only comics simply being released in print eventually, and they doubt they'll be anything but supplemental to the real continuity changes that happen in print.

"First of all, let's define only. Is Marvel suggesting that it will never see print? Come on. Really?" said DiBernardo of Jetpack Comics. "What kind of financial sense does that make? It's just a matter of time before there is a trade or comic released with this material, just like Dark Horse did. They have to make it pay!

"Furthermore, the stories might fall into continuity, but can they really take a chance and make big universe changes with the web-only content?" DiBernardo continued. "Would they risk alienating their physical readership? How many people would quit collecting if big changes happened in their books, that they did not get to see?"

Some retailers questioned Marvel's decision to exclude retailers from the process, saying there could have been a way to include them. They wonder if there isn't some way to make online comics even more beneficial for both sides.

"I'd like for there to be a strategy that includes comic shops, if possible, though I admit I'm not entirely sure what that would be," said Matt Price, owner of Speeding Bullet Comics in Norman, Okla. "I assume if some of these exclusives do well online, they'll be released as trade paperbacks, but maybe there's something even more forward-thinking than that. I wish I knew what it was!"

Others said they aren't surprised that Marvel isn't reaching out to help comics shops in this process, citing how the publisher doesn't offer returns for late comics the way DC Comics does. "Anything to keep the money out of the hands of retailers is fine by Marvel,” said Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz.

"I just saw the Marvel house ad for the exclusive Iron Man and Hulk online comic. This is probably the strongest slap in the face to comic book retailers that the company has delivered, second only to the sure-to-be released $3.99 Director’s Cut Second Print variant of the online-only comics," said Parks of Ssalesfish Comics.

One of the perceived benefits of online comics would be to expand the audience reading comics. But while all retailers said they support anything that can get more people reading comics, some questioned whether Marvel's pay service actually attracts any new readers.

"I don't know how many new people they are going to pick up that don't currently read comics picked up from their local comics shop," said Pierce of Alter Ego Comics. "I would gather that most of their subscribers want an addition to their current read pile."

"People not already reading comics would have no reason to visit Marvel online," said Harris of Charlie's Comic Books.

"This is preaching to a subset of the choir, in my estimation," said Field of Flying Colors Comics. "The digital interface still doesn't provide the same experience as holding a comic book in one's hands. There will be some fans that have to have it all and have it now, so they'll buy into it. But I suspect most of the 'choir' will still wait for the trades on these, while others will wait for the illegal (but free) downloads."

That "experience" of holding a comic book is what most retailers believe will make the difference in the choice between online and print comics.

"People still like books. To read them, hold them, give them as gifts. And there's still a lot of places people like to read comics where a laptop is not going to be convenient," said D'Angelo of Earth-2 Comics.

"I refuse to believe that people are going to stop buying actual comic books because of digital comics," said Wellman of The Comic Bug. "Many of our customers are primarily collectors; I still cling to that notion. Sure, we'll always have the fly-by-night folks that dabble in comics, get Iron Man fever for a few months and more often than not, wander off into the night. Sure, we retain some of those folks and they become what? Comic collectors. Our sales have remained strong, even in this crazy economy."

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