After DC Comics' announcement Wednesday morning, digital comics may be the talk of the industry. But what role they play in the future of comic book retailing is the real mystery.
Newsarama talked with retailers and their representatives to examine how the digital marketplace is impacting comics now and in the future.
Retailer Affiliate Program
Part of the mystery behind DC's announcement is this new "retailer affiliate" program DC is working on with ComiXology. According to the publisher, the system will reward retailers when digital comics are sold, although details of how are still being ironed out. To the company's credit, they're speaking directly with retailers about it.
Joe Field, president of the retailer group ComicsPRO, said DC has been talking with the organization about the affiliate program and how to best approach digital comics so they benefit retailers.
"It's sort of a mutual thing, to be honest," Field said. "ComicsPRO and our board of directors are proactive in trying to talk to all of our suppliers about the near-term and the long-term future of the business, and seeing that digital is here and it's something that needs to be addressed, we've had conversations with DC about it."
David Steinberger, CEO at ComiXology, said the affiliate program has gotten interest from several publishers, but DC is leading the push toward its completion. The executive said it could involve a monetary reward for actual sales through comic store websites, or it could be a system where digital buyers are "matched" to their local comic book store, so sales to that customer can be tracked.
Field said he's aware of what DC is considering, but can't share details until DC begins the program. But he emphasized that DC has been very proactive in talking with retailers about the program, both inside the ComicsPRO organization and other retailers.
"I think there are a number of publishers that would like to do what they can to help storefront retailers promote sales in our stores as much as they are promoting their digital applications," he said. "But I think DC tends to be the best practices leader when it comes to engaging the interests of their primary market, which is still the direct market."
Among the retailers we contacted, confidence in DC's intentions is high.
"Having talked previously with John Rood about digital comics, he stressed that treating retailers as partners in the digital space was a priority for DC, and today they've backed that up," said Kendall Swafford, owner of Up Up and Away in Cincinnati. "I am eager to hear more, of course, but DC seems serious about finding ways that they, their creators and their retail partners all benefit from this brave new world."
"I'm not really sure how a comic store can make money off digital comics," said J.C. Glindmyer of Earthworld Comics in Albany, N.Y. "DC has always worked together with retailers to help promote their books, so I'm pretty confident this move will be a positive one that continues their partnership with retailers."
Or as Joel Pollack, president of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Md., put it: "DC Comics is our friend."
But Field said retailers will be watching DC and other publishers, because they care about the future of comics too. "I know DC has always thought it's important to engage the retailer segment. They look at digital as being additive. And we are going to hold them to that," he said.
Death or boon for paper?
Some comic book fans have stated a belief that publishers want to switch their business to all-digital. After all, it eliminates the added cost of distribution, and it gets comic straight into customers' hands.
But Steinberger of ComiXology says the elimination of the existing comic marketplace would be a catastrophe for publishers, and fans who believe otherwise are off their rocker.
"They're insane. They are so insane to say that," he said. "They have no idea of the economics of this whole thing if they think DC or Marvel or any publisher would be better off without the retailer space. That's where they're making their money!
"Yes, digital comics can be a part of their overall market, but everyone is better off if the digital market is an added market," Steinberger explained. "More customers instead of less. More customers going to comic book stores. More customers buying comics. To think otherwise is just insane."
To that end, retailers shared several anecdotes about customers coming into their shop to buy something after having sampled it online.
"When Marvel's digital app came out, within the first few days, someone came in and said they read the first volume of the New Avengers on Marvel's app, and they couldn't wait for Marvel to upload the rest of them, so they came in and bought the next several volumes," Field said. "To me, that's additive. That's window shopping, buying a small thing, and then coming into the stores because the material is attractive enough to want it now."
Steinberger said a lot of retailers who subscribe to the ComiXology retailer program have communicated that customers come in asking for comics they don't carry, because they saw them on a digital outlet.
"That's the great thing about the retailer tools in our apps, that take you to your local store," Steinberger said. "Retailers say they've sold things that they wouldn't have put on a shelf. People discover things digitally that they didn't even know there were comics for."
Steinberger said the ComiXology plan has always been to grow the comic book marketplace through digital. To that end, the company includes a "buy in print" link on all its apps that leads digital consumers to their closest comic stores.
"All of our business models," Steinberger said, "from our original business plan to the research and plans we have now, shows print comics growing, not fading. And the digital market growing along with it."
"I really think that the more people that are reading comics, the better comic book stores will do. What I'm looking at is the way that DC is setting this deal to potentially create hundreds of thousands of new window shoppers for comics," Field said. "We just have to make sure digital comics are approached with that in mind."
While retailers like the idea of an "affiliate program," as well as the marketing that digital comics seems to accomplish, none of them are big fans of digital comics being released at the same time they hit stores.
DC is releasing Justice League: Generation Lost every two weeks in both comic stores and digitally, at the same price. Next week, Marvel is releasing Iron Man Annual #1 as a day-and-date digital release.
"It makes more sense if it's a release that will support and stimulate sales of subsequent books," Glindmyer said. "I would be more concerned if it was the first issue of an event series such as Brightest Day."
"The one thing I do like is that it is at the same price, not a digital discount," said Lisa Lopacinski, co-owner of Neptune Comics in Waukesha, Wisc. "At least this way paper and digital can go head-to-head. When the comics are available digitally at a substantially lower price than paper it drives people to digital in order to save money, more-so than because they actually prefer the digital format."
When Boom! Studios recently announced a major push into digital comics, Marketing Director Chip Mosher specifically talked about the company's intention to only release digital comics a month later than their street date. Retailers said they prefer that type of approach, because it acts as a marketing tool for the paper comic instead of a competitor.
"I would probably not be as supportive to publishers who would debut all of their books on line within an small window of its release date," Glindmyer said.
It's a Small Digital World
Most retailers also indicated they're not overly concerned about digital comics because it's such a small market. While they are vocal about how publishers approach the future and want to protect the marketplace, they don't see any effect on their business in the short-term.
"Although I can't tell you specifics of this, I have seen from a couple of different publishers what their actual digital sales are. And I can assure all of my retailer colleagues that it's very minimal at this point," Field said. "It doesn't take a whole lot to become the #5 app on iTunes or the iPad.
"We're just at the starting line for what sales can be digitally, but I think there's a tremendous amount of allure to the window shopping that digital comics can be for print media," Field said. "The financial model doesn't make sense right now for us to be worrying so much about digital."
Adam Casey, manager of Ssalesfish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C., said his customers don't even seem to be interested in digital comics.
"Does anyone really care about digital comics?" he said. "I know there's been a lot of talk about the 'future of comics' and what-not, and there's been a space race/arms race/cold war styled event going on by seeing which publisher can be the first to beam a comic directly into the head of a reader at 12:01AM on Wednesday, but is there really that much demand for a digital comics program?"
But Field said that while fear of the digital marketplace is unfounded, open discussion with publishers is important. "I think it's a key for ComicsPRO and for other retailers to be a part of the discussion of what happens to our business, and what forms it takes," he said. "We have to look out for ourselves, and being engaged in the conversations is part of that."More on DC Digital: