Op-Ed: Pocket God's Dave Castelnuovo on the "Arkham Spring" of digital

pockets god comic Op Ed: Pocket God's Dave Castelnuovo on the "Arkham Spring" of digital

By Dave Castelnuovo/Bolt Creative

[The two Brians — Woods and Hibbs — recently initiated a dialogue on digital comics, the creator and the retailer and the conflicting goals contained therein. The discussion has raged on for over a week. Here’s Dave Castelnuovo, co-creator of the iPhone game Pocket God with some thoughts. Castelnuovo is a self-described comics fan, but if you’re wondering why a mobile game developer has skin in the digital comics game, read this piece on the POCKET GOD comic. The digital version has sold over 150,000 500,000 units while the print version struggles to sell 1000 copies in the DM. The opinions below are not necessarily those of the editors.]

Just like the Arab Spring that changed much of the Middle East, It seems like Arkham Spring is upon us and will soon change the comics industry. Tensions are finally coming to a head as the comic industry continues to transition to the digital era. Creators are starting to speak out more about their potential opportunities in digital and are questioning why the industry is holding onto old practices that are preventing their comic from being accepted by more people. A good example of this comes from writer and illustrator Brian Wood in his blog post “The Digital Question Mark”. In it I think he presents a solid case as to why this dance between publishers and retailers is screwing up opportunities to give his book the best possible chance of success. It doesn’t matter whether the industry will eventually get to cheaper digital content in the next couple years, his book will be canceled unless readers buy it today. He has a good plan for making this happen but politics are getting in the way.

Then I read a piece on Savage Critic from Brian Hibbs that acts as a response of sorts. I’ve gone to his comic shop, Comix Experience, countless times (as I live in San Francisco) and have heard nothing but nice things about him — that he’s the type of guy to really listen to an argument and is not afraid to be swayed if that argument makes sense. Hopefully I can do a good job of convincing him because to me his arguments feel like the old guard protecting the old ways of doing things by using fear of the unknown to prevent meaningful change.

Brian Hibbs compares the possible future of a digital comics industry to the music industry. He states that digital can’t provide the type of handholding and customer service that a good comic shop can and that the industry should continue to sell digital comics at a $2.99 price point. To put it plainly, I think that these arguments are flawed.

Future Digital Comics Industry ≠ Digital Music Industry

Brian H compared the comics industry to the music industry and attempted to spread fear by saying that consumers in the old music industry used to consume albums at a time but now only consume singles. The idea being that the digital shift made it so each consumer buys less music today than they did yesterday. This is like comparing apples to automobiles.

In fact, the comic industry’s move to digital has the potential to have the reverse effect with readers. First of all, comics are story based and most comics are serialized over many issues (many over 100s of issues). No one is going to read a single issue and drop the series unless they don’t care about it or they can’t afford to keep up with it. Fans are going to want to keep up with the story and if they really enjoy it, go back to issue 1 and catch up. Although publishers need to make more of their catalog available, a fan of X-Men has the ability to start off with the Chris Claremont era (1975-1991) and read every X-Men issue up to the present including events, spin-offs, limited runs, etc. And they can buy those issues without leaving their home. There is a huge potential for the new digital consumer to read a ton more comics than the old retail consumer.

201112161648 Op Ed: Pocket God's Dave Castelnuovo on the "Arkham Spring" of digital

“What comic should I buy?”

Now, I do agree that one area where digital is currently lacking is around helping readers discover new comics that they will enjoy. The truth is that most comic apps are a mess in terms of discovering content. Readers pretty much need to know what they are looking for as there are usually only limited suggestions via the featured section and an alphabetical list of comics that one can theoretically browse. But my eyes go crazy whenever I go down that rabbit hole. A new reader might be interested in Spider Man, but do they start with Amazing, Ultimate, or Point One? The list goes on. It’s even worse with X-Men.

But just because this aspect of comic apps sucks now doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and improved in a way where digital becomes the best way to initiate new readers to the medium. I think that, first of all, there needs to be more information for each series in order to educate readers. For example, if a reader is interested in Spider-Man, it should be made easy for them to access info on the different series that are available and the focus of each series. That way they can decide what they might be interested in and be presented with some suggestions on where to start. Also, why not just give them easy access to the Marvel Universe Wiki so they can read about the histories of the characters they come across? This could potentially spawn interest in picking up some back issues and spin-offs. For more hardcore readers, I know I could use a digital family tree of the different events and series and how they intersect over time. I stopped reading Marvel comics around House of M but I would love to get back into it if only I could pick up where I left off and read Spider-Man, Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil, etc. in order. But with all the renumbering and re-titling it’s almost impossible to without a week of research. A solid continuity tree with easy buttons to buy/read each issue (without having to navigate back to the dreaded alphabetical list) would give us completists a valuable tool and help us spend more of our money.

I also think that comics apps can be much more social and that this would increase discovery like nothing the industry has seen before. The term “social” has been bandied about quite a bit and seems kind of tired but it has less to do with how Facebook works and more about how Xbox LIVE has changed the game industry. Every reader should have a profile in their favorite comic app that allows them to list information about themselves and be able to publish lists of the comics that they have read. Readers could even make dedicated lists of their favorites books – top 10 Marvel comics, top 10 Batman graphic novels, top 10 indie books, and so on. They should be able to share this with their friends or publish these lists to the community. There should be achievements and ranks that readers can earn by reading a ton of books of a particular character or publisher. Creators themselves should also have profiles so that they can highlight their own work and the work of others that they enjoy. If I am reading Sandman, for instance, I should be able to check out Neil Gaiman’s profile, see what books he’s written, and see what comics he’s currently reading.

The Price is (not) Right

I really think the price point is what is keeping the comics industry from doubling or tripling in revenue. $2.99 and even $1.99 per issue is just too high for most people to easily buy into a long series. I recently started catching up on Bone in the app store and it’s going to cost me over $100 to read the whole thing. While I can afford it, I can’t imagine a kid is going to invest that much money into something when they can play Angry Birds for days on end for a single $0.99 purchase.

Price is the biggest obstacle to getting a new customer to take a chance on a comic that might look interesting but that they aren’t quite sure about. Price is the biggest obstacle to getting a new fan to get even more immersed in comics because they don’t have the $100 to read the entire Bone run or to catch up on previous runs of their favorite characters. Price is the biggest obstacle that prevents someone from reading the entire New 52 if they are really intrigued by DC’s new universe. They would have to spend $150 a month to read the entire thing. Even the collected edition is $100 in print; this is just too expensive for someone to keep up with regularly and prevents the average reader from becoming immersed in comics.

Wasn’t everyone just talking about how comics are expensive at $2.99 and simply unsustainable at $3.99? It’s funny how now all of a sudden everyone’s comfortable with these prices and they think the market can support it. I know the argument is more about price parity between digital and print than it is about lowering the price of comics. In an ideal world it would be great to sell $0.99 single issues through retail channels and have a way for everyone to profit but the fact remains that selling a printed book through retail doesn’t give the industry the price leverage it needs to make comics more accessible to a bigger market. So what do we do? Do we artificially inflate the price of digital books in order to artificially sustain the retail market or do we try and grow the market in a way that wasn’t possible until now? By putting pressure on publishers to artificially keep price parity we end up making it more difficult for smaller creators to take risks and innovate.

Indie creators have a really tough time in this day and age. Not only do they need to sell their work to the end consumer, but they have to sell it to a publisher in order to get the money to produce it, give Diamond a cut (just because), and then they have to convince retailers to carry it. This is a very inefficient system that kills a lot of comics that might have the ability to sell well but instead die because a retailer spent too much of their budget stocking up on Marvel and DC’s latest event or, worse yet, they don’t have the vision that something different might succeed (we ran into this when trying to get the Pocket God comic into stores). The best thing for content is if we can find a way for a creator to get in touch directly with the consumer with no middle man. You see this in the app store with games. Sure there is a lot of crap, but there are also a lot of creative games being made, games that would have never been made in the old console industry dominated by publishers and retail. And quite honestly, if I made a crap piece of content, I would at least want a chance to sell it to the end consumer rather than having a retailer tell me they aren’t going to stock it.

Personally, I’ve been sitting on the sidelines watching this transition take place. I actually appreciate the fact that the big publishers have been taking their time with their move to digital and that in the end they are doing what they can to make the transition to digital as comfortable as possible for retailers. I don’t think anyone wants to see the comic shop go the way of the video rental shop or the music store and from my perspective I see them going above and beyond to prevent that from happening. However I’m disturbed that retailers would exert their influence to prevent a publisher (or creator) from doing what it needs to in order to grow their business. Pocket God has had a lot of success at $0.99 – we have a digital comic based on a game that is getting sales that rival top selling Marvel and DC print comics. And while I don’t think this price point is correct for everyone, I do think that many titles would get more visibility and have a higher chance at success if they experimented with it.

In the end, I think that anything that limits the ability of a publisher or creator to sell their story is bad for this industry. And ignoring the potential of the digital comics market may be doing just that.

[Dave Castelnuovo is a consultant and entrepreneur who founded Bolt Creative in 2001 as a Flash development company and game studio. The San Francisco-based business branched out into iPhone games in 2008 and launched a comic series in 2010. Castelnuovo is co-creator of the iPhone application Pocket God.]

Comments

  1. I agree with everything Dave says above. However the issue limiting indie creators is a lack of tech nous (and, funds) to pay for the app. Pretty much all of Dave’s suggested innovations are things that indie digital comics folks have been dying to do for ages… but without someone backing us in app development, OR an easy off the shelf app that requires only basic html/xml knowledge to tailor to the vagarities of each digital comic, this isn’t going to happen as quickly as it should. We have done over 200k free downloads of my digital comic, Valentine, without all this… if we had a targeted app where we could add more awesome bells and whistles, and some marketing (or an associated game), sky’s the limit. Rock on the future, and hurry up.

  2. There’s no need to spend over $100 to buy the complete BONE, it’s available in print for a SRP of $39.95! =p

    While, certainly, lower prices could encourage more people to pick up the hobby, and $3.99 *is* an utterly unsustainable price point, there is absolutely no evidence that a lower price point, in and of itself, will move the needle enough to offset the lower revenues received.

    In point of fact, there is example after example after example of price rollbacks utterly bombing, whether that’s coming from a large publisher or a small publisher — sadly not enough people are going to start reading [specific book] or even comics in general JUST BECAUSE you’ve dropped the price by a buck.

    If DC’s New52 had been 99 cents, in print, they would have, in no way, sold 200% more copies than they did…. and probably not much more than 50% more.

    In fact, what book was FAR AND AWAY the best selling New52 book? IN BOTH PRINT AND DIGITAL? Yes, the $4 one, so there does not appear to be a great deal of price inelasticity in our market, for good or ill.

    Now, while I do fervently believe that high prices have helped drive consumers away from comics, the much much wider problem is the content — even lowering the price won’t get enough people to read, say, SPIDER-GIRL to be a self-sustaining audience.

    Another thing to consider is that while SOME creators work very very well in the direct-to-consumer model, there are scores more who can’t handle basic bookkeeping to save their life, for whom doing those tasks TAKES AWAY from their ability to create. There are numerous values in the infrastructure of publishers, distributors and retailers, and while, certainly, it isn’t for everyone, let’s not dismantle the support system for those who need or want it.

    I also want to add that it is, in fact, the HITS that allow budgets to be spent on more experimental titles and audiences — money doesn’t get “tied up” in “big events” (Unless they flop, but even in worst case, it’s very difficult to drop below break even!)

    Next time you’re in the neighborhood, let’s chat about it, though!

    -B

  3. The Freaky Tiki says:

    The key is advertising. I don’t care if it’s print, digital or painted on a side of a rock, if people don’t know it’s there they won’t find it.

    One of the biggest reasons the DC new 52 was so successful was the fact that there was actual marketing.

    The Tiki

  4. Wally Strong says:

    “While I can afford it, I can’t imagine a kid is going to invest that much money into something when they can play Angry Birds for days on end for a single $0.99 purchase.”

    Nailed it.

    Also, Brian, screw $39.95. I can get it at the library for free. ;)

  5. RinRin says:

    I stopped buying comics a long time ago because it was so difficult for me to keep track of what was going on with what universe and with which character etc. It’d be really handy if some sort of app or something was available for me to check out ALL the different arcs and universes and back issues of the comics I used to read.

    And I agree with Wally. If I can get it for free from my local library why bother paying for it?

  6. @Alex de Campi: totally agree. We need a tool that allows creators to put together an app easy and quick, then sell it directly in the app store. That app would need to be a basic reader with some added simple functions. I’m sure that would work great especially if a relatively famous creator kicks off the trend with a digital exclusive title.
    Maybe Dave Castelnuevo could help on the app development side…

    @Brian Hibbs: I don’t think anybody wants to dismantle the support system, but it will dismantle itself like music stores did sooner or later. Water flows downhill following the easiest path, not in the direction chosen by a small number of people. What’s holding up digital comics is not the price of the comics it’s the price of the devices; as soon as everybody owns a tablet paper comics (as well as paper novels, and paper magazines and newspapers) will all but disappear.

  7. Michael Bennett says:

    Brian, while we’ve seen that price rollbacks are not effective in print, I’m willing to bet that it’s a totally different case in the digital world. Speaking only for myself, I’ve bought a HUGE amount of comics over the last year whenever Comixology or Dark Horse have their various $.99 sales. In terms of dollar amounts, I’ve spent over ten times as much on Dark Horse this last year in digital than I did the previous year in print.

    Also worth noting is that I’m trying more new series than I have in ages. The price point on certain digital titles as made it worthwhile to give many series I would have normally passed on a try.

    I can’t help but believe there are a lot more people out there like myself having the same experience.

  8. “Brian, while we’ve seen that price rollbacks are not effective in print …”

    That’s only true to a point.

    DC — and, by now, even Marvel, I think — have come to realize in the last couple years that a $ 3.99 price point is REALLY damaging unit sales, a few top-flight projects like JUSTICE LEAGUE or FEAR ITSELF aside.

    So, running against what for years was common wisdom, there’s a price point now that’s “too high,” even for hardcore comics buyers. Which, I think, is a realization that’s a huge part of the dilemma that publishers — and, by extension, creators — are finding themselves in now.

    For digital comics, this price point that’s “too high” is much lower than for print books.

  9. “as soon as everybody owns a tablet paper comics (as well as paper novels, and paper magazines and newspapers) will all but disappear.”

    So… then “never”, eh?

    -B

  10. Angry Birds on the Nook is $2.99. But I see it priced differently on all devices as well…

  11. Sphinx Magoo says:

    Dave’s article brings up things I’ve been thinking for a while now. I have to re-read it again, but I think I can say I agree with all of it.

    Just a few points:
    – Price, price, price. The price of a book will determine whether or not I’ll pick it up faster than anything. When the local outlet of a big entertainment chain decided to get out of selling comics, they discounted their stock to $1 or less and I picked up books i never had before. I left with a giant stack of books and had payed less than $30 for it all.

    – Price, again. When I see Marvel selling their books for $3.99 at a Barnes and Noble or my LCS, I just shake my head and walk away unless it’s something I really want to read. There’s no room for experimentation on a limited budget. I’ve been out of work for years. Comics are a luxury. I might sound like my dad, but paying $3.99 for a comic nowadays when I picked up 20 or 30 years ago for a huge fraction if that price just seems like highway robbery to me. Sure, there are higher costs all around to consider, but it still seems like I’m getting less while paying more.

    – Price, again. When Red 5 releases their excellent Atomic Robo comic on Comixology for $.99 I pay attention. When they release their collection of Atomic Robo stories for $5.99, I buy it. Luckily, Atomic Robo is a fun comic that is well-written and well-illustrated so I’m glad to support it. How’d I find out about it? Via the Free Comic Book Day comics released a year or two ago. Ditto with the Pocket God comic, but with Pocket God I can buy it for my son and he’s got a great source of entertainment and reading.

    – Accessibility. Recently on his Radio Rashy podcast, Paul Dini reminded listeners that on of the main purchasers of comics isn’t always the fan or the kids, but the parent of the kids. This is where comics will do well with certain books but not others. As a parent, I’m always getting comics for my kids. My LCS isn’t always the best place to go for comics my kids will like. It’s much easier to get digital copies of the manga (not always a popular item at the LCS or some B&Ns) and comics they like than to try and remember which issue I’d actually gotten for them versus what I saw previewed somewhere. And again, the price is usually cheaper this way too.

    There’s probably more examples, but it’s time for bed. Good article!

  12. @Brian Hibbs: yes new technologies are just fads.

  13. Michael Bennett says:

    Marc-Oliver, you’re absolutely correct about the high end. I was a little too broad in my post. What I was getting at were the $.99 initiatives tried in the past, like Untold Tales of Spider-man which proved to be ineffective. I think Marvel’s current pricing in print (and certainly in digital), combined with their flood-the-market approach is nothing short of suicidal.

    Again, speaking only for myself, there are a lot of Marvel comic that I would love to read or were once reading that I won’t touch simply because of the price.

  14. Hey Guys,

    Thanks for the responses. I’m glad you like the article.

    @Brian Hibbs I’ll definately have to stop by and introduce myself. it would be nice to meet you.

    and I agree that there is no hard evidence that a lower price point will offset the lost revenue of comics at a higher price point, but I believe that creators and publishers should be allowed to experiment and figure out if there is a sweet spot for digital that will help grow the industry. speaking of myself, I read a lot of books, both american and japanese and I feel like we need to find a way for people to read more comics each week. The more they read, the more addicting comics will become, the more they will want to buy. it’s just hard to foster a 10 book/week habit with current prices. Price isn’t the only issue, it just sets a framework that allows people to be able to afford more books.

    We also need better discovery, better tools for indies to publish content, and better ways to acclimate new readers. Right now the industry looks at free comic day and point one to solve the new reader problem but it only works for new readers that happen to wander into a store. I also think they are short term band-aids that aren’t really representative of the books they are trying to sell. the real magic with comics happens when you have something like the walking dead, watchmen, or even some of the better runs in the marvel and DC properties but it seems like most main stream comics have become dumbed down in order to not be intimidating. I think we would be better off if we found a way to keep comics smart but find other ways to acclimate new readers. I think there are some things with digital that can be done to address this.

    @JM Ringuet creating a kick ass comic app would definitely be a great passion project for me but Pocket God takes up 150% of my time. I believe that iVerse and Comixology are open for submissions but it can be pretty hard to actually get through to someone. iStorytime is another company that has a really cool comic app, you might be able to approach them as well. I wish one of these companies would open a more automated framework for submissions though. It would be great to build a tool where you can upload high res pngs of your art, enter meta data for the title, icon, etc for your book and publish automatically to their app. the comic would still need to be screened for appropriate content but I believe it would be beneficial for everyone involved. the only negative is that they probably need to fix navigation in their apps before they open the door to even more books.

    here are some links to some services that might make it easier to create a comic app.

    http://tv.adobe.com/watch/digital-publishing/introducing-the-adobe-digital-magazine-workflow/

    http://www.oomphhq.com/

  15. Thanks Dave!

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