WonderCon 2012: Digital Comics Price Fight!

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by Bruce Lidl

After braving the (for Southern California) biblical rain storms in getting from San Diego to Anaheim, I rushed past the bewildered cheerleaders and volleyball players to make what was promised as a panel full of pyrotechnics.  Mark Waid versus David Steinberger of comiXology over the appropriate price point for digital comics.  Same as print?  An iTunes like $0.99 flat price for everything?  Somewhere in between?

However, It wasn’t just the rain that dampened the WonderCon experience, as David Steinberger was a no show on Saturday.  Happily, Chip Mosher (formerly of BOOM! and now head of marketing and PR for comiXology) gamely filled in for his boss, and comics writer and former MySpace comics guru Sam Humphries was on hand to stir the pot as moderator.

In the “$0.99” corner was legendary comics writer, and noted digital maven, Mark Waid.  As the proponent of a significantly cheaper digital pricing structure, Mark Waid has definitely put his money where his mouth is.  On Friday, Waid announced the sale of his large comic book collection in order to fund his own digital comics initiative with long-time collaborator Peter Krause, and also that he is turning his markwaid.com site into a “process blog” to expose and discuss the nitty-gritty of pure digital distribution.  Not to mention his work on Marvel’s Infinite Comics and his free release of the “Luther” mini-comic, Waid has clearly transitioned from a digital provocateur into a true digital comics innovator.  He passionately believes in the necessity of breaking the widely-held notion that a digital comic is essentially the same thing as a physical one.  In other words, that digital comics should automatically recreate the structure, story dynamics, length and price of their real world analogues.  In Waid’s view, that view severely handicaps would could be the truly revolutionary promise of digital comics, to win new fans to the medium, to exploit the power of the new mobile devices, to re-empower independent creators and ultimately to expand the tools available to comic storytellers in a radical way.

According to Waid, the $0.99 price point could be a crucial factor, by bringing the cost of trying an unfamiliar comic to a non-collector, or an unknown comic to an established collector, to a level that is almost a “throwaway,” an easy “gamble” for someone.  Cheaper digital comics can create new market penetration while, Waid believes, maintaining consistent revenue through greater volume.  He understands why Marvel and DC feel they cannot undercut print prices, out of fear of a “mass retailer revolt,” but for independent artists and publishers, the cost of actually printing floppies can be more ruinous and more risky than a lower priced digital comic.

Mosher, not surprisingly, sees comiXology’s position as “neutral” to pricing, since it is really up to the publishers to set prices on the platform.  From his long experience in the industry, however, Mosher does see pricing as a bit of “black art” that does not always follow easily discerned logic.  He recalled how Robert Kirkman’s decision to price some of his digital titles at a higher $1.99 actually helped to increase sales, by emphasizing the perceived quality of the work.

I personally took two main points from the rather friendly “fight” between Waid and Mosher.  First, that everything is still very much in flux right now.  While Apple is selling iPads as fast as they can make them, and Android is trying, fitfully, to get into the game, tablets are still essentially a new category that is likely to grow enormously in the next few years.  Not to mention the trend to bigger smartphones with brilliant screens in their own right, so the landscape for the distribution of digital comics is really in its infancy (and even more so outside of the US, where the vast bulk of tablets have been sold).  While digital comics may be “a killer app for tablets” right now, as Mosher maintains, how and for how much they get consumed is still open to enormous change in the near future.

Second, and to my mind an even more important question, is what digital comics will become in form and narrative as they evolve into a medium in their own right.  Waid, for one, has been talking about innovative story structures and creative panel presentations for some time, and there is some of that on display in his free “Luther” pdf download.  But there is enormous potential for creativity and evolution in this direction that has not happened yet, but is likely to as the population of digital comics readers grows inevitably in the coming years.

Comments

  1. Laura Kim says:

    I’ve seen these sorts of things before — Mosher was on a panel with David Gallagher and Joshua Filokv several years ago talking about several years ago at the Long Beach Comic Con talking about this stuff. It is awesome watching people sort this out in a public forum — and I love Waid, but he is not a new voice in this debate.

  2. I think the most interesting thing about all of this is here–
    “Second, and to my mind an even more important question, is what digital comics will become in form and narrative as they evolve into a medium in their own right.”

    Print comics have been around since the 30′s and people still have different opinions on how they should be priced, so I doubt this “fight” will ever actually be settled.
    What’s interesting about what Mark Waid and others (myself included) are doing with digital comics is showing what they can offer that’s new. What artists and writers can do with them that wasn’t possible in print.
    THAT’S the most important and lasting thing that’s going to come out of this “digital revolution,” that it’s what’s going to win people over to the format and the medium– not just the lower prices.

  3. RegularSyzedMike says:

    I think the key to all this is being able to determine how many new or non-standard comics readers this will bring in. VHS didn’t beat Beta because it was better but because of market penetration. (yes I’m old)

    Whether or not people, publishers and creators decide to cater more to the digital format all hinges on whether or not the money will be there. I think it will be but it takes real numbers to convince businesses.

  4. Mikael says:

    Anyone who says/writes/etc “like the iTunes .99c model” doesn’t realize that iTunes .99c model is outdated. A lot of their music is now $1+. We may WANT .99c anything – but it’s just not feasible. And if music is asking for more than .99c, where does anyone get off thinking comics shouldn’t do the same? Music > comics in the public eye.

    And here’s the other point – there ARE comics at .99c. Right now! From DC and Marvel as well! But obviously they aren’t being purchased in enough droves to keep them at .99c. Some of the people who say they want .99c comics are actually saying “I want the comics I’m reading” to be .99c. They ignore the others showing the publishers – guess what – it doesn’t matter if they are .99c or not.

  5. Faisal says:

    ^Heh.

    Yeah, for the past few years I’ve loved hearing the most “tech-savy” and “forward-thinking” pro-digital comics pontiffs tell us that each digital comic needs to be 99 cents because “that’s what iTunes charges for a song.”

    Even putting the very dubious “one song = one comic” identification aside, the fact is I remember buying songs on iTunes for over $1 years and years ago. Over five years ago, I think.

    Then again, a lot of the most rabid digital utopians seem incapable of understanding facts and figures and rationality anyway. So let them think that the only reason comics aren’t finding tens of millions of new readers is because they don’t cost the same as they did 22 years ago or whatever. (Yeah, that makes sense. The value of the U.S. dollar has plummeted in that time, but we should charge 1 cent less than Marvel charged in 1990.)

    Digital is still a great option, but it’s counter-intuitive and counterproductive to try to impose informal “rules” on it. The people who own and make the comics will charge whatever price they can to sell enough to stay in business. The market will find its level, even if the overall industry shrinks. If $3.99 is an unfair price to some, then they should just stop buying those comics if they ever want Marvel to feel the pressure to lower the price. But it should be understood that the only reasons why we ever got to $3.99 is because the medium just doesn’t attract as many new readers as it used to… and because the value of the dollar has dropped due to a few generations of Americans electing bad government officials on both sides of the aisle. But everyone wants to blame “the other guys” and then insist that Marvel should lower their prices, without understanding that doing so would cause them to lay off even more employees. There is no silver bullet here, folks.

  6. Brutus says:

    @Mikael Some don’t realize because they don’t buy it unless it is on sale. I won’t buy MP3s unless I pick up the album on sale for $5 or less. My friends are the same way. We don’t buy from iTunes usually we buy from Amazon if we are buying MP3s.

    There are also those that don’t wait for the sales like my brother. He only buys a handful of tracks and listens to them over and over until he gets sick of them. Then he will buy another couple of tracks. $.99+ isn’t a big deal to him since he listens to a song easily 30 times before he replaces it. This wouldn’t work for him with comics.

    At the same time the majority of people I know don’t reread books, magazines, comics, etc. As a result music at $.99+ is worth more to them since they get repeated use compared to $.99 for one piece of a story that they will pick up once.

    Don’t forget they are trying to attract new buyers and not really talking about the current buyers. Old issues and volumes need to be cheap to make it easy for people to get back in or in for the first time.

    Personally for me to ever consider buying comics again they would need a MP3 like model compared to the current app and license model they have now. Then we can start discussing price.

  7. Al™ says:

    $.99 for a 22 page cloud comic that I can visit in a digital library but can never own, sell or give away seems like a fair price.

    Sorry, but any way you slice it and dice it in front of me, $4 is too much.

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