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.