By Todd Allen

Dave Castelnuovo had a few words about the state of digital comics and the old arguments are coming up again.  Pricing, retailing and formatting are still points of contention.

The interesting dynamic here is the extent to which retailers are driving the digital process.  Yes, this sounds backwards, but publishers have been bending over backwards trying not to upset the retailers since the dawn of digital.  I’m sure there are a lot of retailers who don’t feel that way, but I’ve had multiple publishers tell me they were holding back progress to pacify the retail channel for years.

If you go back to music, it was Apple that really set the pricing.  Apple ran a few pricing experiments and settled on $0.99.  They controlled the main store and hardware, so they told the music companies how it was going to be and Big Music had to take it.  They were kicking as screaming as they took it, and there’s been a (small) amount of give and take since, but that’s basically how it went down.

In comics, if anybody wants do discount the digital price, they end up with the retail channel screaming bloody murder and threatening not to order the publisher’s books.  Or not to order for the shelf.  [Mind you, if the store is a pull-box driven establishment, the publisher might well ask themselves how many of the copies being ordered are actually for the shelf.]

The comic book distribution network is possibly the best example of channel conflict you’ll ever see.  Comic retailers are probably the most militant retail segment when it comes to a manufacturer (in this case, a publisher) selling directly to the consumer.  You see them protest against subscriptions.  It wouldn’t surprise me if a few of them are mad that libraries carry graphic novels.  But that’s just how this market is currently working.

The thing about Pocket God is that Castelnuovo (and by extension, Ape Entertainment) has embraced that the DM retailers could care less about his print product and just moved on.  The more print you sell, the more you’re going to care about what the retailers think.  Would Dark Horse take a big hit on their print orders if they discounted their digital?  Maybe.  DC and Marvel are important enough to the retailers that they could lower digital prices and the retailers would just have to deal with it.  Neither is ready to do that yet.

There’s an argument breaking out about whether music is the digital market to look to when discussing comics.  At this point the eBook market is probably the closer comparison.  The iPod blazed the way for higher consumption of digital music.  On the eBook side, the Kindle is what blew the door off the barn and the proliferation of tablets is fueling growth.  Comics are somewhat stunted in this market by three main factors:

  1. Color/Size – Most U.S. comics are in color and have a larger footprint that the current selection of tablets.  The regular Kindle and Kindle Fire are a little smaller than you’d like for reading comics, though the rumored larger Kindle Fire that’s supposed to come out in the Spring may be better.  Digital comics growth has been stunted by a lack of color alternatives to the iPad, but this situation will eventually resolve itself and comics should then start to behave a little more like eBooks.  Is iPad to comics what iPod was to music?  Possibly, but I can get a cheap off-brand digital music player or put the music on my smartphone.  I have less tablet alternatives and I personally find the smartphone screen too small.
  2. Formats – With eBooks, you pretty much have the open source ePub format that can be read anywhere or you’ve got Amazon’s Mobi format.  (Amazon being unlikely to go out of business any time soon and you can read ePub books on a Kindle.)  With comics, you have a multitude of proprietary formats.  Not all comics are available in all formats.  It’s a flipping mess and in many cases you don’t actually own the file.  This is not acceptable to collectors who want to retain their library.  It also causes comic publishers problems if they want to sell directly, without having to retain a comics app provider for their proprietary format.
  3. Pricing – If you want to play in the Kindle eBook space, you have to get an agency agreement with Amazon or the data transfer fees will kill a publisher’s profit margins for color comics.  And agency agreements appear to be an invite-only affair, so independent creators may be left out in the cold.  On the flip side, independent novelists tend to agree that $2.99-$3.99 is the best revenue-generating price for an eBook novel.  So, for $2.99-$3.99, the consumer can choose between a single issue of a comic or an entire novel?  And you wonder why a lot of the current digital market is driven by existing/lapsed fans.  (Yes, I know the larger book publishers are charging $9.99+ for eBooks, but the Justice Department is also investigating price fixing, so let’s wait on that investigation before getting too emotionally involved in discussing that aspect.)  You have to think about this as price vs. volume.  The only time price vs. volume has really been a factor in the print world has been Marvel bumping the price to $3.99 on their more popular titles.  The current comics market has print as the realm of collectors and digital competing for the casual readership.  Upping the price leave you with more sales from the collector demographic than the casual demographic.  That’s what a lot of people aren’t processing.

As to whether more CDs or downloads are sold in the music category, let me offer this: from 2005 – 2010, I taught eBusiness at Columbia College Chicago.  Depending on the semester, I’d have 20-75 students rolling by each semester and let me assure you, they were not buying more CDs than digital downloads.  By 2010, it’s entirely possible more vinyl was being bought than CD – I had a lot of music business majors in my courses and it was at the point, if physical media was being bought, it was for DJ purposes.  Which is to say, last year very few college students I encountered were buying much physically distributed music.

Pricing will sort itself out at some point.  Color eReaders/tablets will sort themselves out at some point.  (Although I still think that monitor-based browsing is criminally neglected as a sales channels.)  Format is a touchier subject, but you’ve seen Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble all taking baby steps towards having their own formats… which need work, but if the sales are there, the product will be improved.

The real question is how long this will take to sort itself out.


  1. Some interesting points. I wonder why more publishers haven’t jumped on “free” as an incentive to brick and mortar retailers. For instance if purchase of a print issue of Avengers whatever came with a code for the free digital download of that issue. So there’s a carrot for a potential digital buyer to buy the print version, and possibly even a revenue jump, as someone thinking about one or the other might just get both at a higher price point. And retailers wouldn’t feel like they were getting their pants pulled down. Haha just kidding! Retailers always feel that way. No one selling comics has any money, so they’re always in a state of near-panic.

    As far as I’m concerned, I agree the current market is cuckoo. Paying $2-3 for a Comixology download that you don’t even own is nuts. I don’t mind as much that Comixology is emerging as an uber-dominant force in digital comics–although Chris Butcher made a great point about having a new comics distribution monopoly on Twitter:!/Comics212/status/147033233752735744 But what I’m more concerned is the nutty high price points for very little value. If you’re not actually going to own a download, free of all the different proprietary add-ons and DRM-type gobbledygook, then why pay nearly the same price as the print version? It doesn’t make any sense.

    That kind of model works fine as a buffet, a la Netflix, but for the highly specific, sequential, episodic world of comics, it’s overpriced for the value.

  2. ” It’s a flipping mess and in many cases you don’t actually own the file. This is not acceptable to collectors who want to retain their library.”

    But shouldn’t the collectors be encouraged to collect the print editions? Read the digital”floppy” and collect the trade…

    In a parallel analogy shouldn’t we be thinking of digital comics like the Sunday comics page? Very few people save those – they toss them with the rest of the paper. They are also “widescreen” and better suited to tablets and monitors than traditionally formatted comics pages.

    I also think there’s a lot of money being left on the table with no “Netflix for digital comics” model. If I were paying a monthly fee I would be reading a lot more comics than I do currently. I would try more comics out, and eventually I may even buy the trades of some of them. In this scenario both publishers and retailers would eventually get some money from me. As it now stands, they’re getting pretty much nothing from me.

  3. “If you’re not actually going to own a download, free of all the different proprietary add-ons and DRM-type gobbledygook, then why pay nearly the same price as the print version? It doesn’t make any sense.”

    This tends to send people into shock, but “ownership” can be overrated. Especially for comics.

    I have twenty-plus longboxes of comics in my basement. In the six years I’ve lived in this house, do you know how many times I’ve gone down to look for a comic? Zero.

    What this essentially means is that once my comics rotate out of my spinner rack and into the basement (about a year), they have no real value to me.

    Yes, I know, I could try to sell them. So suppose you had ten longboxes made up of random Marvel and DC comics from the last ten, fifteen years. What are the odds you could even get cover price back for the lot? While there are obviously individual exceptions along the way, most comics are =not= going to hold their value over time.

    So, recognizing those two items as personally true, my conclusion was that the “value” of a comic was based almost entirely on that first-read experience, then by how often I would pick it up to look through again over the following year.

    This rationale was what led to me dropping all the Marvel books that went to $3.99. They had exceeded that threshold.

    This rationale also leads me to see digital comics as a =value= if I can get them for less than “cover price.” The experience, based on the values identified above, remains intact, but I’m actually paying less for it.

    None of the publishers are going to win me over with the whole “day and date” thing if the price is the same. But when I can get the comics cheaper online… done.

    (All that said, I still think the best value in comics right now is Marvel’s Digital Comics subscription, which opens up a truly gigantic library for a minimal sum. I’d pay double if DC had an equivalent…)


  4. At Barnes and Noble today, it was interesting to see the big Marvel ads for the Nook Color. However, the sales folks really struggled to explain to me how comics work on it. ( offers some apps that series based – Irredeemable, Mouse Guard, Abyss etc.) The sales woman first downloaded collected editions for me, not individual comics.
    The general public (i.e. the real world) is far from “there” yet.

  5. Don’t automatically lump all retailers in with the vocal few on the internet. Just because some are loud and ridiculous doesn’t make us all that way.

    I had 3 problems with the Dark Horse Digital announcement:

    1) It was never communicated to me directly from Dark Horse. I get a retailer email from them every week, but it has never mentioned the digital program. It has all been done through press releases to news sites.

    2) It started with books two weeks from that date. We have to set our orders 3 weeks before a book ships, so this took place on books we had already placed our non-cancelable/changeable orders on. When DC did it, we had months of warning and could order knowing that they would be available digitally same day. Dark Horse already had our orders and we couldn’t change them.

    3) The Newsarama piece stated that Dark Horse same day as print digital books were $1.99. Since Dark Horse never told us (retailers) anything at all, this was all of the information we had. That is what caused the problem and the reaction. And Dark Horse took a week to clarify it.

    I understand all of the arguments about digital and print being different beasts and that they should have a different price. But here is the reality of the situation as presented by the Newsarama piece. Dark Horse wanted to sell us books at $1.75 each ($3.50 less 50% discount) but were going to sell them directly for $1.99. Why would a retailer take a chance on shelving an unknown book, hoping to sell it, when the publisher was actively undercutting you?

    I believe that digital and print can happily co-exist, but I am also a dinosaur who still likes to buy cds. I think that they can both thrive as long as we get stories people want. Also, its not so much the publisher’s need to pacify the retailers, but the need to keep the cash flow coming. The publishers know exactly how much they are going to make on every issue they ship. Our orders are finalized before they go to print. When it comes to digital, its all unknown money after the fact. I am as interested as anyone to know how well they are actually selling. 4 months into DC’s same day digital program and I haven’t heard a peep of what they are actually selling digitally. So, I wonder if the sales aren’t what everyone hoped or wanted and they want to give it time before trying to figure out a different way.

  6. For what it’s worth, John, I don’t think too many in the price guide community in the post-Wizard days would promote the expectation any more that you would see price appreciation on random comics from the last ten or fifteen years. But they might say that you could see it on that group of books ten or fifteen years later. The spread of storage media for comics has made price appreciation a much longer game — since the 1970s, it’s taken much longer for scarcity to grow by organic attrition.

    That said, today’s circulations are low enough that a modern collector looking for physical copies of 1980s titles has it easier than a 2030s collector will have looking for copies of current titles. (We’ll be shingling roofs on Mars with comics from the early 1990s, though.)

    The investment angle for older comics is, of course, ancillary to comics’ main purpose — but I think it’s part of the overall bundle of things that gives comics their varied appeal. If you’re publishing print magazines in 2011, it probably doesn’t hurt to be publishing the ones that few people throw away.

  7. I’m not a comic ‘collector.’ I am an avid comic reader. I’m sort of sick of people not understanding that there IS a difference. I’m in no way, shape, or form, new to comics or a casual purchaser of them. I drop nearly 100 on comics a month easily, every month. I could not be more down with digital. I don’t want the floppies in my house. I bought an ipad2 specifically for comics and it’s been a treat every step of the way. I know I’m not the only one who did this and I KNOW I’m not the only comic lover who hates having the floppies crowding up their house (or hates waiting months for the collection only to have the series be canceled because you couldn’t support it from the get-go ’cause you didn’t want those dang floppies all over).

    I get that comic shops are freaking out. It’s their business and they don’t wanna be out of business, but things are changing and they’re not. My local place that did DC’s digital store front is doing an AWFUL job at actually promoting it to me. The link is even broken on their site and so buried/hidden in there that it’s almost impossible to get to. They’re not helping themselves, so why are the publishers bending over backwards to appease them at the cost of the customer? It’s a middleman that won’t be needed for much longer and they’re going to need to accept it.

    I used to work in record stores when I was a teen, and you know what happened to them because of digital music? They all closed. I don’t remember the music publishers making weird digital deals with them to give them some of the revenue so as not to irk them. All this is doing is limiting the ability for the customer to get the product by making the price hurt more.

    Car companies aren’t still trying to appease horse shoe makers or something, people. Bite the bullet and change your practices, comic shops. Publisher’s, stop trying to appease the people who aren’t your customers. This is freaking business and it’s insane to me that this is happening; that this is slowing down actual progress in moving comic books into the future with every other digitally sell-able thing. If my local comic shop turned its focus to all comics merchandise, all the crazy shirts and toys and statues and posters and paraphernalia I know is out there- that I currently can’t get my hands on easily- I’d still shop there SO much. Or just accept that fact that you need to find a new business venture because it’s not going to last, just like the record stores. That’s harsh, I know, but it’s reality and I don’t know why we can’t all accept this as the inevitable conclusion here.

    ALL my comic purchases are digital now and nothing the comic shops are going to do about selling comics themselves is going to change that.

  8. Everyone wants to compare digial comics to the music industry and follow some itunes like model but do they ever consider that the music industry barley exists anymore?

  9. “Everyone wants to compare digial comics to the music industry and follow some itunes like model but do they ever consider that the music industry barley exists anymore?”

    While the music industry has shrunk a lot in recent years, it’s hardly fair to say it barely exists anymore. It’s still many times the size of the comics industry.

  10. @Jason — The consumer doesn’t care if physical media is more lucrative than digital. And, yes, if you have any kind of print sales volume then print comics are more profitable on a per issue basis.

  11. Hmmm… CrossGen and iBooks had this figured out a decade ago. (CrossGen even patented a comics reader which has lots of good features.) CrossGen’s Comics On the Web was a popular service. (Did any retailers complain back then about this? I wasn’t that active in comics at the Turn of the Century, so I don’t know.) iBooks sold e-books of their Ray Bradbury Chronicles and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    I sampled the Ultimate Spider-Man Nook edition. It was an image file, and unfortunately, was not formatted. So those big two-page spreads at the beginning of the first issue? Nothing to indicate from one page to the next that the image continued. Same thing later when we first see Peter’s basement lab. The top panel runs across two pages. This could have been easily fixed by treating those two pages as one page, and allowing the reader to zoom around.

    Oh, and think it’s difficult? Take a look at the numerous picture books sold for the Nook. Words and pictures.

    I don’t like comics apps for one reason: libraries.

    Libraries distribute a lot of e-books (via OverDrive). They like files, not apps. They like media which lasts decades, and which can not be revoked by Big Brother. They like formats which are standard. Why make it difficult for libraries to BUY YOUR BOOK?! Why isn’t every black-and-white comic book available to libraries? Where’s “The Walking Dead”? Where’s “Scott Pilgrim”? (Which, by the way, is almost the same size as a 7-inch tablet.) (Kudos to TopShelf for making all of their graphic novels available as digital files.)

    Now, about those 7-inch tablets, and about formats. It’s moot. People are already downloading scanned copies. A friend hacked his e-ink Nook and side-loaded PDFs of manga. He did the same with his Nook Color. He installed some sort of comics reader which organizes his scans, but I don’t believe he has any sort of guided view.

    As noted in the comments in the previous post, what’s needed is a simple, open-source e-book editor. Maybe it has some sort of built-in slide-show feature which replicates the guided view experience. Maybe it allows for word balloons to be enlarged, like in the CrossGen viewer. Maybe it uses Google Translate to convert the text, or it has an encoded audio feed so that each character gets a distinct voice. Maybe it allows for hypertext and embedded links, which direct to a wiki. Maybe, like Marvel’s early CD-ROM, it allows you to drop the color layer. And maybe, the fans can correct and restore old comics.

    Right now, with scans, it’s like people making mix tapes by recording songs from LPs or the radio. The fidelity isn’t quite there, and it’s hard to find the right track (although some decks were clever and searched for blank spots on the tape). But just wait until someone makes the comics version of a CD player. (Followed by MP3 players like the iPod.) As soon as people can take their scans and add bells-and-whistles, and make copies which are as good, if not better than, what the publishers offer? That’s when comics shops begin to vanish. (Imagine a comics wiki. Index + scans + reference. Now imagine it on a scale of Wikipedia.) The smart publishers will welcome these fan archivists. The brilliant publishers will set up robust print-on-demand (both paper and DVD) storefronts which will allow people to buy physical copies of these digital files.

    Ironically, Vertigo is finally publishing an Annotated Sandman volume. I have line-printer (AKA football field) print-outs of a similar annotation from 1991. Yes, twenty years later. Now imagine if the person who edited those online annotations could link them to the comics panels on a digital e-book? Imagine photos of Emperor Norton, or audio excerpts of A Midsummer’s Night Dream from the BBC’s archive, or a dictionary link for the word “felch”, or the dramatic reading of “The Golden Child” hosted by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Multi media (no hyphen)!

    DC can do this now. Go visit the Warner Archive. You can buy the DC motion comics, as well as obscure television shows and movies. It’s all print-on-demand, the items ship quickly and cheaply, and while the discs have few extras, they work perfectly on any DVD player. Now imagine being able to buy the DC Archives on DVD-ROM the same way. Sugar and Spike? Watchmen? ‘Mazing Man?

    Yeah, I dream big. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes…

  12. The sales of the music industry had been inflated by selling albums rather than singles and by periodically updating the physical delivery method to tempt the audience to repurchase the best of the material (records, 8-tracks, tapes, CDs). They were selling one albums to two audiences – a casual audience that just wanted one song, and a fan audience that wanted many songs from their favorite band (preferably in a format that worked in their current stereo). When mp3 and Napster happened, the music industry wasn’t expecting the shift in delivery and got hammered. They hated the new format, because it would be forward compatible with new technology and that meant they wouldn’t be able to sell the Beatles white album for the sixth, seventh, and eighth times to the Baby Boomers. When the music industry finally got around to engaging with the shift rather than just fighting it, iTunes convinced them that the casual audience would pirate singles if they couldn’t just buy them. Early experiments confirmed this, and here we are with smaller post-bubble record companies running around.

    It was a bubble. Like when the comic industry sells variant covers and eventually collapses because it. A good chuck of the audience did not want what was actually being sold (a full album of songs or a new cover for the story). They wanted something else (just one of the songs or something that would be a collectable in the future). When conditions changed (new delivery system that clearly does not require bundling songs together or the mass realization that collectables don’t work like that), the market shifted to better meet the audience’s demands. Despite the differences in the conditions that collapsed the bubbles, both were the result of corporations overproducing rather than anticipating their audiences long term desires and tailoring their product to those.

  13. I am a huge comic fan and I read all sort of comics (superheroes, indipendents, manga, european, etc.) in all sort of formats: floppies, trades, HCs, digital “floppies” (Comixology on iPad), digital collections, web streaming (Marvel Unlimited) and I have no prejuidce. I imagine a future of digital serialization and premium phyisical books. At the moment though, no digital service offers a quality which can be compared to print, especially on a mobile device. The iPad looks ideal but in truth full pages are too small and “panel flow” is often blurred. Also, panel flow is often questionable: panels which could be read in one shot are often broken in two. And comics with a creative layout (e.g. “Batwoman”) suffer on Digital. As a compromise I use panel flow + full page shot at the end of the page. The very esistence of this option is a proof of the problem. On a big computer screen full pages look quite good, but I like to read in bed. Or on the toilet. Or on a couch. For these reasons my physical purchases still beat the digital ones 80 to 20. But I can definitely see a future where digital serialization will be more convenient. In some cases it already is.

  14. The .cbr format works. Before the comics publishers shut down Demonoid they ought to have thought more strategically about the whole Napster to iTunes history.

    Scanners were posting pretty damn good sets of Silver Age comics that the publishers weren’t bothering to release–or were releasing in black and white.

    DRM’ed (if they must) cbrs for 99 cents each would work. Overpriced digital comics that reside within an app don’t compete with pirated comics for quality or convenience.

  15. “I’ve had multiple publishers tell me they were holding back progress to pacify the retail channel for years.”

    And it’s entirely possible they were lying to you. To be more specific, those publishers may not have thought moving faster into digital made any economic sense for them but rather than get into an argument with you about it, they decided to lay the blame and direct your ire somewhere else.


  16. Dude, every comic shop I’ve ever been to has the lousy pull-account model. Where they only order what’s in the pull and the shelf copies are kept to a minimum. Like 5 copies of anything on the shelf. From a short term business model, I completely understand it, but long term it’s jacked up. It doesn’t encourage browsing or taking a chance on a new series. There’s been many a time where I miss out on a new book or series and the shop either sold out or didn’t order it. I’m guilty of saying ‘screw it’, and buying it on Amazon at a discount when it goes to trade.

  17. Even though I love the physical format of comics, I do believe it is only a matter of time before digital distribution of comics will be the primary distribution chain for comics.

    With the financial woes Diamond Comics owner is having coupled with the growing popularity of digital comics and tablet / ebook readers, I think the comic shops as we now know them will change whether they want to or not.

    I think comic shops will still be around regardless of what happens. But I think they will be more of a collector’s shop for comics than people’s main source for new comics.

    Times are a changing, that is for sure.


  18. @Tom Williams

    Yowza, that’s jacked up. But it reminds me of the time I went to Midtown Comics in Manhattan and asked if they had the then-new issue of Tales Designed to Thrizzle. They said they didn’t, but would happily open a pull-account for me and begin to order it for me. Tales only comes out once every few years, so the pull-account model failed pretty spectacularly there.

    But remember, if you don’t love pull-accounts, you don’t love comics…or something….

  19. CrossGen’s Comics on the Web service was indeed a glimpse into the future. I’m not at all surprised it came from Mark Alessi, who made his money in the tech industry. It’s sad that the rest of the industry has taken a decade to get back to that level.

  20. @MBunge – I’ve been told that by publishers during business meetings I was invited to. Going back almost 10 years. Journalism isn’t my primary occupation and I wasn’t part of the “comics press” when I started having such meetings. It has traditionally been a combination of fearing cannibalization of sales and a retailer uprising. I expect the cannibalization concern is considerably lessened these days.

  21. I’ll confess to being a mild technophobe, but all the questions over digital pricing and format make me laugh a bit. One of the things I love about physical books is their simplicity, and e-readers, while relatively intuitive and relatively simple, can’t help but undercut that for me.

    I keep going back to this Penny Arcade strip:

  22. @Dave

    It’s a bit ironic you keep going back to that Penny Arcade comic because since then the Penny Arcade guys have become *huge* advocates for e-readers.

  23. I’m like Krissy above. I consider myself a reader–not a collector. I love comics, but have developed a lovehate relationship with the monthly issues. Most of my “print” reading, I have been making my purchases on Amazon and reading on a Kindle or Ipad. With comics, it’s the Ipad.
    I purchase a Kindle Fire also. and I’ve read a couple of the exclusive DC graphic novels on it, the reading experince is poor compared to the Ipad experince.
    My feelings about monthly issues is becoming like my feelins regarding cds/albums. I don’t want those cases cluttering up my place.
    I really like digital for sampling also. I have “test drove” more titles digitally in the past 4 months than I did “physically” in all of 2010.
    And Arnold is also correct regarding the limitations of digital delivery. “Batwoman” doesn’t translate well to any of the digital readers. Every form has a limitation, and the page layouts for a title like “Promethea” are beyond the ability of the current generation of e-readers.

  24. Krissy’s point about the difference between collectors and readers — I’ve tried to make that once or twice myself.

    I can show you the scars, if you don’t believe me. (;

  25. Best of luck with your digital endeavors. Personally, I’m not interested. Too many intellectual theories come into mind. One click and you’ll pay more now for that back issue.

    I do like that customers come in and have a scan of the book they are looking for on their smart phones. (sic). But, without comic shops around, where do you really think that hobby is heading anyways? Small publishers should jump all over it since they can’t be flush with funding to publish their books or are just too uneducated to pull it off in print.

    These are two different markets. They’ll have to wait for the next generation to embrace digital though.

    Best of luck finding your favorite Independent online someday … they aren’t even there now.

    Search this!