Amazon’s series of sales (also here, here, and here) on digital graphic novels in recent days, so ably spotted by The Beat’s own Todd Allen, has reignited the discussion of how digital comics impacts print sales. The eye-watering discounts from Amazon may (understandably) confound comic retailers, but they are pretty attractive to frugal comic readers hungry for classic content. (I love Longshot, despite his epic mullet, and might be tempted to buy the Art Adams series again for $4, if only to avoid going to the garage and digging through moldy long boxes to find my original copies.)
If the 70% discount on purchases individual graphic novels does not appeal, however, Marvel is also pushing subscriptions to Marvel Unlimited, its own all-you-can-read Netflix-for-comics-like service. They recently offered an a month’s subscription for $5, or half off the standard $10 per month rate. Even if you were to cancel the subscription after one month, you could easily read (but not own) the Longshot series, and hundreds more, for a very little money.
The reasoning behind Amazon and Marvel’s aggressive digital discounts remains opaque. As Todd and Comichron’s John Jackson Miller have repeatedly lamented, we have no real access to Amazon’s sales data for digital comics, making any categorical statement on digital’s role in the industry speculative at best. While there are some rumblings of new initiatives from Amazon, as Heidi reported recently, we just do not know how accurate the commonly held assumption that digital comic sales have “plateaued,” is in fact the case.
Yet, from the perspective of a comics reader, it may be the cheapest time ever for digital consumption. And not just in terms of the prices for the comics themselves, but in the surprising range of attractively inexpensive hardware devices available. The dominance of Apple iPads in the tablet market suggests that most digital comics reading likely takes place on the sleek devices from Cupertino, but there are in fact much cheaper alternatives. For as great as the current line of iPads clearly are for reading comics, they remain in some ways wildly overpowered to the task. It takes almost no processing power to read digital comics, and while the iPad’s Retina-level displays are compelling, digital comics look almost as good on far less expensive screens, with slightly lower resolutions.
While certainly not the only Apple alternative, Amazon’s Fire tablets are inexpensive and pair well with the current comiXology sales. The three main models in the Fire line are the HD 10 ($149), the smaller sized HD 8 ($79) and the even smaller Fire 7 ($49). Caveats to note: these prices are for the “Special Offers” versions of the Amazon tablets, that are ad-subsidized (offers cycle automatically on the devices’ lockscreens), but Amazon frequently offers steep time-limited discounts (the HD 10 was recently available for $99). The non-”Special Offers” version of the HD 10 is $15 more.
The Fire tablets run Amazon’s in-house version of Android, somewhat limiting their general purpose functionality. There are ways to get around some of these drawbacks, and many users bypass the restrictions by side-loading non-authorized Android applications, but that does requires a certain level of technical sophistication. The Fire devices are designed, for better or worse, to be entry points to the broader Amazon ecosystem, ranging from comiXology to Amazon Prime to Alexa, so their value very much depends on one’s comfort level with the Seattle-based retail behemoth.
Those concerns notwithstanding, to my eyes the Fire HD 10 is the most attractive Amazon option, with a pretty decent 10.1 inch screen at 1920×1200 resolution, producing a pixel density (or PPI) of 224, not wildly far from the standard iPad’s 264 PPI (9.7 inch, 2048×1536), but at less than half the price of the $329 iPad. Clearly not the same level of build or software quality as Apple’s tablets, but the Fire HD 10 does have its supporters, particularly as a device focused on content consumption. And when it comes to reading digital comics, it’s hard to imagine the experience being appreciably inferior on the Fire, particularly as the weight of the devices are very close (Fire HD 10 weighs 17.7 ounces, iPad 16.03 ounces).
Despite their even less expensive price, the smaller Amazon devices are not as compelling, as they sacrifice both screen size and quality, making the comics reading experience noticeably inferior to the HD 10. Yet, it is remarkable that for a relatively small financial outlay, a reader could right now get a very usable Amazon device and fill it with either low-cost comiXology graphic novel purchases or binge on a Marvel Unlimited subscription, all costing than $100.
Whether those prices are sustainable long-term, or what effect they may have on local comic retailers remains to be seen.