Respectfully, We Did Say This Was Coming
♠ Peter Mann (for it is he) reports on, and analyses the reasons for, the comiXology/Amazon collaboration to bring digital comics to the masses. He did tell you about this, but 10 years ago or so, and in print, so you’ve probably forgotten it.
You may have missed this last week, but we now have a new comics publisher on our hands. Technically, of course, comiXology Originals predate last week’s excitement – getting esports “personality” Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham to live stream it on Twitch, with viewing parties at Amazon Books retail outlets and Pop-Up kiosks across the USA. But until now it’s been a fairly modest attempt, digital only, and without significant focus. Unless of course, that’s just me.
This is a significant step for the digital comics arm of the world’s largest online retailer who is investing in a broader range of content, direct relationships with creators including creator ownership, and print-on-demand for those of you just can’t give up on the paper.
A heartening sign is that the first releases are not stuck in the superhero rot, but include various genres and formats:
- Savage Game is an action/adventure OGN from the team of NFL player Ryan Kalil, Shawn Kittelsen, and Chris B Murray
- Super Freaks is an all-ages mini-series from Elsa Charretier and Pierrick Colinet, with artist Margaux Saltel
- Elephantmen 2261 The Death of Shorty is the latest in the long-running anthropomorphic science fiction series from writer Richard Starkings, with artists Axel Medellin and Boo Cook
- Ask for Mercy a 6-issue dark fantasy miniseries from Richard Starkings and artist Abigail Jill Harding
“We’re very excited with the diversity of content and the talent of our creator line-up,” said Chip Mosher, head of content for Amazon’s comiXology subsidiary. “There’s something here for first-time readers, something for long-time readers, something for everyone. We’re experimenting with a bunch of different release strategies to make it easy for people to jump onboard.”
Interestingly, earlier this year a beef developed between Amazon, Marvel, and Marvel’s comic shop retailers when Amazon subsidiary comiXology started selling graphic novels at as low as $.99, often before retailers had received their print versions. This was stepped on hard, something that the notoriously aggressive (especially in pricing) Amazon probably disliked. It is hard to think that since then that event has not had some impact on Amazon’s thinking. Marvel has been running pretty much a continuous sale on Amazon for some time, with graphic novels in the UK hovering around the £3 for those that are on sale. Some have been considerably lower than this, some higher but the commonality is that they have all been significant bargains compared to the printed versions of the same items. I know Amazon has managed to sell me somewhere in the region of 300 graphic novels from a previous total of about zero. Even looking at that figure freaks me out slightly.
Instead of running a line-wide sale Marvel have specialised on characters and events since Christmas. As of this week, for example, ComiXology is running a Marvel Rising sale (Ms Marvel, Squirrel Girl, America – all that stuff that a lot of people on Bleeding Cool seem to hate) and an Inhumans sale with graphic albums as low as £1.99. If you flip over to Amazon you find the same albums at the same prices.
Not to be outdone, DC Comics have experimented with this twice: once post-Christmas when I bought (again) a shed load of reprints, and then recently with a Memorial Day sale. Obviously, this is having an impact on DC’s bottom line as they have continued hundred 55 items from the Memorial Day sale into a DC Hidden Gems sale with a pretty decent selection of stuff you probably aren’t going to get that excited about, but a lot of second league stuff from Batman to Booster Gold, and the Legion of Superheroes run by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. These are often 4 00 to 500-page volumes retailing at around £3.99.
Another interesting point is that Marvel has made a significant number their books available on the Kindle Unlimited platform: simply put you pay £7.99/$9.99 a month, and you can read as many e-books as you want. And now this includes Jason Aaron’s run on Thor, Planet Hulk, World War Hulk and around 40 other titles including Jessica Jones. From the publisher’s point of view, Kindle Unlimited uses a “pages read” model where the publisher gets paid depending on how far the reader actually reads in the book. Given that Marvel started with around 10 graphic novels and is now heading towards the 50 mark I would assume that most people read to the end of most of these, creating another revenue stream for Marvel. Whatever anyone has said about the quality of Marvel comics it’s useful to remember that a) Marvel’s revenue is actually higher than DC most (if not all) months, b) people actually like Marvel movies and TV, so if they come across them in the context of Kindle Unlimited they’re probably statistically more likely to read them, and c) Marvel has a lot of stuff that generally is probably not read that much. In essence, they’re sitting on a pile of intellectual property that is difficult to monetise. Perhaps Amazon is helping.
These events would seem to show that Marvel and DC are receiving a significant enough income from these sales to continue with them. It has been a long time since I pointed out that digital allowed different ways of publishing comics, but comic fans addiction to floppies has prevented that until now for two reasons:
- Price: the economics of printing a comic and the economics of creating a digital version of it are completely at odds with each other. A printed comic is expensive and is probably going to get more expensive as time goes past for two reasons. First of all, the interest in printed comics is essentially a minority interest in the USA and UK. This means a shrinking audience, which means increased prices as the economy of scale is eroded. Digital comics, by contrast, require very little in the way of overhead financing. Essentially anyone can publish one. It’s then down to the ability to gain exposure.
- Value: the upshot of the comic fan addiction to print has been the alienation of everyone else who would ever be interested in a comic ever. Obviously, I’m overstating a little bit here, but it takes me approximately five minutes to read the average comic these days. The price is between three and five dollars. This is simply not justifiable. Effectively three or even two comics would cost me the same as a month of Netflix.
These two points were inevitably going to cause the slow and unpleasant demise of the standard comic book market in the USA. In Europe where comics have always been a better value package – essentially everything is a graphic album, or in Japan where a title such as Shonen Jump ($2.30 for around 240-260 pages) is posited on building sales for collections of Mmanga.
It’s impossible to imagine that Amazon hasn’t also been looking at the sales from reasonably priced graphic novels and ask themselves whether they couldn’t do better in this area. They’ve already done better in one significant way – Super Freaks first series of issues 1 to 5 is available in one go for binge reading. And it’s free. If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, a Kindle Unlimited customer, or a ComiXology Unlimited customer (I live in the UK, so I have no idea what this is) you can read this stuff for free. The core question is going to be – how good is it? Well, we’re taking a look at the first three titles here…