You've likely heard some of the hoohah lately about Marvel releasing Iron Man Annual #1 in both digital and print versions on the same day. Here's the original press release if you haven't seen it. I certainly haven't read ALL of the reactions to this announcement, but here's what some retailers had to say and some commentary by Dirk Deppey. Part of the big hullabloo, of course, is that all the speculation folks like me have been yammering about for the past several years is now getting some hard and fast road-testing. We've bantered about this subject long enough, let's let 'er rip and see what happens!
Of course, Marvel is playing things much more cautiously than that attitude would suggest. As has been noted repeatedly elsewhere, we're talking about a single story featuring a character that's currently enjoying some attention thanks to a summer blockbuster movie. I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that Marvel isn't just doing a little toe-testing here. Because they didn't announce the digital comic's release date until after initial sales orders of the print version, they have an excellent idea of what the demand for the book will be from their typical audience. Moreover, because they made the announcement before the final cutoff date for orders, they can gauge how nervous this move makes retailers by looking at how much they modify their order numbers. It's about as safe a bet as Marvel can make here, and will provide them with some pretty solid data to look at.
Let's assume that initial orders for the book are at 100,000. (I have NO idea what orders actually look like for this book; I'm just pulling a conveniently round number out of mid-air for the sake of this example.) If retailers make adjustments to their orders this week by dropping that number down below, say, 75,000 we can assume there's a fair degree of nervousness on their part concerning the digital co-release. If orders drop less than 10,000 then retailers are pretty confident than digital sales won't undercut print sales.
Regardless of where that final order number winds up, Marvel will -- once the book is actually released -- also have a definite number of digital numbers to look at. Not only how many people paid for it, but how many people even considered it by calling up the sales page. FURTHERMORE, since they're breaking the book into three digital installments, they can see how many customers began to lose interest as the story progresses. Basically, can they turn a single, potentially impulse, purchase into a long-term serial customer?
Of course, what scares retailers here is that A) they can't predict what effect this might have on their sales, either short- or long-term; B) they won't have access to anything resembling final data on the digital side to make any future plans even after the experiment; C) depending on how this goes, it could potentially suggest devastating consequences for the direct market on the whole and them in particular since D) they have zero control over what to do with the results once they're in anyway.
I happened across this article a few days before all this latest hoohah came to the fore. It basically says that a lot of the vehement, but seemingly nonsensical, arguments people make -- whether it's against the very concept of global warming or that science proves God's existence or how swine flu is a government-organized conspiracy or whatever -- are largely based out of a combination of fear of the unknown and a lack of sense of control. There are people who simply just cannot handle the idea that mankind doesn't know what causes autism and whether or not a child gets it seems to be a completely random event, so they emotionally cling to the idea that it's caused by vaccines, something which is under their more direct control, even if that control is limited to whether or not it's administered.
And to a lesser degree, this idea carries through to retailers and other comic professionals. Not all of them, certainly. Probably only a minority at best. But it's worth remembering that most of the people shouting claims of this, that and the other have some form of a vested interest here, and very few of them have any control over where this goes. Even within the publishers themselves, these decisions are being made by a relatively small group of people. Not to mention that Tom Spurgeon just brought up the point that, hey, if Marvel and DC change their business model, isn't that going to have an impact on how their creators are paid? All of that is almost certainly going to skew people's perspectives, and some people are going to be so scared as to hold on to what Augie De Blieck called "willfuly stupid" ideas. But it's not that they're being stupid. As I told him last night, I wouldn't say "willfully stupid" so much as "obtusely & myopically protectionist".
There are people who are legitimately scared because they don't know what's going to happen to their livelihood and have no control over where the industry as a whole heads. I can't begrudge them for that fear. But what doesn't help their situation is ignoring the reality of what's going on and acting as if the status quo will remain. I've voiced my thoughts on the subject here before (which I won't bore you with again because -- let's face it -- I don't have a horse in this race anyway) and I've run into disagreements with others on how things should be handled. Which is fine. But regardless of how you think the situation SHOULD be handled, the fact is that there IS a changing landscape out there and you, as an individual, frankly don't have much impact. Deppey claims it's not game-changing in a big dramatic sense. And while his mixed-metaphor lobster analogy is probably more accurate, that still means comic pros -- regardless of where they are in the industry -- should be taking note. Think of all those old schools letterers who said there's no way a computer could replace the nuanced linework of someone's hand-printed comic. It didn't change overnight, but it did change.
Marvel is taking steps to address things from their end. It's several years late, in my opinion, but they are doing it smartly otherwise. Whatever the result, I don't think they're going to radically undercut their retailer base overnight, but I do think that this experiment will be VERY telling and worth paying attention to by everyone in the industry. You can't stop what Marvel is doing, but you can keep a close eye on their progress and use the actual results (or as close to actual results as anyone outside of Marvel will be able to get their hands on) to plan your future in the industry.
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