ICv2 reported yesterday that Marvel all of their Ultimate Universe The Death of Spider-Man crossover issues will be released via iTunes simultaneously with the printed copies. I haven't seen anyone else pick this up yet, but I expect that's largely because of holiday issues. So you're left with analysis from me.
This what comic retailers have been dreading, isn't it? That the big companies whose products account for the majority of their regular income start releasing comics in venues OTHER than comic shops? They've been largely holding to the business model that they held a brief monopoly on the latest issues and didn't have to worry about competition.
"Monopoly? What are you talking about, Sean?"
Well, most people have only one (at most) comic shop that they can reasonably get to. So comic shops have had something of a regional monopoly on comics since you couldn't get them anywhere else. When some of the big box stores started carrying graphic novels, that was still okay, because they generally don't carry pamphlet books and the graphic novels were at least six months behind current continuity. So if you wanted to read the latest Spider-Man story, you still had to go to your nearest comic shop.
And I think retailers were generally okay with that. Part of the comic book experience is sharing that with your friends, so within a day or two of the newest issue coming out, everyone would be online talking about what happened and the implications and such. All the readers not only had the shared experience of reading the same story, but they read it roughly at the same time. So comic shops could (and have) generally tout themselves as the only means with which you could stay in the loop and participate in that collective experience.
And, from what I've heard, that's been the biggest complaint retailers have had against releasing comics digitally. It removes their ability to be the sole venue for getting the latest comics by making them globally accessible. It's not a problem for them if the digital release is six weeks later because then the issue is no longer the most current. But the simultaneous release? Well, that gives them competition now. Especially considering the lower price point of digital books. (After all, there's no printing and shipping fees to cover!)
Of course, Marvel and DC still need comic shops as that's their primary source of income for pamphlet comics. (Though, it should be noted, a decreasing source of their overall income.) So they don't want to switch over to Day & Date digital releases immediately and piss off their existing distribution channel. I think this is something they've internally wrestled with for a while. And I think I can see where they're going with this.
First off, Marvel's just starting with a single event. It's not their whole library or anything. Second, it's an event within their Ultimate line, which is kind of a side-step from their main publishing concern. It's not the "real" Spider-Man. So it's impact against retailers is about as minimal as they can reasonably make an experiment like this. Anything smaller and the resulting data wouldn't be that significant.
Plus, they announced this the week between Christmas and New Year's, meaning that a lot of news sites and bloggers are off the grid. Meaning that the announcement won't get nearly as much top level attention compared to announcing this in another week or two. That snowstorms just closed down much of the U.S. East Coast and the U.K. and Dirk Deppey just left his post were bonuses.
Furthermore, the issues in question don't start getting released until February. Which means that no one will have any concrete numbers to assail Marvel with at the ComicsPRO meeting from February 10-12. Even retailers will only have, at most, a week's worth of their own sales from the start of the story to discuss by that point.
Now, we obviously won't learn the results of Marvel's experiment quickly. In all likelihood, Marvel will not disclose any sort of solid sales numbers after this at all. But my guess is that Marvel will see that digital sales did not undercut pamphlet sales that significantly. And by significant, I mean that the lost pamphlet sales will in fact be easily made up (and then some) with the additional digital sales. Marvel will see this and be able to easily justify expanding the program, either to the whole Ultimate line or to any event titles.
I've talked before about how comic shops should NOT be in the business of selling comics, and I think that's becoming more and more valid as time goes on. I'm sure we'll see more comic shop closures in 2011, which may or may not be hastened by Marvel going Day & Date. But with Marvel heading in that direction, I can't imagine DC being far behind. And at that point, a comic book shop is going to need to have a better business model than "Well, we have the latest issue of Spider-Man."
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