Friday, November 01, 2013

Why Marvel's NY to CA Trip Is More Significant Than DC's

Two bits of comics news came out this week involving heading from New York City out to the west coast. DC announced that they'll be formally moving all of their comics offices from downtown New York to Burbank, California in 2015. A couple of days later, Marvel announced that Mark Waid will be writing a Daredevil story in which the character takes a road trip from his home in Hell's Kitchen to San Francisco. It's the latter of those two announcements that strikes me as bigger and more significant in the grand scheme of things.

Let me start by saying, for the folks currently working in the DC offices, that move is a HUGE deal. They're basically looking at either upending their whole life, dragging their family out to the other side of the country, and disgarding much of the social support network. Or they're out on the street looking for a new job in an not-really-great-economy using a skill set that might not directly translate anywhere outside the comic industry. So for those people, yes, this is absolutely a big deal and I don't want to discount that at all. I wish them all the very best, and I hope DC does provide them with some good options for either relocating or walking away with a nice severange package.

But in terms of the overall industry? I don't see that huge a change. As has been rightfully pointed out elsewhere, many of the freelancers actually creating the books are all over the country as it is, so they won't change their processes at all. Jack Kirby moved out to Thousand Oaks back in the late 1960s, and produced comics from there that he sent back to both Marvel and DC. Today, creators don't even have to change the addresses they're sending material to since it's all done digitally. The biggest issue might be a day or two of server downtime while DC's IT group re-locates parts of their internal network, but I suspect even that will be largely invisible to everyone.

But still, why is a story about a fictional road trip more important?

Well, it's not so much the comic story that's important (obviously) but the whys and hows of its rollout. See, this is NOT about Marvel doing another story that's being delivered digitally. Both Marvel and DC have done stories like that in the past, and have some on the market currently. But the difference here is that we're talking about Daredevil.

With Marvel and DC's other efforts, their digital books were addendums to their printed ones. You could still read the adventures of Batman or Wolverine in their printed form; the digital stories were just something else. Something in addition to the printed ones. If you just really liked Wolverine, you could still get a printed copy of new Wolverine stories every month and never see the digital ones. There were both print and digital outlets available.

But the monthly printed Daredevil book was just announced as being canceled. And, unlike Wolverine and Batman, the character doesn't regularly appear in any other title. If you want to read about the character on a regular basis, you have exactly one choice. By cancelling the printed book, and then launching a digital one, Marvel is able to continue producing Daredevil stories but still only giving readers one choice. If you want new Daredevil, you HAVE to buy it digitally. And that is why this is significant.

What Marvel is doing here is a big test. They're testing to see how many of those old school print readers will migrate over to digital reading. As others have also pointed out around this endeavor, there's historically not a lot of overlap between print and digital readers. And Marvel is trying to push some hard numbers against that. Does a reader's preference in format trump his/her interest in the character or story? What is more important: that I read Daredevil every month or that I read pulped wood comics from Marvel every month? That's the question Marvel is trying to answer with this.

And, to extrapolate a bit further, if this is successful (and I don't know how Marvel might be defining success here) what does that suggest for their broader publishing strategy? If they get 90% of their print readers on board with a digital format, they might migrate ALL of their titles to digital only. After all, they'll keep nearly the same readership levels but drop their operating costs exponentially since they wouldn't have to pay for paper, printing, distribution, etc. Which would mean more profits! And what company doesn't want that?

(For the record, I think a 90% conversion is wildly optimistic! I don't think they'll get nearly that. But I think it's safe to say that, if they got that kind of conversion rate, Marvel would undoubtedly deem this a success.)

And before you start thinking I'm going all doomsday scenario here with the demise of comic shops and such, I don't think Marvel would switch all of their titles in one fell swoop. If they were smart, what they'd do is convert one title at a time to digital only. Then, after readers of a title got used to reading it digitally -- say, after 9-12 months -- then they could reintroduce the title in a printed form as well, bringing back the readers who were more staunch in their refusal to take up digital comics. So now they're back to the same, or even higher readership, with a greater majority of them reading digitially. That is, more profitably.

I think the business implications here could be enormous if this goes well for them.

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