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Digital Pricing Dilemmas

| December 12, 2011 | 23 Comments

Last week’s hot topic was pricing for digital comics.  We saw several retailers raise hell when it seemed Dark Horse Comic’s newly announced day-and-date digital releases would be priced lower than physical copies sold in stores.  After a few days, Dark Horse released a statement saying this was not the case, and that they would essentially be following the DC Comics pricing strategy, of same day digital releases at the same price as print, followed by a $1 drop in prices a month after release.

The conversation rippled throughout the social media sphere, with prominent creators chiming in on both sides of the issue, fans scolding Dark Horse for caving to retailers, and plenty of assertions tossed about.

However, the fact is, NO ONE knows how best to navigate these waters. It’s the Wild West, right now. Digital is still in its infancy.  Actual sales numbers are kept under lock and key.  We all have our own opinions about digital, and because we’re passionate about comics, our opinions are strong!

I don’t have answers.  That’s not what this post is about.  But I have observations, and opinions, and I want to have this discussion.  I think it’s an important one to have.

So here are a few things I think…

1) The Most Important Thing is That Publishers Have a Clear Digital Strategy.

I applaud DC.  They were the first major publisher to launch with a clear and consistent digital strategy that was communicated effectively to the public.  The DC pricing model:

– Books are released at the same day, at the same price, in both digital and print formats, most at $2.99, some at $3.99.

– After a month, the prices on all books will drop one dollar, to $1.99 or $2.99.

– Every week it seems, there will be a discount deal of some sort on DC’s extensive backlist, where books will be sold for $0.99.

– DC will release a weekly digital preview book for free.

Now, you may hate this.  You may swear you’ll never pay full price for a digital book.  (I probably did, too…until I got and iPad, and couldn’t get to the comic shop and just HAD to hear why everyone was talking about Animal Man!)

Regardless, the most important thing is that this is a clear strategy that fans, retailers, and DC’s creators can understand.  ALL content producers should take note, and come up with a clear strategy for their digital content as well.

2) Most People Are Discounting the Value-Added Features of Digital Books

“I am NOT going to pay the same price for something I cannot own, something that I cannot hold, and for something that doesn’t contain any extras…$4 is EXPENSIVE. I can’t pay that for digital. Without extras, it’s thievery.”

The above came from ComixTribe’s own Steve Forbes, in our recent spirited discussion on digital pricing. Steven’s sentiments are shared by many.  There is an inherent belief in many that digital books are simply an inferior product to print, and thus should be priced lower, sometimes MUCH lower, than their print counterpart.  They bring up the fact that:

  • Digital books can’t be resold, traded, or passed on.
  • The screens on even the iPad are smaller than print.
  • You don’t OWN digital books, you’re essentially renting. (If Comixology goes belly up, there goes your collection.
  • Digital is a physical product that requires actual production, shipping and selling, compared to the transfer of ones and zeroes.  Digital products should be cheaper for that fact alone.

These are all valid knocks against digital, and for some collectors, reason enough to avoid the medium.  And if that was the end of it, then yeah, expecting $1, $2, or hell full discounts on digital books seem warranted.

But that’s only one side of the equation, and is discounting the ADVANTAGES digital has over print.

  •  Instant gratification.  You can download and read the book you want, when you want, in three clicks or less…
  •  …And never leave your house.  No putting on pants, getting in your car, driving to the comic shop, parking, and hitting the racks in hopes your book is in stock.
  • It will never be out of print or out of stock.
  •  Hi-resolution.  Reading comics is like viewing the files exactly as the artist created them.
  • No ads breaking up the flow of the comic, you get the entire story, uninterrupted.
  •  Guided view/Zoomable.  Kind of cool
  •  Device agnostic…Start a book on your iPad, continue on your phone, finish on your desktop.  Most digital providers support them all.
  •  Your collection is stored in the cloud, available everywhere, and is easily searchable.
  • You have the knowledge that greater % of your sales makes its way back to the creator.* (Might not be the same with all pubs.)
  • Takes up NO ROOM in the house. (My fiance loves this.)

Again, for some comic fans, none of the above value-added features of digital resonate.  But pretending they don’t exist is silly.

Also lost in the valuations is the simple fact that NONE OF THE ABOVE take into account the value of the story itself!

My fundamental point is that I REJECT the notion that digital comics are an inferior product for all comic readers

3) Why Not Add Even More Value to Digital?

Okay, you’re not convinced?

That’s fair.  And I think many of the biggest publishers are missing the chance to add more value to their digital offerings.  Maybe I’m the only one, but I LIKE the ads and bonus content in the back of most physical comics.  (Okay, not the stupid ads mid-comic in Big Two books) but the full page ads for new comics in the back of Image books are great. These and letters pages are often scrubbed from current digital offerings.  I think that’s a mistake.

The most efficient page count for print comics is 32 pages.  But for digital, it costs basically the same to deliver a 1 page book as it does a 100 pager.

I expect savvy publishers to get on the horse and starting to add MORE content to their digital offerings, not less.  Throw it in there!  And push the envelope!  I’m excited about the news that Graphic.ly acquired Double Feature Comics, who were doing some interesting things with regard to bonus content for their stories.  As one of Graphic.ly‘s publishing partners, I intend to take full advantage of whatever they have to offer.  (Keep reading to find out more about what we may be doing.)

Point being, savvy publishers should play to the advantages of digital to truly create a  product with value added.  

CRITIQUE THIS DIGITAL STRATEGY FOR A INDY PUBLISHER

We can all have are opinions about how much Marvel, DC, or Darkhorse should be charging for digital.  However, most of us will NEVER be in a position to actually impact their decision one way or another.

However, we independent creators will need to decide on an approach to digital for ourselves.  How best can WE take advantage of the power of digital to expand our readership and help out our bottom line?

What follows is a plan that ComixTribe is considering, and the rationale behind it.  We’ll be announcing a finalized strategy in early 2012 , and by no means is everyone on board.  But I’m posting this now to get some feedback, and continue the digital discussion, hopefully in a productive manner.

ComixTribe 2012 Digital Release Strategy

ComixTribe books will be released through all of our digital distribution channels, on the same day physical books are made available for purchase on our website and on the shelves of our retail partners.

  • All ComixTribe books released digitally will be branded as “Digital Deluxe” versions.
  • Digital Deluxe books will contain the full story featured in the print version, plus 5-25 pages of bonus, digital only content. This may include sketches, script, pin-ups, essays, discount code off a physical version or rare variant, access to audio or video “creator commentary”, etc.)
  • When also being released physically, Digital Deluxe books will release at the same price as physical. ($2.99 – $4.99)
  • After two months (or at time of the next issues release) price on the books are cut by 50%.  ($3.99 books go to $1.99, $2.99 books go to $1.50, etc.)
  • After six months, the price drops to $0.99 cents.
  • After a year, the price may either stay at $0.99, or drop to FREE if sales under a certain threshold.
  • This pricing stands for the individual issue or “floppy”.  For all of our series, we would also create collected/trade digital versions, with bonus content.  Pricing on these would not necessarily fall to the same pricing rules, but would be comparable to emerging pricing of graphic novel collections.

Here’s my thinking:

At initial release– We don’t want to undercut any retail partners, or cannibalize our own physical sales.  Now, many might be thinking, “I wouldn’t pay $3.99 for a Marvel or DC book, why would I pay it for an indy?”  Good point.  But I highly doubt someone with that attitude would buy it for ANY price.

No, the people who are buying ComixTribe books are our fans.  They’re the early adopters, the people already closely following the title.  They are people who can’t get a hold of a physical copy because their retailer doesn’t carry, don’t want to pay for shipping, or are really interested and making an impulse buy.

The two months later price drop- Why two months and not one  like DC?  Well, ComixTribe moves a little slower than DC, obviously.  We’re STILL getting books into stores for THE RED TEN, for example, while some stores have had it for two months.  I think the $1.99 price point is decent value for digital comics. Plus, dropping the price gives a reason for another round of promoting the book!

At Six Months – Drop again! –  Okay, I get it.  $0.99 is the price everyone wants.  It’s a great impulse buy price. It’s nearly impossible to pay a buck for something, no matter how crappy, and feel you got ripped off.  It’s a lousy buck!  And again, the drop to $0.99 is something we can advertise to give a new spike to interest in the title, more impulse buys a half year after initial release.  And at this point, other books in the series will likely still be at  higher prices, and a tasty entry price might be just what you need to encourage more sales.

After a year, why not just go FREE? – Seriously, why not?  You’re talking about year old content.  It’s the back issue bin…something less and less comic shops even have any more.  If you’re going to go bargain basement, why not go all the way.

The reality of the current digital market is that the two most important price points are FREE and EVERYTHING ELSE.  Even at $0.99, I’m skeptical that our titles will have much heat on them a year out.  Looking at hard data from more than a year of digital sales, I can tell you that FREE ComixTribe books across our digital channels get downloaded at a rate of 70 to every 1 of our books priced at $0.99 cents.  

Now, if we were talking 70,000 Free to 1,000 paid downloads, then I’d be just fine keeping the $0.99 cent price point.  But we’re not.   It could be argued that we’re better off getting the eyeballs and readers through free books, than trying to force the pennies out of on the fence reader’s hands to sample our books.

And of course, the FREE drop gives us yet another announcement to make to plug the title, and ideally drives the  purchasing of newer stuff, or may encourage trade collection purchases (digitally or not.)

Okay, I’m 1900 words deep.  It’s my turn to pass the mic?

What aren’t I thinking about?

Where am I wrong?

What do you think about the digital strategy outlined below?

I’m all ears.

***

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of superhero murder mystery maxi-series THE RED TEN EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy. His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.

Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.

Contact Tyler via email (tylerjamescomics@gmail.com), visit his website TylerJamesComics.com, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on Facebook

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About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

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  1. New Business Models Required « Jonathan Langton | April 11, 2012
  1. I think you nailed it early on – having a clear strategy and sticking to it is key.

    I may be more in the digital vanilla at 0.99c camp, but can see the thinking behind your plan, and like it a lot.

    My only issue would be to say that I like the idea of evergreen books, especially for indie titles, and feel that dropping the price of a book to zero for a first issue works, but the rest should stay at 0.99c.

    • Tyler James says:

      Well, that IS one of the potential drawbacks to going FREE. For example, if a writer or artist blows up 5 years in the future, there may be a burst in interest in everything he or she has ever done. That would potentially be lost sales.

      However, I think I really need to see more growth in digital downloads overall before I completely rule out the all FREE idea after a period of time.

      I think if the choice is between 10 readers who put $4.90 cents in my pocket, or 700 readers who pay nothing…I don’t know that I wouldn’t rather have the masses than the fiver.

  2. Interesting post. As an industry, we do need a strategy that works for everyone: creators, publishers, retailers, avid readers, collectors and casual fans.

    I agree with the concept of added content for digital, but would add that print versions should also have added content, and that the value added content be different than digital, keeping both versions unique.

    I do not see anything in the policy about promoting digital to non-comics readers. As a retailer (Friendly Neighborhood Comics) I do not fear digital. However, my concern is that digital is being heavily marketed to current comics readers. I would like to see more effort given to using digital to grow readership overall.

    Ernie Pelletier
    Friendly Neighborhood Comics

    • Tyler James says:

      Good points, Ernie.

      The marketing of digital SHOULD expand to new audiences. The problem is, I don’t think most comic publishers are good at marketing period. So they stick with the familiar.

      If they were, there’d be a character in the background of every single Marvel or DC movie reading a comic book at some point, and there’d be an ad for the comics before and after each movie.

  3. DonU says:

    I’ve been looking forward to an article like this on Comixtribe, but I thought it would show up in N&B. It’s neat to see it here as an opinion piece.

    As someone who would love to write/draw a graphic novel, I understand the writers/artists desire to get a few more dollars for your labour, but as a reader/purchaser of the medium, it just doesn’t feel right to pay full price for a digital copy. The price of printing should be discounted from the comic. I feel the same way about e-books. The creators are getting the exact same amount of money for their product, but the purchaser now has the ability to possibly buy another comic book. If my money went further, I know I’d be more adventurous with my comic book reading tastes. This might give new writers and artists a better chance of being seen, too.

    • Tyler James says:

      Donu,

      Your point that the price of printing should be subtracted from the digital price is one that many readers have echoed. I want to play Devil’s Advocate however…

      Here’s a few reasons why this doesn’t work:

      – The cost of printing is wildly variable. An indy pub could pay up to $3.50 to print a standard 32 page floppy POD. However, Marvel and DC’s books might cost $0.50 a piece or less, when printed in runs of tens of thousands.

      – Big Two printing is subsidized by the ads they run. It’s possible that for many publishers, the ability to sell advertising completely offsets the cost of their print runs. So, it’s a false claim to say that digital is cheaper than print…because they don’t run ads in their digital offerings.

      – 49% of the cover price is what most pubs are seeing from every sale. Apple takes its cut. The distributor takes it cut (which goes toward technology, server space, paying for digital adaptation, etc.) So, subtracting the cost of printing over estimates the $ saved.

      Again, these above facts make it difficult to do simple math on comparing the value of print to digital.

    • Yup! Look for something on pricing in general soon, Don.

  4. Ty Tyner says:

    I see no issue with the publishers inserting ads into the digital content as well. If it helps them subsidize their costs and allows them to feel good about selling us digital at a much lower price point then its a win/win. We’ve all grown accustom to seeing these ads in the books. Why shouldn’t we see them in the digital versions as well. A smart publisher would find a way to use this new tech to generate new ads every time the book is read (much like rotating banner ads on websites) continually selling ad space on popular titles.

    • Tyler James says:

      I imagine this is something we may see in the future, Ty.

      Personally, I enjoy the the ad-free experience of digital comics, so I won’t exactly be happy when they start getting interrupted by animated banner ads or videos.

  5. Evan Windsor says:

    Here’s a thought, why not after a year release a “standard” edition for free, then leave the “digital deluxe” at .99?

    You still get the free eyeballs, but if someone reads it and enjoys it, they can get the version with the extra content for a behind the scenes look, and you can get some extra money.

    You could then also make the free version ad supported: “If you enjoyed this issue, check out the Digital Deluxe for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Red Ten, featuring art by Tyler James and Caesar Feliciano! Also, check out these other great ComixTribe titles!”

  6. Jamie Fickes says:

    I can agree with many things you say in this Article, Tyler. I can tell you’ve been thinking about the “next step” independent comics need to take (as well as non-independent). Unfortunately, I disagree with several opinions about the pricing and why the print and electronic versions are justified. The fact of the matter is, I feel that people (in general), feel that electronic books should be cheaper. The distribution method is easier, etc. and all the above points in the article are valid. Despite the fact that there are reasons why digital should be the same as physical, It doesn’t seem to change people’s opinions. If you have the choice between a physical book or an electronic book for the same price; many, many people will opt to NOT HAVE EITHER, because it’s confusing. Sure, I can explain to new readers WHY it’s the same..but physical object vs. e-object is an innate view that electronic possession is not the same as physical possession of a project.

    I’ve had some ideas I’ve been bouncing around:
    I feel that if you support the physical book, you should be able to download the magazine to your e-book reader for FREE (or at a greatly reduced price). That is a great, bold incentive and allows me to either keep the physical book or pass it on to another new reader, keeping the digital comic if I so choose. Why should I double for the same content? We were consistently told that the reason why most comics jumped from $1.99 to $2.99, then to $3.99 was the price of printing. Now we know that it was the cost of printing AND the declining readership of their content. The prices did not lower when suddenly they didn’t have printing and shipping costs. I would feel better about this if I knew the creators were seeing more of that money, but it just goes into the big companies who continue to lay off more employees. They have a large catalogue of content that they could offer for .99 or less. I like those one day sales, but I don’t think that’s a serious attempt at getting new readers. I’d even welcome ads if it kept the cost down. You are competing against 1.99 apps that give way more value for time spent vs. cost. Play Angry Birds for 2 months at $1.99 or buy a comic for $4.99 that might take you 30 minutes (if you are lucky) to read. That’s the environment we live in today boiled down to a short statement. Sure, there’s no writer or artist under deadline and games might take less time to produce (or more). It’s about the value, and I don’t see a lot of value compared to other entertainment on e-readers that keeps comics as competitive as they should be.

    Also, I’d like to see a subscription model where I prepay by plunking down $10 for 12 issues or pick up a graphic novel of a 6 issue run for $5.00. It gets downloaded automatically via iTunes newstand like a “normal” magazine subscription. I think Atomic Robo is doing it mostly right with their pricing and collected editions. I am just wondering if you can get a more reasonable pricing structure with getting the money ahead of time (remember when we’d get mail subscriptions from Marvel/DC).

    • Tyler James says:

      Jamie, the comparative value to other digital media argument is one that also resonates with a lot of folks. Digital comics aren’t just competing with other comics…they’re competing with every other thing you can do on your tablet or PC.

      Easy, automatic subscriptions or notification services for digital comics would seem to make a lot of sense, and pre-ordering for a discount does, too. I expect we’ll continue to see digital distributors experiment in these areas in the coming years.

  7. Jules Rivera says:

    Breaking news: http://www.remindblog.com/2011/12/12/remind-on-graphicly-com/

    Jason Brubaker of ReMIND reports on some of the extras in his book on graphic.ly. Sketch only pages! How rad is that? I love this idea, but I’m not sure how well I could pull of something like this, considering how terrible most of my pencils are. Maybe uncolored pages with blue pencils below could work. Just a thought.

    I’ve contemplated going Graphic.ly with Valkyrie, but I wanted at least to get Chapter 2 in the can before approaching a digital distributor such as Graphic.ly or Comixology. Still, in the mean time it’s good to get ideas for how to approach the material when I do get around to putting something out.

    • Tyler James says:

      I’ll definitely be checking out Jason’s stuff with them. He’s one of the voices in independent comics I recommend all creators pay attention to.

      We’ve been working with Graphic.ly for a while now, and I’m really hoping ComixTribe books will use that platform to the fullest.

  8. Scott Dubin says:

    Tyler, a few thoughts.

    You wrote an advantage of digital comics is

    “Hi-resolution. Reading comics is like viewing the files exactly as the artist created them.”

    I don’t think this is correct.

    A Google search reveals the iPad has a digital equivalent to 130 dpi- you don’t use a dpi that low when making your comics, do you?

    Rumor has it the IPAD 3 might double the resolution to 260 DPI, but if my understanding is correct you simply aren’t going to get a product as clear as print with today’s tablets or portable hardware.

    “You don’t OWN digital books, you’re essentially renting. (If Comixology goes belly up, there goes your collection.”

    Is something forcing you to go exclusively with DRM solutions? I can buy The Uniques digitally without DRM http://uniquescomic.com/store-comics.php

    On the free thing, Cory Doctorow says the greatest threat to a writer is obscurity. I would consider at a minimum making your first issues free. Putting everything behind a paywall won’t help you against the threat of obscurity. Now, you seem to be suggesting you might eventually make issue 1 free, but if I was launching a comic, I’d want maximum readership as quickly as possible.

    • Tyler James says:

      Technically, you’re correct on your first point, Scott, although in practice, viewing comics at full resolution 300-600 DPI as the files are created is rare. It would be so zoomed in that you’d only get partial paneling. I stand by the assertion that the backlit experience of reading a comic on the iPad is closer to viewing the finished page as the artist created it on his computer than it’s print counterpoint. (For some, I’ll concede, this is a “so what?” point.)

      “Is something forcing you to go exclusively with DRM solutions?”

      Nope, and we are not. DriveThruComics, for example, sell PDFs. However, ignoring the platforms that do have DRM, and ignoring some of the advantages they have and the fact that there are people buying books through those platforms, wouldn’t be smart either.

      “I was launching a comic, I’d want maximum readership as quickly as possible.”

      In this case, your best bet is to just go webcomic. (And I am a strong proponent of the webcomic model for many, many properties.)

      From my experience, the conversion rate of first issue FREE to buying the second issue, even at $0.99, is something like 70-80 to one. Not the most efficient technique out there, but certainly one worth looking at.

      Also, a word about maximum readership…sometimes, with some properties, that might not be what you want. With my strategy for THE RED TEN, I’m trying to maximize “Zealots” not readers. I’ve sold physical copies of TRT in the last three months than I have of any of my previous titles, experimenting with other models. Because it’s a title that is very well suited to the direct market, engaging retailers as a part of the promotion has been a worthwhile endeavor.

      • Scott Dubin says:

        “I stand by the assertion that the backlit experience of reading a comic on the iPad is closer to viewing the finished page as the artist created it on his computer than it’s print counterpoint. (For some, I’ll concede, this is a “so what?” point.)”

        This begs the question as to who is “the artist” and what is the “finished page” What sort of “artist” do you have in mind? Penciller? Inker? Colorist? Letterer? Any idea what percentage of mainstream books are still pencilled and inked by hand?

        Arguably the “finished page” is the end product that the team was working to produce- the physical print book.

        “From my experience, the conversion rate of first issue FREE to buying the second issue, even at $0.99, is something like 70-80 to one. Not the most efficient technique out there, but certainly one worth looking at.”

        You produce some very different books- so it would be interesting to know if your conversion rate for Red Ten would be different from Epic or Tears of the Dragon. In a hypothetical world where comic readers prefer mega violence- one might expect Red ten to outsell the other two books, I’m not saying that’s the case, I’m just making up an example.

        • Tyler James says:

          By finished page I meant the finished page that goes to print (or digital.) It’s the same file either way, more or less.

          Regarding the second point, you’re right, my limited # of titles makes my data hardly conclusive. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next few years as we have more books (and more data) to add to the mix.

          I can say that 2011’s most purchase digital title for ComixTribe was THE STANDARD #1 by John Lees, which has been priced at $1.99. It far outsold any of our $0.99 titles.

  9. Tyler, awesome post. This makes me very proud. You are a true leader in this industry.

    Obviously, digital content can demand higher price. Look at the extra values added to BluRay DVDs.

    I’d like to put a unique spin if I may because no one seems to be discussing it. Most people forget why they are even viewing the content in the first place. They like it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t spend their time reading it. If it has value to you to read, it is also valuable to buy.

    Independent comic creators should be looked at differently than the main 2. Like you said, you have your loyal fans that will buy your content. If you want to see the comic medium grow, you have to charge for it. People on your site, love the medium. But if comic book fans won’t buy the media, why should we expect anyone else outside the media to. Support what you love. Don’t treat it as worthless. Treat it as valuable. Start earning respect for the media and the industry and the world will be a lot better off.

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