Comics Should Jump on the iOS Subscription Bandwagon

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The official Marvel Comics iPad app.

Magazine apps appear to be enjoying quite the bump thanks to the introduction of in-app subscriptions to select titles. Wired, for example, is the fifth top grossing app on the iPad App Store right now. It’s a model that seems to be bearing fruit, at least in the short-term, and one that comic book publishers should be watching closely.

Comic books are very well suited to the iPad. In fact, when I first bought an iPad, reading comics via apps like the aptly-named Comics, and the Marvel- and DC-branded offerings was something I did often. But with individual titles costing between $1 and $3 for about five to 10 minutes of enjoyment, it quickly became a habit too costly to keep up. And those prices are considerably cheaper than the ones you’ll find for print editions in comic book shops.

I’m not the only one who isn’t impressed by the value proposition offered by comic publishers. According to comics blog ICv2, comic book sales in 2010 were down 4.64 percent year-over-year. And early reports from this year are seeing drops, too: Newsarama reports that comic book sales were down 23 percent in January 2011 compared to the same period in 2010, and 24.45 percent compared to the month prior.

The trouble facing the comic book industry may not be getting the same coverage as the decline in print news and magazine readership, and Marvel and DC especially are making money at the box office and on merchandising that softens readership decline. But ultimately fewer readers is bad for business, even if that business has shifted from its origins.

The iPad is a great venue for comics. The screen’s resolution is good enough that full pages can be read by most without zooming, and the tablet form factor is much more conducive to reading comic books than is the notebook or desktop computer screen. And users are still responding positively to iPad comics apps, despite the current pricing structure. The Comics app I mentioned earlier is ranked 20th in the U.S. top grossing charts, and the Marvel Comics app is number 33. Even DC Comics is still in the top 100 — at number 60 — at the time of this article.

I asked independent comic creator Stephen Lindsay (who’s responsible for the awesome Jesus Hates Zombies series, among others) what the impact of digital subscriptions might be for the comics industry. Lindsay explained that “the comic industry really has three sets of consumer[s]: those inside the industry who buy comics to support one another, the casual reader, and the collector.” He said collectors don’t care about in-app subscriptions because “they always have, and always will, want the printed book” because the “ownership of it means something” [emphasis in the original]. However, casual readers are “much more ripe for adopting digital” thanks to the lower cost and therefore lower risk of buying on the iPad, according to Lindsay.

Lindsay says that especially for small-time creators, digital is especially good at “expand[ing] readership and reach[ing] the widest audience possible.” For example, Lindsay notes that “the first Jesus Hates Zombies app has had over 100,000 downloads in the Android marketplace,” which far outpaces its performance in print. Because of that, and because, as he says, “those in the industry who are supporting the industry itself will typically try anything if it’s going to further the cause,” in-app subscriptions stand a good chance of catching on with creators once the floodgates are open.

Subscriptions aren’t unusual in the comic book world. Generally speaking, they offer a discount of about half-off the cover price for individual issues. With print, that means that 12 issues a year that would normally cost about $50 end up being around $25. In-app subscriptions that offer a similar percentage discount with new content (same-day releases are rare for iPad comics) would likely net a significant uptake in readership rates.

Offering comics on low-cost subscription plans makes even more sense if you think that the primary focus of major publishers has shifted to Hollywood and other media like television and video games. Comic books are the ground upon which those franchises are built, and getting them in front of more readers will only lead to bigger audiences for cross-media products.

Comic books and iPads are made for each other. But in-app subscriptions would make that fairytale romance even better for all parties involved.

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