Now that publishers get it, comics and the iPad are a perfect pair

comics-feature

The DC storefront in ComiXology's Comics app for iPad.

DC Comics recently began selling digital versions of its new comics on the same day that print editions show up in local comic book shops. It’s a move that coincides with, and helps promote their “New 52,” a complete re-launch of all of their monthly titles beginning at issue #1, but its effects are already being felt beyond even just its own stable of properties.

Beating out books

Last week, three of the top five most popular iPad apps in the Books category were comics apps. Comics by ComiXology came in second overall to Al Gore’s Our Choice, followed by the official Marvel and DC apps at numbers three and four respectively. Note that ComiXology’s tech powers both the Marvel and DC apps, and its own app offers titles from both publishers, as well as a number of others including IDW and Image comics.

But the successes for digital comics on the iPad don’t end there. Comics by ComiXology also became the second highest grossing iPad app — all categories included — as of Wednesday night this week (it’s still at number three at the time of writing). ComiXology CEO David Steinberger directly attributes part of the reason behind his app’s good fortune to DC’s decision to go digital:

[W]hen you look at our success as one of the top grossing iPad Apps and then take in the news about DC Comics going back to print on almost all of The New 52 comics, you can see that digital distribution is growing both the print and digital comic book market. DC’s daring move going digital the same day as print with all their print publications this month in combination with the great buying and reading experience our App provides is a tide that lifts all boats.

A page from Grant Morrison's Action Comics #1, part of DC's "New 52."

It sure does look like the changed approach to digital comics is lifting all boats. Consider that Marvel beat DC itself in terms of gross last week and continues to ride high at number 18 overall among iPad apps, despite having yet to offer its own blanket approach to same-day digital. It is headed in the right direction, however, as it announced in July at San Diego Comic-Con 2011 that it would be rolling out simultaneous digital and print releases gradually for all X-Men and Spider-Man titles. Image is likewise testing same-day releases through ComiXology with at least a few titles.

Same-day digital definitely delivers

Same-day digital appears to be the magic ingredient that was missing from the iPad comic mix. If you’ve ever tried reading comics on the iPad, you know that it’s an almost-perfect delivery method. The screen size and resolution are both good enough that you should be able to view full single-page layouts without zooming or squinting, you can carry an entire library on a single device, and you don’t have to worry about dog-earing the corners. Seriously, though, for all but devoted collectors, it’s a nearly ideal alternative to paper, and digital editions are also often cheaper.

One drawback to digital is load times, but you can view content as it downloads, one-page at a time.

Regardless of what you think of DC’s decision to relaunch its entire line (I’m not that impressed by what I’ve seen so far, with the exception of Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1), you can’t deny that the bold decision to make everything available digitally on the same day will help push the industry forward. Marvel will likely have to speed up its rollout of day and date iPad releases now that DC is seeing big dividends in terms of gross revenue, and partners like ComiXology will be pushing them to follow suit, because, again, doing so would “lift all boats.”

One more key ingredient missing

There’s still one piece missing for digital delivery, however, and I wrote about it back in May: subscriptions. Comics should be leaving behind the idea that they can still become valuable collector’s items, and same-day digital is one step towards that. But making titles available digitally on a subscription basis is the next, and possible the more important step.

If I could buy an Uncanny X-Men auto-renewing subscription through my iPad, I’d probably never turn it off, whereas I’ll only pick up a print or digital copy maybe three or four times a year these days, at best. An automatic digital pull list of an iPad owner’s favorite titles is bound to be a hit with fans who enjoy comics for the sake of their content, and not for what they might be worth on eBay in 20 years time (hint: it’s nothing).

DC is already talking about introducing value-add elements to digital comics, sort of like DVD special features, but if Netflix has taught us anything, it’s that the only special feature most media consumers care about is reasonable subscription-pricing that delivers just the good stuff. An all you can eat publisher-wide subscription for digital comics would be amazing, but I’d settle for per-issue monthly or yearly pricing. Let’s hope comics don’t take as long to warm up to that idea as they did to same-day digital.

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