This weekend in San Diego, hundreds of thousands of geeks, nerds and pop culture maniacs descended on the Convention Center for the event that has become a consumer show mecca — Comic Con. Attendees were paying tribute to hit TV shows and movies, but it could just as easily have been a celebration for the comics industry as a whole: 2012 was one of its best years in a long time, and a lot of that has to do with digital strategy.
A New York Times report this weekend spotlighted Comixology, the digital comics distributor that was the third-highest grossing iPad app of 2012. It also had hit its 50-millionth and 100-millionth downloaded comic, last year, and is now closing in on 200 million downloads.
But the broader industry has also grown sharply. Digital sales tripled last year, to $70 million. The print side, meanwhile, saw sales gains of 15%, to $750 million. That all made 2012 the best comics sales year of the millenium.
Here are a few reasons why the comics business had such a good year.
Subscriptions and bundling: Comics have embraced subscriptions and bundling. Users of Comixology can subscribe to a comics series (one of the app’s 300,000 available titles) for a flat rate, and new issues automatically download to the tablet. Bundling is also common — Dark Horse offers segmented bundles of their greatest hits like Angel & Faith and B.P.R.D for one single purchase. Comics have a fast and relatively simple buying process that emphasizes deals — which is very different from how ebooks have traditionally been sold (with the notable exception of Harlequin’s digital presence).
Certain publishers also offer monthly subscriptions — like Marvel Unlimited for the iPad. The $9.99 monthly price gives users access to new issues plus a 70-year back catalog of Marvel titles.
Distribution is more democratic: In the world of ebooks, there are only a few players in the game: Amazon, Apple, and (barely) Barnes & Noble. The diverse range of comics distributors — both third-party organizations and publishers themselves — mean that users can pick and choose where they shop without sacrificing title availability.
For example, a user can purchase a copy of DC’s Injustice: Gods Among Us series directly through DC’s proprietary app, Amazon, Comixology’s app, iBooks, or a host of other places — so she can choose the platform that suits her best. This fragmentation also allows for comics companies to pick and choose the way their comics are sold.
Image Comics, which is responsible for The Walking Dead and Spawn, recently opened a comics outlet that is 100% DRM-free — meaning users use and share books as they choose. In going DRM-free, they didn’t have to worry about compromising sales from Amazon or another big-name retailer.
Doing more with the medium: Promoting self-published titles, offering free introductory products to get readers reading, flash sales on issues and even motion-centric issues — comics writers, publishers and distributors aren’t afraid to try anything to get more sales. It’s a different approach than what you see with most big-name e-book sellers.
Comics in different genres and styles have carved out their own digital niches, from non-fiction narratives (Symbolia) to discounted indie publishers (ComicsPlus). As a result, exciting things are happening in digital comics that you only really see in traditional books with children’s apps and Pottermore. It also means that users get markedly different experiences between print and their devices — creating a separate realm for digital comics that doesn’t cannibalize print.