“Marvel is canceling titles left and right! What has happened to the House of Ideas!? THE SKY IS FALLING! THE SKY IS FALLING!” Yes, it may indeed be a time to duck and cover if your favorite series is getting axed in February, but it may also be time to look at another option for companies like Marvel.

While the limited series model doesn’t force a company to conform to a monthly release schedule, and encourages creators to develop solid stories instead of rushed half-assed ones, it doesn’t really address the bigger issue, namely the dwindling number of people going to the comic book shop week after week. Yes, I do realize that DC’s New 52 did wonders for sagging sales, but even at 180,709 copies sold in October for the number one comic, that only slightly better than the number one selling comic from October 2008.

What is the more interesting number to track – if you can actually track it – is the number of comics sold in the digital market. While everyone is keeping actual numbers close to the chest, percentage ranges from small publishers who hint that 3-percent of sales come from digital, all the way up to 30-percent from the bigger companies. That is a huge range to be sure, but if we are looking at a company like Marvel, 30-percent of 100,000 comics is still 30,000 comics. While we’ll never know how many issues a title like The Destroyers might have brought in, 30-percent of X-23 #15 is still over 7,000 potential issues sold in the digital market.

I can already see the argument forming in your mind, “Why would I buy the digital copy and the physical copy of a title that I am only reading sometimes?” It’s legit comment, but it also is shortsighted when looking at the bigger picture. Publishers aren’t looking to increase profits simply by getting the current market to buy the same comic twice. Instead, they are looking for new and lapsed readers to jump on board the digital train and make more money that way.

Consider this; ComiXology has announced, albeit quietly, that the number of titles released digital day and date is now at 50-percent. Marvel has announced plans to increase the number of digital day and date titles by March 2012 to include most of the titles being printed. While DC and Marvel have both experimented digital first releases, DC quietly announced this week that serialized versions of Batman Beyond Unlimited and Justice League Beyond will be released digitally in 2012 for 99-cents per “chapter” which will then be collected in a print edition later. Keep in mind previous digital first releases were single issue or limited runs, making the Batman Beyond Unlimited the first ongoing series to be released in a digital format before seeing a print run.

It’s no secret that Marvel is looking for ways to increase the profit margin, and I’ve talked before about how much money that can be had from a digital release, but what if a comic was only released in digital form, and then later released as a trade, skipping the monthly print model completely? Instead of bringing in only new readers in the digital world, the company would also get a large number of print reader who make the switch.

It’s been estimated that a single issue of a comic costs around $500 per page for talent costs alone. Those who follow the number of pages in weekly books have noticed that the 22-page book is now averaging around 20 pages, and there have been hints that we’ll see 18-page books released in 2012. At 20 pages, that’s $10,000 per issue, and it doesn’t include print costs. But what if you could dump the print cost completely by taking the book directly to digital? It’s clear right now that publishers love the same as print price point for digital day and date releases, as they claim it is a model that prevents fans from leaving the brick and mortar in droves. It’s a brilliant move to assuage the fears of the shop owner, and make a lot more money from a single title.

Now do the math – X-23 #15 had a $2.99 cover price. If that same cost model were applied to a digital edition of the book, Marvel might have easily made $5,000 from that issue if it were released on the comiXology App. (30% of print times cover price minus talent cost minus estimated Apple and ComiXology fees = ((7,000*$2.99)-$10,000-$6,279)=$4,651). Sure, it doesn’t seem like a lot, and might be considered not worth the effort to go through the motions if you were only picking up a small number of readers.

But what if Marvel decides to shift its publishing model more toward digital than print? While there may be a bigger push to focus on core characters, reduce the number of titles released in 2012, and deal with “budgetary mandates,” a digital first/only model may be an option to keep fans of Ghost Rider, Iron Man 2.0, and The Destroyers happy. Marvel and DC currently seem to be trying to one-up themselves with their digital storefronts appearing exclusively on the Nook, Kindle Fire, and lesser known mobile devices. The price point of these new readers are significantly less than the Apple iPad, and with the holiday season coming up, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what is going to be a big seller this holiday season.

And interestingly, a new job has just appeared on the Disney employment website – Manager, Digital Customer Acquisitions. According to posting, the job requires the person to

• Manage consumer model for subscription and single issue sales of digital comics
• Leverage digital customer acquisition and customer interaction models to optimize earned revenue.
• Support digital space strategy and planning and while leading digital program execution based on digital business knowledge, digital customer acquisition expertise and partnership with the digital publishing team.

The job is based in Marvel’s home town of New York City.

Continuing to use the X-23 numbers from October, if the title went to a digital only release, and 100% of the print readers, and the number of digital only readers are able to get their fix of Wolverine’s daughter on any number of digital readers, that $4,651 suddenly balloons to $40,322 of solid profit. And that is only for a book that made it to 104th place in October. For a book that was released 12 times a year that’s $483,864. Heck, even combining a digital only with a limited series option would still make a pretty penny. Now imagine the money to be made for a bigger selling title like Iron Man or Captain America. I realize that 100% switch to digital would be hard to do, as there will still be those that want a print copy of their book, but half a million dollars might just be worth the risk for a single book.

For those that still want a print edition, a trade could easily be released at some point down the road to satisfy those that refuse to go digital, or want a physical copy of their favorite series should their hard drive or device go belly-up down the road. Interestingly, Marvel recently altered their royalty payment agreement with creators to include digital sales, but also included a 7-percent decrease in trade paperback sales.

I’m not privy to all the financial goings on at any company, and certainly don’t know how much creators are getting paid or what secret deals the publishers, digital distributors, and App store vendors have in place. The numbers presented above are my estimates only and don’t represent any real exchange of funds that I know of. From 30,000 feet this is the information I have in my hand, and how it plays out in my mind. As much as people don’t want to embrace digital, those who really want to read the adventures of their favorite characters and read them before anyone else, the digital first model is certainly a way to make everyone happy.

Will a digital only/first release be the model for titles that routinely sell outside of the Top 100 each month? If rising print costs, profit margins, and keeping fans happy are important, it just may be.

Faithful Spoilerite Question of the Day: If you could only read the adventures of your favorite character in digital form, would you make the switch, or ditch the title completely?


About Author

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment. You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...


  1. To answer your question, I’d drop titles before going digital only. Also, I enjoy the monthly format, and would possibly drop the title if it was digital only, then 6-8 months later released as a trade. That much lag time makes me forget what’s happening and just lose interest.

  2. Well, I think we are definitely moving the direction you outlined, Stephen – kudos for noticing the job listing on Disney’s website. I’d definitely pick up an all-digital format for my favorite book rather than ditching the book altogether . . . if I had a comic-ready eReader.

    That’s the one thing holding this back though – iPads are still expensive. The Kindle Fire and Nook counterpart are hitting stores this year, and they are fairly inexpensive ($199 was what I saw on Amazon’s website), but I’m concerned they may not be able to display comics are adeptly as as the iPad. In short, I’m afraid you’ll get what you pay for.

    I think its only a matter of time before we see this model used more frequently. And I could be wrong about the Kindle Fire’s comic-browsing capability (at least I hope I am, because I will probably get one sooner or later). But on the other hand, I think we’re still just a little ways off from the business model.

    • I’m quite pleased with the quality of comics on my Kindle Fire so far. Comixology’s directed view works nicely, and the panels have been crisp and clean. It only gets just slightly grainy if the panel is small and it zooms all the way in, but I’m not sure if the same problem exists on an iPad since I don’t own one.

      Full page views are okay, but because the screen size is smaller than your standard comic, I tend to stick with the directed view.

  3. Where are our “hover skateboards” to go with all these electronic comic books?
    In the old days… we skateboarded to the “drug store”… ordered a Coke from the grill… and sat and read comics for about an hour… and bought the ones we wanted to keep forever!
    (And, the wheels on the skateboard were made of metal and the board was half the size they are now.)
    Times are changing… and I ain’t that old.
    This may all be “progress” or prove to be a big embarrassment for all involved.
    Laying on the floor, on Sunday mornings and reading the “Funny Pages” in color… and getting sent to my room for being a “bad boy” and having a stack of comic books to befriend me for the whole day… learning the words android, cyborg, and behemoth before anyone else in my grade.
    Ya’ll have fun with yer new tpys.

  4. I’m digital now, so yeah, I’d be in… if I really like the arc I’ll buy the trade to lend people or re-read. the issue still is that digital should be cheaper than the physical copy. I would buy more books than be as selective as I am.

  5. I’m heading towards buying all of my comics in a digital format now. When Marvel announced most of their titles will be released digitally with their print comic counterparts by March 2012, I was thrilled. After collecting comics for 35 years, I’m tired of storing them and welcome the digital comics revolution. I realize this change is not for everyone but for me it is a welcome change to my oldest hobby.

    • that’s exactly it, i have no need for long boxes anymore. the collectable portion can still be alive in the digital era, especially since the myth that they are going to be with something is done.

  6. Digital, schmigidal. How do you wrap a digital comic in protective plastic? Laminate the jump drive you saved it on?

    If Marvel would put out more comics I like, I’d read them on paper or digital. Unfortunately, a combination of technology, “responsible use of resources” and them “green” people seem to be pushing ALL readers, not just comic readers, to digital. Welcome to the “information for the elite only” world.

  7. I’ve started bookmarking Stephen’s futurist articles, just so that I can compare them to the press releases the companies put out 2-5 years later and see all the similarities.

  8. I would not buy the digital copies, at least under the present licensing agreements, as I want to have a copy that I own in perpetuity, and most of the digital things I run into seem to be more along the lines of “read this copy from our app.”

    Honestly, I’m bothered by the expectation that the only way to save comics as a format is to ditch comics as a format. IF I were going to switch to all-digital, I would want it to be something that I could switch from device to device (i.e., no Kindle or Nook-specific bull$#!+) and something that I could pull out of the digital equivalent of a longbox in a year or seven to read again at my leisure.

    Partly, it’s a matter of convenience, partly it’s the fact that the only device that I own with a screen even remotely large enough to view comics at a decent, legible size is my laptop, which isn’t ideal for reading right before bed, in the bathtub, waiting for the wife in a parking lot, etc. (Also known as: the places I get most of my reading for fun accomplished.)

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see where digitally publishing the same drek with a lower price point will be anything more than a stopgap measure against hemorrhaging readership…


    • If you use the comixology app, it keeps track of what you bought and if you sign in on another device, it remembers what you bought and lets you redownload it.

      • “Bought/Redownload”? You mean “reacquire your license to read the protected content, so long as you’re in the right part of the world.” How could you read said “comic book” without the comixology app? Could you use another ereader? (probably not). Whatcha gonna read when the batteries die? (“physical books”, I realize , but my point is still valid.) You don’t OWN anything, as Matthew pointed out quite nicely. Your content’s inaccessible when you’ve got no electricity, as well as other legal hurdles created by “copyright protection”. When you buy a second tablet/reader/whatever, can your files be shared? What if they’re not the same brand of e-reader? etc etc etc. “Old-fashioned comics” can still be read by candlelight, and so on. When it comes to “books”, I like =physically owning= them: I don’t want to go through the same thing with my favorite stories as I’ve had to with my favorite records/cassette tapes/cds/mp3s/flacs/etc. In my (probably luddite) opinion, the only “technology” needed to read a book should be “eyes and hands and pages”.

        I get the appeal of ‘instant digital gratification’, but… As Matthew also said: the notion that we have to excise “Book” from “Comic Book” to keep the industry thriving is… Like saying musicians shouldn’t release whole albums because everybody’s only buying .99 cent singles. (Yes, I realize it’s a horrible comparison, and please don’t waste a bunch of time telling me how/why. It’s just to serve as an example.) Maybe “e-singles” have a place, but that doesn’t mean “albums” are destined to die.

        • Wow, ok, i’m gonna skip past a lot of the “snark” there about digital and just say if you are open to digital, cool, if not — don’t worry, I don’t see the physical issue going any time soon. All I can say is I’ve been doing it for a few months and I love it. Every issue i’ve bought is with me and I can sign in to the comixology app on either my iPhone or iPad and “re-aquire” an issue I may have purchased on the either device. Your account has the information of which issues you have purchased and if one day you need to free up some space and delete it but want it back two weeks later, you can. you can sign in on a kindle to download an issue you bought on an iPad.

          The short comings you’ve mentioned are only shortcomings to you. Not to many others. We now live in a world where content creators want to lock down their work, and as inconvenient as it is they have the right to. As far as “our content’s inaccessible when you’ve got no electricity” well, you plan for that, just as your content is inaccessible during a long drive if you forgot it at home — something mitigated by a device like the iPad where you can keep hundreds of issues in something the size of just one.

          If you dig physical issues, that’s cool you will be serviced by the industry for a long time to come — and if certain titles switch to digital only, well I’m sure you will either drop them or grab them in trade if it’s compelling enough. There is drawbacks to both formats, it’s just one is becoming more convenient than the other.

    • Have to say it’s more than a bit of a paradigm shift. As an employee of a particularly large tech company, we’ve been talking about “cloud” computing and “software as a service” for some time. In both cases, the customer is working with intellectual property (i.e., software) that does not exist on a server that he/she owns.

      But the thing is, if you bought something with Windows or Microsoft Office or a variety of software packages created within the past decade or more, you don’t own that content either.

      We call it “licensing” because you are literally purchasing a license to access other peoples’ property (intellectual property). And most licensing software registers software online,so the issuer can shut it down. So if you somehow managed to acquire Office, and Microsoft gets a whiff that it’s pirated, they send a code to your computer and suddenly it doesn’t work.

      With that in mind, it’s not too huge a jump to consider other sources of intellectual property (i.e., art, character likenesses, story, etc.) being treated the same way.

      In any case, as others have mentioned, it’s a bit spurious at this stage to talk about how “if you don’t have electricity it doesn’t work.” That wasn’t a barrier to cordless phones or MP3 players. And you have the same issues with those when it comes to batteries. The truth is that, for the majority, the attachment to print is an emotional attachment.

      Both print and digital have their pros and cons, and I have to say there’s something extra special about the smell of a case-bound hardcover with a fabric headband and a rich leather cover stretched over a pasteboard. The smell of freshly cut paper is similar to the smell of a sawmill (no real surprise, there), and when it’s mixed with paste, fabric, and ink…magic. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was very young. However, as much as I love the feel and smell of a printed book, I prefer the feeling of being able to get content that previously was too expensive to consider.

      If I put a great deal of effort into it, I’m sure I could find some back issues of comics I like in some bin somewhere–in one of the stores in my area, at a convention I’d pay to attend, or through one of many online outlets. But I don’t have that amount of time (or the desire to exert that amount of effort) to get something that will then just sit around my house forever…and probably won’t be touched again.

      However, without that level of effort, I’m able to find many back issues for $1 apiece. I have a tough time justifying moving to day and date at cover price, but I’d happily wait a month or two for the publisher to knock a dollar or two off.

      And what’s wrong with making it EASIER to buy comics? That’s the goal, isn’t it? To make it easier, so more people will buy more books?

      Also keep in mind that I’m not, nor have I ever really been, a COLLECTOR. I’ve been a READER. I don’t CARE about the potential future value of the book I bought. To be honest, most of what I own is worthless.

  9. It’s nice getting to read through the lecture from class today. But in answer to the question, yes I would make a total switch to digital. I would love to make the switch now if I could get my hands on an iPad. Main reason is that my store, Hastings, doesn’t order certain books I have wanted to read, Atomic Robo, Locke and Key, or just doesn’t order enough of the popular titles.

  10. If my books went digital only I’m out. I’ve purchased several on Stephen’s IPad and frankly I have only finished 2 of 24……..due to a massive headache from the screen and just not enjoying it.

  11. Weekly books I get digitally. No more floppies here.
    The books I end up loving, I double dip and rebuy them as trades and then “own” them.

    The wonder of buying a comic after the stores are closed for the night on my iPad has long ago superseded my old need to have the books in hand. No looking back now.

    • Word, i have a nice compacts collection of trades i use to lend out to people I want get into comics. Just wish the weeklies were cheeper, I would get more of both. That’s properly my biggest gripe about digital. It costs too much, especially when you understand how content is distributed in line, it’s an inflated cost.

  12. Is it wrong of me to cheer for Marvel’s “sky” to be falling? It actually might force some overdue changes.

    As for digital release; I’m on the fence. I agree that this is probably the next “thing”. However, I’m not paying cover price for something I’m “renting” and not “owning”.

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