Thursday, November 15, 2007

Marvel Online - what Retailers are saying

Newsarama has a "Talking Shop" today with the reaction from a variety of comic book retailers regarding Marvel's new Digital Comics Unlimited web comics subscription service. I was quoted a couple of times, and largely agree with most of the other retailers who commented.

There was also a retailer written column on ICv2 from Ilan Strasser of Fat Moose Comics. He is definitely concerned about the impact this will have on comic book retailers, saying that not only will it shorten the life of new comics because of the six-month window, but that it will also decrease the amount of graphic novels retailers will be able to sell.

(added 11/16/07) Brian Hibbs discusses online comics in his monthly Tilting at Windmills column on Newsarama today. He seems to feel that the online comics, at least for now, will have very little impact on the comic book retail industry. But that if publishers start using the digital medium to replace retail outlets it could start a downward spiral, and that it takes a lot of $60 per year memberships to make up for the nearly $400 million in comics and graphic novels that comic book retailers are on track to sell this year.

Below are all of the questions Newsarama reporter Vaneta asked, and my answers.

- What's your general reaction to the news that Marvel is putting backissue comics online for a subscription charge?

At first I was irritated because it just seemed like a move to benefit Marvel at the expense of the comic book retailer, but after reading more about it and thinking on it more, I'm indifferent at this point. First they have to get the site to work without crashes, then they have to find ways to market it to people who aren't already comic book readers, and finally they have to figure out a way to make it work without eating up their own bottom line. As it stands now, I see this as just another web site with comics on it, and it will be business as usual for retailers.

- Do you think people who buy trade paperbacks/collected editions will be tempted to instead pay a subscription fee so they can view them online and not own them?

Yes, there are those what will. If the issues are made available 6 months after publication then a whole series or story arc should be available around when the graphic novel would come out, and trade buyers typically don't mind the wait. For those that buy the trades to save on the cost of buying comics - this is an easy choice because if they read a decent amount of books this will greatly decrease their costs.

On the other hand, we have seen a growth in the interest of hard cover books and the "premium format" (absolute/omnibus) books. Those that are interested in purchasing these probably would not be wooed by this internet offering because clearly they enjoy collecting these editions even though they cost more than the single issue or collected paperback format.

- How important is ownership/collecting of comics to your customers?

My customers are largely the 25+ year old crowd - people who grew up with spinner racks of paper comics. They like the paper and most of them also like collecting those issues. Most of them buy paper because they prefer it to the digital format.

However, now Marvel is trying to take the paper kiosk and put it on the internet, so kids don't have to go to a store to buy comics anymore. With conservation of the environment and a generation that is growing up taking notes on computer notebooks instead of paper ones, it does feel like getting future generations to buy and collect paper comics will be very difficult.

- Do you think this will cut into the sales of older back issues?

We are not a huge back issue store, thankfully. But yes, I do think it could. If nothing else, it will erode the prices retailers can get for back issues. We did see interest from younger, college-age customers when Marvel put the older comics on DVD's, and those were $20 - $40 each. With Marvel's new offering, they can get a whole lot more for a lot lower price, making this even more appealing than the DVD versions.

- About how much of your business is comics older than six months?

Not that much, thankfully. We mainly keep back issues so that we are a well-rounded comic book store and so that we have somewhere to go with the extra comic books we didn't sell in three months. Unless you count in graphic novels, which was a growing part of our business over the last couple of years.
- Do any of your customers read comics online already?

I am sure some do. But, many of them work on computers all day and see paper comics as a way of relaxing and putting work behind them. The paper takes them back to childhood, when they'd get those paper comics out of the spinner rack while mom bought groceries or gasoline. Most of today's children won't share that same sense of nostalgia with paper, so I would guess that over time the number of people reading online comics will increase.
- What influence might this have on kids being able to find comics? Do you think younger people will pay the fee to read older comics, which would end up attracting them to comics in general?

I think that, unless Marvel and the rest really work on promoting comics to the non-comic buying public, we should not expect this kind of thing to generate a widespread interest in comics from people who weren't before. Just because you build it, doesn't mean they'll just come.

I do think college kids who are interested in comics will definitely grab onto this because 1. it's fairly inexpensive and 2. these digital versions don't take up space.

I also think that parents who grew up with comics but can't get their kids to read the paper versions might try this because 1. it's fairly inexpensive and 2. it is, in these days when families barely have time to sit and eat at a table together, much quicker than taking the kids to the comic book store. Will these younger people then switch to paper comics? Some will, many will not.

- Do you think it's a move in the wrong direction for Marvel or for comics in general? Or the right direction for both the company and the industry?

It isn't right or wrong, it is inevitable. The internet is out there and Marvel saw that they needed to do this because not only was everyone else doing it but also because it gets their brand out there for people all over the entire world to view.

I do not think that there will be much impact on the industry short-term; those new people it brings into brick and mortar stores will even out with those that stop shopping at brick and mortar retailers because of the internet versions. I think it has the potential of growing the industry because this does what brick and mortar stores have been unable to do - make comics easily available to anyone anywhere. But it could also mean the death of more brick and mortar stores in the future because people will no longer have to find one to get their comics.

- Any final comments?

I was glad to hear that Marvel will display the Comic Shop Locater prominently on this service. It might not make a difference, or drive people to the stores, but at least it shows that Marvel actually considered the brick and mortar retailers.

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