Wk27: DC Comics and Doing Digital Right

DC Comics embraces technology, eh?

Looking back, as an industry, the music industry made awful decisions when the digital revolution came along and have been catching up ever since. It happened, and there’s only one reason to dwell on it – to learn from those mistakes.

Looking at the film and TV industry, one wonders if they are learning those lessons. Legal digital alternatives simply don’t exist in many parts of the world, leading to illegal files online, feeding the piracy market. The pricing is ridiculous, the release date lags, etc, etc.

So what is the right way to transition into the digital space?

It seems DC Comics is trying to work it out for the comic industry. They have made big plans to enter the digital space in a big and bold fashion. And they’ve learnt from other’s mistakes. Is it enough?

September 2011 will be a big day in the history of DC Comics. The company is basically starting again. Every comic they put out is being cancelled. 52 new titles are launching with new #1 issues. Batman, Supeman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman and more – all start again.

But it’s not just the titles. DC Comics have slowly been looking at every part of their business, and will revamp that as well.

It is the real life version of a theoretical thinking game someone taught me about business. If you were to create your business today, what would you do?

Many industries – music not excluded by any means – rely on old systems and old technology. I’ve dealt with CD inventory programs that runs on VGA graphics – and that was last year! VGA graphics went out in 1995! Some record companies use Word 2003 – an 8 year old program.

And yes, they work fine. But if you were starting from scratch, those programs don’t exist anymore. How would you build it? How would you deal with retail? How would you write your artist contracts? Heck – what day of the week do you release and why?

What would you do without the burden of history?

Well, DC Comics are doing this:

(I’m going to look at what DC does, how it compares to what Music does, and then consider what film might do)

Digital Day And Date

Comics have been flirting with digital for a couple of years now. Some bigger titles are available on Apps for the iPad. A small selection of older stories. A few free comics to entice readers.

The reason for this is obvious. A big business was slowly changing. Popular titles are essentially low-risk to experiment with. Digitising takes time and so priorities must be made. There’s no sales history so tentative steps must seem wise.

But fuck that. Come September, all DC titles go digital on the day of release. No delays. No exceptions.

I applaud DC for this. I imagine they had to restructure all their production deadlines to make sure everyone gets finished artwork in on time to digitise.

With Music, it is still a challenge to get deadlines right. It has not been uncommon for me to ask for albums 8 weeks before release date. Part of this is because a more complicated digital market for Music exists (for one, you can pre-order music).

Also, we are still waiting for a handful of musicians to “go digital”. It’s been 10 years and a slow road to get everyone on board. Many artists and their managers gave digital a wait and see approach. And while a lot of it is on iTunes, labels are now hesitant with Spotify. If you label hasn’t pulled out completely, artists can opt out if you have a friendly contract.

It is a vast contrast. Music’s hesitant toe dipping compared to DC Comic’s one-in/all-in. I think the DC way is more exciting, especially for the consumer. How many times have you been shitted off by not finding a band on iTunes, or Spotify or some other service (so you then go and pirate it).

And now film is in the same boat as music. Sure, their businesses are far bigger. But why isn’t every film ever on iTunes? And why, crucially, aren’t they there the same day it hits cinemas?

No Promos

This is a big one, and an awesome one. DC Comics are not sending out issues in advance. Sure, you want retailers to know the comics well enough to order them. You want people to review them so people will buy them. But the other side is the bigger price – promotional copies lead to piracy.

Will the world fall apart without promos? No. But DC will have to build better relationships with retailers so they will order their books. They need to be more transparent about their plans. They will need to drown the internet with promo art, interviews and publicity to build hype. But most importantly, they will have to build a business around people hearing word of mouth after release date and buying books that are weeks old.

Again, think of Music.

For everyone album on a major, there’s hundreds if not thousands of copies doing the rounds before release date. Music is serviced to journalists, retailers, radio stations, promoters and more. And that’s why every album hits the web before release date.

This is where the big hole of piracy starts. And it’s a big hole to fill, but Music can get there. Why do people need copies so far in advance? I think 80% of people get promos just because they are there. Sure, Rolling Stone needs it to review for the issue around release date. But bookers (for example) can wait if a show isn’t coming up for a while, no?

It’s a big change, but we are going to need it. And go back to a time when records CLIMBED the chart. And magazines told you what people thought was hot, not just an exclusive bunch of journos. And radio play songs that you can buy.

Film has a bigger challenge. Cinema is kind of the promo CD for the movie business. Cameras snuck into cinemas make pirated DVDs. And they make their way online too. People go out of their way to NOT see movies at the cinemas. Give ‘em a digital bone.

Working with retail

Another hurdle for the industry is the power of physical retail. They have, traditionally, taken digital technology as the enemy of what they do (as more stores close, it’s hard to argue). With a majority of money still coming from physical goods, they hold a lot of power. If JB Hi-Fi takes offense at your online strategy, they can simply not stock your record.

DC Comic’s are encouraging retailers to work with digital. Comics retail is a bit more sober than Music – I think they know they will lose a part of their audience to digital comics. But DC are offering polybagged comics WITH download codes at higher prices to entice readers.

More importantly, with digital distributor ComiXology, they are allowing stores to sell digital comics on their own website. The stores even make a decent margin (30%), if it’s a dedicated DC Comics store. That wont be hard as DC’s the only one doing it.

I was working at a record company in the early 00s, and we’d get calls from small retailers about digital. How do we get a kiosk in our stores? How do we sell mp3s? These small stores had the desire, and their size gave them flexibility. They also had the foresight to see they sold music in all forms, unlike the bigger chains.

But the technology for affordable kiosks or branded webstores did not exist in 2001. They do now for comics. Actually, they do now for Music. So all those small record stores went away, but comic retailers and DC Comics both share a stake in seeing digital comics succeed.

Price

For the first four weeks, to appease physical retail, digital and physical comics will have the same price. After that, they drop a dollar. Music does this, although with CD prices continuing to plummet, iTunes is starting to seem quite expensive again.

But for Movies, there is a large disparity. Pricing is more complex, but they have to set standard pricing across their digital offerings now. It is all over the shop, and too expensive.

DC has had time to look and reinvent it’s price structure. So once again, for music and movies, if we were to start again today, what is the price?

…and more

DC have also revamped their delivery process. They are offering physical only variants. Video trailers for instore play. A new returns policy. Editorially, they are bringing in new characters, modernising others. Better still, they are bringing more diversity to this fictional universe.

I’m in. I’ve always been more of a DC fan than Marvel. There is only one decent comic store left in Sydney, and it’s a pain to get to. But I can get comics for $2 on my iPad. That’s three for the price of a beer. Bring on some freebies to entice me on new titles. Maybe cheap collections of older books. And subscriptions so I don’t even have to think about it.

Will I miss my physical comics? I don’t buy that much anymore. But if DC do their job right and do nice editions with bonuses of great books, then I will buy my faves. If not, I bought them once already anyway. Who cares about the paper other than the trees.

Odd that DC comics is owned by Warner Brothers, who has a Music and Film and other publishing arms. All of them are going through the same birthing pains. Will they learn from DC?

Or perhaps this could all fail. Perhaps this is not a viable model, and tentative steps turn out to be the right one. We’ll see. But it’s certainly an exciting risk. And I applaud the breadth of DC’s vision and the size of their balls.

 

DC Comics New 52 Retailers Pitch – http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=33078

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