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Digital December: IDW Publishing on Digital Comics

Digital December rolls on! Next up is IDW Publishing, which has spent the past two years gunning for the position of third place publisher in the Direct Market. And it has done quite an impressive job doing so, thanks to its strong licensed content, a series of handsome archive editions of classic comics, and a robust digital library with a mix of books featuring high profile licensed properties like Transformers and creator-driven titles like J. Scott Campbell’s Danger Girl or Darwyn Cooke’s Parker: The Hunter. We spoke with Jeff Webber, IDW Publishing’s Director of ePublishing, about what digital comics sell for IDW and where.ComicsAlliance: How long has IDW been producing digital comics?

Jeff Webber: IDW was one of the first major publishers on the Apple App Store, with comics through uclick in 2008 and iVerse in 2009. (Side note — Before IDW, I was VP of Product Development at uclick. uclick is a division of Andrews McMeel/Universal Syndicate. We did the first US mobile comic strips back in 2003, and the first US mobile comic books and manga (with Tokyopop) in 2005. uclick hosted the first ever mobile comics panel at San Diego Comic-Con in 2004. So that kind of makes me the old-man of digital/mobile comics. It’s been an interesting journey.)

CA: How have digital comics performed for IDW? Have there been any series which were surprise hits in digital form that just sold on par in print?

JW: Our first big hit was Star Trek Countdown, which was the first big comics breakout on the App Store. Then we followed that with an even dozen of Transformers apps during the second Transformers movie last year. Those were 12 of the top 17 book apps at the time. This year True Blood has been our big seller (as well as in print). In general, on iOS, the big well-known brands perform strongly, but it’s hard for people to find the creator-driven titles. On Sony PSP it’s a different story — while the big brands do well, the creator stuff is on par. Particularly horror titles. Ben Templesmith’s Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse series and Locke & Key are both big hits on that platform. The one creator title that blows away sales on every platform is J. Scott Campbell’s Danger Girl. That also points out the “long tail” in digital comics — it’s a 10 year old story that is fresh to a new audience.

CA: You mentioned in a prior interview that some 40% of IDW’s digital comics sales are from foreign markets. Is this a result of targeted outreach to those markets, or did the market simply appear once you made your books available globally? Is there any one country that dominates the foreign sales? How has this impacted how IDW does business?

JW: It’s due to two factors: iOS devices and PSPs are popular worldwide, and digital comics reach so many more people in countries outside of the US where there are not so many local comic shops. Since all our books are English language, the main markets are of course UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But nearly 10% are non-English countries. Especially for the global brands like Transformers. It’s not really changing the way we look at our product from an editorial side, but it may increase our long term plans for translations.

CA: Comic books shops generally service a certain demographic and bookstores service another more mainstream demographic. Have digital comics sales aligned with one or the other? Have comics that traditionally do not work as well in one market or the other sold well digitally?

JW: We truly feel the bulk of our digital purchases are made by people that are not regularly going to comic shops on Wednesdays. Our best sellers are mostly tied to other media — movies, TV and games. Our EA Comics line does very well with the game tie-in. And our Konami Silent Hill line is extremely popular on PSP. A fun example is that one of the senior directors from Apple was at our booth during San Diego Comic-Con. She wasn’t a comics fan but went nuts when she saw True Blood. She downloaded the app right there and went home reading the print book on the plane! I’m positive she’s never stepped foot in a comic shop.

CA: How do you go about choosing which series get converted to digital comics first? How do you decide how far behind the print release the digital comics release should lag?

JW: We do have to be selective, as digital production takes time and money. That said, we have over 650 books in distribution across multiple partners and platforms. That amounts to over 2800 SKUs. Today we distribute to Apple iOS, Sony PSP, Nokia, Blackberry, Kindle and many more additional platforms are coming in 2011. As for the delay between print and digital, that is typically around 4 weeks.

CA: Digital comics are generally stored on the cloud and are inaccessible for anything but reading. How do traditional ideas of ownership, whether that means the ability to legally transfer a work to another machine or simply having the ability to have a comic book stored on your desktop, factor into your plans?

JW: Technology is always going to be a moving target. We work with partners that can bring a strong level of file security. Mobile and apps have always included a better micro-payment functionality than the web. People will support a marketplace that gives them a high-quality product for a reasonable price. We want to make sure our licensors and creators are rewarded for the products they bring.

CA: The eventual trade paperback or hardcover collection of monthly comics is almost a given these days, but in digital comics the single issue is the norm. Will you be exploring bundles of comics, perhaps at a reduced price? Do you have reason to believe that there’s even a market for bundled comics or digital-only releases?

JW: Why, what an interesting question! This topic is definitely of interest to IDW, and you will be hearing much more about this within the next month!

CA: Where and how comics are sold has a habit of creating massive change in the comics industry. The rise of the Direct Market helped change how comics were consumed and who they were sold to. Speculators in the ’90s depended on scarcity and conjecture to turn a fast buck. How do you see the advent of easy to attain and affordable digital comics affecting the comics industry?

JW
: I’ll start by saying digital sales are still just a drop in the bucket of our monthly sales. I love the digital space and IDW is embracing it, but it’s still a very young medium. There’s room for print and digital. We especially want to explore the creative aspects of digital comics in 2011, as the medium grows enough to make unique digital comics more of a possibility. We have a few things in the works that we are really excited about!

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