Digital December: Marvel Comics on the ‘New Newsstand’ and the Marvel Vault
Marvel stands alongside DC as being one of the biggest publishers in the comics business, and shifting that weight can sometimes take time. Marvel's pushed forward with a number of day and date titles, such as Ultimate Comics Thor and Ultimate Comics Captain America, but has stepped backward, from our point of view, with high prices for those books and the Marvel Vault. We spoke to David Gabriel, Senior Vice President of Sales, and Ira Rubenstein, Executive Vice President, Global
ComicsAlliance: Just to start from the beginning, how long has Marvel been producing digital comics?
Ira Rubenstein: Marvel launched the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service over 3 years ago. Prior to that Marvel had some Digital Comics available on CD-ROM.
CA: Generally, how have digital comics performed in the marketplace for Marvel? Have there been any series which were surprise hits in digital form that just sold on par in print?
David Gabriel: Digital Comics have performed exceptionally well since we launched the Marvel Comics App back in the spring. For the most part we've seen what sells in comic shops and book stores to be the same hits on the app. We've had some surprises week to week, especially with testing different price points, day and date books, one shots, and books from different Marvel eras...and we've been pleased with the outcome of all our testing.
CA: Direct Market shops generally service a certain demographic and bookstores service a somewhat 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, such as video game tie-ins or novel adaptations, sold well digitally?
DG: Not really, so far we're really seeing a mirror image of what goes on in both of those markets.
CA: The concept of the Marvel Comics App Vault seems to runs counter to some people's ideas about how digital media should be distributed. Could you explain a little about the digital strategy involved in creating the Vault?
DG: Sure...sales is the number one reason. Those titles weren't selling. We decided to take those books from the app, and possibly bring them back at a time when there's more of a marketing platform to position them to sell. Since this is a new medium and format for the industry, we decided to take the stand and make the changes that we felt were necessary. In the end this will give us a cleaner look within the app and make it easier to start to merchandise and promote the books that people want to read.
CA: How has Marvel been deciding which titles get converted to digital first, and which comics get the day and date releases? For non-day and date comics, how do you decide how far behind the print release the digital comics release should lag?
DG: Overall we've been looking at comics that are have recently been published in collected editions as the main source of what gets converted. Everything else is case by case. There's a great deal of excitement created when we launch the day and date comics so for the foreseeable future we'll be using that excitement to our advantage in terms of total comic marketing.
We've also got some more exciting announcements about this -- you'll be hearing more in the new year.
CA: In terms of the comics reading experience as it currently stands, 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?
IR: We are working hard on expanding both the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service and the Marvel app to work across devices and platforms.
CA: A common question is whether or not digital comics will have an iTunes, a centralized store with a deep library across a variety of publishers. Marvel works with a small number of digital distributors, and has the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service as well. This provides a wealth of content, but sometimes by creating competing streams. What benefit does this diverse approach have for Marvel?
IR: We believe in wide distribution of our content. We want to enable the consumers to decide where they purchase our comic books. Be it on our app or with a third party. We see digital distribution as the Newsstand of the past. The ultimate location for consumers to sample our comic books. Therefore we want our books out as wide and available as possible.
CA: Marvel comics, beyond ones available on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, are not available for web-based reading, just mobile and (in the case of Graphic.ly) desktop. This would seem to limit day and date titles, among others, to just mobile users. How does that fit into Marvel's digital strategy, and it something that could change in the future?
IR: As I mentioned before, we are working hard on expanding both the MDCU and the App to work across platforms and devices. It takes time to build good digital consumer experiences and we want to make sure that our content is only featured on good products.
CA: Where and how comics are sold has a habit of creating massive change in the comics industry, as we learned from both the rise of the direct market and the speculator boom of the 90s. How do you see the advent of easy to attain and affordable digital comics affecting the comics industry?
DG: We've said it before and we'll continue to say it: we see digital comics right now as the new newsstand. Currently the digital world is a place where consumers can sample exciting new stories and then be directed to find a local comics shop and hopefully become a regular patron of that store. The goal here really is to help grow the comics industry by increasing the audience base. I think we all agree that this is a medium with room to grow and it would be great for everyone to have even more readers.