Beginning in January 2012, Marvel Comics will include free digital download codes, like those seen in this week's Avenging Spider-Man, in every comic book in their Ultimate line, allowing readers to purchase a print and digital copy of the issue simultaneously. The issues, beginning with Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #6, Ultimate Comics X-Men #7, and Ultimate Comics Ultimates #7, will be polybagged to protect the code. ComicsAlliance talked with David Gabriel, Marvel Senior Vice President of Sales, and Peter Phillips, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Marvel Digital Media Group, about the announcement and what it means for Marvel's digital strategy and sales.ComicsAlliance: Had you talked to any retailers in advance about this? Was their reaction a concern?

Peter Phillips: Yes, we did talk to retailers in advance because wanted to make them as partners in this whole initiative. By letting them know what we were planning on doing and addressing their concerns, it became a much smarter, more informed program. We wanted this to be done right, with the smallest amount of errors and working with retailers was the best way to achieve that-- it benefits everyone.

David Gabriel: Getting their feedback, talking about how the program was gonna work... We can sit here week after week after week and talk about how we want these programs to work and never really think about how it's gonna be viewed by the outside public... We had about fifteen to twenty retailers involved in this from the beginning.

ComicsAlliance: Did they give you any notes that changed or reframe the way you were presenting the download codes?

DG: Yeah, totally. We were working on putting the code on an inside flap on the back cover of the book. From talking with [retailers], we realized that was not the smartest way to go with this, certainly not for the first time out, and that's how the whole idea of just doing it within a polybag came about.

CA: Are the download codes limited just to the branded Marvel apps or could users of ComiXology or Graphicly also use them?

PP: They're limited basically to the iOS and Android apps. You could actually also do it on Chrome. We've got right now two different digital offerings: we've got the [back issues] of MDCU, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited... and then we've got the brand new stuff that comes out that you can buy on a by-issue basis digitally. [The codes] are focused on the latter.

CA: Now, in terms of the larger digital strategy, are the download codes aimed at enticing print comic book readers into the digital comics sphere?

PP: First of all, we want to provide value to people who are reading the books. And this is basically free. You buy the print and it's a value-add, and it's a way for people to have the content the way they want it in multiple touch points. We're big fans of believing that print and digital combined is going to widen the pie even further. Our research and evidence has shown this to be the case so far. So, that's really the crux of it. Yes, we're definitely introducing print comics readers to the digital part of our business, and we're also doing the reverse, so that, again, everybody kinda realizes there's a lot more ways to consume content.

CA: When you say that your research indicates it's sort of widening the pie, is that also in regards to simultaneous digital releases of comics? I know some retailers were concerned that this would cut into their sales. Your research indicates that hasn't been the case?

PP: Correct.

DG: Yeah, we started with the same-day-as-print books about a year and a half ago, measuring what the effects were on the sales of those comics to retailers and then really watching what was going on with the backorders on those books. If the digital comics going same day as print had taken off like this monster sales horse and destroyed the in-store comic shop sales of those print books... they wouldn't have sold out each time we did another one. The retailers wouldn't have been looking across the board for second prints on those books. Reorders wouldn't have been coming in on the books. I think people thought at the beginning that everyone was just gonna turn to digital to get the book and not go up to a retail shop, and we watched that not be the case time and time again.

CA: Has the conversation about digital comics with retailers changed now that you've both had a little more experience with it?

DG: Oh yeah, yeah. Two years ago, there was much more fear of this whole thing. While there's still some trepidation from some retailers, I take it the vast majority of them are seeing more upside and more positive aspects of digital comics out there.

CA: One of the biggest issues for fans, both in terms of print and digital, is the price point of comics. Right now, DC and Image Comics are pursuing a pretty aggressive plan with their digital books, uploading new issues at full retail price and later dropping the price down to $1.99. At the moment, Marvel's digital comics are full price across the board with no discount. Is that something that could change in the future?

DG: I'm not gonna say that it will never change, but for now, there's no plan to change that, no.

ComicsAlliance: Was there anything in particular about the Ultimate line that you feel made it a good candidate for the download codes?

DG: I think because it really has the most mass market-friendly stories to it, it has the best chance of reaching a wider audience, especially with the introduction of the new Miles Morales character. It's been our top-selling line for about twelve years now. It's all the movie-related properties, really, just set in the Ultimate universe. It's not mired in 40, 50 years of continuity. So it really, you know, made the best starting point for us. I wish we had thought of this six orseven months ago and then started with the new number one issues. But instead, we're starting with the first arcs of the new stories. I think it'll help us reach a bigger audience that way.

CA: Why not go across the board and include download codes for every Marvel comic?

PP: The way you look at all this stuff is... you know, we're obviously very consumer-oriented, so you know, we're looking at not only what works from a business perspective, but also what consumers want. We roll these things out cautiously, but in an aggressive enough way so that it makes an impact and a difference. If we see that this is something that really resonates with our fans, then we're gonna keep doing it.

ComicsAlliance: So if gets a positive response, you do see it expanding?

PP: I do.

DG: As long as people start using the codes, that's the best way for them to show us that they like this program. And then that's one of the better indications for us as to whether we want to roll it out more. Like Peter said, we're gonna be cautious with this, the same way we were cautious with the same day as print books. I don't know if we'll wait a year to judge the results of all this, but there will be no exclusive announcement going out next week saying that all the books linewide are going with free digital codes in all of them.

CA: How fast do you think you'll be able to gauge the success of the download codes?

DG: I don't know yet, because we haven't done it. It sounds lame, but I don't think we've put a free code in anything yet to be able to measure that. I can tell you how well the retailers responded with their orders, how the orders increased exponentially when we announced this [with Avenging Spider-Man], and how pretty much the same thing happened with the second issue of the book, and I hope that happens with the Ultimates as well. But, really, until... I'll say, if you wanna talk to us in two weeks, we can tell you how fast the codes have been redeemed.

pp: We're very interested to see how it performs and, you know, we've obviously pushed [on this] because we think that it's something we think that consumers want because that's what they told us.

DG: The February Previews catalog will be the first catalog where we actually start branding the books that have the free codes. We'll make it a little bit easier for folks to know what's coming up. There's an icon with a little text saying "This comic comes with a free digital code."

The Commentary

Both Marvel and DC now offer digital download codes in some of their marquee print titles, although treats the book as part of a "combo pack" and charges an extra dollar, meaning prices vary from $3.99 to $4.99 per comic. Marvel, on the other hand, is adding the download code for free to their Ultimate line, which is already priced at $3.99.

The Ultimate titles generally contain 20-22 pages of story, and $3.99 is a bitter pill to swallow at that length, no matter how good the story is. Marvel's method helps make paying $3.99 for a comic book a little more reasonable; a free copy of the comic, an extra that you can give to a friend or sell later on, is an okay bandage for that wound. It's also closer to what may be the platonic ideal of the relationship between print and digital comics. If you shell out cash for the print version, why shouldn't you receive a digital copy for free? If you purchase a CD or record, odds are good that you're going to get a free download code for the MP3s, and you'll always be able to make the MP3s yourself. I can't remember the last time I bought a movie that didn't include a mobile version of the film. Having a free download code lets you take your comic collection on the go, or to lend out your print copy without worrying whether or not you get it back.

There are a few interesting things to consider when looking at this news. This is an inward-facing move. It's targeted directly at Direct Market comics fans first and foremost, since a digital download code in a comic doesn't really matter to new or casual readers who don't shop at comics stores. These books that are preordered months in advance and sold on racks in specialty shops. It seems to me that this is intended to educate Direct Market readers about how digital comics work and to direct people from print to digital, rather than vice versa, and hopefully to maintain an equilibrium between the two. Which is far from a bad thing. In the end, the more people there are reading digital comics, the better for everyone, assuming that those people seek out other, non-Marvel comics in addition to their favorite books.

I also find it very remarkable that these download codes are tied to Marvel's branded apps on iOS and Android. The branded apps are powered by ComiXology, but are covered in Marvel branding and do not sync back to the Comics by ComiXology app. They exist apart from ComiXology, but use ComiXology's technology, essentially. The download codes work on Marvel's app and Marvel on Chrome, their web reader. If you use these download codes, you get a digital comics reading experience that is divorced from all of the other publishers. From a publishing standpoint, this is wise. Why offer free advertisement to your competitors when you can control everything yourself? As a consumer, though, it makes me uncomfortable. I want this to work out for Marvel, but I don't want to see Marvel succeed at the expense of everyone else.

Finally, a few high profile retailers, most notably Brian Hibbs of Comix Experience in San Francisco, have publicly declared their opposition to Marvel including these download codes in their comics by refusing to offer rack copies of the title and only honoring preorders or special orders. These retailers view the inclusion of the codes as Marvel attempting to poach their customers and convert them to digital comics. This new announcement is unlikely to please them, as the Ultimate books are billed as being appropriate for new and old readers alike, and have gotten a considerable amount of attention for the introduction of Miles Morales, the new bi-racial Ultimate Spider-Man.

Personally, I think that this is a pretty good deal. I don't think that it will cause a seismic shift in how people consume comics so much as educate the populace about digital comics and provide more avenues for consumers to buy them. Getting something for free is the best way to test it out, right?

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