How The Kindle And iTouch Can Save The Comic Book Industry

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It's well documented that I'm not just a marketing geek, but a comic book geek as well. So I get excited on occasions when those two loves cross paths.

(And I know I'm not the only marketing dude with ink-smudged fingers...I'm looking at you, Brogan and Naslund.)

That's why I got nervous when I saw this recent AdAge video featuring John Cunningham, VP of Advertising for DC Comics. The video (which is only 3 minutes long, so go watch it) frames the Kindle as some sort of potential comic book killer. Here's an example straight from the video:

"This is a business that is very low margin and very low print-run. So, if 10% of the readers migrate to an e-device, that is going to throw off the economics for 60% of the books that are published in this country - and that's probably a low guess."

To fearful folks in the publishing industry, I want you to really focus on what I'm about to say next. Go ahead: get comfortable and really take this in.

Are you friggin' kidding me?

Seriously, are ya? Because fear-mongering about Kindles and iTouchs is beyond short-sighted. Have you learned nothing from the music and movie industries? (Curious about why I mention music and movies? If so, read this great post by Jeremy Meyers for some insight.) And I don't mean to pick on John - he redeems himself as I'll explain later in this post - but acting like the Kindle is going to kill Batman is LAME.

Future Business Models

In fact, rather than kill the comics industry, electronic readers like the Kindle or the iTouch could end up saving the comics industry.

If this business is so low-margin and frugal, any additional profit should be considered. Here are a few business ideas for comic book publishers:

  • Allow me to buy single issues at a cheap price. You already have the content and you'll spend nothing on paper or distribution. It's almost pure profit for you. (Sure, you'll have to allot some time for scanning and development, but not much.)
  • Allow me to pay a subscription fee for back issues. I would gladly pay $5 per month to browse back issues of the X-men and I'm sure I'm not alone. The interaction doesn't need to be robust - just assign a scanner to an intern and collect the (electronic) checks. It'd be the Netflix of comic books.
  • Allow me to subscribe to the electronic version. Comic books get mangled in the mail and delivery can be spotty (I know from personal experience). I would gladly pay a slightly reduced rate to have the files sent to me each month. It would be consistent, trackable, and automatic.
  • Create a website or app that allows me to create my pull list and then prompt me to purchase directly. There are iPod apps that do this, but no real market leader. With this, you would have an ongoing source of income from a customer who asks to be contacted. Plus, consider the market research capabilities (i.e. imagine lots of readers with The Fantastic Four on their pull list who suddenly stop ordering it - that's immediate notification that something about the book has gone sour.)
  • Wrap in author/artist interviews or other bonus material with each comic book and charge me a premium rate. Again, this is content that doesn't take much effort to create - just figure out how to package it. Remember that fans open their wallets for access.

There are lots of options. But try something - anything! - to stay competitive in the market place.

No Zero Sum

The point is - and this speaks to John the DC VP's quote - that this industry is not a zero sum game.

Marketing guys (myself included) question why people would buy more than one copy of a comic book and wonder about the limited resource of time. "It's illogical to read the same thing in paper and also read an electronic version, isn't it?" "If people only have an hour per day to read, we're competing for time in the hour, aren't we?"

Maybe not. Internal reporting from Amazon shows that Kindle users are actually consuming more content (or at least paying for it). John Wall from the Marketing Over Coffee podcast mentioned that "[a]n analyst was reporting [at Amazon's Kindle launch] that Kindle users buy 2.7 times the number of [electronic] books they would physical books" (minute 2:21).

I might not peel off another $4 to try out a new comic book on the stands, but I might download one for 99 cents.

Will People Pay For Online Content?

John Cunningham, the VP of Advertising at DC, later goes on to say:

"I think the key is not to figure out how to ferret out the pirates; it's to come up with a digital delivery system that you can - early on in the process, and that would be sometime in the next 12-16 months - come up with a way where you can convince people [that] it's worthwhile to pay for this stuff because they don't believe that digital stuff should be paid for."

Things like "people won't pay for content online" get said so many times that we eventually assume that it is correct. But that's not necessarily true.

People will pay for your content if it's priced correctly and if the process is convenient. You already have delivery systems: they're called iTunes and Amazon.com.

I've bought every issue of Proof available. Why? They were 99 cents each, they download straight to my iTouch in about 30 seconds, and I can read comic books while looking like a regular businessman on the train (petty, but true). Simple, cheap, and convenient.

BitTorrent is difficult to understand and use for the vast majority of Americans. A lot of people are like Julien Smith as recently featured on the Media Hacks podcast:

Mitch Joel: "If you know as a consumer that you can grab a song off of BitTorrent or it's 99 cents, your value of that is diminished."

Julien Smith: "No, I disagree. I buy a lot of song on iTunes and I have BitTorrented music before. But I will tell you: iTunes is my first choice...because of the fact that iTunes will automatically put it into my [darn] iTunes and onto my iPhone right away. I choose it first even though it costs more, and I'm not the only one" (minute 34:15).

Simple, cheap, and convenient.

And here's the kicker: one of the key comic book audiences is the most likely to pay for content online. Despite conventional "wisdom," the Pew Internet Project reports that "[o]nline adults under age 30 are more likely than other age groups to pay for content online" (Online Shopping PDF, page 13).

Yowza.

What Do You Think?

Am I right or am I wrong? Have you seen a comic book company doing work specifically for an electronic reader? Would you consider buying comic books online if it was simple, cheap, and convenient? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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(Image courtesy of marceatsworld via Flickr)