Over the past few months there have been some interesting developments in regard to digital comic release schedules. There have been bits and pieces of info that I've reported and commented on in my newsletter that's exclusive on Patreon, so I wanted to put them together here with some added commentary to try and build a better map of the changing landscape of digital and print comics.
On Sept 23rd, Archie announced that they are going to make their entire line available on comiXology Unlimited with same day releases as their print books.
The relevance, other than being the first publisher to put their entire line on Unlimited, is in the same day release impact. At the time of the announcement, Marvel Unlimited and the transformed DC Universe Infinite service both had a six month release delay of new issues so as not to step on the toes of retailers. Now in the case of Archie, I would take a guess that not too many retailers are overly concerned about lost sales. It's possible that with the more adult horror line this could be seen as a threat and could take away some sales but it's still less of a concern for stores that cater to demographic that consumes mostly superhero material.
Other publishers were probably keeping an eye on this development to see if there might be some room for them to get in on the same action. Jim Lee has been leaning pretty pro-digital these days, and we already know from 2020 that DC is kind of ok with throwing its retailer partners under a bus.
Besides all of that though, it's always interesting to see Archie take these big steps. They've been pretty forward thinking and progressive about expanding with digital and with their content diversity. Now if only they could actually publish Afterlife With Archie again.......
On Oct 19th, Marvel announced on the 19th that they would be shortening the window between print and digital releases from six months down to three.
This isn't too long after DC Universe Infinite confirmed a six month delay, so it's probably a safe bet that this is partly an effort to be competitive. Especially with the impact of Covid19 on overall sales and traffic to comic stores, it's a bit understandable that Marvel would want to experiment. And while I don't think this is exactly as bad as stabbing a dagger into the back of retailers, it does feel kind of like a sharp poke with a very pointy stick to see if the body is still warm.
It's understandably a difficult decision on the part of DC and Marvel as other publishers are catching up with the times. Kodansha announced they will now release new chapters of ongoing manga on comiXology the same-day as Japan. Archie made their announcement, and more creators are seeking out alternatives like the pay-what-you-will model of Panels Syndicate. This is still a bit of a different beast though, as many retail comic stores still live and die by their sales of superhero titles.
You can make plenty of arguments that the print audience and digital audience have very little overlap and that this won't have much of an impact, but at the Comics Dungeon we had enough customers flipflop between the two formats to know that same day release on DC and Marvel titles could make a difference. Considering the severity of Covid19 infections and shutdowns this winter we can probably expect more people deciding on staying home and making impulse digital purchase decisions. Plus, if the window of exclusivity is decreased too much for retailers they may pull back on orders to play it safe. There's a number of factors to take into account if you're a retailer:
There are always storage concerns, and if walk-in traffic is decreased or all-together shutdown again then the usual display cycles are basically futile and shelf space restrictions may necessitate the removal of stock from prime impulse sales positions across the storefront.
Oddball mini-series and crossover tie-ins may not generally sell well to begin with, so if the above storage concern is valid then retailers may pull back from ordering any shelf-copies period.
As a result of that, if there's a sudden demand for a book that retailers pulled back on (due to the first appearance of a new character, an important milestone, a new artist, whatever), then they have unhappy customers and lost sales. Many customers, at least in the Seattle area, are deeply non-committal and don't want to pre-order. And if you happen to be short of what they they view as a 'hot commodity' too often, they'll frequent your store less and less because they perceive you as being unable to take care of them. It's pretty much a deepening downward spiral. Fun!
From a retailer's perspective, if they cut the fat on their shelf copy numbers by even one short box worth of books, they could easily be saving $300-400 in expenses which in turn can be spent on payroll, general overhead, you name it. Now every store is different, but at the Dungeon we would cycle unsold product off of the new release wall on Tues night as we stocked the wall up with all the new comics for Wed. Every week there could be at least one or two long boxes of product moving over. That's anywhere between $600-$1200 worth of unsold product that's cycling through the store inventory, and also keep in mind that the initial week of release is the prime window for turning over new product. Yes, you'll sell some of it move over time, but the chances decrease every week especially as it moves around between overstock storage and general display racks. Also, the longer it exists in the storefront the more prone it is to damage and theft, so the desire is to sell through as quickly as you can.
To summarize, retailers are strongly motivated to reduce orders to A) save costs, B) save space, and C) save time and effort in inventory management. If retailers feel the least bit threatened about our chances of moving new titles due to digital competition, then I believe they will most likely lean towards reducing the risk and will order less.
So, will the reduction to a three month print-to digital window really make a huge difference? Could it possibly influence retailers to reduce orders significantly, therefore altering Marvel's sales and the overall market numbers? Tentatively I would say no. There probably won't be an immediate impact right off the bat at least, and if there will be it will be difficult to discern whether it's due to the digital factors or more due to general economic turmoil for small businesses.
What's important to not overlook though is that this feels a little like Marvel is dipping their toes into Lake ScrewOurRetailPartners after seeing DC do a full cannonball into it all throughout 2020. At the very least it feels like they're probing the borders of retailer comfort zones, and I can't entirely blame them considering how messed up the market is right now. Still, one of the most valuable things for a retailer these days is some level of confidence in the two pillars of the industry. DC has already shaken the confidence in that foundation, and with small businesses and retailers being stretched so thin it's more and more disconcerting when the big companies start to reduce the safety buffers of sales exclusivity for storefronts.
Meanwhile, DC has been embracing the model of digital-first content for a while now, and to moderate success. Jim Lee's brief commentary on the matter back in Aug pointed out that,
"We're using that as a model as we go out and do more digital content. We'll take the most successful books and repackage it as physical books. I think there is definitely business to be had in physical periodicals. But that said, I think there's greater upside in digital because we can go to a more global audiences and the barrier to entry, especially in this pandemic, is lower."
While over the past decade DC has never failed to piss me off, I can see the reasoning behind this type of model and frankly it's not the worst filter system for the brick and mortar ecosystem. For example, if there was a new mini-series staring Conner Hawke as Green Arrow and its digital sale numbers were so poor it did not warrant the release of a print series, then I really couldn't argue with those results. If it got denied print due to poor digital sales then that reduces the temptation for retailers to even take the risk of ordering shelf copies. At that point it's just up to me as a Conner Hawke fan to deal with getting a digital copy.
I personally don't want to purchase digital comics, but I'm a fan of the idea of using one form of media to feel out the safe growth of another and creating a thriving system of support. While I don't entirely have confidence that DC won't somehow find a way to screw that up, I am oddly hopeful that they'll at least pave the way towards a working system.
Also as a quick aside, Conner is a much better character than his father, offers great representation as a mixed race character (which we need more of in superhero fiction), and it's a crime how DC has poorly utilized him in the past decade.
While I haven't heard any rumblings yet of any other digital release schedule changes, I imagine it's only a matter of time before DC takes suit after Marvel and reduces their print-to-digital wait time to three months. Considering AT&T's current strategy involving HBO Max and their movie releases, it also feels likely that DC (also owned by AT&T) will just skip the 3-month trim and just go straight to same day digital release by the end of 2021. Once those floodgates are opened we'll see if all of these years of retailer dread will be validated, but it's also possible we'll have a lot of other things to worry about as the world recovers from 2020.
In an attempt to leave you with something positive, even if the new release market undergoes major changes again, there does seem to be a proliferation of back issue hunting and sales which could aid in the survival of comic stores. So as a final parting note, why don't you go buy some Conner Hawke Green Arrow comics and help a retailer out?