The Book, newspaper, and magazine industries are not the only industries that expect the iPad to “save” them. The 9” screen and brilliant color of the iPad make it a natural for reading comic books, too, and one of the applications available for the iPad on launch day was the Marvel comic book reader.
A startup called Panelfly (which we mentioned back in February) is also creating a comic book reader, through which they plan to distribute titles from 50 publishers, including Marvel, Sterling Comics, and Top Cow.
The Marvel app makes 500 back-issue comics available for purchase at a cost of $1.99 each. While the comic publishing industry may have high hopes for this purchase model, both comic fans and comic store owners are markedly ambivalent.
Fans dislike what they see as price-gouging on the part of Marvel:
“I can get back issues from my local shop for $1,” wrote IanX on iFanboy.com. “Why would I pay $2 to get them online?” Other commenters said comics should cost less when there’s no distribution or paper cost involved.
They note that Marvel’s on-line service (which we covered here) has a monthly subscription rather than charging a la carte.
Comic shop owners are worried about piracy, loss of interaction, and eventually their own obsolescence.
“As far as my business, I think it’s an awful idea,” [Bernie Saavedra, who owns Gotham City Comics in New York]said. “We’re not selling it, we’re not making any money. We’re the retailers who’ve been selling it for what, 70 years? … It’s OK, but it’s destroying an industry that’s already beleaguered.”
BusinessWeek reports that there are only about 3,000 comic book stores in the United States—less than a third of the 10,000 at the height of the 1990s. Comic book publishers hope to extend their sales to places where no comic book store exists, and also to change the perception that comics are just for collectors.
Still, Marvel is going to have an uphill battle selling comics at $2 each, especially as entrenched as comic book piracy has gotten over the last few years. A search for “comic” or “comics” on any BitTorrent search engine, as well as a search for any given comic sitebook character or name, will pull up literally thousands of results: fans scan comics, compile the results into CBR (Comic Book Reader) files, and set them free on the Internet.
Since they generally don’t need to be OCR’d, comics can be processed more quickly and reliably than any prose book. And not only are they “free” to download, but they also come without the crippling DRM that publishers tend to insist their comic books carry.
CBR readers such as CDisplay allow fans to page through the titles on their computers—but since most computer monitors are landscape while comic books are portrait, the experience generally leaves something to be desired. However, reader apps (such as Comic Zeal) on the iPad’s landscape screen could change that, and make CBR downloading more desirable to a number of people.
While publishers like Baen have shown that people will pay a fair price for electronic versions of printed media, the furor over agency pricing has shown that they will get upset when they feel they are being gouged. And in charging $1.99 per issue for what less moral consumers can download on-line for free, I think comic book publishers are going to have a tough time making the sales.