Friday, September 21, 2012

An Open Letter to the People in Charge at DC and Marvel

To Diane Nelson, President, DC Entertainment
and Isaac Perlmutter, CEO Marvel Entertainment,

            I don’t find it very likely that either of you will actually read this letter, but I’m writing it anyway—and addressing it to both of you—because I think we need to talk.

It’s about Digital Comics.  I recognize that both DC and Marvel have become multimedia entertainment companies, and although I haven’t looked at your books I suspect that comics are no longer the major revenue stream for either of your companies, and haven’t been for years.  But both DC and Marvel remain comics companies at their core, and it is as comics publishers that you retain substantial goodwill but also provoke substantial frustration from fans.

I wonder if you realize how deep the goodwill directed toward your companies is.  People like me want DC and Marvel to make lots of money.  We want you to succeed, because we want you to keep making comics.  We want you to make more comics and better comics.  We want you to make more movies and games and tv shows and we want you to make them well.  And we recognize that you need to be making a profit to do that.  So we want you to make a profit.  When those of your fans who probably annoy you the most express their unhappiness with you and with your company’s practices it is almost always born from frustration that stems from a genuine desire to see you succeed.  We want to see comics written by and starring women not just because we want to be “politically correct” (whatever that means) but because we want to read those comics and we would buy them.  We want to give you our money and we want you to take it and we want you to make great things with it so we can give you more.  We want to be able to show your comics to our friends so that they will buy them too.   And it’s true that few of your fans have done the market research and focus-group testing that you hopefully are doing, so maybe you feel justified dismissing those concerns because you are certain that you know better.  And maybe you do.  But I think the number of instances of failed or cancelled books will force you to agree that even if sometimes you know better, sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you miss great opportunities for sales.

Which brings me back to my point about digital comics.

What are you thinking?

Digital comics from both of your companies currently cost exactly the same as print comics, with a few rare “special deal” exceptions.  This is a huge mistake and it is costing you money and readership.  The advantage comics had over most other forms of media in the earliest days of comics was that they were so cheap.  They were printed on cheap paper, poorly bound, cheaply printed, but even kids could buy them.  I realize that you don’t want to go back to those days, but the digital age means that you have an amazing opportunity to have your cake and eat it too.

Comics right now are expensive.  It probably feels to you like $2.99 and $3.99 is practically giving the comics away, you can’t imagine making a profit if you sell the comics for less.  But from the perspective of readers it’s just too much to pay on something that might not be good.  $2.99 is too much to pay to read issue #7 of 9 without reading the other eight issues, but buying the whole run is $20 which is too much to pay for a run that isn’t good.  I can buy a movie on iTunes for $4.  I can buy a novel which will give me 30 hours of entertainment for the same price as I spend to buy a whole stack of comics that give me 20 minutes of entertainment.  So, many of your readers aren’t willing to take a chance on something new.  We read our favourite comics regularly, and occasionally try a new comic or two.

But in digital comics you have an opportunity.  If digital comics were, say, 99¢  instead of $2.99, I would buy many many more comics.  I would buy a random issue based on the cover art, and if it was good I would go back and buy the whole run, or consider subscribing.  99¢  feels like nothing.  I suspect that you are worried that cheap digital comics would take a piece out of your print sales.  You are afraid people will buy ten 99¢ digital comics and spend $10 on you when they used to buy ten print comics and spend $30 on you.  But I really think this fear is ungrounded.  I think that a great proportion of the people who buy print comics every week buy them because they like print comics and will continue to buy them no matter how cheap digital comics become.  I would keep buying the print comics I currently buy even if the digital versions were free.  But perhaps some people would stop buying print in favour of cheaper digital comics.  And some of those people, no doubt would buy the same ten comics every month that they used to and you would see a drop from those people.  But plenty of people set themselves a comics-budget every month and would buy $30 (or $5, or $300) worth of comics every month no matter how many comics that bought them.

What would certainly happen if digital comics were 99¢ is that people who currently buy no comics at all would start buying some.  And if the comics they bought were good—and by “good” here I simply mean, appealed to them—they would buy more.  What would certainly happen if digital comics were 99¢  is that regular comics readers like me would start buying more impulse-buy comics, trying out characters and stories that we’ve never cared about before.

I’m sending this letter to Mr. Perlmutter at Marvel as well as to Ms. Nelson at DC despite the fact that I currently read DC almost exclusively because I think it makes this point well.  I don’t read Marvel comics because I’ve never read Marvel comics and there’s too much back story on most of your titles and it costs too much to get started.  And I already spend enough money over at DC.  But if I could read an issue of Spider-Man for 99¢, I would sometimes.  And after the successful Avengers movie, if Avengers comics were available digitally for cheap I am certain that would entice many new readers without diminishing the print sales to the readers you already have.

And the same works in reverse.  I have friends who read Marvel almost exclusively for the same reasons as I read DC almost exclusively.  It’s the universe and characters that they know and love.  But if it was easy and affordable for them to familiarize themselves with Superman or Batman, they would.  And after the successful Batman franchise, if Batman comics were available digitally for cheap I am certain you would find new readers.  The reboot of your universes is only half of the picture if you want to attract new readers, the other half is to make comics seem like they are not a financial commitment.  Digital comics are the way to do this at little risk to you.

Since you are competitors, I would imagine that the prospect of people happily reading both DC and Marvel runs counter to a sense of corporate competition.  But you don’t need to think that way.  Cheap digital comics are a way for DC readers to dip their toes into Marvel without leaving DC, and vice versa.  You both can retain your loyal readers and also add some of their loyal readers.

I am sure you are both competent business-people; certainly you are more savvy business-people than I am, since I am President/CEO of nothing.  And by virtue of your confidence in your own competence and the competence of the people around you you may be inclined to ignore what you are justified in seeing as a crank letter from a crazy fan.  But I am a consumer who is telling you that I want to give you more of my money, I just need you to give me the opportunity to do so.

A Concerned Comics Reader

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