Marvel Comics kicked off a new digital comics sale yesterday, one that sees roughly 300 graphic novels marked down to a measly 99 cents each on both Comixology and the Amazon Kindle store. That’s about as good a deal as fans are likely to find these days. But while the prospect of being able to buy critically acclaimed books like Vision: The Complete Series and Thor by Walt Simonson for less than a buck is great for readers, this sale raises some significant concerns about an industry still grappling with the newfound challenges of the digital market.
This isn’t actually the first time Marvel has offered such drastic markdowns on its digital collections. Several times over the past year, Amazon has had line-wide markdowns of 80-90% on digital Marvel graphic novels. The first time this happened, many readers understandably assumed it was a glitch of some sort. But at this point, it’s clear that these massive sales are just part of Marvel’s ongoing business strategy for digital comics.
On the surface, these sales seem like a win/win situation. Readers get to load up their tablets with new comics for pennies on the dollar, while Marvel gets a healthy spike in sales and the prospect of drawing more eyeballs to their digital catalog. It’s not as though digital comics cost them anything in terms of printing or shipping costs, so theoretically the company is still turning a small profit even when a $30 collection gets marked down to $1 or $2.
However, these recurring sales threaten to devalue Marvel’s digital comics over the long-term. Once readers get accustomed to the prospect of paying a dollar a piece for these collections, will they willingly shift to paying $5 or $10 or $15 instead? Given how often these line-wide sales have been happening on the Kindle store, what incentive does anyone have to keep paying full price for Marvel books? Why not just wait a few months for the next big sale?
Furthermore, why buy physical copies of these books when the digital versions are so much cheaper? Comic shop and bookstore owners are wary enough of digital comics as it is, fearing that they’re slowly being squeezed out of an industry that once relied on them completely. They may see these digital sales as a sign that there’s no reason to keep stocking many of Marvel’s trade paperbacks and hardcover editions much longer.
Another problem is that Marvel’s creators stand to make less money thanks to these sales. Uncanny Avengers writer Jim Zub broke down the mechanics of digital comics sales a few years ago. While the terms can vary depending on the publishers and creators, the gist is that reduced sale prices mean there’s that much less money to go around for everyone involved.
Marvel’s extreme digital sales also put other publishers in a difficult place. At what point do companies like Boom, Image and Dark Horse have to begin responding with their own 99-cent graphic novel sales just to stay competitive? Not every publisher is as well-equipped as Marvel to handle such significant markdowns. These sales might wind up convincing readers that 99 cents for a full-length graphic novel is a fair price, digitally or in print. And at that point, turning a profit by making comics becomes a much more difficult task.