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Comics Should Embrace iOS Subscriptions

Magazine apps appear to be enjoying quite the bump, thanks to the introduction of in-app subscriptions to select titles. Wired, for example, is the fifth top-grossing app on the iPad App Store (AAPL) right now. The model seems to be bearing fruit, at least in the short term. It's one that comic book publishers should be watching closely.

Comic books are well-suited to the iPad. In fact, when I first bought an iPad, I frequently read comics via apps such as the aptly named Comics and I enjoyed the Marvel- and DC-branded offerings, too. With individual titles costing from $1 to $3 for about 5 to 10 minutes of enjoyment, the habit quickly became too costly to keep up. And those prices are considerably cheaper than the ones you'll find for print editions in comic book shops.

I'm not the only one who isn't deterred by the value proposition offered by comic publishers. According to comics blog ICv2, comic book sales in 2010 were down 4.64 percent year-over-year. Early reports from this year show drops as well: Newsarama reports that comic book sales were down 23 percent in January, compared to the same period in 2010, and off 24.45 percent, compared to the preceding month.

No Coverage of Readership Decline

The trouble facing the comic book industry may not be getting the same coverage as the decline in print news and magazine readership. Marvel (DIS) and DC (TWX) in particular are making money at the box office and on merchandising that softens the pain of the readership decline. Ultimately, having fewer readers is bad for business, even if the business's foundations have shifted.

The iPad is a great venue for comics. Screen resolution is good enough that full pages can be read by most without zooming. The tablet form factor is much more conducive to reading comic books than are the notebook or desktop computer screen. Users are still responding positively to iPad comics apps, despite the current pricing structure. The Comics app I mentioned earlier is ranked 20th in the U.S. top-grossing charts, with the Marvel Comics app at number 33. Even DC Comics is still in the top 100—at No. 60—as I write this article.

I asked independent comic creator Stephen Lindsay (who is responsible for the awesome Jesus Hates Zombies series, among others) how digital subscriptions might affect the comics industry. Lindsay explains that "the comic industry really has three sets of consumer[s]: those inside the industry who buy comics to support one another, the casual reader, and the collector." He says collectors don't care about in-app subscriptions because "they always have [wanted] and always will want the printed book" because the "ownership of it means something." However, he says casual readers are "much more ripe for adopting digital," thanks to the lower cost—and therefore lower risk—of buying on the iPad.

Stephen Lindsay Loves His App

Lindsay says that especially for small-time creators, digital is especially good at "expand[ing] readership and reach[ing] the widest audience possible." For example, Lindsay notes that "the first Jesus Hates Zombies app has had over 100,000 downloads in the Android marketplace," which far outpaces its performance in print. Because of that and because, as he says, "those in the industry who are supporting the industry itself will typically try anything if it's going to further the cause," in-app subscriptions stand a good chance of catching on with creators, once the floodgates are open.

Subscriptions aren't unusual in the comic book world. Generally speaking, they offer a discount of about 50 percent off the cover price for individual issues. With print, this means that 12 issues a year that would normally demand about $50 end up costing around $25. In-app subscriptions that offer a similar percentage discount with new content (same-day releases are rare for iPad comics) would likely net a significant surge in readership rates.

Offering comics on low-cost subscription plans makes even more sense when you consider that the primary focus of major publishers has shifted to Hollywood and other media such as TV and video games. Comic books are the ground upon which those franchises are built. Getting them in front of more readers will only lead to bigger audiences for cross-media products.

Comic books and iPads are made for each other. In-app subscriptions would make that fairy tale romance even richer for all parties involved.

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Etherington is a professional blogger, writer, and editor.

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