DC Comics Execs Explain Digital Distribution Plan, Answer Fans’ Burning Questions

Last week, the online world was buzzing about the launch of DC Comics’ foray into the digital distribution world, with over 100 titles landing on a new DC Comics app for the iPad and iPhone, as well as Sony’s Playstation Network.

The announcement prompted equal parts praise and questions, with fans celebrating the publisher’s arrival in the digital marketplace but wondering about the future roll-out strategy, how it will affect brick-and-mortar comic shops, and the comic pricing plan, among other subjects.

Now that the dust has settled and readers have begun getting comfortable with DC’s new digital offerings, I caught up with DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee and Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Business Development John Rood to discuss the company’s grand entrance into the digital comic world.

MTV NEWS: First off, congratulations on your digital debut, guys. I have a lot of questions for you here, but I want to start by asking you about the comics and how you chose the titles to make available at launch. Take us behind that strategy…

JOHN ROOD: Well, it’s a brave new world, with a lot of readers to serve with specific tastes. There’s no broader universe of characters than DC has, so it was a wonderful problem to have. We will certainly course-correct as consumers and retailers tell us what’s working.

[With the first set of titles], we wanted to cover some of our rich history, as much of our wide breadth of storytelling as possible, and also some demos, too — so kids can get in on the fun from day one.

JIM LEE: They come from a number of different categories. For the kids marketplace, “Tiny Titans” is in there, and with the “Jonah Hex” movie or “The Losers” movie, those titles are tying into the feature films. We have “Superman/Batman” and some other titles that tie into the direct-to-video features, too.

We feel like if people are very passionate about a game they’ve played or a movie they’ve seen or a TV show they’re watching that has Supergirl or any of the content that DC creates, we have a real chance of getting them to cross over in ways they couldn’t before, because they would have to have a car or have access to a local comic book shop. . . . If they get hooked on that material and really get into it, we really feel like that will lead them to find a local comic book shop and see the broader world of the print side of what we do, and the toys, and posters, and everything else.

MTV: Jim, you’re already a big iPad fan, so what was the first comic you downloaded once the app was live?

LEE: [Laughs] I have to say, self-servingly, I downloaded my own comics. I downloaded “Batman: Hush.” I wanted to see how it looked, and I have to say, I’ve downloaded a bunch of digital comics through a number of different apps and whatnot, and it makes a huge difference that it’s your own company’s work — and on top of that, there’s this whole other level you get to when it’s your own work. It was great to actually have this digital copy in my hand and flow through it.

I want all my stuff to be converted into digital format so I can have my reference library to carry with me wherever I go.

MTV: As a Droid user, I have to admit being a little disappointed by the news. Do any of us with Droids, an Xbox 360, or any of the other platforms have something to look forward to? What about comics on Netflix or Kindle?

ROOD: This is the first of several steps of our digital strategy, and we’re intrigued by Kindle, we’re intrigued by Droid, and soon DC Comics.com will have these offerings, too — so we’re not done yet. Take heart!

MTV: You can buy comics individually at the moment, but what about a subscription plan like Marvel.com uses? Is that something that’s on the table or being considered in any way?

ROOD: Considering, yes — but to date we haven’t heard that consumers are intrigued by the subscription offers that have been available so far.

MTV: The worry with the programs is always that it will put local comic shops out of business. One of the elements of the announcement that everyone’s keying on here is this retailer incentive plan. It sounds like you’re setting up some sort of system for comic shop owners to benefit from the digital marketplace here, but the details are a little vague. What can you tell us about the program?

ROOD: Our engagement with the retailers on this launch happened months ago. It’s a partnership that made us develop in concert with them a toolbox of sales tactics that will be part of the retailer program. We can’t get into specifics like we can with the retailers themselves, but it will be a mixed economy of shared revenue and marketing funds, and incentives for consumers that bring them back to the comic book shop. Through all this, the comic book shop remains the epicenter of fandom.

MTV: What about the release of comics in the digital format the same day they hit shelves in comic shops? What went into the decision to provide day-and-date comics online?

LEE: A lot of thought went into the day-and-date decision. We really felt that it would be important for us to experiment and see how day-and-date digital books affect print copy sales. Is it an additive thing or creating more excitement for the storyline in general, because you’re reaching more eyeballs and giving it more press and attention and love?

We chose “Justice League: Generation Lost” [for day-and-date digital release], because it has a cast of characters that are very familiar to people and even if you’re not a huge comic book fan you know who those characters are. It also comes out every two weeks, and we thought that going forward in the digital space, having something come out more frequently than once a month would be helpful. People who are online are used to getting things instantaneously, so it made sense to try this out.

MTV: What about the pricing. There’s been some criticism of the digital comics being priced the same as their print counterparts…

LEE: There’s a number of ways you can look at the price point: either as a convenience tax or whatever, but we really wanted to allow the consumer to have the freedom to decide they want to buy a digital comic instead of a print comic. We want them to have the freedom to say, “It’s going to cost around the same as a print comic, but this is my choice, and I prefer having the digital format because it has more story or because I prefer having the collection on one device that’s portable and frees up some closet space.” In the end, we really want to make sure that everyone has the option of collecting the books and sharing the excitement that traditional print readers have every
Wednesday when new titles ship.

MTV: How do you decide which titles will be $.99 and which titles will be $2.99?

ROOD: The day-and-date books are $2.99, and we’re capping that as the maximum for a periodical comic at this point. Our basic digital offering is $1.99, and then we have some discounted books, too. We read and hear a lot of the feedback from fans and readers, and a lot of them have pushed for cheaper digital content. So we’ve asked ourselves, “Will that make a difference in sales and attention and demand? Will it help books that particularly haven’t gotten a lot of attention in the print world, where people might sample because it’s a $.99?”

We looked at a bunch of titles that were not huge sellers, that didn’t sell well enough to be collected in trade format — so that the only way a reader could find this material was looking through back-issue bins in stores, which you don’t see very often these days because they run out of space. It’s hard to find these issues, so we’re allowing people to go out and find those issues digitally and create their own library of older material that they were fans of, that might not have warranted a trade because they weren’t beloved by everybody.

Then we have the books that are free, obviously to increase sampling and also just get people excited by the offerings. A lot of the free stuff is the best stuff in our library. The “Batman: Black and White” stories are awesome. I’m happy that we have such a variety of books at each price point, and once we see the feedback and sales, we’ll keep adapting and modifying our slate of titles and price points.

MTV: Now that I’ve peppered you with the tough questions, here’s an easy one. What’s the title or series you’re pushing to see available in digital format next? Is there a particular story you’re dying to see on your iPad or PSP?

ROOD: In a year from now, it’s going to be all about Green Lantern, so my advice to consumers is why wait?

LEE: I’d love to see a copy of “Action Comics” #1 — a scan of a pristine copy, so you can actually see the paper quality and toggle that on and off so you can look at the images alone or view it as a historic representation of this document that was created decades ago. With the app, I think there’s an archival component to this that people aren’t necessarily tuned-in to right now, but I think they’ll realize that this is a really cool way of storing information that is deteriorating or becoming increasingly rare in the print world.

What do you still want to know about DC’s digital plans? Which comics are you hoping to see released online? Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!