Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Marvel’s Digital Downfall

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 7th, 2017

Marvel announced this week, through a spin-heavy puff piece in Forbes, it was altering its value-added digital code program in its printed comics. Instead of receiving a free digital download code for the comic one purchased, Marvel will now include a code that’s good for downloads for two other, previously released and unrelated comics. The shift begins in February.

The Rob Salkowitz-penned Forbes piece is headlined as “Marvel Sweetens Its Retail Value With New Digital Bonuses For Comic Buyers,” and in the article, Marvel reports it’s changing its digital-code program to benefit brick-and-mortar comics retailers, the folks who sell the tangible comic books that it says is the cornerstone of the industry. At best, it’s a naive endeavor. At worst, it’s a lie. A possible motive for the change in approach is to curb the grey-market sale of the digital codes under the original program and to redirect that business to Marvel’s digital-comics sales avenues.

Here’s why I think the move will hurt comics retailers and will drive business digitally and more directly to Marvel: upon hearing the news, I cancelled the following Marvel from my pull list at my local comic shop: Avengers; Hawkeye; Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur; Moon Knight; Ms. Marvel; Patsy Walker, Hellcat!; Power Man & Iron Fist; Punisher; Scarlet Witch; Spider-Gwen; and Totally Awesome Hulk.

These were all comics I enjoyed, but I wasn’t quite so wowed by them to be willing to invest $3.99 US plus tax each month. But as I’ve noted on this website in the past, I didn’t need to do so, as I’d found some other comics enthusiasts online who were happy to read those comics digitally and would may $1.99 US for each digital download code I provided. I wasn’t using the codes, and Marvel was charging the same price as the printed product to purchase those comics on a digital-only platform.

But now, I won’t have that $1.99 US to offset my costs. Marvel’s announcement about the changes to its digital-code offerings was essentially a message that its comics were now going to cost me double what they did before. Now, I didn’t cut the Marvel brand as a whole. There are a few titles I’ll continue to read, in part because I think they’re strong enough to merit the extra expense and in part because I’m in the middle of storylines I want to finish. But the threshold for me to sample or follow a Marvel title just got a lot higher for this particular reader.

DC has scored big with its Rebirth line, due in no small part to the $2.99 US price point it boasts (almost) across the board. I know I’m more willing to try out a new book at three bucks than four. And bear in mind, as a Canadian comics buyer, I have to factor the exchange rate into my reading choices. Which, again, played a significant part in my decision to cast aside so many Marvel books now.

I’m well aware, however, that not all of Marvel’s customers — sorry, scratch that, I mean not all comics retailers’ customers — are like me. Many don’t resell those codes, and many likely use them. Hell, I’m betting even most don’t resell those codes. But I’m not alone either. Just search eBay for the term “marvel digital code,” and you’ll find the afore-mentioned grey market is thriving. Or at least, it was.

For each of those Marvel titles mentioned above, Marvel just lost not one reader, but potentially two. And the total cover price for those 11 titles I cut from my pull list is $43.89 US. Assuming 12 issues per year, that’s $526.58 US in annual gross revenue lost to that comic shop. Just from one customer’s reaction to Marvel’s ill-advised move. My retailer will be reducing his order of those titles by at least one copy each, so it’s money out of Marvel’s pocket and that of Diamond Comics Distributors. Fewer copies ordered means fewer copies printed, so there’s a potential revenue loss for the printers as well.

Maybe Marvel Entertainment will recoup some of the lost revenue through digital sales, should my code customers and others turned to Marvel or Comixology now. But the entire shift seems more likely to give readers a reason to drop books rather than add them.

DC has been dominating the sales charts with its Rebirth initiative, and Marvel is undoubtedly in a mode in which it’s trying to bolster its sales numbers. Not that you could tell from this business decision.

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3 Responses to “Marvel’s Digital Downfall”

  1. Robert Paro Says:

    You are the reason they are doing this. Selling the codes to “offset” the costs makes them think they are losing sales and therefore need to curb these loses.

  2. Darryl Says:

    Same here. Though I just read that DC is raising their cover price for Rebirth titles, but are going to also include the digital redemption codes for those titles. So they’re doing what Marvel’s decided to no longer do.

    Marvel, bad choices.

  3. Don MacPherson Says:

    Robert, that occurred to me as well, but I think Marvel will find it will lose those sales rather than double them.

    Darryl, I suspect DC might have had this in the works for a time, trying to capitalize on the value-added approach Marvel had going. I think it may benefit DC. We’ll see how things play out.

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