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Digital comics: 40 million paid downloads a year?

Friday, June 14, 2013

by John Jackson Miller

Comichron specializes in the print comics business, not digital — and as I've noted many times before, the amount and quality of data about digital sales lags far behind what we know about print. Diamond releases a monthly report which can be converted into unit count estimates for print comics in the Direct Market; and there are other resources we can tap to guess at comics orders outside comics shops.

Meanwhile, apart from top-seller lists that appear without numbers attached, we don't see much from the digital side — apart from the odd leak now and again from within the trade. In a response to a Comicsbeat post about one of my pieces here on Comichro, Torsten Adair contributes a nugget that went past in a Wired interview with DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson: "Just three years ago, we weren't in the business of digital publishing at all, or not meaningfully... Now there are a million downloads a month of DC stories from our digital publishing. It's not an insignificant business anymore."

This is a significant revelation, because it puts a unit sales number to something we've only been talking about in dollar terms. And while market shares between print comics and digital comics are certainly going to be different, it allows us to make some guesses about the size of the (authorized!) digital market as a whole.

Torsten, in his response, notes that the one million figure is about half the number of DC comics in the Top 300 sold to comics shops, as seen each month in the Diamond chart. If that comparison holds — and if the print and digital market shares were identical — you'd arrive at something like 40 million downloads annually industrywide.

Now, the data point we had received last year was that digital might have been at least a $75 million business in 2012. That figure and the 40 million copy figure for 2013 seem to coexist comfortably. Digital comics pricing varies from the Diamond's sales of print in that there are specials, subscriptions, and other kinds of package deals for older comics; we can't just multiply the 40 million copies by $3.64 (this month's average weighted price of new comics) to find a $145 million digital market. It is likely quite a bit less. And as retailer Brian Hibbs comments in the Comicsbeat thread, "I wouldn’t inherently assume that all of those “downloads” are paid downloads. Far, far from it." So we can't make a one-to-one dollar comparison, but now, at least, possible range begins to take shape. We have a dollar ceiling to discount from. We just don't know how deeply we need to cut.

It is important to make another point: before the 2-to-1 comparison accidentally morphs in anyone's mind into "one in three copies of a new comic is sold digitally," consider that Nelson's digital figure may include DC's entire digital backlist, however deep that is. It could instead be that "the rate of all digital copies sold is half the unit sales rate of brand new print comics in the Direct Market." Then, we're not comparing digital sales of the current Superman with print sales of the current Superman — but digital sales of all Superman comics put together with print sales of the current issue.

This is relevant because Diamond only floors copies of physical comic books for a short while after their initial month (and the Top 300 only captures first month releases in most circumstances) -- so the periodical list on the print side is a very limited subset of offerings. The data point about units finally gives us apples and apples, but I would expect the 2-to-1 thing is comparing a sack of selected just-from-the-tree apples versus a giant barrel including those apples and a whole bunch more. And add to that total things like DC's digital-only releases, that aren't yet available in print.

This is all back-of-the-envelope analysis, and requires some study by someone who's looked more deeply into digital market shares and prices paid. But while I suspect it will never be possible to draw an exact comparison between digital and print sales, but it does appear that digital is continuing to grow, and not, as far as we can tell, at the expense of print.

Update 6/17: As was pointed out to me, Comixology released two data points in a different Comicsbeat post (one that actually mentions me, which shows how infrequently I ego-surf, as I completely missed it). Comixology cited having reached its 50 millionth download in January 2012 and its 100 millionth in October 2012— which would put that service alone in the 60-70 million download range for last year, or five to six million a month by the end of the year.

The problem this introduces is that it makes a million downloads a month in 2013 from DC improbably low, given what we'd expect from its market share and the existence of other services. There are a couple of possible explanations: the million-a-month could have been a general figure, understating the case; or if the Comixology figure was a mix of paid and unpaid downloads, Nelson could have been referring to paid downloads only. I tend to think the reference was probably to paid downloads, but it'd help to have more specifics from all parties.

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