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The headline on Darrell Etherington’s article says it all: “Comics Should Jump on the iOS Subscription Bandwagon.” His argument is a consumer-based one: He has the apps, but at $1 to $3 a pop, comics are too expensive a habit for him, so he proposes a subscription model that basically gives the reader a 50% discount for paying up front—$25 for 12 issues, say. Etherington thinks that would boost readership, but it could also carry some risks. For one thing, readers who are accustomed to getting print magazine subscriptions for $10 or less per year won’t find that price point attractive (although magazine subscriptions do seem to be more expensive on the iPad, so the price is getting pushed up anyway). And in an industry notorious for delays, 12 issues does not necessarily equal a year’s worth of comics. And for superhero comics (which I think is what Etherington is talking about here), following a single series won’t necessarily give the reader a satisfying experience. Dropping three dollars here and four bucks there for you weekly comics is one thing; lining up $200 worth of annual subscriptions (even though that includes a hefty discount) just to be able to follow the events in a fictional universe could prove to be a troubling reality check to some readers.
Etherington quotes Jesus Hates Zombies creator Stephen Lindsay, who divides the comics audience into three groups: “those inside the industry who buy comics to support one another, the casual reader, and the collector.” I’m impressed that he sees creators as a large enough group to merit a mention. Collectors will always want to have the physical comic, but Lindsay sees the casual readers as a potential market. I’m not sure how well that works with complicated superhero universes, because it takes us back to the problem of accessibility: How will the reader know which Thor comic, say, to subscribe to? I’m not sure it’s possible to be a “casual reader” of superhero comics any more. (For those who want to get on the bandwagon, though, I like the feature that the New Yorker magazine subscription has: Your subscription allows you access to back issues as well. That could be a real boon for new readers.)
On the other hand, creators of self-contained indie series who are good at promoting their work could do very well with this model. This is the sort of work that is mainly sold in comics shops but has very little appeal to the typical comics-shop customer; putting it out on the iPad could attract that larger audience that is more interested in the story or the subject matter than the medium. I’m thinking here about literary comics like Fun Home as well as comics that appeal to a narrow group of deep enthusiasts, such as comics about paintball or spelunking. This is really just taking the webcomics model to the next level, and adding a cost, but unlike internet users, iPad users have been trained to pay for their content from the beginning.
This sort of subscription is different from the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription, which allows access to all comics for a limited amount of time; this would be strictly limited to a year’s worth of a single title. It’s not clear to me what the status of your comics would be once the subscription ends; presumably you could download them and keep them, although downloading again might be a problem. That’s a much bigger issue for comics readers than the magazine audience, and one that would have to be clarified at the outset. But with the bumps ironed out, subscriptions might turn out to be a good deal for readers, who would get their comics at a discount, and creators and publishers, who would get paid up front for year’s worth of sales. So come on, comics innovators—bring it on!