Dark Horse Circumvents iTunes, Plans to Sell Direct

Dark Horse Digital Publishing

Digital comics were one of the primary topics of discussion at this year’s NY Comic-Con, with the iPad in the spotlight and a variety of publishers and technology intermediaries offering up new announcements and intriguing bits of data, but the most interesting news arguably came from Dark Horse Comics.

Best-known for publishing high-profile licensed comics (including Star Wars, Conan and Mass Effect), Frank Miller’s 300 and Sin City and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and for ahead-of-the-curve approaches to digital media, Dark Horse’s VP of Marketing, Micha Hershman, announced their latest initiative as “the most ambitious, most exciting digital comics program on the market.”

Launching in January 2011 with over 130 individual issues and “several dozen collections,” Dark Horse Digital Publishing will be a proprietary, web-based platform accessible via any device with a browser (but not Kindles, Nooks, or Kobos), as well as via proprietary apps for iOS, Android and others to follow. Their ecommerce model will be “very similar to the Kindle experience and as seamless as possible for the user,” with a Dark Horse-branded app replacing their title-specific apps (400,000+ downloads to-date), and an online store where comics can be purchased, downloaded and synced wherever they’re being read. Existing standalone apps will be upgraded and those comics migrated into users’ accounts in the new store.

Hershman noted that selling direct gives them full control and flexibility on pricing and availability of their content:

We don’t have to submit our comics for approval, and no licensing fees to Apple means we can pay our creators more while offering readers lower prices.”

Dark Horse’s digital comics will be $1.49/issue (vs. Marvel & DC’s $1.99 via comiXology) and they plan to sell collections from $2.99-$5.99.

The Umbrella Academy

Titles available at launch will include Hellboy, BPRD, Serenity, Fray, Mass Effect, The Guild, Conan, Grendel, Dr. Horrible, The Goon, The Umbrella Academy, and Creepy, featuring a mix of “new comics and backlist” and a “low-end estimate” of an average of 20 books added to the store each month.

Dark Horse’s digital comics will be in a “proprietary format, but our DRM will entail flexible allowances for viewing your purchased content on any supported client, as well as on the web.”

When asked about piracy concerns, Hershman said: “We’re having the same experiences that many other comics publishers are having: some obvious piracy, an unclear impact to sales and plenty of frustration. I anticipate that we – and most other publishers – will continue having the same experiences as platforms and technologies change.” He also noted that there would be “no sharing functionality at launch.”

Feedback to-date has been “warm and receptive,” most notably from tech observers impressed by Dark Horse’s plan to circumvent iTunes and sell direct: “They’re looking for innovation which doesn’t come in a monopoly.”

Hershman added: “It’s undeniable to say that the ability to reach a broader audience will also impact our acquisition approach.”

The announcement also included a bit of a cliffhanger, as Hershman teased an angle for brick-and-mortar retailers that would be part of the new initiative, but didn’t offer any details. Beyond integrating the Comics Locator Service into their apps, he said they also plan to offer “the most compelling retailer features available, including exclusives” that they would make “simple for the retailer” to implement.

They will also take a reverse approach to “enhanced” ebooks, selling inexpensive digital collections that only include the primary story, while the print collections will feature exclusive premium content and extras.

“We see digital comic books as a revenue generator, but also as a way to introduce new readers to our comics,” Hershman said.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, and a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.

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