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Will Comics Go Digital-First as Print Publishing Pauses?

Publishers are under pressure to break with tradition amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Graeme McMillan
Publishers are under pressure to break with tradition amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For the first time in the comic book industry's more than 80-year history, there will be no new print comics debuting as of April 1. But will comics continue on digitally? That's the question publishers, creators and readers are asking as the novel coronavirus grinds the comic book industry to a standstill.

Traditionally, most comic books in North America are released simultaneously in print and in digital format for the same price, with digital getting a lower price point a few weeks after publication. The notion of selling digital releases ahead of the print release or at a lower price point has been portrayed as undercutting print comic sales and alienating comic book retailers, who brought in an estimated $516 million annually in 2018, compared with digital's $100 million (not accounting for subscription services such as Marvel Unlimited or DC Universe).

Angering retailers has been one reason publishers have avoided giving digital priority. But with the print market on pause, publishers are left to consider whether releasing digital comics as originally scheduled next week, and if bringing them out ahead of their print counterparts was worth the hassle. On the one hand, it would allow fans the chance to read material on the release schedule initially announced, but on the other, doing so would devalue the print editions when they eventually arrive — everyone will know what happens in the stories — and potentially anger the retailers behind publishers’ primary market. What to do?

When contacted by The Hollywood Reporter, spokespeople for Image Comics, IDW Publishing, Oni Press and Dark Horse Comics all confirmed that no new releases would be available through ComiXology — the top digital distributor — during the period when print releases are not being distributed by Diamond Distributors, the company that publishers use to distribute physical books.

Marvel Entertainment and DC declined to comment on their plans. Sources close to Marvel have suggested that the publisher might offer a limited number of releases digitally, but that it didn’t intend to release the full range of material originally planned for April 1.

Other publishers have not responded to requests for comment as of this writing.

While ComiXology has not released any kind of public statement about the matter, it’s understood that the matter of digital scheduling is made by individual publishers.

Complicating matters is the question of what a total publishing shutdown — print and digital — would mean for the industry. With print comics temporarily on hold, digital publication may offer creators and publishers their only outlet — and only income — for an as-yet-uncertain period.

In that case, how long will the industry be able to refrain from transitioning to a digital-only, or at least, digital-first, publication model? And, should that step be taken, what happens when print publication resumes?

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