ComiXology announced on May 24, 2016 the deployment of a new unlimited plan for digital comic reading on its platform for $5.99 per month. Subscribers can now download a selection of comics from the largest North American publishers outside of DC and Marvel Comics. As well, readers can now read up to 50 comic books offline. This plan has been described by Comic Book Resources as an “evolution’ and by other pundits as ground-breaking and game-changing. But is ComiXology Unlimited good beneficial for the creators who make these comics?
There is no doubt that at $5.99, ComiXology Unlimited is a boon for comic readers. In fact, it seems to be aimed at fans of comic-based properties such as animation, gaming, and movies who have not yet jumped into the comic collecting realm. If you are a reader, this plan is great. Every month ComiXology will change the line-up included in its Unlimited offering. But if you are a comic creator, the story is murkier.
ComiXology’s plan is similar to other unlimited digital download plans such as Spotify (music), Netflix (film and television), and Amazon (books). ComiXology is also owned by Amazon. Each of Amazon’s branches have aggressive growth targets and it appears that ComiXology has not escaped this.
The unlimited plans at Spotify have notoriously alienated musicians and performers who did not wish to get reduced licensing revenues. Many authors have rebelled against Amazon’s subscription plan which focuses payment away from a per title model to one based on consumption. Amazon prefers that book writers get remunerated by the number of pages read by consumers as opposed to the each title bough individually by people.
It is easier for Amazon to pay fees using a consumption model rather than a per title remuneration. If a reader has read only five pages from a book and then abandoned it, the author gets paid for the five pages consumed. A per title model pays the author regardless of the reading practices of readers. Of course, Amazon is the one setting the metrics and confusing calculations for what constitutes consumption from a reader.
While ComiXology has not announced a similar per consumption payment scheme for comic creators publishing their works on their platform, the Unlimited plan’s continuing sustainability will probably have to involve a change from a per title remuneration to something else eventually.
Many of the comics sold through ComiXology Unlimited are based on licensed properties such as G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Attack on Titans and Serenity. If publishers have to take a loss to participate in ComiXology Unlimited you can bet that the license fees owed to the property owners whose work they license for their comics will not be reduced.
Publishers will either have to cut the fees paid to ComiXology, their share of the revenues, or pass the loss to their creators. Recently, we have observed a lot of cost-cutting in the creative aspect of comics done on the backs of letterers and colourists. Writers and artists frequently earn less than 10% of any revenue from the comics they create.
Image Comics whose creators all own their own work is the most perplexing case of a publisher participating in ComiXology Unlimited. Did Image Comics negotiate a wide-ranging plan for all creators publishing through ComiXology or will it be left to individual creators to decide what loss they absorb?
Many probably see ComiXology Unlimited as a loss-leader strategy for independent and larger comic publishers. This is how ComiXology markets this subscription plan. Get the readers inside the platform and then entice them to buy more expensive comics. The problem with this strategy is that with a rotating roster of comics every month, many subscribers will just get the cheap stuff and not explore the ComiXology platform and the many titles available.
The loss leaders pushed by marquee publishers may not even lead to direct sales. A probable risk is that ComiXology Unlimited will create a new baseline for what is an appropriate price for digital comics. Comics are already plagued with a lot of piracy. Digital comics already sell often for about one to three dollars. Will that price now seem prohibitive when readers can download a wide selection of comics every month for about double the price?