The Justice Department has at last filed an anti-trust complaint in New York against Apple and five publishers over an alleged price fixing conspiracy. The decision to sue comes after weeks of media leaks that suggested the government was trying to pressure the parties into a settlement.
The issue turns on whether five publishers colluded with Apple to implement “agency pricing” in which the publishers set a price and the retailer takes a commission.
The heart of the allegations turn on whether Apple acted as the hub of a conspiracy in which the publishers sought to freeze Amazon out of the e-book market unless it changed its pricing structure. Amazon had been using a wholesale model in which it bought books from the publishers and then charged what it liked.
Amazon often sold the e-books below cost in order to build market share and, in doing so, publishers believed it was setting an artificially low floor for prices.
The relevant question, of course, is: if agency pricing for e-books is found to be illegal, how long will the same price point hold for digital versions of comic books? Or does it not matter because DC, Marvel, et al are licensing their books to Comixology and Graphicly, which could be construed as a much stronger form of agency?
Needless to say, we’ll be watching this case with great interest.
And the other shoe drops…
Marvel is taking its entire line of comics “day-and-date” digitally, meaning you’ll be able to download all of the company’s comics on the its mobile app just as soon as they’re available in physical stores. That polishes off one of the few downsides to digital comics: Having to wait for the latest and greatest.
The line-wide rollout will be finished by the end of March, 2012, and unlike DC’s 52-title relaunch, day-and-date will be coming to individual titles on a staggered basis, mostly to coincide with new story arcs. The move covers all of Marvel’s comics except third-party licensed works—like the Stephen King The Stand books—and its sex-and-violence-riddled MAX imprint.
Well, it certainly hasn’t hurt DC any. And considering that Apple is still heavily invested in Disney/Marvel, it was inevitably going to happen, it was just a question of timing.
But again, I have to repeat: we still don’t know what digital sales figures for comics are like. And until we know that, we can’t tell if it’s working, if it’s helping or hurting comics stores, and so on. Data, people… we need data.
With e-books now making up about 20 percent of sales for many big publishers, it’s essential for bestseller lists to include them in order to give an accurate picture of what is selling. The Wall Street Journal will start running e-book bestseller lists starting this weekend, following a move by the New York Times earlier this year and USA Today in 2009. But there is something unique about the WSJ‘s e-book lists: They are powered by Nielsen BookScan, which has not publicly tracked e-book sales until now. Nielsen BookScan tracks print book sales, and is believed to cover about 75 percent of hardcover and paperback sales. The company had said earlier this year that it would begin tracking e-book sales at some point.
The WSJ is running four lists: “Combined e-book and physical sales for fiction and nonfiction, and e-sales only for fiction and nonfiction. Eligible releases will include self-published books, children’s books and ‘perennials,’ older works that continue to sell strongly.”
So in a very short time, BookScan will have data on electronic sales. The next question: will E-Comics sales be included in Bookscan numbers? If so, when? Will it include individual pamphlet sales, or will it only be for graphic novels? And will Comixology and Graphicly share their data with Bookscan? (Can they? Comixology has already said that various non-disclosure agreements are in place with publishers that have prevented them from releasing sales figures.)
This has been one of the biggest blind spots in the comics industry in the last year— with all of the digital initiatives that have been undertaken, we have no idea how they’ve been selling or changing the marketplace in general. If we’re going to have any idea where the comics medium is heading, we need this data.