Digital Comics Publisher Breaks Away From the Print Model by Heading Back to PrintMonkeyBrain Comics launched nine months ago, it bucked quite a few trends in the world of comic books with a line of exclusively digitally published comics that not only allowed creators to keep the rights to their content, but offered titles for half the cost — or less — of most mainstream digital comics. Now the publisher continues to break new ground, announcing exclusively to Wired that its line of digital titles will also be published in print format beginning this summer.
But since the print rights — indeed, all rights outside of digital publication — reside with the creators of each comic, Monkeybrain won’t be licensing out its entire line to one single publisher. The first MonkeyBrain print edition, a collection of the superhero titles Edison Rex by MonkeyBrain co-founder Chris Roberson and artist Dennis Culver, will be released by IDW Publishing in June. A month later, Image Comics/Shadowline will release the second print collection, Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson’s Masks and Mobsters, and the following month, IDW will put out the third collection, Adam P. Knave, DJ Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire’s Amelia Cole and The Unknown World.
According to co-founder Allison Baker, this sort of choose-your-own-print-publisher option makes sense, because they see MonkeyBrain as just “one piece of the publishing model. What we do is create a spotlight and a platform and a conduit for people to publish their work through us, then they can take that work and sell it again to a print publisher [or] any subsidiary as well. The investment capital doesn’t sit with any one entity, the risk doesn’t sit with one entity. The risk is less for every single person involved.”
MonkeyBrain has quickly established itself as one of the most interesting companies in the digital space not only because of its willingness to leave so much control in the hands of actual comics creators, but also its real-time exploration of what it means to publish digitally in a medium that is still finding its footing in the format. “We’re learning a lot of things about the psychology of the customer,” Roberson told Wired. “It’s different [from the print market].”
One of the most obvious differences has been the issue of price. Whereas new digital releases from big publishers like Marvel and DC Comics tend to mirror their print costs of 20 pages of content for $2.99 or even $3.99, MonkeyBrain prices its releases at far more reasonable rates: 99 cents for comics around 10 pages, and $1.99 for longer works in the range of 20 pages. Lower price points — enabled by the lower overhead of no printing costs — make the comics far friendlier to impulse buys.
But Baker says the differences they’ve discovered between print and digital also include the most fundamental ideas about how comic books sell. “The digital model is completely different than the [print comic book] direct market…. It’s almost backward.” Unlike print, where sales of print comics tend to decline over the run of a series after its issue no. 1 debut, she says, the numbers for digital comics actually go up. ”Say you have issue 5 of Edison Rex [coming out]…. You have a certain number [of sales] for the new issue, but that also spikes sales of the fourth issue, and no. 3, no. 2 and no. 1 in that month. Basically, people are finding the book for the first time because the new issue has come out.”
The key difference is that unlike print releases where earlier issues often sell out or become more difficult to find, digital makes “back issues” permanently available at the click of a button, allowing new readers to jump on and read the first issue of a series or storyline at any point.
“We don’t have that limited timeframe of the week or month of release to sell the material, or the limited timeframe of X number of weeks before sales reach a point where it’s no longer profitable,” Roberson says. ”The mindset that some people had had trouble getting past is [in print]…. There might be [collected edition royalties] later on, but otherwise, that month’s sales are it. What we’ve been trying to explain is the first month’s sales are the starting place. That issue will keep generating revenue potentially indefinitely. However small, it’ll add over time. If you add it up over time, it’ll all make sense.”
Baker agreed that digital lends itself more to a longer-term perspective on profitability. “The more issues go up [online], the more everything sells. You can’t look at it as you’ll make your money upfront, it’ll be trickling in over time, but it’ll be a steady stream. Eventually, it’ll become more and more every month.”
IDW’s director of e-publishing, Jeff Webber, told Wired that his company “is very supportive of creators testing the waters [in digital] … so a book is ready to go in print” with a more established online fanbase. “We’re finding that many readers buy the same comics in print and digital…. When they want something to save, they go for the collected print edition. But also keep in mind that less than 15 percent of the comics audience is digital, so bringing the MonkeyBrain titles to print is reaching a whole new group of readers.”
Baker and Roberson hope that the success of the print editions will mean more people will discover the MonkeyBrain titles, but haven’t lost their focus on the importance of original digital releases. Roberson believes that the lower costs involved in digital release allow for a greater variety of work than to flourish than the current print comics market can support. “Things that would die on the vine in print have a chance to find an audience [at MonkeyBrain] and then go back to print.”
“We’re able to go longer and let the books find people, and let people find the books.” said Baker. Overall, she says, it “helps everybody.”