DC Comics: caught in the middle of the tablet wars

Barnes and Noble's decision to pull graphic novels by DC Comics from their stores is the latest salvo in a showdown between the two book giants.

'Watchmen' will be offered digitally for the first time on Amazon's Kindle Fire, but comic book fans will be unable to buy a paper copy through Barnes and Noble stores unless they special order it.

Superheroes may have a tough time saving the day on this one: They’ve gotten caught in the middle of a publishing spat as Amazon and Barnes and Noble fight over the ability to sell e-books.

The struggle began when it was announced – shortly after the Kindle Fire made its public debut – that Amazon had secured the exclusive rights to sell e-book versions of 100 of DC Comics’ most popular graphic novels, including “Watchmen,” which has never been converted into digital format before now, and some of the most revered installments of their "Superman" and "Batman" series. Amazon said these versions would be available exclusively on the Kindle Fire – although DC Entertainment has since stated the graphic novels will also be available through the Kindle app, which can be downloaded onto devices such as the iPad.

But Barnes and Noble wasn’t happy and removed the paper copies of the graphic novels in question from their stores, saying they wouldn’t sell any versions of the popular graphic novels if they weren’t allowed to sell the digital versions as well. (The paper versions of the novels will still be offered through the Barnes & Noble website as well as available for special order at any B&N bookstore). Bookseller Books-A-Million followed suit last week.

“Our policy is that we won't stock physical books in our stores unless we're offered the content in all formats," Jaime Carey, Barnes and Noble's chief merchant, told the Wall Street Journal. "We want to maintain a premiere customer experience.”

Barnes and Noble is rumored to be introducing a Nook tablet device later this month.

“We are disappointed that Barnes & Noble has made the decision to remove these books off their shelves and make them unavailable to their customers,” DC Entertainment said in a statement.

The stance of Books-A-Million was similar to that of Barnes and Noble in a statement released by president Terry Finley.

“We will not promote titles in our stores showrooms if publishers choose to pursue these exclusive arrangements that create an uneven playing field in the marketplace,” Finley said.

The moves by Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million are the latest developments in a backlash that occurred after it was announced the graphic novels would only be available digitally via Amazon, which angered many comic book fans. But the Los Angeles Times is reporting that the deal for the novels to be available exclusively through Amazon is only slated to last four months under the current contract between the two businesses. Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, did not give this specific date in an interview with the New York Times but said that the graphic novels will be available on other devices eventually and urged fans to be patient.

“Just because we’re starting with Amazon, this is not the be-all and end-all of our digital strategy and distribution,” Lee said.

Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.

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