DC Comic’s decision to go day and digital as part of their new 52 relaunch1 has sparked a lot of discussion about digital comics and the future of the comics industry. Brian Hibbs might not have fired the first shot, but his Tilting at Windmills column brought a lot of attention to the issue. Mr. Hibbs discusses how DC offered to provide traditional comic retailers the chance to sell digital comics through their own branded store fronts. Mr. Hibbs objected, however, to the terms imposed by DC’s digital partner comiXology. Mr. Hibbs largest objection arises from comiXology’s control of customer information combined with their rights to use individual store’s branding information. Ultimately, Mr. Hibbs feels that this deal would result in retailers being relegated to easily ejected middlemen:
“It is my wholly individual and independent belief that the contract we’ve been offered doesn’t even come close to the minimum standards that might be considered acceptable to the average retailer”
Mr. Hibbs also addresses the theory that digital comics are a way for the comics industry to tap into a larger audience
“I, for one, don’t really think there’s the incredibly massive audience out there that would be buying comics, oh, if only they didn’t have to leave their house to get them. “
With the DC relaunch now in full swing, some interesting trends are starting to developer. First, was a story on Comics Beat about comics apps on iPad. It pointed out that 3 of the top 5 grossing apps on the iPad were comics apps.2 Definitely not a bad way to start of the new digital era. Of course, there is still some doubt as to the digital sales numbers in comparison with the traditional print numbers. For instance IDW publishing recently claimed that only 3% of their sales were digital.
What can companies do to add to their digital sales for volume? Michael Gaudini recently called for a re-imagining of the comics industry from the bottom up. Things would start with moving away from the traditional 22 page story and moving to a format that took advantage of the new digital medium. In a recent panel I attended at HeroesCon, Darwyn Cooke talked about a project he was working on that would do just that. For example, if you’re reading the main story and you have interest in a particular supporting character, you could tap on that character to get biography information, side stories, some additional sketches, etc… Mr. Gaudini also suggested new models for purchasing the comics. Instead of what has become the industry standard “$ 1.99 per issue” model, comics could be sold on a subscription basis or in larger bundles.3 The most controversial part of Mr. Gaudini’s proposal is that he seems to think that the digital market should look for new creators who would work at lower wages than established comics creators do. I disagree with this suggestion. I find it hard to believe that the current crop of creators would have to take a price cut to succeed in the digital world.
Dustin Harbin, a comic creator and former employee of the Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find comic store in Charlotte, NC, worte an excellent piece about digital comics and comic creators. Mr. Harbin stressed that one of the more important things that must be addressed in any digital comic model is creators getting paid for the digital versions of their work. As someone who has studied contract law and copyright law, I have seen contracts that allow for digital replication of a work without compensation for the original creator. The comics industry must not attempt to go down that road.
The real strength of Mr. Harbin’s piece comes in his discussion of the print market versus the digital comics market. He addresses the common complaint that digital comics feel too expensive:
A big part of the reason that the digital iteration is so expensive is that the comics industry is terrified of devaluing the print iteration.
Retailers have convinced themselves that they have “rights” in the market somehow, that their place in “the industry” is so important that everyone had better tiptoe around them or by-god there will be trouble.
This analysis seems spot on. There appears to be a fear within the comics industry that an alienation of comics retailers will result in a collapse of the entire industry. It is for this reason that they protect retailers with prices on digital comics that match the prices on print comics. Additionally, it is why DC Comics is releasing their new issues at 2PM on release day instead of midnight.4 In a post on Google+, Mr. Harbin explains how a comic shop should view their value outside of any time or cost advantage they might have with their product:
What comics shops are good at is the EXPERIENCE of comics — not just browsing, looking through old comics or back issues, seeing what’s new week to week, but FINDING comics, discovering new work, being around other people interested in comics, actively engaging with a hobby or artform or just an afternoon distraction. The best comics shops seek to amplify this experience, create more unique value for their clienteles, and make themselves a destination, as opposed to simply another place to buy a thing
Existing comic shops can also take advantage of the current flaws in the digital comic purchasing model. Mr. Harbin explains it succinctly:
Digital comics apps like Comixology essentially sell a license to read a comic. It’s not a matter of DRM–you never own the comic. You just pay for the privilege to read it on your device.
At the moment, comiXology is far and away the leader in the digital comics market, so their model provides the most influence. Additionally, as DC Comics online partner, their lead will inevitably continue to grow. As people get accustomed to purchasing their comics in this manner, the idea of owning the book might become less of a concern. Other companies, however, are experimenting with other purchasing alternatives. IDW comics recently began selling comics through the iBookstore. They are utilizing the ePub’s new “fixed width” format to deliver collections. I purchased Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures as a trial of the service. The interface was a little strange. It did not have the zoom page-to-page or panel-panel-to-panel transition of the comiXology app. Instead, you were forced to to do a lot of manual zooming. On the hand, the book looks fantastic. Additionally, the entire book cost $5. This is $15 off the current price for the book at Amazon of $20.
My Digital Comics offers another alternative to the comiXology licensing model. They sell un-DRMed CBR files5 of the book at $1.99 a piece. When I first heard of this service, I thought the lack of DRM would mean it would be mostly small press publishers. I was surprised to see that both BOOM! Studios and Image Comics have a number of their top tiles in the store.6
Slave Labor Graphics has made what is probably the most radical move with regard to digital comics. They announced they were going digital only with their single issues. After the individual issues have been published in digital form, they will then be available as a printed collection. What is particularly interesting about Slave Labor Graphics’ digital effort is that they are going to offer un-DRMed PDF, ePub, and CBR files, as well as offer the comics through the various comiXology-like digital applications. I think this model has real potential for the future. People who prefer the convenience of the comiXology application can buy it there, while people who prefer to a more ownership-like model can purchase their digital files in PDF, ePub or CBR form.
Publishers producing their own un-DRMed files could also help solve some the problems Mr. Hibbs had with the existing DC Comics storefronts. Retailers could create their own web store fronts and populate them with the digital files they receive from publishers. The retailers could then have the control over the customer lists that they apparently do not have with the current comiXology store fronts. Unfortunately, the major comics publishers do not seem willing to make un-DRMed files available to retailers or consumers. My guess is they feel this will result in widespread piracy. Hopefully they can get over this fear before the comic retailers end up going the way of the local music stores.
Comics will go digital. It is inevitable. The question is will the publishers do it in such a way that current comics retailers will be allowed to tag along.
DC Comics has tried to shy away from the term “relaunch” with respect to their new 52. Their reluctance to use the term may stem from a fear of alienating long term readers. Despite that, I am going to use the term “relaunch” here for the sake of simplicity. ↩
The apps were all apps powered by comiXology, DC’s digital partner. They included Comics by comiXology (DC’s digital release partner), the Marvel comics app, and the DC Comics app. Obviously the Marvel app does not directly relate to the DC relaunch, however, one wonders whether there was a “halo effect” from people going onto the iPad to buy DC comics. ↩
For example, comiXology recently offered all 25 issues of the Warren Ellis series Planetary for $24.99. I had some interest in the series, and that bundled format was enough to get me to purchase the entire run. I am not talking about the collections that Marvel Comics is offering. These collections do not come with the type of discount that I think is necessary for a grouping of existing digital comics. In fact, I think they’re kind of a joke. ↩
Alex Zaiben recently wrote an excellent editorial about the 2PM DC Comics release and how ridiculous it is. ↩
A CBR file is simply a renamed RAR archive file. It simply contains a series of images, ordered by page number, of all the pages in the comic. It a popular format in the area of digital comics preservation and piracy. ↩
BOOM! Studios titles include: Codebreakers, Do Androids Dream of Eletric Sheep, Incorruptible, Irredeemable, and Starbon. Image tiles include: 27, Cowboy Ninja Viking, Green Wake, and Morning Glories. ↩