FIFTEEN THOUGHTS ON DIGITAL COMICS

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I am a cartoonist and an illustrator and a letterer; but before that I worked for 14 years at one of the largest/best comics shops in the country, Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find. I started as a lowly clerk, worked my way up to managing the shop, and eventually became one of the central organizers of its yearly comics convention, HeroesCon. In the meantime I did pretty much everything at one time or another, from ordering all the comics, to maintaining an extensive backstock of trades and hardcovers, to buying collections and pricing old comics, to running Magic and Pokemon tournaments, dealing extensively with kids, teenagers, young adults and old fogies, handling all the print and web advertising, doing all the design work associated with the store and convention…  and a lot of the time just plain-old running a register.

I don’t know everything there is to know about comics or comics retailing, and I’m often guilty of a certain tunnel vision in terms of the fact that other people approach things from very different directions than I do (the very idea!). But I’ve been thinking about digital comics lately. Here are 15 things I’ve been thinking:

1) We’re still at a point where most digital comics have a preceding print iteration, and are part of an existing print payment setup. Which means that:

2) The largest costs (printing/distribution/shipping of paper books) are not associated with the digital iteration, except in a foundational, past-tense sense. Most of the big questions associated with print don’t apply to digital: how many units can we afford to print? How many should we overprint to have on hand in case of higher-than-expected demand? How much risk do we bear if we overprint too much and end up warehousing or taking returns on stock? None of these questions apply to digital. The biggest cost associated with BOTH print and digital is:

3) Have the creators been adequately compensated for their work? This includes people doing the work on a specific comic (writing, drawing, editing, whatever), any licensing fees where applicable (Star Wars comics, for instance), royalties, residuals, and so forth. Which brings me to another question I don’t hear very much:

4) Are creators being paid across iterations for their work on comics that are being repurposed for digital distribution? If you get paid a certain page rate for print, are you paid again for a digital release? Or if the initial iteration is digital, how does payment work there? Because:

5) The main costs associated with a pure digital release, after paying the people involved for their work, are costs associated with digital distribution, app or other digital platform creation and maintenance, associated fees, and production work. Plus regular business infrastructure costs. But no printing/shipping/distribution costs, and no outsized risk per unit sold. Risk isn’t attached to a unit production number, but rather to the viability of the endeavor as a whole to make back an investment.

6) It’s hard to think of a reason why a successful $2.99 print comic, with its associated print costs, quantity plateaus, shipping costs, etc., should be $1.99 in its digital form. If the book is 6 months to a year old, and was even reasonably successful, then those costs have been paid. There are definitely still costs to distributing a digital version, but they’re not anything like printing 60,000 copies of a 32 page saddle-stitched comic you’re having shipping from Malaysia or Quebec or wherever.

And if the book is new, and has a print iteration, then it’s that print iteration that will bear the cost of the print infrastructure. Because the print buyer is getting… a print comic book. They’re getting a thing, something they can keep. The digital buyer is also getting a valuable thing, but it’s a whole different thing, something with different associated costs, and in the current setup often not something that’s keepable. More on that later.

7) 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. Why buy something for $2.99 when you can get it for $.99? Publishers and retailers are worried that the appearance of low cost competition for floppy comic books will destroy the existing comic market, in its current state and shape. And they’re probably right.

8) So the digital comic market has evolved in fits and starts, with the major publishers slow to catch up, and a few digital content providers appearing to fill in the cracks. With everyone trying to protect themselves from the same thing that happened with music after the rise of mp3′s and the iPod, the existing system seems wrapped around the idea of convincing people that paying nearly the same price for much, much less is the best thing for everybody. 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. You can pay $2.99 for a 22 page color print comic, read it multiple times, loan it to your friends, cut pages out and make a Psylocke collage if you like. Or perhaps it becomes collectible, like comics famously do, and you sell it in a few years for a profit or something like one.

Or you can pay $1.99 for a Comixology comic and get… permission to read it on your phone. Unless Comixology goes away, or its licensing arrangement with the content publisher changes, or there’s a problem at a data center, or you stop using Comixology.. well those comics are gone. Comixology is not the only digital distribution application, but it’s the largest, and most of the others are close to it in terms of what the user is actually getting, which is to say: not much.

9) It’s not that comics need to be collectible. It’s not even that comics need to be owned–just look at other digital industries. Users are used to–even prefer, in many cases–subscription-based systems that allow them access to a broad range of content, without owning anything. But digital culture, while not free, simply doesn’t have the same costs associated with it as print culture. Imagine if you used a service like Netflix, but instead of $8.99 a month, you paid a dollar for every tv episode you watched, and $1.99 for ever movie? Imagine if you used Spotify but were charged based on each track you listened to, rather than a periodic subscription fee. I’m not saying that those models won’t evolve one day–probably will, actually–but if you’re not going to get to keep something, if you’re only buying a license, then paying per episode just doesn’t make much sense.

10) It seems to me like a foregone conclusion that people are going to one day wake up and think “hey–why are _comics_ the most expensive media purchase I make each month?” Digital device culture is increasingly ubiquitous, and the idea that the comics industry can funnel its readership in a direction that’s somehow in the best interests of publishers, brick-and-mortar retailers, and digital distribution companies is… hard to swallow. This is driven home to me whenever the “day-and-date” question pops up. Essentially, “should digital comics be available the same day as their (presumably better? more important?) print version?” Because that question has nothing to do with users, and everything to do with print publishers and comic book shops. Here’s why:

11) Publishers have tricked themselves into thinking that digital comics–THEIR digital comics–are somehow competition for their own print comics. They’re the same comics! You made them, publishers! Surely any person on your staff under the age of 40 can see that hmmmm, maybe print is not the safest boat to float in, maybe digital is going to be big “one day”? Alter your business model and give room to both. Stop competing with yourself, and start competing with your competitors again.

12) 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 flies right in the face of market economics–surely history is littered with bankrupt companies who felt sure that people couldn’t live without their product. Does it make sense to think that somehow comic books are such an integral part of human life that the consumer-base has a responsiblity to protect brick-and-mortar shops by eschewing cheaper alternatives to paper comics?

13) Or does it make more sense to think that, as the market shifts, the retail community should shift as well? I posted some thoughts about what comics retailers are really good at, and what I think the future of the comics shops will look like, here on my Google+.

14) Because let me be clear: I think brick-and-mortar, retail comics shops provide an important, irreplaceable service, both to readers of comics, and to the communities those shops exist in and serve. There’s not a bone in my body that wants to see that go away. But that’s not the same as thinking that the larger self-serving consumer market is worried much about the effects that the aggregate of their purchasing decisions will have. It just seems crazy to wear blinders like that.

15) To sum up: the existing structure of digital comics distribution is insane. It’s based on fear, opportunism, and a recalcitrant belief that the digital culture isn’t going to change fundamentally again within the next 5-10 years. It’s grown out of a mess of publishers and retailers trying to control the decline of their industry, by telling users what it is they want, and gambling that they’ll continue to settle for less than what they’re already getting, while still paying a similar price.