My Thoughts on Digital Comics

Filed in Opinion 5 comments

There has been a lot of talk about Digital Comics lately.  At least there was a lot of talk about it at the ComicsPRO meeting in Dallas.  Recently there was a poll on a retailer site about it.  I was going to go into a long answer there, but I figured it was better to get all of my thoughts and opinions out here and then link to it instead.  And just the other day, DC announced it was going with comiXology and Marvel is rumored to be going with iVerse/Diamond.

End of Times!

Every discussion I see of digital comics online starts off with this being the end of print comics.  Here is an example I read upon returning from Dallas.  And all of the commenters, “Yes, comics are dead.”  Analogies are made regarding the music industry and even the book industry.  Yes, I am sure that music downloads have hurt the music industry and digital books are all the rage.  But, I don’t think that comics are the same.  It is a different product.  It is a collectible.  Now, I definitely believe that there are far more readers than collectors now than there have been.  With the advent of the graphic novel, collecting story-lines has reduced the need to collect the actual issues in order to read the story.  And the internet has eliminated the need to read the issues to find out what happened.  But, the collector mentality is still out there.  And I don’t mean that in a bad way.  There is a natural tendency to want to have things.  Will this translate into the future, with kids who are just now starting to read comics?  I can’t answer that, but I know kids now still like to have things, if Pokemon cards are any measure for me.

Lack of Good Stores

A big part of the rational for the death of comics, by these commenters, is that they don’t have a store near them or that their local store sucks.  Well, there’s really nothing I can do about that.  And for those people, maybe digital is the way to go.  But I have to think that there is a better way for most.  There have been places to get books via mail-order for as long as I’ve been collecting.  Sure they are a bit more problematic in that you have to order stuff ahead of time, but now you know how I feel.  There is really not much I can do about bad stores, but I’m sure that some of those “bad” stores, simply don’t carry everything that those commenters want to look at.  I carry as much stuff as I possibly can, but I am sure people leave the store not getting what they are looking for.  I have signs everywhere saying to please ask if you don’t see what you are looking for.  But, I am sure many people don’t ask.  Does that make me a “bad” store because I don’t have something.  I hope not.  I hope most people know that I will try to get anything you are looking for.  But, that still wouldn’t stop someone from going online and saying I don’t have anything good.  It is very easy to complain vocally and vociferously online, when all you are known by is Thor1988.  It’s easy to proclaim that an entire form of entertainment is going away simply because that is what you think or want. I think that the Powers That Be have learned not to listen to the vocal minority on the internet.

My Understanding of the Digital Market

So, people reading comics on their phones, computers and iPads are going to put me out of business.  “Print is dead” I keep reading.  Look at what is happening to newspapers and magazines.  Amazon sells more digital books than print books.  Look at Borders.  Here are my completely personal and unscientific answers.

As it stands right now, with the big players in the market, you don’t actually download anything to your computer.  You pay for the privilege of reading the files on your device.  You can’t create a folder on your iPad and store all of those books.  You can’t send one to a buddy to read.  You don’t “have” anything.  I see that being a problem for people.  How much are you willing to pay just to read something?  That, I think, is one of the bigger problems that the market faces.  When you buy an actual comic, you have something.  You can read it again.  You can lend it to a buddy.  You can file it away.  You can sell it.  You have options.  Now maybe you don’t want any of that.  Fine.  “I am tired of boxes of stuff filling up my basement.”  OK.  But, you still need value for your money.  I read where people say that .99 is the perfect price point for digital comics.  But what if that price point doesn’t work for the publishers?  How many will they need to sell to cover all of their fixed costs in creating the books?  I don’t think it is a simple as just removing printing and distribution costs.  Apple takes a pretty big cut and getting away from Apple’s marketing system adds publicity costs.  And we order the books non-returnable, so as soon as the orders are placed (2+ months before they ship), the publishers know exactly how much they will make.  Not so with digital.

Personally, I don’t like reading comics on my computer.  I do it for my Marvel previews.  I find it functional, but that’s about it.  You really can’t look at the page and take it all in.  You click an arrow and move from panel to panel.  It backs out every once in a while to get a full page shot, but then you are back in to read the dialogue.  I’m sure it works better on the iPad, due to the shape, but it is still not the same as having the page in front of you.  I keep seeing books like Cowboy Ninja Viking and Iron Siege that are larger formats.  And Stuff of Legend and Mouse Guard that are odd sized.  That is something that is lost in a fixed format.  At the ComicsPRO meeting in Dallas, Todd McFarlane said that if he was going to draw a comic that was meant to be read on a phone, he’d draw each panel shaped to fit on the phone.  But no one has done that yet.  Why?  Maybe because artists like the freedom of the page to tell their story.  The first thing you lose with digital is the double page spread.  Now, I don’t fell it is a vital part of comics and it is sometimes overused, but I doubt artists would like to have their storytelling limited by format.

I completely understand the flexibility that being able to read on a portable device adds.  I understand why so many books are being downloaded and read that way.  It is convenient.  If I traveled more, or even had a long commute (where I wasn’t driving) I’m sure I would have that type of device.  But I still don’t know if I’d read my comics that way.  Someone said that Borders problem may have been that they didn’t get into digital like Barnes & Noble did with the Nook, and that may be.  But I have a feeling that there was a lot more involved with the downfall of Borders than that.  While I am sure that Amazon took a lot of their customers, I don’t think that is the whole answer either.  Heck, libraries have been around forever and they are free.  One problem may have been the ridiculous deep discounting that they (and Barnes & Noble) do on new releases.  Why cut your profits to the bone (40% Off!) on new release best sellers?  When I go into a book store, it’s because I want that book today.  If I get a big discount great, but its no the reason I am there.  There is a reason I don’t discount my new comics when I have a sale.  They are my bread and butter.  They pay the rent.  I’d be out of business in a couple months if all new releases were discounted like they do.

Newspapers and magazine are more a victim of the internet than being converted to digital.  I can go ESPN right now and read a complete recap of tonight’s Pens game.  I can hit CNN to see all for the big news items I need to know. Weather.com will tell me all I need to know about that.  I have to go online now to get movie times.  Now, I still do get a daily newspaper, but it is only for the Sunday paper ads and I think we get the weekly copies for free, just so they can have a greater circulation to bill advertisers.  Magazines are hit the same way.  I can find most of the stuff I am interested in online.  Heck, with Facebook, most of the news sites I visit put the new articles right in my news feed, so it couldn’t be easier to know.  Now, there is still a place for niche magazines.  But I think they all need to kind of reinvent (and reprice) themselves to make them more attractive.

But no one is collecting Time or Newsweek.  People still collect comics.  People still like to have them.  My “collecting” bug was killed the moment I opened the store, but that was when my collection became an inventory.  I would rather sell a comic than collect it.  But there are still 2 books that I set a side for myself, mostly because I have full runs and I don’t see a reason to end them.  I had a book I had been wanting my whole life come in and I sold it 2 days later.

Digital Comics and Comic Stores

Scott Wegener of Atomic Robo tweeted this the other day:

Scott Wegener 

@Scott_Wegna Scott Wegener
@pvponline This is my understanding of the whole digital/retailer mash-up thing: http://flic.kr/p/7CapEn
and, sadly, I kind of agree.  They really haven’t figured out a functional way to make it work.  And, in reality, I don’t know if they really can.

So, how do I fit in?  How can I get a piece of the digital market?  People far smarter than I are working on that right now.  But the funny thing is that, while they want to mean well, what they really want is for me to be their salesman.  People talk of growing the market, but all of the advertising I hear of is through the usual comic sites.  That is not growing the market.  That is poaching the market.  Growing the market would be bringing in NEW customers.  We had a nice talk with Dark Horse about their digital initiative that was on the comic sites proclaiming their digital comics to be “Affordable”.  Luckily, they sales guy squashed that pretty quickly, but we did let him know we were not pleased.  While they may be cheaper, labeling them as affordable kind of implies that the print versions are “Expensive”.  Since they set the price of their product, is that really the message that they want to be sending?

Sorry, off on a bit of a tangent there.  Basically, there are 2 plans for including comic book stores in the digital world.  ComiXology, adds a link to my website that you can buy the digital comics through.  iVerse/Diamond does the sames thing, but also allows me to sell codes for downloads of the books for a month or so before that can be downloaded otherwise.  OK.  I understand what they are trying to do.  It is really the only way for me to be involved.  But here are my general problems with it:

1.  Why would anyone come into my store to by a digital copy of something that is on the shelf?  Now, maybe if I am sold out and can’t get more and that is the only way to read it.  OK, I can see that.  Or they don’t want to wait until I get more.  But, in reality, how many will that be.  iVerse also has a buy the book and then get the digital copy thing.  They liken it to a digital copy with a BluRay DVD.  But I don’t really see the correlation.  If people think that comics are already too expensive, why are you going to want to add more to that price?

But, just looking at it in real life, I don’t see the benefit to me.  Bob comes in and instead of buying his usual X-Men, he buys the code for it.  Well, I have made less selling the digital copy than I would have selling the comic.  And now I will have an extra copy of that comic.  So selling that digital comic actually cost me money.  I don’t see a win for me here.

2.  Why would someone buy a digital comic through my website?  While it may be convenient, I am 100% sure that some big online retailer is going to step up big on this.  They will promote and advertise and discount and get the bulk of that business.  There is no way that I, as an online dabbler, will be able to keep pace with some store that jumps in big.  The distributors get their cut off the top.  We can set the price at whatever we want, but our margin isn’t much.  Then add in the fact that every transaction is going to be credit card based, with resulting credit card fees or PayPal fees, and that cut gets even smaller.  Someone buying just one digital comic may actually cost me money.  That is something I am going to have to look into.

3.  Why would I want to introduce my customers to something like this?  It would be like going into Blockbuster (for lack of another company) to rent a DVD and being told that they are out, but if they go to Netflix they can stream unlimited for a small monthly amount.  They may get a cut of that initial sign-up, but why would the customer go back to their store for something that they can get right at home cheaper and easier?  Why would I want to put the gun  that is supposed to be taking me down right in the hand of my customer to shoot me with?

iVerse/Diamond had a big presentation about “added value” of selling digital comics.  Let me give you my position.  Maybe you can show me where I am wrong in my thinking.  Here is the scenario.  I get 33% of the cut of the digital comic.  They promote that as pretty darn good considering I have zero inventory costs.  Well, sure, if you look at it that way.  Let’s say I sell 100 of the digital copies to customers in a week.  But how many people would I have to offer them to and tell about it to get those 100 sales?  I am betting a lot.  A whole lot of time spent talking about it.  And I make $33.  Take out the cost of the labels I have to print up that have the code on it and I net, what, $20?  That doesn’t really sound that attractive to me.  Not much benefit for the work involved.

Lets take it a step further.  Lets say I get really good at selling them and sell a combination of $1000 worth of both digital copies and digital comics.  So I make $330.  but I probably have additional unsold inventory because of it.  On top of that, what if just one regular customer decides that he really like this digital format.  He gets, or already has, an iPad.  He decides that that is the way he now wants to read comics.  So, he stays at home and just downloads them.  So I lose his business in the store.  And, without the personal connection, there is no real reason for him to shop via my website.  He find the best discounter and buys direct from them.  Is it worth $330 to lose a customer?  That is my biggest concern with digital. Why would I promote something that may cost me customers?  And, even if I am successful, will it be worth the effort financially?

Conclusion

I really don’t know any more than anyone else right now.  For digital to work, it needs to bring new readers, lost readers, or something new to the party.  Simply trying to turn my comic buying customers into digital customers won’t help the market.  And that is what will kill comics in the long run.  I do my job pretty well.  I carry a wide variety of stuff.  I guarantee that most of my customers have bought something that they had never heard of or seen before because 1) I recommended it, 2) I had it well displayed, or 3) I just had it on the shelf.  They could pick it up and flip through it.  They could touch it.

When anyone who has the ability to upload can have a digital comic out there, suddenly its a very crowded field.  How do you, as the comic downloader, know whats good or fresh or hot?  How much time are you willing to spend downloading random previews to find something good?  If the small guys think that it is hard to get themselves known now, I see it being even harder in the future.  While it is great for the little guy to be able to get their stuff out there without the financial impediment of actually printing a book, I see the potential for that to be a problem as well.

The other negative is the Breaking of the Cycle.  Bill has been collecting Captain America since he was 12.  Every month he comes in to get his Captain America and looks at other stuff.  He’s stuck with it through all of the good and the bad.  But, now he can only get it digitally.  Joe Quesada said a while back that he didn’t foresee print comics in 10 years.  So, the publishers are thinking about this as the answer.  Now its not a thing.  Its just reading a story.  Now, if Bill doesn’t read the new one, it doesn’t matter.  He wasn’t enjoying it anyway.  The cycle of getting the new issue has been broken.  And he wanders away from the hobby.  Who wins?  Trust me, comic readers are creatures of habit.  They come every week to get the new stuff.  They look around.  I don’t understand why the commenters are rejoicing in the possibility of this ending.  Yes, I have invested heavily in print books, so I am biased.  I just don’t see people enjoying comics as much if it just becomes something you read on a computer screen.  And once the enjoyment is gone, it becomes something easy to give up.  And then it just goes away.  For everybody.

Update:

I just read an article on comicbookresources.com where IDW is making all of the Doctor Who comics available digitally.  Now this is a perfect example of the right way to do things.  The books do not sell well for me, but there is certainly a HUGE market for this material that the comic shops probably can’t reach.  This is something that can drive readers into the stores to get the graphic novels and future issues.  And I do also see a large benefit to having older issues available.

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Posted by pghcomics   @   March 19, 2011 5 comments

5 Comments

  • Donnie

    Snobbery? I see nothing wrong with standing by a store and my favorite weekly purchase. I suppose choosing a classic car over a 2011 model or those who enjoy the quality of vinyl over cds or mp3s are guilty of snobbery as well. Not every single thing in life needs streamlined. Because I download music and movies must I also conform to every other electronic format? A few years ago I purchased a disc with every Spider-man from 1 to somewhere in the 500s which I have to imagine is similar to a digital comic. I then spent the better part of a summer reading all issues I didn’t own. Say what you will but it was no where near the same experience staring at it on a screen. I would gladly pay the extra few bucks for the enjoyment even if I were the only one still supporting that format. Rest assured though on my way out of the store I’ll do my best not to bump into anyone’s ivory tower. I wouldn’t want any e-books falling on my head from that height.

  • http://www.comicplanetindustries.com Brian

    Level of snobbery from the commentors noted. Anyone who dismisses digital comics/books immediately out of hand is not living in reality.
    Colin, I think you’re dead-on with pretty much all of your analysis, but I think you’re also overlooking a big factor: piracy. The bulk of the people who are buying digital comics are doing so because they are already used to digital comics from the ~6 years of major comics piracy on the internet. What everyone seems to be overlooking is that the main selling point on switching to eComics is the possibility of getting them for free via piracy. Once you factor that in, a lot of the arguments against digital comics (which I understand you weren’t necessarily making) fall aside. The current options publishers are pursuing will never be as successful for digital comics, leaving the collectibility issue of paper comics an unassailable benefit.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/only_taciturn/ Finch

    I was wondering for days where that spike in traffic came from on twitter. Thank you.

  • Chuck

    SCREW DIGITAL!

  • Donnie

    Wouldn’t ever buy a Kindle or other e-book reader. I like holding the book (or perhaps because it gives me the appearance of looking somewhat intelligent). Likewise I wouldn’t ever buy a digital comic. It’s not the same as holding it in your hands.

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