Comic book industry shouldn’t wait much longer to embrace digital age
My wedding was a deadline, a fixed date by which I had to clean up my act. I had meant to organize my comic books, sort them by title and release date, and find a way to properly store them, but the task was always too easy to put off. My apartment and its storage area was big enough that, as a single man, I had no real need to apply the effort to deal with the ever increasing pile of bagged and boarded comics that were accumulating in long boxes stashed in my clothes closet, and I was immune to my then girlfriend’s repeated suggestions that I find some way to clean up. Yet moving another person into the apartment, and the accompanying furniture, cats, and belongings that came with her, meant that my closet could no longer act as a comic book staging area. My storage area could no longer hold even more boxes filled with back issues and trade paperbacks.
Staring at a living-room strewn with comic books I became a convert to a possible future where I can buy all of my comics digitally. Unlike with music, where I welcomed iTunes as a way to avoid having to shop at big box stores or deal with snide indie hipsters at the local record shop, I like the experience of buying comics on a weekly basis. Even when I lived in Kelowna and had to make an hour and a half round-trip drive to Vernon to find a decent store to buy comics, it was part of a ritual. It’s a centre-piece of a day, and yet as I stared at a physical representation of just how much of my money was in the hands of comic writer Brian Michael Bendis, I was ready to give up the ritual just as I eventually sold off my trade paperbacks and got rid of my long boxes full of back issues. I was even tempted to make a video imploring Marvel, whose books make up most of my regular reading list, to make the move to digital distribution. I didn’t because a video of a chubby man with a squeaky voice complaining about comics seemed like something more likely to go viral as a target of mocking, than it was likely to start a real movement for digital comics.
The problem is that, as much as I and other comic book readers might want to buy all their comics digitally, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The issue isn’t a technical one. There’s nothing more complicated transferring a comic book digitally than there is downloading a song. Many artists are creating comics digitally, and it’s only when they go to print that they’re anything other than a computer file. The trouble is, as I explored in an article last month, that moving to a digital model is a very risky move for most publishers. While it’s one thing to sell back issues that have already been sold as paper comics and then as trade paperback books, it’s another thing to start cutting into the weekly comic market. While the example most people in the comics industry use when talking about a digital future seems to be what happened in the music industry, it’s important to note that the parallels aren’t entirely, well, parallel.
Pre-iTunes music was sold through dedicated music stores like HMV, but was increasingly being sold through retailers who were using cheap CDs as a way of driving customers to the store to sell them something more expensive like a home stereo, a video game system, or speaker cable. Future Shop, A&B Sound, and other big chains were already in the process of undercutting dedicated record stores. Wal-Mart was America’s biggest music retailer, which was one reason such a hue and cry was unleashed every time that the chain decided to ban a record from their shelves. However, there were still several distribution channels, from the big box stores to dedicated record stores to the smaller independent specialty stores like Zulu Records. Most cities had dozens of record stores, and the loss of a handful of those was not the death-knell of the music industry. Granted there were some big chains that went under, such as Tower Records in the United States and Sam the Record Man here in Canada, but while music sales have continued to fall Bono has not had to sell off his sunglasses collection and the Beatles can still print money by releasing the same songs in a new collector set.
Apart from a secondary market in bookstores like Chapters, where comic books are collected and sold as deluxe hardcovers or trade paperbacks after their story has hit the stands, comics have really only one method of reaching customers currently and that’s through the direct market. The days of comics being sold in grocery stores and gas stations on spinner racks is mostly gone, with the notable exception of Archie comics, and to buy a comic these days you generally need to go to a comic book store. For their part, comic book stores generally only deal with one supplier, Diamond Comic Distributors, which after a long and complicated clash with rival companies during the tail end of the 1990s is the only way for stores to get products from the major comic book publishers.
During my interview with Ethan Peacock, the Elfsar Comics & Toys owner pointed out one drawback of dealing with a single powerful distributor like Diamond. “The direction I think they need to go is that comics, in the paper format, should be made returnable,” Peacock said when asked what could be done to help stores weather the upcoming digital storm. Right now if a store orders 200 copies of a comic issue, they’re keeping all those copies even if they do not sell. That generally means they become back issues, sold to people who want to fill in gaps in their collections. However with digital comics already cutting into back issue sales, following collected trades doing the same, Peacock was not sure that there was even going to be a market for back issues. While large bookstore chains like Chapters can return unsold books, the small independent comic retailers are not able to thus leaving them at a disadvantage.
The major applicable lesson from the music industry is not to wait too long before moving toward digital. Record labels grossly misjudged where music sales were going to be going, and spent more time fighting illegal downloads from Napster than they did in finding a way to sell music on-line. It took Apple and iTunes to finally drag the major labels into the digital age, and the record labels continue to manage to cripple new music services and potential revenue streams by forcing draconian digital-rights management software into services that don’t have the clout of an Apple or Amazon.com behind them.
Eventually though, the comic industry needs to decide whether or not it’s in the business of selling paper, or selling illustrated sequential stories.
The trouble is, if the comics industry waits, it might find that people get out of the habit of paying for comics. Peacock noted that many of Elfsar’s regular customers illegally download their comics, coming into the store only to buy the ones they like after reading. Implementing a digital solution to compete with free illegal downloads is what needs to be done, as Filip Sablik, publisher of Top Cow Productions, admitted. “Let’s be honest: the real digital price point on the Internet is free, so we’re already trying to work our way up from free to 99 cents or $1.99 for a download, so as a publisher, even when you’re cutting out the actual print cost of sending a book to press, there’s a smaller margin to be made digitally,” he said in my telephone interview with him, explaining that working out the pricing was still an issue for most companies.
One of those solutions is Graphic.ly, which was featured in the article. Currently Graphic.ly does not allow users to import comics they may have from other sources, the idea being that with the rare exception of a user actually scanning in their own collection most digital comics are current illegal. Graphic.ly CEO Micah Baldwin pointed out, “If you go and download a comic off a torrent site, it is illegal, and publishers don’t really like the fact that they exist. And some of them are emphatic about having us help them police the fact that their comics are showing up on torrents. The question is do we allow people to upload comics which they potentially have gotten illegally into the system and piss off publishers who are one of our constituencies, or do we take a very hardline stance and say, ”˜You can’t upload comics that you may have downloaded illegally into the system, because we can’t tell whether they’re illegal or not.’ It’s the same argument as MP3s. If I own a CD, I can rip that CD and put it into iTunes but it’s really difficult to know whether I actually downloaded that off a BitTorrent site. We are hoping to come to a resolution to that pretty quickly, so that anyone who has digitized their own library to upload that into the system can read it with some less functionality.”
What Baldwin does want to see though is open standards that would allow digital comics to be read on any of the number of different comics readers. In our interview, he pointed out that Graphic.ly was pushing for open standards, hoping that it would help the industry as a whole. “There is no open standard around digital comics, so one of the efforts that we’re pushing forward is actively looking at talking to the other digital comics companies and create an open standard. We shouldn’t stop people from enjoying their comics in whatever platform they want. Our job should be to create the best platform possible so that people can choose the one that they like the best. So we’re actively engaging in coming up with what we think an open standard might look like. And the nice thing is that if we do it right, and we can get the publishers to embrace it, it manages to open up a lot of other things. So we can have an open standard that allows us to have some DRM for the publishers and all of a sudden the legalities around the file become less of an issue.”
The potential upside for moving to a digital format is immense. As John Siuntres, who created and hosts the comic book interview podcast Word Balloon, pointed out during his interview for the article. “If you’re not hip to where a comic specialty store is in your neighborhood, and I can think of a ton of readers or former readers who just because of where they live the habit of buying comics is no longer there. I’m in Chicago and I don’t know how it is in Vancouver, but in Chicago there’s literally a hundred or so in the Chicagoland area and there’s never one that’s more than 10 or 15 minutes away. You get to some areas of North America in general and you’re not as close to the city and it’s tougher to maintain your habit and that’s going to curtail what comics you’re exposed to. And that’s where it’s nice to have this on-line marketplace and a lot of people who if they’re approached in the right way will be able to rediscover comics.”
While there’s no easy comparison between where the comic industry is now, and where it needs to go in the future, it seems that most people who follow the industry acknowledge that at least a portion of sales will be going digitally. While the comic collecting market has fallen off from the 1990s, where speculators would buy multiple copies of comics hoping that they’d increase in value for resale, there is still an element of the market that wants a collectors’ item. There’s also still something desirable about the physical object of a comic, whether it’s a floppy single issue or a deluxe hardcover.
Whatever happens had best happen soon, however. My pile of comics is beginning to grow once more, and my wife is not about to let me pile them on the floor of my closet.