Comic Book Publishing Follies: Issue #15

Mon, December 3rd, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

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Open War on Downloads

Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. "Opting Out of Z-Cult" is probably more accurate. Ever been to zcultfm.com? I'm hearing 70K+ for their audience count, which is a higher reader count than a ton of print comics, so maybe you have. Z-Cult is what they call a "tracker" site. It tracks Peer-to-Peer download streams: bit torrents, and makes it easier for the end-user to find what they're looking for. In the case of Z-Cult, they organize and sort torrent downloads of scanned comics. They don't do the scanning themselves (at least that anyone is aware of), they just have forums where you can check on where to download, say every cross-over for "Countdown" or various "Civil War" spin-offs.

As of this writing, DC, Marvel and TopCow have all requested all links to torrents of their product removed. Z-Cult, which is being nicer about things than just about any other site dealing in torrents (mind you, they're also a general discussion site for comics… to a lesser extent), is complying with these wishes. One suspects their torrents are going to be down to "back of the Diamond Catalog" soon, though those are the publishers that would most benefit from the theory of pirating as a form of buzz and publicity.

This is an emotionally charged issue. Many people have re-discovered comics through downloads, and as blasphemous as some people may find this statement, I would be not at all surprised if the surging popularity of comic book torrents were responsible for some of the recent growth in print sales. Look at any message board discussing the topic and you'll see testimonial from people who'd lapsed and gotten back into the hobby and a smattering of newcomers.

Let's step back and take a stroll through a few of the archetypal stances on comics downloading:

Corporate (and there really are only two)

  • It's illegal and you're stealing from me. (A literal interpretation, upholdable in a court of law. They may also need to publicly say this to uphold/defend trademarks.)

  • With the state of distribution, such as it is, this may be the only way people will actually see my books. (An unfortunate truism for small press and readers with… *ahem*… a local shop resembling "The Andriod's Dungeon" from the Simpsons.)

Downloader (Fan/Consumer)

  • I haven't read a comic since the 80s/90s, and wanted to dip my toe back in the water.

  • I can't find these comics locally.

  • I can't afford to keep up with all these cross-overs, so I supplement digitally.

  • I sample online first, and if I like it, I buy it.

  • I travel during the week and can't get to the store until the weekend, so I download on the road before I pick up my print. (Really, I've heard this one a couple times.)

  • I live in a city apartment, I don't have room for comics and I want digital.

  • I don't pay for nothing, and youse can't make me.

Corporate viewpoints tend to center on that last motivation of the downloader – the malicious thief who gives them no money. They tend to downplay or ignore concerns about distribution, marketing and format preference, particularly as that relates to downloaders who already are their customers (although one could make some comments about PR/Marketing departments in comics having a standard practice of disparaging their audience).

Z-Cult has fired back some criticism about lack of alternatives for digital downloads, speaking to the format preference issue. At this point, the only company attempting to play ball with them is Top Cow, who is willing to slide over some preview material.

Speaking of preference for digital downloads, now is where I point out, broken record that it is, that none of the major publishers are offering a real alternative to illegal torrents for anyone who prefers the digital format, especially for current releases. Marvel has stated their DCU subscription model will feature books at least 6 months old. Sliding over to Direct2Download.com, the Top Cow material doesn't seem to be particularly current.

While you can make it a little harder for the downloader to find torrents (if they know what a torrent is, it's not like its going to be that hard), you're not going to stop the demand for the torrents through legal channels alone. Until somebody offers a current, or close to current, paid or subscription-based download, this market remains one that publishers have chosen not to tap, and they should not expect torrent-activity to go down in any way, shape or form. There simply is no alternative provided, and even the record industry has figured out that's a bad proposition. Expect this story to have legs for the next year, as Marvel, in particular, now has a vested interest in combating torrents, and DC won't want to look like a luddite forever.

Marvel's Inconsistent Digital Plan

Speaking of Marvel, they've had the DCU (Digital Comics Unlimited – I continue to be amused by the DC dig) up for a couple weeks and its time for a deeper look.

Continuing on the torrent thread, DCU gives Marvel a business imperative to eliminate torrents. While not the driving force that "this week's releases" are, back issue runs and "classic storylines" are a staple of the torrent community, and that's what DCU is: a back-issue site. Marvel would vastly prefer you drop $60 in a lump sum and read all your digital back issues online than download them, and it's not an unreasonable business request from their end.

Where this starts to get contentious is the old debate of "view online" vs. "download forever." Despite that these files aren't that hard to save if you know about Flash caching, the DCU files are intended to only be read online and all access disappears should you not continue your subscription. It's a subscription-based library, pure and simple. In digital music terms, it's the traditional "Rhapsody.com model." A lot of people prefer to download once and own the file forever. DRM transfer issues aside, this is the "iTunes" model. So when Z-Cult complains about lack of true downloads from Marvel, this is the "Rhapsody vs. iTunes" argument moving over to comics (a lot more music fans are familiar with this argument, than comic fans… for now). The argument boils down to access to a wider amount of content for the same price vs. actually owning something. I teach a college eBusiness course that has a high concentration of Music Business majors. That is to say, college students who are very familiar with the Rhapsody vs. iTunes argument. I don't see a lot of Rhapsody users walk through the classroom door, but that just might be an isolated segment of the 18-23 demographic.

Increasingly, as I look at DCU, I think the primary goal was to set up online comics in a way that was the least offensive as possible to direct market retailers. The publicity spoke of this being a feeder system for new readers ("feeder system" – isn't that what Crossgen called their Comics On the Web initiative?), but I'm not so sure it's a feeder system for monthly books. If you go to the "All Books" page at the DCU, you'll see a wide and wacky range of things. All-Winners from the 1940s. A scattering of 70s "Avengers." "Ultimate Spider-Man." But you don't see much that's current to last month or this month. Herein lies the problem. With "event comics" ruling the roost so much, "Civil War"/"Initiative"/"World War Hulk," etc., can you read a 6-month old comic, and then pick up the current issue and have any idea what's going on in the comic, let alone the universe? I don't know about that. Not that DC would have an easier time with that, given their proclivity to try and spin storylines around their weekly comic.

DCU is absolutely not an initiative for the person that goes to the local comic shop on a weekly basis, to an extent that limits its appeal. So speak no ill of it, you shop owners, they're limiting themselves for all your ungrateful comments. This limiting includes the natural webcomics to print collection sales extension. As longtime readers of this column are well aware, it's a standard business model for popular webcomics to issue a physical reprint book. Well, an awful lot of the DCU library is in print. Heck, a lot of those digital comics were originally digitized to support the trade paperback edition. Now how does Marvel promote the physical books? Why a box telling you to call 1-888-COMICBOOK or type in your zip code to find your local comic shop.

Two problems with that: First off, that presupposes there actually is a local comic shop that has an extensive collection of trade paperbacks, or depending on what you're looking at, hard covers. If I lived in Nebraska, would I have one? If I lived in Egypt, would I have one? (The web is global, but we'll get to that presently.) Yes, it's all nice, warm and fuzzy that Marvel is following the direct market around with a roll of toilet paper, but that phone number isn't going to do a certain percentage of the audience a bit of good.

Secondly, this is the web. You want to sell something on the web, you say "click here to purchase." Every extra click required to purchase, depending on whose study you follow, you loose as much as 50% of the audience.

Can you envision the following scenario:

"That was pretty cool. Maybe I should get the book? Hmmm. Call 1-800… no, I don't think so. Type in my zip code. That's an hour away? Screw that."

I sure can.

You want to sell something on the web, and be clear, the pure-play webcomics do this all the time, you give them a link – usually it's "buy from us or here's Amazon." Marvel is sacrificing sales to appease the direct market here. I just hope the retailers appreciate it. They don't even push links to subscribe to the current print edition, and if that's a lack for support for the monthly editions, I don't know what it.

Now, removing the specter of Comic Book Guy from the discussion, who is the natural audience for DCU? On the surface, it's the lapsed fan. Someone who hasn't read since the Clone Saga drove him off or he left college. There's plenty of material here to catch up on, and it would be easier to read a run online, than to wander into a comic shop and pick up a current issue and try and figure out what's going on. Depending on how close to 6 months old, the active titles keep, this might be a valid option for the wait for "the trades" crowd. In a 12-month arc, they'd start reading at least 6 months earlier than book would come out, and they might start the material a little earlier on shorter arc. Overseas readers who frequently have limited access to back issues and who's "current" comics might not be current by U.S. standards would find this a godsend. Newer readers who don't have a large collection or their own reprint library might find it interesting. Depending on how much space they devote to Golden Age comics and 60s-90s material that doesn't yet have a print edition (though with the Essentials, that's a shrinking base), you could have niche markets there.

Unfortunately, it isn't quite clear what direction the updates to DCU are taking. 20 new comics per week have been promised, but there doesn't appear to be a formal announcement of what 20 they are, and they'll list the 10 most recent updates, only, on the website. While it's nice to see the updates appear to be scrolling through the week, it makes getting a gauge on what they're going after a bit rough. As I sit and type on Thursday, the 10 most recent updates are:

  • Runaways #2 (2005)

  • Cable & Deadpool #26 (2006)

  • Spider-Girl #71 (2004)

  • Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus:... #5 (2004)

  • Ultimates Annual #1 (2005)

  • Uncanny X-Men #111 (1978)

  • She-Hulk #7 (2004)

  • Secret Wars #6 (1984)

  • Ultimate X-Men #26 (2003)

  • Captain America: What Price Glory #3 (1999)

I'd call that recent history, for the most part, but it's too small a swatch to label. If you even could put a label to that set. If you knew whether a few titles were updated regularly in sequence, it would help define the operating identity.

So yes, it appeals to a fair number of people that aren't current direct-market participants, I just don't know that it really is set-up to draw people into the print fold. A more natural transition is sample online, order a TPB, seek out a monthly comic, with a fair number of people staying with TPBs. Geography counts too much with the way the site is set up. There's also the issue of payments of either $10 or $60 deter this as an impulse buy. Especially for children asking their parents for a $60 whim, as children's comics are something emphasized on the site. With such a substantial discount on the annual subscription, you wonder if Marvel is concerned about people acting like HBO subscribers canceling when the Sopranos isn't new, if they don't like the updates, or if they just really want some working capital? You'd see a whole lot more people try it out for a $5 monthly ala-carte.

Past the demographic and sale issues, suffice it to say, this was not a smooth launch.

Yes, the Marvel site had some serious problems. That is to say, their servers were swamped, and frequently down for, , at least 3 days (and taking to Sunday to really calm down). Additionally, Rich Johnston heard of some trouble not letting foreign users sign up, as well, which would have been a problem for one of the groups this service should have appeal for. What happened?

Dan Buckley: "Yes, a lot of work was done in advance of the launch to test our server network, but the testing scenarios never reached the level of traffic we experienced the day of the launch. No one foresaw a scenario where the traffic would be a multiple of the "Death of Captain America" traffic."

So, traffic estimates for the digital comics initiative launch were based on traffic for a story that said "go to a comic book store to buy this," not "go to this website and look for free?" There's a large difference, especially when it comes to media outlets providing a URL. You have additional interest from the digital media community, a great source of linked traffic, the webcomics community (who can't be bothered with print news much of the time), and well above-average foreign interest. Somebody on the tech side didn't take any marketing into account and they punted the ball when the site was either down or unable to initiate new business due to traffic overload. In the greater scheme of things, it's a good problem to have, but, man, were they insular in the expectations. The problems registering suggest the problem was more with the server's processing ability than bandwidth, but that's why you run capacity testing for things like this.

Then there's the royalty problem. They don't have a plan yet.

Dan Buckley: "Digital comics will become a part of our incentives package in the near future. We are at present discussing the calculations and implementation of this package. It may take several months to implement. However, the first thing we need to do is make sure that the offering is profitable."

When this is one of the major reasons the screenwriters are in a very, very visible strike and you've got a few guild members in your digital portfolio (Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan, off the top of my head), I don't know that it's a good idea to launch without any kind of a royalty plan in place. And some creators are already getting upset. I can understand wanting to get a firm handle on the costs involved, and, obviously, hosting costs went up a bit after that traffic-rich launch, but not addressing it at the outset is really bad form, and ill-will may have already set in.

What does the Writer's Guild of America have to say about this? According to WGA spokesman, Gregg Mitchell, "No matter what the medium, platform, or delivery system, quality content drives the entertainment industry - and writers are asking for a fair share of revenues generated by the content they create. It's very simple: If they get paid, we get paid."

It could be worse. Nobody has heard Marvel referring to this as a promotional plan (which would be incredibly disingenuous, as its subscription-based), so they most likely are planning on paying, they just haven't put it as high on the priority list as some people think it should be. At best, they're going to have to soothe some ruffled creator feathers over this. At worst, well, people have walked over things that didn't involve money before, and this does involve money, though we don't know how much just yet.

A Webcomic That Promotes Itself

With all the buzz this year about webcomic contests and the media-tie-ins available through them (Platinum and Zuda come to mind), we have news of a cartoonist with mainstream book and TV deals in place, who did it by himself. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud of Tim Broderick and his detective strip, "Odd Jobs," so I had a chat about bootstrapping with Tim.

Follies: "Odd Jobs" seems to have bounced around to a few different hosts/venues. Could you narrate that trip a bit, especially how you came to be featured at ThrillingDetective.com?

TB: I started posting to my own site back in May of 2000, quickly migrated over

to Keenspace.com (now comicgenesis.com) when it started up. During that time, somewhere in September 2000, Kevin Burton Smith of thrillingdetective.com and I emailed for the first time. We liked each other's sites and arranged for "Odd Jobs" to appear at thrillingdetective. Around 2002, Joey Manley invited me to join Moderntales.com and I've been there since.

Follies: How do you mix your revenue streams for the strip?

TB: I track how much I spend on the strip using a spreadsheet, although not as well as I should. I'm committed to having this pay for itself. Between book sales and MT subscription money, I was breaking even until sometime in 2005 or so. I haven't really tracked things well in 2006 but I can say now that I'm making money.

Follies: You're unusual, in that you're using a traditional publisher for your print editions. How hard to happen was that, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?

TB: Well, I don't know about hard, but it takes some effort. I'm writing a column about the details of submitting to a traditional publisher over at Comixtalk.com, but here's the overview:

When I decided to create my webcomic in a format that was conducive both for reading on the web and as a printed book, I was already learning about the comics publishing industry.

At this time I was in my late thirties with a family and a full-time job and I saw three routes to comics publishing:

  • Self-publishing

  • Small, independent publishers

  • Big comics corporations

Although I looked at self-publishing, and actually used POD technology to make my first book available on the web, I didn't feel that route was for me.

First, it takes a significant personal investment of money. While I did get a number of books printed up, it was with the intention of using them as submissions to traditional publishers. I soon found out that traditional publishers and agents didn't want POD books as submissions. Doh! It was a good lesson for me: do your research!

In addition to print costs, there's the costs of going to places and selling your books. That's a lot of fun, but I felt it would be too much of an investment at that point in my career. I was committed to having this at least pay for itself.

Second, it takes a significant personal investment of time and personality. What I mean by that is for a self-publisher to meet with success - not in the short term but the long term - they need to have the kind of personal style that attracts a loyal following or is conducive to developing an online community. It takes a certain charisma to pull that off, and I don't think I have that. I know I'm good at the personal level, I can sell books. But that's not the same thing as building a Warren Ellis-type of community.

In short, I felt I needed a publishing partner - someone who believed in my work enough to invest in publishing it and help me get my work out and connect me with a wider range of readers.

That's the great thing about a publisher - they assume some of the risks for a share of the rewards.

Now, the problem I have with comics publishers is they seek too much of a share in the rewards for relatively low risk - if they're interested in what you do at all.

And note: I'm not talking about the smaller publishers such as Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. I'd be proud to be published by them, but they know the market they're appealing to and they can only publish so many books.

So if you're not producing the kind of thing that appeals to these smaller publishers, that leaves superhero comics publishers who want to own your characters straight out. I'm just not interested in that route.

And then, there's the consideration of what readers I'm trying to reach. A traditional publisher's distribution channels are not primarily the comics direct market. About the only thing I've bought in a comics shop in the last year was Dylon Horrock's "Atlas." I went in there with my twin, 12-year-old daughters. They found nothing. I know that's sad, but what can I say?

I want to be in traditional bookstores, appeal to people who like to read mysteries and so be on the shelves with other mystery books. Not lost among the Japanese translations or superhero reprints.

As for downsides, I can't think of any outside the norm. Actually, what I'm doing IS the norm. It's the comics industry that's oddball.

Follies: Which came first, interest from TV or getting an agent?

TB: Interestingly enough, it happened at about the same time. Brendan Deneen let me know he had left the Weinstein Company and it was right then that things were getting too complicated and I was searching for representation. It was a great fit - Brendan is fantastic and I'm lucky to have him.

Follies: How does a web cartoonist get an agent?

TB: You treat what you're doing as a business with a certain amount of professionalism. You learn how other professionals - not comics professionals, but prose-writing professionals - go about their business and make sure you're producing a viable product. You do the kinds of things that will build confidence in people so they're willing to invest in you.

Follies: Will the writer's strike have an effect on your option?

TB: Everything's on hold, so we'll see. Generally, there's all sorts of predictions about where the eyeballs will end up - online, cable or just reality TV.

It's not something I have any power over, so I can't worry about it. My book is coming out in the beginning of the new year, so I'm focused on that.

Zuda Timing

As I type at 4:39 PM, CST, 11/29/07, Zuda's website is a blank slate. I guess the voting is over, for under the "CURRENT COMPETITORS" bar is empty white space. Ditto for clicking on the vote button. Is this the digital equivalent of cleansing the palette between wine samplings? Ah, it's online around 5-ish. As the voting wraps ups, looks like the views on the top books are coming in just below 25,000. That's daily traffic, not monthly, for many established webcomics, but that puts them above monthly Veritgo readership.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see http://www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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