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Tue, March 17th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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PREAMBLING ABOUT

The future of comics?

Reaction to last week's column was fascinating. I was either a hero for my advice to those thinking of "tradewaiting," or a witch to be burned at the stake for destroying the comics industry and traditional American culture.

Many wrote to defend their local comic shops. As I promised in last week's column, that's what I plan on doing this week. Not only do comic shops provide a valuable service to their customers and the comic industry as a whole, but they have a strong place in the future of comics, if they play their cards right. It's going to be interesting to see how things pan out over the next five years, but the smart ones will survive and even thrive, often in unexpected ways.

The ones who feel entitled to their businesses because, hey, they're comics fans and they're the lifeblood of the industry? Not so much.

Let's look at the reality of modern day publishing, how the local comic shop needs to adjust to it, and what the future might hold.

THE LOCAL COMIC SHOP'S PLACE IN MY WORLD

I'd very much like to live in a world where

  • Every comic shop is accessible. It's local. It's not out of the way.

  • Every comic shop is clean, well-stocked, and well-staffed.

  • More publishers made comics worthy of purchase.

  • There are enough successful publishers to scratch any reader's itch.

  • The distribution scheme is responsive, competitive, and quick.

Instead, I live in a world with a monopolistic distributor, a restrictive distribution scheme, conservative publishing companies, and even more conservative comics readers. Local Comic Shops are stuck in the middle of all that, taking it from all sides.

We're so far down the road now that it will take a cataclysmic event to change anything.

Everyone has to look out for themselves, and I don't blame them. Publishers can't afford to take risks. Comic shops can't afford to stock products they can't immediately (that week) sell. And Diamond can't afford to distribute books that won't be stocked by enough shops to sell to enough readers to make it worth their while.

We'd like to believe there's enough cash in the bank to think "long term," but that's a risk that's too big for its potential payoff years down the line.

In short, the whole system is screwed.

Since everyone is looking out for themselves, so am I. Welcome to capitalism.

To be fair, this is largely a personal decision made from my current circumstances. I have a baby daughter now. While the local comic shop is only ten minutes out of the way home for me after work, a trip there takes a half hour of precious time away from me that I could otherwise spend with my daughter before she goes to bed.

The funny thing about five month old babies? They win every time, especially at 2:00 a.m., but that's another story.

There was a time I'd take 45 minutes extra to get home to veer off the straightest path home to stop at the comic shop and pick up comics religiously, every week.

So, yeah, you can write this whole thing off as a new father working through his "comics issues" if you want. You might see me as another example of comics' aging demographic.

But I think there's a larger issue here that you can't ignore, either.

THE FUTURE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER

The world has changed. Word of mouth isn't strictly "in person" anymore. Superstore chains and their lower prices are rolling over the Mom and Pop shops of yesteryear. The economy -- as much as I hate to use this excuse -- is so far in the tank that every dollar counts twice over.

It's not just comics that's feeling the pinch. My other hobby these days, photography, is getting hit pretty hard. The largest chain of camera stores, Ritz Cameras, just filed for bankruptcy. Turns out people aren't printing their pictures as much anymore, and that was a huge profit margin business. (The chain pharmacies who do it poorly and cheaply reap the benefits of people who must be color blind to accept those colors. But I digress. . . ) Mom and pop camera stores are dying off fast. It's the cheaper on-line superstores -- the Adoramas and B&Hes and the Amazons -- that are taking over. The smaller stores that are surviving rely on superior service, but we'll get to that in a little bit.

Look at the world of music distribution. Virgin is shuddering all of its doors. Sam Goodys and all its sister companies are gone. Record companies are tripping over themselves to protect the old model of distribution while the new digital model confounds them. iTunes is the biggest distributor in music today.

The newspaper industry is dying as everything moves on-line, or people change the channels on their high definition TVs to their cable news network of choice.

The TV industry is pushing their content across the web now, too, most notably with Hulu.

Have you seen the last couple issues of "Wired?" I wouldn't blame you if you missed them. They're so thin that they're practically newsletters. Likely, you read all the interesting articles on-line for free, anyway.

Heck, even DVD sales are down and the Blu-Ray format is a non-starter. People can download movies now or rent them from the comfort of their own homes via services like Netflix. The initial DVD collectors -- me amongst them -- have realized that they have more discs than they'll ever need.

Does that strike a chord, comic fans?

How long do you think comics will be immune to the rest of the publishing and media industries? The day a full color Kindle comes out with a storehouse of comics available to be purchased and downloaded to it (the much-dreamed-of "iTunes for Comics Store"), my days of print are over. It's a time saver. It's a space saver. It's a money saver.

If that rumored Apple touchscreen tablet comes out this year? It could be the ultimate comic book reading machine.

It's not the artform that's dead, either. It's the delivery mechanism and system that's falling short of what consumers want.

Let's talk webcomics for a minute. Look at Project Wonderful's Top 25 webcomics sites that they serve ads on. They're all getting 100,000+ pageviews daily. (Some are closer to a half million!) Granted, a page view is not the same as a unique visitor, nor is it the same as a paying customer reading a comic monthly. However, you can't ignore those numbers. There's clearly something there. And they're reaching out beyond the Direct Market.

Yeah, I'll miss the paper comics, and still want to have some of them. Some people reading this column probably still miss the large album art from their vinyl music collections.

The world moves on.

THE LOCAL COMIC SHOP'S ROLE IN THIS EVOLUTION

The unfortunate casualty in this is your local comic shop. They can't compete on price or even availability (for the most part) anymore.

The local comic shop and the direct market are what saved the comics industry 25 or 30 years ago. We're on the brink of a new system now, but the comics industry hasn’t changed all that much since the invention of the Direct Market. If anything, it's gotten worse -- there's only one distributor now, and they're working on cutting down the number of titles they carry. The pool of actively interested comic readers is at an all-time low.

In lieu of newsstand distribution, the Direct Market-based comic book store has been the local face of comics. They're the ones who keep comics in the public eye. They're the ones who make comics profitable to even the lowest-tier publisher. They're the ones to introduce comics to the next generation, in the rare event that a comic publisher has something the next generation wants to read. (See most of the 90s for what happens when there isn't.)

This works both for and against comics, as a whole. It all depends on what kind of retailer is in charge. A clean, well-lit comic shop with helpful, friendly, and attentive employees is what keeps this industry going. The opposite -- well, we've all heard the horror stories.

The fact that such a small percentage of retailers order any variety of titles means that our industry is never going to be a huge publishing force. Two well-known independent publishers I spoke to in the last week told me that only 10% to 50% of retail shops order their book.

Think about that for a second. The Direct Market shrinks up considerably when you're not Marvel/DC.

Then think about what would happen if DC or Marvel went under tomorrow.

The Direct Market is a patchwork of pieces that would fall apart nearly instantaneously if any one patch fell out.

HOW TO SAVE THE LCS

There has to be a better way, and I think there is. First, the bad news: When the digital turnover truly begins in this industry, the market won't support the number of comic shops we have today. The funny thing is, we don't have enough today to cover large areas of this country, even well-populated ones. There's no comic shop I could visit on my lunch hour at work, and I live in the most densely populated part of the country.

The good news: the smart retailers have a chance. The retailers who embraced collected editions and manga in the last ten years have shown that they can spot the evolution in this industry and move with it. Ten years ago, the idea of a bookcase in a comic book store was a little odd. Today, it better be a good chunk of their wall space. It works to satiate your customer's demands, and has a higher profit potential and Per Square Foot profit.

Now, there will always be exceptions to this. Local comic shops are just that -- LOCAL. They need to bend to the will of their customers. That's just smart. Different areas will have different needs. I'm sure some are huge into manga, some might have a bigger demographic interested in comic strip reprints, some might have more independent minded readers. Being near a couple of colleges gives you a different readership that being in a big city's financial district, for example.

The way comic shops will survive is the same way those other mom and pop stores survive in other industries: superior customer service. People will pay for a good shopping experience. Friendly staff, an inviting atmosphere, and quick availability of impulse purchases or books that a reader just doesn't want to wait a few days to ship are what's needed. Book clubs, creator signings, pull lists, Free Comic Book Day extravaganzas, etc. All of that will be what sets the local comic shop off as being different and worth visiting.

I want this to work. Really, I do. I like the idea of the Local Comic Shop. I like 2000 - 3000 locations across the country stocking comic books on shelves for anyone to walk in and buy one at a moment's notice. I like the way they let you flip through a comic before deciding to buy it or not. I like the pull lists, which allow readers to pre-order their comics to guarantee they'll get them before they sell out. I like the way a proper presentation in store might lead people to try new and different things.

There just aren't enough of them, nor are there enough devoted comic readers to support as many as we need. Comics are a niche, despite the six figure sales of the top two or three books each month.

I LIKE LCS OWNERS

I respect the hell out of comic shop retailers. They're entrepreneurs. I wish I had those guts. I've always worked a staid corporate day job. Much less risk, steady paycheck, good benefits. But is it as fulfilling as running your own business, controlling your own destiny, and being involved in an industry you love? Of course not. There's the trade off.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's the same reason why I respect so many of the comic podcasters today who are so successful starting from nothing. I started with the CBR brand and website behind me. Others started from scratch, built their shows, their communities, their brands, and branched out to magazines, conventions, and more.

The point is, mine isn't a personal vendetta against most LCS owners. Yeah, a certain percentage of them are going to stink on ice, but the ones I've talked to in the past week seem to be on the right path. They're smart enough to know that their businesses rely on the customers and their level of service to them. To quote the cliché, "If you're offended by this column, then you're not the one I'm talking about."

But here's the odd attitude I've seen spring up in the debate on this topic for the last week. There's an entitlement certain people feel. LCSes doesn't deserve my business just because they're the LCS in my area. It's a free country; I can buy my comics however I want. I tend to think there are a lot more people buying their trades and hardcovers on-line now than have ever admitted that to their LCS store owner. But people for some reason shy away from that. They're afraid that it'll hurt their personal relationship with their local comic shop owner, I guess.

The last comic shop I had a pull list at, I only bought singles from for the longest time. I did on-line ordering for all my graphic novels and collections. Eventually, I stopped ordering them on-line and started buying them at the same store, and you know why? I paid a little extra, but I much preferred getting the books as they came out, rather than once a month. The price difference wasn't all that much. And I liked supporting my LCS.

You know what? The activity I outlined last week wasn't right for me then, and isn't right for many people now. But for those without a valued local comic shop, or who perhaps are penny pinching in this day and age by necessity, I outlined one way they might continue their comics reading without missing the titles they hold dear. That was the point of the column, and I'm happy I was able to help a few people out.

WHAT MIGHT THE FUTURE HOLD?

The following is all theoretical and potentially Blue Sky thinking. It's not necessarily something you base your business model on today. Reading the tea leaves as they float this week, here is one possible future I can see happening for comics to survive -- and maybe even thrive.

Digital is the new distributor. There will be some sort of "iTunes for Comics." There might be two or three major sites that sell comics on-line. I can only hope they all use the same DRM-free format. Maybe comics can learn from the lessons of the movie and music industry, or maybe they'll be doomed to repeat them, I don't know. But comics will be available every week on-line. Heck, you might not even have New Release Wednesday anymore. Why bother? If you can upload them and make them available on any day of the week, why unload them all on one day? Maybe there's a new Superman monthly on Monday, a new Batman title on Tuesday, a new Green Lantern title on Wednesday, etc.

There will be some kind of hardware to accommodate this. Realistically, that won't be comics-specific. It'll be something like the Kindle, but in color. Low power, high quality, portable. Hopefully, you'll be able to download and pay for your purchases directly off the device, and not need to attach it to a computer, but that might be a second or third generation thing. There are rumors already of a new version of the Kindle aimed at college textbooks. Imagine the built-in readership that would provide for downloadable comics.

The comic book format will persist -- the future isn't in panel-by-panel reading on the iPhone. You need that rectangular shaped page that's big enough to read a page's worth of sequential storytelling at a time. That's potentially a nod to the history of the comics format and something that will drive Scott McCloud nuts, but there you have it.

Back issues will always be available. They're digital. Why not let them be available? Did you miss a key issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man" that this week's comic refers back to? No problem, click a link and buy it. It's even possible that the back issues will be cheaper. Welcome to the Long Tail of comics.

Whatever the price, the digital comics will be cheaper than the print comics. If the comic companies want you to spend $3.99 for a 22 page PDF or CBR/CBZ file, they're more than welcome to bankrupt themselves that way. I think $1.99 for a new comic, or 99 cents (maybe a buck-fifty) for something from the archives is good enough.

Local comic shops would still exist. No doubt, there'll be a lot less of them, but they'd still be of value.

I'm not entirely sure if they'd get their product through larger book distributors or through a revamped Diamond. I'm not certain Diamond will figure out this transition, or survive it. With the larger trade profit margins and more focused market, there might be efficiencies there they could profit from.

The new role of the LCS is as a book seller, not a periodical seller. They're the new Barnes and Noble, not the 7-11 magazine rack. They're specialty stores, offering a specific focus and serving a niche market. They'll need to know their stuff, to reach out to their local communities, and to have an on-line presence for eBay (or its functional equivalent) sales, local community gathering, etc.. Basically, it's all the things today's LCS needs to do, but on a grander more revolutionary scale.

They'll also need to be much more diversified. Marvel and DC readers aren't automatically the biggest spenders. The LCS will need to cater to a new generation of comic fans brought on board by digital comics. Imagine the webcomics readership writ large. It's more than just the stereotypical comics fan. There's an even playing field on the internet, where people can casually browse for comics of any type.

I'm hopeful; I want comics to survive in some form. I even want the local comic shop to continue. That's why I think the above is a real possibility. I can also see the opposite side of the coin, though, where the Direct Market ultimate fails, the LCS goes the way of the independent pharmacy (even those survive, most often in extreme specialties with, again, exceptional service), and things get ugly. Comics are forced to go digital, the transition isn't handled well, and webcomics are all we're left with. That's not a slight against webcomics, but that's a whole 'nother column for another day. . .

WHAT TO DO TODAY

Do what you need to do. Enjoy your comics however you want to read them. There's no one right answer. In my time spent reading comics, I've been a devoted Wednesday Crowd member, a voracious monthly reader, a tradewaiter, and a mix of the two. I changed with my interests, the market, my time, and my finances. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I encourage all of you to do the same. It's comics; be happy.

But also be prepared. No system is perfect, and no system lasts forever. The world of comics is overdue for a bigger change. I'm not tied to my digital model above, but I certainly think parts of it are inevitable. It will take a group of focused, smart, and agile businessmen and -women to successfully pull off the evolution we're soon to see.

I think the model I outlined above, for some reasons I don't have the time or space to devote to at the moment, could make for a more thriving comics industry. It could effectively open up the industry past just the "Android's Dungeon"s that the rest of the world pictures us as being.

In the meantime, vote with your dollar. No, don't do that. This isn't a political cause or a movement. Instead, spend your dollar as you see fit. Take in all the options, and choose the one that fits you and makes you happiest.

It's comics; have fun!

THE PIPELINE PODCAST FOR 11 MARCH 2009

The technical hurdles are truly behind us now. The podcast sounds like it should have sounded for the last few months. Thanks for continuing to listen, even when the audio sounded like something you'd expect on pirate radio. I have a few tweaks to make yet to really smooth over the rough spots that most of you likely won't hear, but I'm nit-picky like that. I had to adjust some levels a bit to prevent the MP3 compression from destroying the audio in odd ways. I'm still working on that.

Last week, the Top Ten list returned, and a new recurring feature debuted: "The Whoopsie of the Week!" The "Spirit Move Mini-Bust" won the inaugural award, for reasons I outline in the show. I think it's pretty obvious, but I still want you to listen.

Here, then, is last week's Top Ten:

  • 10. BPRD Black Goddess #3

  • 9. Wonderful Wizard Of Oz #4

  • 8. Tilting At Windmills SC Vol 2

  • 7. Franklin Richards TP Not So Secret Invasion Digest

  • 6. Transmetropolitan TP Vol 1 Back On The Street

  • 5. Avatar: Anna Mercury TP Vol 1 The Cutter

  • 4. Top 10 Season Two #4

  • 3. Batman Battle for the Cowl #1

  • 2. Saga of the Swamp Thing #21

  • 1. Justice League International HC Vol 4
Download the whole 19 minute show here. Go to iTunes to subscribe to it.

I promised a review this week. I'm sorry that this week's topic pushed that review off the page. It'll be in next week, I promise.

AugieShoots.com is still daily, with more geese, shopping carts, and abstractions for you to take a look at.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive, mostly for "American Idol" updates. You'll also find shocking Fountains of Wayne news.

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, digital comics, diamond comic distributors

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