Tilting at Windmills

Fri, January 15th, 2010 at 9:28am PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

THE FUTURE'S SO BRIGHT

One of my favorite parts of any New Year is Heidi MacDonald’s annual year-end survey on The Beat. For the 2009 wrap-up it consists of five parts.

I’m always entertained by people prognosticating, and it really isn’t like in any of the previous years many people got it right. Plus you get a large cross-section of “industry-types”, but a significant number of them generally don’t know what they’re talking about on the business end. (That’s not a knock, though! Art and Commerce are generally two different things!)

But what strikes one about the 2009 round-up is how nearly identical the majority of the responses are. “The largest story of 2009 was the Marvel/Disney thing”, and “the largest story of 2010 will be Digital Comics.”

Digital digital digital digital digital!

Hm.

Obviously, a huge part of this prognostication comes from all of the various eBook readers that have been announced this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, as well as not-officially-announced-but-everyone-knows-it-is-coming Apple “iSlate”. Another part of it is clearly coming from the it-too-will-be-coming-soon “Longbox” store, which it seems like most observers think will be connected to the Apple “iSlate”. And a third part of it is certainly stemming from the dissatisfaction that many people are having with the general level of content coming out of Marvel and DC, as well as the escalating price points those publishers are trying to get the consumer to accept.

That last one might be the easiest to discuss because I think that a great amount of those price increases are from Greed, rather than Need – and content needs to be a lot more compelling in order to feel like it is “worth” $4 a throw.

And that content just isn’t that compelling on a lot of titles.

Further, with the way that modern superhero comics are all sprawling crossovers and tie-ins and events, even if price weren’t a factor (in a down economy), I think the general level of fatigue for “mainstream” comics would be showing.

Now, those are problems that can be dealt with – publishers can certainly keep their prices lower, if they choose (And DC, at least, has announced that they’re going to retool a lot – but not all – of their $3.99 experiments back to $2.99 books), and publishers can drive for more compelling content that isn’t tied into other content; but that takes willpower and discipline, and our publishers have never really ever shown that to be a significant strength for any of them.

But I very much feel like publishers can draw audiences back into their books, because at the end of the day content is always king. The audience wants comics, they just don’t necessarily want the comics that the publishers are trying to foist on them right now.

Obviously, I own a brick and mortar storefront that sells physical objects. Further, my business model is based on readers, not collectors, so I have an absolutely vested interest in comics staying a primarily physical product with as wide of a penetration as possible.

So my first question is: how many people are there out there that actually want to read their comics on an electronic tablet, and, as a corollary, how many people are there that are willing to make that not-insignificant investment for a device specifically and solely designed for that purpose.

A lot of these readers sell for sums that seem kind of preposterously large to me, and a large series of rumors is putting the Apple device that everyone is waiting for as the Game Changer to be in the $800 range. That’s a lot of scratch for something just to read on.

I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I can’t personally imagine spending even $50 on a device just for reading – books are already a perfect physical package, portable and self contained. Same with newspapers, designed for the immediacy and disposability of their content.

Look, I just lost my monthly bus pass that allows me to freely ride public transportation in San Francisco, so I dread the notion of having a pricey reader getting lost or stolen or damaged, or heck, just running out of battery juice. Books never run out of batteries!

You’ve always needed electricity to listen to music, so smaller more powerful machines to do so and carry all of your library is immediately compelling. Books, however, really are perfect as they are, and so I think there are much fewer immediate needs to want to switch to that format.

I guess I just don’t see much of a pressing difference between a tablet computer and a laptop, particularly because laptops appear to do so many more things than any reader will, and, as far as I know, only a small percentage of people actually read for pleasure in the first place.

Clearly there will be some percentage of people who will make a switch like that – mostly tech-heads and early-adopters, I’d think – and I suspect that the percentages will be much higher in tech-savvy places like San Francisco or New York, but I have a really hard time imagining the eReader becoming as ubiquitous on my daily commute as the mp3 player has become.

But let’s say that my instinct is completely wrong on this, and what the world really is desperately looking for is an eReader. Potentially, potentially, one could increase circulations by ten-fold overnight. The biggest problem that comics have faced over most of the last two decades is their lack of availability – there are too few stores selling them (in any format), and there’s no real entry point for the “casual reader” who used to, y’know, pick up an issue here and there from Ma ‘n Pa’s Neighborhood Newstand.

But there’s a really fine knife edge that publishers like Marvel and DC are standing upon right now. Right now they have a (relatively) stable and stolid audience through the Direct Market. But most DM stores are largely undercapitalized and, often, diffidently run. The stores that are good are generally very very good, but there are only a few hundred of those.

So, it is a real gamble to make any kind of a move to simultaneous release of print and digital – while the potential for success is could be enormous, the potential downsides are equally large. Even losing, say, 10% of current print readers could, in fact, drive the overwhelming majority of comic stores out of business, causing the entire market to collapse due to a lack of critical mass.

To resort to a cliché, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – there isn’t really any compelling evidence that digital sales can definitively replace physical ones on a 1:1 (or better) basis, and they’d absolutely have to make it worth risking a stable and profitable distribution model, in my opinion.

Part of the problem, to me, with digital books and comics is there’s really no evidence whatsoever that they’re succeeding in any real way. Generally speaking when one has a success, especially in “emerging” fields, one sends out press releases about those successes. These are vanishingly few for eBooks. Amazon said they sold more electronic books on Christmas Day than paper ones, but a) I’d expect that as people unwrap their kindle they got as a present, and go right away to put something on it, b) it appears to have been a one day non-repeated event, and c) there’s no actual numbers attached to that. I’d personally expect that book sales were historically very low on Christmas Day, yes?

We had some minor news of triumph like with IDW and the Star Trek Prequel on the iPhone (looks like fifteen thousand downloads during its initial period) right when the film was released – but that’s not much more than the DM sales for issue #1, or issue #4 for that matter. How many of those people came back to download #4 at the app store?

If digital sales are additive and reinforcing of physical sales, then everything will be fine – but if they simply move customers from one distribution channel to another, then you run a real risk of breaking one of the channels irrevocably.

I’ve no doubt that more and more digital is coming, but I firmly believe it should be approached carefully, and in a way that protects and nurtures the print market, lest the birds in the bush fly away.

I’m kind of unsure how exactly to approach this next bit, because after some recent bad luck, Marvel just did me a mitzvah, and they have several Happy Points with me right now.

But Marvel’s recent offer of a Deadpool Variant in exchange for DC Comics leaves me scratching my head.

It just seems so petty and childish to me, no better than “Look at me! Looooook at meeeee!”

By being direct-to-Marvel with no third-party verification there’s nothing they can make out of this that anyone can take seriously and without suspicion. And if there is some sort of legitimate point to be made about over-ordering on event books, it is unlikely to be made in 50 copy thresholds. The widest difference between pre-crossover sales and the listed issues is about 40k for R.E.B.E.L.S. #10; with about 3500 Diamond accounts, that comes to under 12 “extra” copies per store on average. And since at least some of those “extras” logically sold to collectors wanting the rings, only either the very largest stores, or stores that speculated hard in order to sell the rings on eBay are going to have the 50+ copies to exchange.

Those stores will then flip the variant for Big Bucks, reinforcing their speculative manner, and rewarding those who least need to be rewarded.

Not very well thought out, in my opinion.

The thing of it is, speaking for my store at least, I have way more unsold copies of things that are “Dark Reign” branded than “Blackest Night” – had they offered to take back their own unsold product then I might be writing them an “attaboy” right now.

Finally, I kind of resent that we have situations like “Captain America: Reborn” being spoiled by its shipping late, where I think retailers have a legitimate right in asking for returns, and were rebuffed. Or things like the “Giant-Sized Hulk” fiasco where a book solicited as a softcover, instead shipped as more expensive premiere hardcover, which they also refused to take returns on.

And yet they’ll take DC books back from us now.

Pretty goofy, if you ask me.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links).

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