Though it was an inevitable outgrowth of both online media and the comics industry, discussion of comics on the web changed at the end of 2009 from a "What If?" to a "How much?" Fan options for downloading their favorite monthly titles fall in a wide range in terms of the devices used, the reading experience and the books available with more plans from more publishers reportedly in the works, and a recent estimate placed the size of the digital market between $500,000 and $1 million annually.
However, even with its rapid growth and buzz status (for various reasons) amongst readers, publishers and retailers, the digital comics marketplace is still a very segmented, ill-defined space. Unlike the digital music market where iTunes rules the roost or the growing online book world anchored by Amazon, there is no centralized outlet for comics online nor is there a common format shared amongst the growing number of sales players. And while the former may not come for years if at all, one player in the digital comics space is pushing for the latter to get here and quick.
Micah Baldwin, the CEO and co-founder of Graphic.ly – a relatively new player in the digital comics space known primarily for its desktop reader, with mobile and web devices on the way – recently explained to CBR that he's been trying to start discussion on a "digital comics open standard" to be shared across platforms in the interest of readers.
"Since I started this business, something that's been bouncing around my brain is the fact that if somebody were to buy a comic book on comiXology and then want to read that comic, for whatever reason, on Longbox, they'd have to buy it again. Fundamentally, that's the reality. If I get a book on Panelfly, and then I get into comiXology and it's also in their library, I have to rebuy it. What's interesting is that if you look at it, that's primarily driven by the technology and not necessarily by the publishers. I think that's lame. It's lame that somebody can't take a book they bought on my system, decide they don't like Graphic.ly and would rather go read it in comiXology and then actually go do that."
In Baldwin's view, the ideal situation for online comics would be one where "the file format of each player is, in essence, the same. It's almost like an MP3, but you'd have to add in some DRM for the publishers." The road block to to that kind of a system, in his estimation, has been the parallel development of so many applications and websites offering legal comics online. "Everybody's working in their own individual vacuum...I really make an effort to reach out, not because I think I'm somebody special, but because on this particular issue, we should all get together. It shouldn't be a competition thing. The reality is that we've all been operating solo. Why don't we make a modified MP3-esque thing that allows for these extras to get plugged in?
"And from a technical position, it doesn't necessarily have to be its own file format. It could be a coding of some sort that indicates a book was purchased on site Y, therefore you can now read it on site X. It gets unlocked."
Baldwin explained that over recent months, he's been discussing the possibility of an open standard for digital comics with his competitors in the market as well as some publishers, and that he understands why there's hesitancy on the part of all involved in a "one size fits all" format. For one thing, with so many companies offering reading apps for free, it's easy to assume that an open format for files could hamper a company's ability to be the sales destination even if they're the reading destination. "Granted, the big fear is that if you buy something on my system and take it to comiXology, then comiXology doesn't get to make money on that sale even though that person is using their system," Baldwin said as a general example. "But my feeling is that the reality is that if somebody is using that system over another because they like the features of that system, then they'll buy more comics from that one system. Most people are going to consolidate. I doubt most people are going to own comiXology, Panelfly, Longbox, iVerse, us and the seven or eight other players that are floating around, buying comics on each one."
For publishers, the biggest fear in the realm of digital comics is, of course, piracy – an area recently thrust into the limelight with the FBI's crackdown against illegal site HTMLcomics.com. "I know that in our conversations with some of our publishers is that it's a matter of policing. They don't want their books ending up as .cbr files or something that shows up on torrents," Baldwin noted. However, he also feels that with a strong DRM in place, individual files can work for comics and that making files that play across platforms is essential for the growth of the business.
"You want to be able to read them on any device. It shouldn't be technically difficult to buy a book in the Graphic.ly system, read it on my iPhone and then take it home and read it on my computer. That shouldn't be a problem. There shouldn't be a set number of computers I can read it on...my guess is that you should be able to have something for personal use – read it anywhere you want, any time you want – and if you want to share it, that should be set by the publisher. The smart publishers are going to be the ones who say, 'All right, Micah, you can share "Batman & Robin" #10 three times.' And then I'll go and recruit two more friends into the series."
So what's the next step for Baldwin and Graphic.ly? Beyond informal discussions with other players in the market, the developer said that he wants to begin to set a standard for what an ideal digital comics format would look like. "I want to create a Bill of Rights for digital comic book fans. 'My files should be able to be read anywhere' or whatever issues there are will be listed, and then we can try to get the everyone to sign off on it. Then we can start working towards helping the industry out."
Ultimately, that's how Baldwin sees himself: as someone who's trying to grow the industry. "It's up to us to educate publishers on how they can utilize our systems to help draw profit to them," Baldwin said. "I've been doing a lot of research on the comics industry, and it's apparent to me that over the past decade or so, the industry has done everything it possibly can to keep people from being successful. They create variant covers and every other single way they can find to squeeze the last penny out of a comic book enthusiast. And they've done it many times in detriment to their own well being. I stopped collecting comics in the '80s primarily because the comic book industry drove me out. The things I wanted to enjoy, I couldn't enjoy anymore – there was no continuity between books with 17 versions of Spider-Man or whatever. It got really tough. I was pushed out of something I really enjoyed because I felt the industry wasn't helping me.
"Now, we're in a world where digital comics are coming on strong, and there's going to be all these new options for comic fans to enjoy comics, yet they may have to buy five copies of the same book because they like the way Longbox does their desktop reader but [they also like] the way comiXology does their iPhone reader."