Tilting at Windmills

Thu, May 13th, 2010 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

HOW WE DIGITIZE

So, let's talk a little about Digital comics.

A top-level thought on Digital comics: I think that Digital has the potential to become "the new newsstand" - a way for the general public to broadly access what's available, but not something that is necessarily dependable readership on a per-book basis, or that will, by itself, be able to justify Creative Costs in the manner that print does. While I think there will be individual digital hits that eventually beat revenue on print editions, I think those will generally be the Exception, rather than the Rule, and will depend greatly on the exact position of the Zeitgeist; ie, not something one can control or plan upon.

I think this is terribly important for comics, because comics, unlike most other media, doesn't yet (and may never) have a broad-based cultural acceptance in this country. Nearly every single person listens to music, goes to movies, watches television - and, perhaps more importantly, are engaged with those media in conversation and debate. Much fewer people engage in media like theater-going, or, say, reading books - but those media, too, are accepted as normal and regular activities. Not so with comics. Certainly we've made (fairly dramatic!) inroads with comics material, but we've still got a long way to go.

Comics can be bought both in specialty Direct Market (DM) stores, as well as more broadly, as collected editions, in bookstores, but at a pure guess, most Americans really don't have any good idea where they can find comics in the first place. Hardly a week goes buy when I don't hear some comment from a passerby on the street saying "Wow, they still make those? Neat!," or something similar as they walk past my store. We've two giant challenges as a market: the first is to educate people that they might, in fact, be interest in the kinds of content we provide; the second is to steer them into the places that do carry them at all!

So, yeah, I think there is, potentially, a huge market for comics out there that we're barely begun to tap; one, that if things are handled correctly, can, in fact, be steered towards print comics, and could double or treble the audience for comics in America.

What's important to note, however, is that I believe that most of the potential here is from people who aren't reading comics. The total audience currently purchasing print comics is likely small enough that if there is a significant amount of "channel migration" (that is: people who currently read print comics make a switch in whole or in part to Digital) we run a very significant risk of entirely destroying the whole market for print comics. We'll get back to that in a bit.

The takeaway here, I think, is that digital holds a vast potential for "sampling" comics, in exactly the same way that the traditional newsstand very much used to - to expose a much wider array of people to the very form itself, and to create familiarity and cultural acceptance with our chose medium.

Let me digress for a moment to observe that some commenters have deeply misunderstood the nature of the relationship with the actual "newsstand" and comics - saying things that essentially boil down to that the publishers "abandoned" the newsstand in order to chase the DM. That is categorically false. The newsstand abandoned comics first, primarily from the absorption of what used to be a significant network of "mom and pop" stores into large national chains of pharmacies and grocery stores (how many locally-owned pharmacies are there in your city in 2010?); this corporate consolidation largely became about the bottom line - why carry a spinner full of comics when you can put a spinner full of sunglasses in the same space that not only has a higher retail price, but also a better wholesale price, and pretty much never "spoils?"

No, the publishers leapt at the DM because it offered them a lifeline, and the ability to stay in business at all, through a network of passionate and motivated people who deeply cared about the medium itself.

But we really do need a "newsstand" of some kind to expose casual readers to the form, and, hopefully, to create entire new generations of readers - we, essentially, "lost" one, perhaps two, generations of children from experiencing comics as a normal background portion of their childhood! Thankfully, our medium matured in terms of the content produced and we were able to lure some percentage of those "lost" back in as college-age-or-older readers - but not nearly enough, nor in the geographically-diverse way we truly need in order to thrive.

Digital holds the possibility of taking on that function.

A second top-level thought on Digital: Some people point to the piracy sites as signs that there is already a wide demand for digital comics. I don't really see that - I see more of a wide demand for something that is free that doesn't, necessarily, take up any space. I think those are probably very different things than actual "demand."

I know more than a few people that have (multiple!) hard drives full of pirated movies and music that they'll probably never listen to or watch. Why? Because it's free (well, or "free," really), and it is right there, and they don't perceive it as theft.

(Though it clearly is)

Yes, I know that several of you are planning on running to your keyboard right now to say things like "Because I downloaded [whatever], it exposed me to how awesome it was and I ran right out and paid retail for it!" or "I only download things that I can't buy in stores," and, yes, certainly, there are some people who do, in fact, behave exactly like that, but I tend to suspect (though, naturally, can't prove it in any fashion) that you "Good Actors" are vastly outnumbered by people who act wholly differently.

By how much? Dunno; there's really no way to know. But I suspect for every "Good Actor," there are 10, 20, maybe 100 or more "Bad Actors" who do not behave in such a fashion. Who download stuff solely because it is "free," and who wouldn't, in nearly any circumstance, pay even a single penny to legitimately get digital files.

Publishers could release every single comic they've ever released tomorrow, and it wouldn't do a single thing to stem the rising tides of piracy. Don't believe me? Go and look at music that is legally available for digital purchase. Then try to find that same music on a pirate site. Yeah, it's all still there, isn't it? And the pirate sites aren't anywhere near to going out of business from lack of "customers."

At the end of the day, I find pretty much any argument that says something like "Because it was downloaded (x) times means (x) people are willing to pay for it" to be specious on the face of it.

See, comics are very unlike many other media in that what we're (largely) selling is serial entertainment - there are nearly 700 different issues each of "Batman" and "Superman" (not counting "Action" and "Detective" and whatever else) - and anyone working in comics can tell you that the money is made not from selling an issue of "Batman," but from convincing a reader to Get On Board "Batman" so that they're buying twelve issues of "Batman" a year, every year.

Music, film, neither of these really exists past their individual Unit-of-Consumption in the same way that most comics do. If you like [a song], you (usually) don't need to get the rest of the "album" in order to appreciate it - in fact, you may actually hate the rest of the album! Digital files let the consumer bypass much of this - if you just like [a song], then that's all you need to buy

But this has also lead to a new reality where very few musicians are now able to make a living purely from their recorded music - now they need to tour and make money from concerts, from merchandising, from licensing their songs to commercials, whatever. But not so much from their individual recordings.

The real open question is that when we open the floodgates of digital, how will consumers consume? Will that digital reader buy twelve issues of "Batman" a year the way that the print reader does? Or, are they more likely to download three or four of them and kind of lapse after that? This is a majorly important question, with all kinds of potential ramifications if Digital consumer behavior is substantially different than Print consumer behavior.

Every kind of Art costs money to create - beyond the tools you need to create it, and the training it takes to use those tools properly, I'll take it as an obvious point of reasonableness that creators should be paid for their acts of creation. Really, if you don't, then they're likely to stop creating! And while the relative democratization of the Internet means there are plenty of people who are willing to create content for nothing (or next to it), I think the last ten years or so have shown us that this doesn't necessarily lead to the best content.

Anyway, my point here is that we don't know how the mass of consumers will react - whether they be existing DM-oriented ones, or the New Newsstand potential Mass audience out there, and, until we have a whole lot more evidence of their behavior it would be, I think, foolish to dead-run thunder towards Digital without being careful that we don't harm existing markets, and therefore the very ability to create comics material in a cost-effective way!

Y'know what's interesting to me about many of the "Digital is the Savior of comics!" discussions is that it wasn't barely a decade ago when people were proclaiming "Bookstores will be the Savior of comics!" which isn't exactly how it worked out. And a number of the "industry policies" that have been aimed squarely at the bookstores have, I think, really harmed many people's ability to sell comics.

Because of the nature of Digital, I think that, no matter what you do, you're always going to have piracy and you're not going to be able to do anything significant to curtail it - but those pirated downloads probably do not, in the main, represent "lost dollars" really on anything even vaguely approaching a 1:1 fashion.

I know the primary focus of this topic is Digital, but I think it is probably a good idea to take Two Giant Steps Back and consider what the DM needs to thrive - let's take it as read the premise that the DM is currently the primary, most important customer, effort should be made to not harm the Bird In The Hand, in pursuit of Two Birds that may be In The Bush.

So, what does the Direct Market need?

Periodical comics are the economic engine at the heart of the Direct Market. While book-format material is certainly growing in strength, and will probably eventually exceed the sales of the periodical for the DM as a whole, the existence of the periodical has several pretty massive advantages that we should be extremely hesitant to discard.

Among them:

a) The constant 52-weeks-a-year incentive to get your "next fix"

b) The ability to underwrite the costs-of-production for the eventual collection - without the periodical, that $15 trade paperback becomes a $25 hardcover!

c) The ability to have a dedicated class of merchants who are passionate and knowledgeable about the product (and are unlikely to replace it with a rack of sunglasses, as it were)

d) The periodical also creates a drive to actually produce to a deadline, and almost certainly increases many creator's output

There're many more reasons, but that's a good start.

So I think we should be doing everything we can to preserve the periodical.

What doesn't help the periodical right now is more one shots, miniseries, or otherwise short-run things that won't lead to long-term sales - I think the model that we have to aspire to is one where the periodical builds and grows, and leads to long-term rich backlist sales - examples would be, say, "Sandman" or "Walking Dead," or "Bone."

Y'know, "Walking Dead's" backlist, alone, probably makes me more money any given month than the combined bottom quarter of either the Marvel or DC universe's releases.

That's because so much of what the publishers publish is essentially ephemera, utterly forgettable and unworthy of permanence. It's a little funny, 15 years or so ago I wrote in one of these columns something along the lines of "We shouldn't be publishing comics that we're not collecting." Of course, I utterly misstated that, because I really didn't understand what having more than 10k book format comics would do to the sales of each individual one. A natural mistake!

Really, what I should have said was something more along the lines of "we shouldn't be publishing comics that aren't worthy of being collected, and can be done in some sort of a logical fashion."

Anyway, the important thing to consider here is that the true periodical and long-term successes are those things that have a strong creator vision guiding it - I'd argue to you that the real reason and "event comic" like "Blackest Night" was the hit that it was, was because Geoff Johns started laying the roots of it way back in "Green Lantern: Rebirth" - it was an organic development based upon actual story content.

The core of me says that we can double or triple DM periodical sales, but we need a reason for customers to come in each and every Wednesday. We're failing in that goal, as a market, in the first half (so far) of 2010.

Part of this is because of the inessential nature of too many comics that are being produced. For example: in the June 2010 solicitations, Marvel is offering what I counted to be 106 distinct comic books. Of those, 58 are ongoing monthly titles, while 58 are one-shots or mini-series. It is likely that half or less of the ongoing monthly titles will actually have "legs" in the backlist market (whether that is Digital or Print!), while it is extraordinarily likely that only 5-10% of the one-shots and minis will have anything remotely approaching long-term success.

Periodical comics have to be better. They have to "matter." They can't be rack-fillers and cash-grabs, or you run the very real risk of kicking the legs out of the entire model.

They have to be things that will fuel long term sales. Solve that problem with "better" editorial standards (and logical production schedules) and we're well on the path to solving the problems of the comic book in America.

Next, let's think about collected editions.

This ties in to periodicals, but you have to remember that 6 issues @ $2.99 is effectively $18 ($17.95) worth of product. 6 @ $3.99 is $24. However, $19.95 is about the ceiling most people are willing to pay for 144 pages of content, unless it is A+++ material.

I think this is a very important consideration, because I believe that the book format is currently poised on a knife's edge of pricing. As long as collected editions are within 20% of periodical prices, we're basically OK as an industry, because we're trading immediacy for convenience/value, but if prices go further from that, we're going to be in deep trouble.

That is to say that the "$18 value" (@$2.99) gives you a "reasonable price" on a collected edition of $14.95, but if you price the periodical at $3.99 ("$24 value") that forces you to price collections at $19.95. Anything below that and you're directly telling the customer base that they should wait for the collection rather than supporting the serialization. You simply can't put a 6x$3.99 collection of comics out for $14.95 or less without having a catastrophic impact upon the serialization's sales!

While $9.95 paperbacks have helped bring attention to some Vertigo titles, I firmly believe that is the largest reason that Vertigo periodical sales are as low as they are - the consumer has been trained to not only expect the collection, but that the collection will be substantially cheaper than the serialization. What is the incentive to buy the serialization?

In terms of pricing, you can ask "whatever" price for A+++ creators doing A+++ material - people aren't going to have any real problem paying $3.99 for, say, Frank Miller and Jim Lee doing Batman. The very real problem is that the "bench" of A+++ creators capable of generating that kind of demand is fairly shallow, and that very few A+++ teams are capable of generating 12 issues of content every year.

A+++ work will have a very long life-cycle, and can be sold in multiple collected formats: hardcover, softcover, premium packages like the DC "Absolute Editions." Work that isn't of that caliber has a shelf-life that can be measured in proportion to the quality of the work (well, that's an overgeneralization, probably, because "quality" in this context isn't solely tied to craftsmanship, but it makes the point adequately) - but the main thing to consider there is that there just aren't that many creative teams that can move the needle to that degree.

If you're talking about work that doesn't have A+++ creative visions at work, $3.99 is, let's face it, an absurd price point for 22 pages of story content. There simply isn't enough value in a package like that to engage the majority of the readership.

Print material needs to also be compelling. I don't mean from an "Oooh, shocking death!" point-of-view - I mean that the package itself needs to be compelling, and needs to be one that adds value to and supports the content. As I was "growing up" in comics, my favorite books had things like in-depth letter's pages. I'll always remember, say, Denny O'Neill's letters pages in The Question where he had a Recommended Reading section of prose books that supported the themes he was writing about each month. I remember the titles where the authors wrote the letters pages and columns and created a real feeling of connectedness with their audience. As an industry I think we've let the internet try and take over some of those functions, but real audience-wide conversation has to be curated or else it dissolves into chaos.

In modern comics, I look at things like the text pieces in a book like Ed Brubaker's "Criminal," where different writers write on pulp fiction and crime stories in the back, as a kind of model to follow. Material that is really only available in the serialization, that adds to the package of the periodical and makes it distinct and unique.

There are lots of different things that can be value-added into the serialization to reinforce the value and the power of the serialization; to make it even more compelling of a package.

I strongly believe that if you do date-and-date (same day) release of digital and print then there has to be content in each that is unique and compelling, and the two items have to be equivalently priced. If you day-and-date "vanilla" (no extras) comics, and digital is overwhelmingly cheaper, you're going to cause a lot of readers to question why to buy the print version.

To that end, I think there needs to be at least a six month gap between print and digital release for the overwhelming majority of releases. Even a small amount of cannibalization between the channels could have catastrophic impact on small stores - I don't think the majority of the DM could absorb even a 10% permanent loss of traffic from migration. If stores begin to fold, that is more likely to lead to a lowering of regular and dependable readership than any gains in new Digital customers would offset.

A publisher like DC has seventy-five years of content they could monetize; Marvel has seventy years of material (well, kind of) - there's no reason to rush competitively into the "new comics" market until we're able to understand what medium- to long-term consumer behavior will be, and the impact it will have on the existing print model.

For the "non fan" customer, something a year old (or ten years old!) is just as new as something released last Wednesday. I think that we established this clearly last year with the overwhelming sales of "Watchmen." While the film version seems to have triggered interest in the graphic novel, it wasn't in reaction to the film (most people didn't seem to enjoy the film, or so the Box Office would seem to suggest) - and it seems likely that only a small number of those million-ish copies sold went to people replacing or revisiting the work; most of that was new eyes reading the work for the first time, as thought it were new. And, to them, it was!

If I were in charge, then, I'd have a three-tier model of pricing for individual comics. Material that was day-and-date would only be A+++ material, and it would be the same price as the print version (let's say $3.99 for the point of discussion). Day-and-date, at this point in history, is only of value to the narrowest slice of the wedge of Digital comics customers - the "super-fan," the ones who are already consuming comics (and in great quantities) because they have to know what's going on right now, up-to-the-second. Those customers, to be blunt, are exactly the customers that the entire existing economic model for comics publishing is based upon! That is not an area you rush into dismantling without a great deal of care and trepidation.

You'd differentiate the day-and-date Print and Digital versions with compelling content unique to each - not story pages, though - ideally you'd design it so the extra material complements the other format. These would be premium books, and I'd try it with one single title for a year before adding in more titles, and when I added them I would do it very slowly and deliberately, always looking at the impact on my core line of Print.

For the rest of my "recent" books, and let's call "recent" arbitrarily "in the last ten years," I'd hold my line at $2.99 Print/$1.99 Digital, and I'd treat Digital as backlist - I'd keep at least six months (and, preferably, one year) between Print serialization and Digital, exactly as though "Digital = trade paperback." This prices Digital well under the "20%-less theory" posited above for Print collections, but with the tradeoff being a tangible good that seems reasonable.

Anything older than "recent/'the last ten years'" would be priced in the $0.99 range - everyone has made all the money off Print that they're likely to, go ahead and sell the bits cheaply.

Obviously, that's the roughest of rough outlines, and you could play with things in the middles a whole lot - entirely free first issues of storylines, designed to sell the collections, or bundled "paperback equivalents" Digital packages for slightly lower prices, or many other variations, but the main thing on the bulk of any line would be to treat Digital exactly as you would a reprint collection of original material, preserving a reasonable lag time between them so as to not undercut the economic engine of serialization.

The goal of digital should be to increase the number of eyes on comics, and everything possible should be done to protect against cross-channel migration until the audience has grown sufficiently. Digital is the new newsstand! Digital should be able to grow the market for periodical print comics, if done correctly!

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)

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, digital comics

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