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Tue, May 25th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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COMIC PUBLISHERS: IT'S TIME TO TAKE DIGITAL SERIOUSLY

Marvel's iPad App is a start, but doesn't go nearly far enough

Listening to Brian Bendis on the Word Balloon podcast the other day surprisingly depressed me.

The topic of digital comics came up, as it often does. And Bendis presented a well-reasoned piece of often conventional wisdom about the Direct Market and its retail business partners to the publishers, and having your cake and eating it, too.

First lesson: It is extremely rare when you can have your cake and eat it, too, in business. It just doesn't work. People who try to please both sides often please neither and lose both.

The big problem is that the publishers are so concerned about their business partners (comic retailers of the Direct Market) -- although many of their business partners would disagree with that statement -- that they're purposefully limiting the audience for their products by sticking with them to the exclusion of other distribution possibilities. Marvel and DC are both so busy courting the same quarter million fanboys and fangirls that they've blinded themselves to the outside world, short of the occasional short-funded or poorly-run initiatives (hello, Minx and CMX) that they give up on or forget about in short order. They've willingly tied their hands, afraid to make serious change, and are placing themselves on a pedestal for this poor business practice.

The audience at the local comics shop isn't growing. It's an increasingly smaller portion of the possible readership for comics. But, for some reason, publishers are afraid to reach out to the rest. The publishers hem and haw and make excuses and skirt around the issues, but none of them truly do anything revolutionary, remarkable or productive.

They're leaving a huge bag of money at the side of the road, so as not to tick off their extant readership/business partners.

This is going to sound harsh and I want to apologize for that in advance, because I really do love my local comic shops, but they can't be the be-all and end-all of the comics world. By treating them as business partners instead of one of several important revenue streams, comics publishers are strangling their business. They're impeding their own growth. On purpose.

Isn't that insane?

Look, there's no doubt that part of this rant is out of personal frustration. I can't make it to the comics shop on a reliable schedule anymore. I think I've been to my local store a half dozen times in the last year. And while part of me misses it, it's not worth the sacrifice of the one hour I get to play with my daughter after work before she goes to sleep, and it's just not a convenient stop on the weekend.

And who can afford it anymore, either? How do I justify $3.99 on a comic? I can't, at least not in the numbers necessary to justify the trip or to follow the stories going on at Marvel and/or DC. For example, it cost $12 just to buy the three Bendis-penned issues at the end of "Siege." At that point, I hear it's worth spending the extra four bucks to stomp on Sentry's grave in the poorest-reviewed comic of the year, "The Sentry: Fallen Sun." (Do a Google search on that title. There are some very entertaining reviews of the book out there.)

I'm solidly a wait-for-the-trade or wait-for-a-review-copy kind of guy now. With Amazon's discounts, trades and hardcovers are affordable. Plus, my lifestyle currently doesn't give me as much time to read comics as it did just five years ago. So I don't need a stack of a dozen or more comics a week anymore. Those three or four hardcovers next to my computer will keep me busy for a while, thanks.

Let's play with some numbers: A standard Marvel Premiere Edition hardcover at Amazon is six issues for $16.50, or $2.75 an issue -- $1.25 less an issue than buying it on the stands, in a superior format.  "The Invincible Iron Man" hardcover I reviewed last week is $26.39 for 19 issues right now -- $1.39 an issue.  The "Iron Fist Omnibus" is $47.24 for 20 issues, roughly, or $2.36. Over at DC, the first volume of the "Starman Omnibus" series is $31.49 for 17 issues, or $1.85 an issue. The more modest "Y The Last Man" Deluxe Edition, Volume 1 is $19.79 for 12 issues, or $1.65 per issue.

You want me to drive to the local comics shop to pay $4 for a comic...why? So I won't be spoiled by the internet discussion of it? That's a pretty steep price to pay at this point, especially at $3.99 a pop.

I haven't read "Siege" #4, for one example.  Don't think I need to.  I've read enough commentary on it that I already know what's going on. Maybe I'll buy a collection somewhere down the road. It'll look nice on my bookshelf, I'll get the whole story in one chunk, it'll be delivered to my front door, and it'll be cheaper. What am I losing out on? Press release-driven "buzz?"

However, give them to me digitally day and date for $2 a pop -- no storage woes, lower cost (two digital comics for the price of one print one!), easy availability from anywhere -- and I might get excited about the current big events again, or some smaller personal favorites. Maybe both.  There's that bag of money on the side of the road neither Marvel nor DC seem to want.

I also don't have room left in the house for all the kid's stuff and Daddy's dozens of long boxes of old comics that rarely get browsed anymore. (Yeah, last year's purge didn't go very far. My eventual purge will most likely be in a dumpster.)

Sure, you can dismiss everything I say on that basis if you wish, but I don't think it's that. I really do think the Direct Market is strangling comics. The shops that provide the best customer-facing smile for comics can continue on as something closer to a niche bookstore, but the days of catering to small dark bowling alleys selling 32 page magazines to the same niche crowd weekly have to come to an end if comics as a whole are going to survive.

In the Word Balloon podcast, Bendis stressed the importance of pre-ordering your comics. Is there any better sign that the Direct Market is well and truly $%^#ed than that you, as a reader, need to buy a $5.00 300 page catalog and order everything you want to read a couple of months in advance, sight unseen? Isn't it even crazier that your local comics shop is just as likely to sell out of the best-selling comic as it is the lowest-selling comic? You can forget about the "long tail" effect of collected editions when you don't even have the product to sell to the people who want it today.

And isn't it interesting that digital comics solves this problem completely? There is no scarcity in digital comics. They show up one day, and anyone who wants one and has a computer capable of reading one can fork over their money. They don't need a comic shop within a convenient radius of their home or workplace. They can do it all from the comfort of their desk or their table or their couch -- wherever they use their computer. Maybe even in the doctor's waiting room. Or on the bus or subway ride to work.

Yes, this ruins collectability, which is an important part of the Direct Market. Or is it? Those "second printings" that are really alternate covers for those "collectors" sell in the thousands of copies. Thousands. We're maintaining a distribution system for the sake of servicing a few thousand people, while purposefully ignoring the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who might be interested in reading comics digitally?

I'm not saying digital comics are the grand solution to all of comics' problems. I am saying that they solve many of them, and that it's embarrassing that the comics world hasn't gotten its act together to seriously moved into digital comics yet. (Please note that I said "embarrassing" and not "surprising".) There still needs to be outreach to the greater market -- you know, basic Marketing 101 -- and products worth buying for the end consumer.

Meanwhile, DC's big release of last week was a book looking at the Silver Age of the DC Universe, and the bonus content in the Avengers titles is eight pages of faux interviews with the characters rehashing events from the earliest issues of the series. Navel-gazing much?

My point is, I cannot believe we don't have digital comics in a more timely manner by now. Though I'm sure that if we did, the comics publishers would find some better way to blow it, by using proprietary formats, DRM-laden content, or poor quality reproductions. And then the whiniest of fans would complain that the price is too high at half the print price, or that they're entitled to more somehow. ::sigh::

Still, it's time to stop thinking of digital comics as the future, and time to start implementing them as a format for today.

And I tell you what -- I'll give the Direct Market a week's head start. Give the brick-and-mortar buyers a bone. In the world of comic collectors, that's probably enough to get the most active fans into the comics shop. Besides, most comics sell, what, 90% of their orders in the first week? So what does it matter if the digital versions are available a week later?

I'm feeling cranky now about comics.

I just hope this isn't all about piracy fears from the publishers. Because that horse has already left the barn.

This should go without saying, but let me save some of you the e-mails: I do not condone comics piracy. I do not engage in it. I'm all for prosecuting the pirates. But the reality is that it's out there, it proves that there's a market for this stuff, and you're playing whack-a-mole with pirates, at best.

DON'T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT. . .

And now, some thoughts completely unrelated (he says, planting tongue in cheek) to digital comics:

"Apple sells in excess of 200,000 iPads each week in the U.S. [. . . ]

"In a note to investors yesterday, Abramsky wrote that retail inventories right now “show widespread iPad stockouts at Apple retail stores and Best Buy.” He predicts the company will sell around eight million iPads this year."

-Mashable

"This March, it is estimated that Diamond Comics Distributors sold 5,567,648 of the top 200 comic books to American comic stores."

-Rich Johnston, BleedingCool.com

There were five shipping weeks in March, so that's about 1.1 million comics sold per week. We need to figure out how many comics the average comic shop patron buys per week. If it's five, then we have just as many people buying comics every week as we have buying iPads. Roughly.

Yet people still argue that comics on the tablet won't take off because tablets are an expensive luxury item? They can't keep the $500+ iPads in stock. And competitors at lower price points are on their way. I'm not worried about there not being a big enough installed base to sell digital comics in the future. . .

Think of it this way: More people buy iPads every two weeks than read comics on a weekly basis. And lots of comic readers have iPads, being of a similar demographic.

"The best way to prevent piracy is by making it easier to buy a product than it is to steal the same product."

-Medialoper

“The only way to fight piracy is to publish digital content across as many formats as possible, through as many channels, at a fair price. If we go for exclusive or proprietary formats, we’re completely screwed.”

-Tom Weldon, Deputy Chief Executive of Penguin Books (found on ComicsWorthReading)

"Although I've never met any one at a record company who "believed in the Internet," they've all been trying to cover their asses by securing everyone's digital rights. Not that they know what to do with them."

-Courtney Love

"Record companies are terrified of anything that challenges their control of distribution. This is the business that insisted that CDs be sold in incredibly wasteful 6-by-12 inch long boxes just because no one thought you could change the bins in a record store."

-Courtney Love, ibid

And the Direct Market complains about comics that are in any other format than the traditional rectangular stapled upright one. Publishers are afraid to reprint French albums at their proper size in part because retailers don't have the proper shelves to display them. And then whiney fans complain that their bookshelves aren't made for that, but they'll buy "Absolute Danger Girl."

"It's a situation that smacks of the music industry in the heart of the Napster era. The fact is, scanner-equipped pirates have ensured that every comic book published is available online in a matter of days after release. At some point, the comics industry needs to understand that artificial barriers and the withholding of content just won't work, and that they need to provide a good-karma, legal alternative to the comic scans that abound on BitTorrent tracker sites."

-Jason Snell, MacWorld Magazine

"Piracy happens when motivation meets opportunity. Motivation: love of authors, genres; perceived high prices; lack of availability; restrictive formats; distain for media companies. Opportunity: more digital content; more file sharing sites, broad availability of titles, more pirate ready devices."

-Summation of MacMillan president Brian Napack's remarks at Digital Book World.

His plans to stop all this are laughable and wrong-headed ("consumer-friendly DRM?"), but at least he has the causes figured out.

"Within a few years (or sooner) more people will read the books we publish at O’Reilly Media in digital form than in print. While it won’t happen that quickly for other publishers, it will happen. That doesn’t mean that print books will go away — it just means that publishing will be about digital products that you might happen to sell in print, not print products that you might sell digitally."

-Andrew Savikas, VP of O'Reilly Media

"Just like with music, movies, and games, when content companies don't give fans what they want in the format they want it, fans make it available themselves. But for the comic book industry, now may be the proverbial nick of time: It still has a chance to change digital distribution from a threat to survival into an opportunity for growth.

"...When it comes to new issues, publishers would ideally make comics available in both printed and digital versions. Geeks like the physical object - the collectible. But they also like just reading the stories, on paper or onscreen. Collectors would still pay a premium for the book itself - supporting independent comics retailers - and a whole world of casual fans could buy the latest issue of Superman - or even the very first appearance of Spider-Man - on iTunes."

-WIRED Magazine, four (!) years ago

"One of the big lessons of the new economy is that different people are willing to pay different amounts for fundamentally the same good -- and that, to thrive, you have to have an array of product offerings available for them to pay what they feel comfortable paying."

-Joshua Benton, Nieman Journalism Lab

""The principal mistake the music industry made was they chose not to be first" in electronic music dissemination, he said. "I think our industry [book publishing] won't make the same mistake, and we will beat the pirates."

-Dick Brass, a Microsoft vice president, from ten(!) years ago

"Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’, delayed the release of the eBook version for a few weeks, allegedly because they feared that it would cannibalize hardcover sales. This is one of the stupidest mistakes a publisher can make. The only thing it does is annoy customers, guaranteeing less sales."

-TorrentFreak

"Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

-Tim O'Reilly (Or maybe Cory Doctorow?)

"I love comic books... And I've been catching up on the Iron Man series… I've been buying them on the iPad and... it has reinvigorated my interest in the comic book art form. On the same token, I want the printed one, too."

-FFrederick Van John, This Week in Photography #149

Anecdotal evidence like this starts piling up after while.

"Mark Ishikawa, BayTSP’s founder and chief executive, sees a correlation between the availability of content through traditional legal channels and their popularity on pirate networks.

""When DVD releases are postponed, demand always goes up, because people don’t have an authorized channel to buy,” he said."

-New York Times, February 4, 2009

"Lacy told analysts the publisher spends about $150 million annually on paper, $80 million in printing costs and $80 million for mailing. If audience migration to an e-reader allows 20% of that $310 million to be trimmed, "that could really be meaningful to us from a financial point of view."

-Stephen Lacy, CEO Meredith Corp.

That is the economy of scale that comics could only dream of having.

"I would argue that every time a stubborn author or publisher refuses to release a popular book digitally, she contributes to the wider problem of piracy by helping normalize both the procedures by which one pirates a book and the behavior of reading unauthorized copies."

-Chris Walters, Booksprung.com

Next week, I'll continue to chart the decline and fall of the world of comics -- wait, nah, maybe I'll review something. You never know.

Lots more photography to be had over on my blogs, with more carnival and zoo pictures at AugieShoots.com and photographic tips at VariousandSundry.com. I post my iPhone photography at AugieShoots.tumblr.com when there's something cool to show.

E-mail me! Or come chat at the Pipeline Message Board, and catch up on nearly 13 years of columns in the Pipeline Archives.

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