Assuming we recognize the very real and pressing need for a comprehensive digital comics policy, several issues still remain that must be solved, before we can envision what such a policy would look like.
(This is a follow-up to “On Digital Comics Distribution,” which describes the pressing need for comics to adapt to the digital environment, implicates comics’ nostalgia as a key reason why they largely haven’t, praises Mark Waid, and looks at the obvious benefit of getting a company’s backlist available digitally.)
Issue #1: Comics Stores and Release Dates
I take it for granted that digital comics should be released on the same day as their printed versions, a practice called day-and-date release. At the very least, the digital version shouldn’t be delayed by more than a week.
This has been an issue of contention, because most publishers go out of their way to reward and reassure comics stores. And understandably so: monthly comics are still vastly reliant on this system of specialty shops. Digital comics are a direct threat to those shops’ business.
But let’s imagine there’s a mainstream news story about a particular comic. Say, for example, the death of Captain America or the death of a member of the Fantastic Four. Major news outlets cover the story. As a publisher, this is great news. It might even be good for the medium, as a way of bringing in new readers.
But those interested in buying the issue have to find their local comics store. Some areas don’t have a comics store. Or their comics store, to be frank, really sucks.
Now imagine you’re a hip, smart young girl with disposable income — exactly the kind of person the industry would most like to attract. You’re excited by a new comic, although you’re not a regular reader. But the closest store is half an hour away, and it’s one of those dark places full of vaguely sweaty men, with twelve-sided dice lying around, posters of nearly naked girls on the walls, and stand-ups of bizarrely muscled heroes like Conan. Not only has comics potentially lost this new reader, but it’s potentially making an enemy of the very demographic you would most like to court.
Sure, for every instance like this, there are others in major cities with brilliant and inviting comics shops. But by making the issue available digitally, one avoids this problem altogether.
(The above image, by the way, isn’t actually a girl cautiously venturing into a comics shop but rather Olive Panter, working in New York’s Cosmic Comics, as profiled on Wired. Still, it’s important to note that she doesn’t read super-hero comics and, when asked which comics character she’d like to be, says,
I don’t live vicariously through comics. I think a lot of people tend to [but] especially as a girl, you don’t want to pretend to be the giant-breasted, platform-wearing… It just wouldn’t be fun. But if I had to pick, [...] it would probably be Enid from Ghost World.
The question is, were she to live somewhere else, would she would have access to a reasonably comfortable and friendly store where she could discover Ghost World — and through it the entire medium of independent comics? If the answer is no, comics have lost a potential lifelong reader — and one who’s, yes, both female and intelligent, criteria we ought to value as we attempt to expand comics readership. If your answer is that you don’t particularly care because she doesn’t read Iron Man, it would seem that what you really love is super-heroes, rather than comics.)
Yes, comics stores serve a unique function by allowing readers to encounter and to browse other titles. If a reader likes Warren Ellis, he or she can find other Ellis titles, ideally on a shelf of their own, maybe even with a flyer dangling from it about Ellis. Most stores simply don’t offer such forward-thinking options, but some do.
And those are the stores most likely to survive the rise of digital comics. At best, these stores can fulfill the role of guide or editor, pointing readers to new material.
Additionally, some readers are always going to prefer this personal touch. And reading comics in printed form. And supporting local businesses.
But we shouldn’t automatically assume that digital distribution means an inability of readers to cross over into other titles. Websites already perform much of this function. And any smartly designed digital comics platform would incorporate much of the same function as well. If you like a title by Warren Ellis, you don’t even have to find the appropriate shelf; you just have to click on his name.
Of course, it’s hard to blame retailers for wanting to resist digital comics. They’re competition. It’s in the short-term interest of any business to stamp out its competition to the greatest extent possible.
In the long-term, however, competition usually makes businesses better. In other words, if a comics store wants to survive, it better get working on that Ellis shelf. And making sure that’s it’s clean, brightly-lit, and stranger-friendly.
Moreover, that competition is already here. Digital comics aren’t anything new. It’s paying for them that’s new. Stores are surely already losing business to customers who, whether for economic reasons, a preference for reading digitally, or simply not liking the store, are choosing to download illegally.
Issue #2: Pricing
I’m sure that, in the short run, digital comics will be priced comparable to printed comics, if only to test the demand and to avoid angering anxious comics stores any more than necessary.
In the long run, however, the price of digital comics are going to have to go down.
With any printed material, the paper and printing itself is a huge percentage of the cost of the product. Paper costs in particular have skyrocketed in the last couple decades, and mass-market hardcover books often costs nearly $30.
This is one difference between comics and the music (or film) industry. A CD might sell for $16, but its cost of production is minimal: about $1 or $2, depending. The case and enclosed booklet costs more than the CD itself. In contrast, a softcover book that costs $16 might cost $3 to produce, or it might cost $6, depending on its print run (and thus the economies of scale involved). Since most retailers take about 50% of cover price (with distributors sometimes taking an additional 10-20%), print publication generally operates on very small margins.
But when it comes to digital downloads, the public is very much aware that it’s only purchasing data. Whatever the cost of producing the original material, the actual cost of distribution is only the cost of bandwidth. This can be considerable, in high quantities or for large video files, but it’s minimal for most books.
Thus, the purchasing public feels ripped off buying a book for $25, although that’s less than most hardcover books. The public also feels ripped off buying a book for $15, although that’s about the cost of most trade paperbacks.
On Amazon’s self-published CreateSpace, the most successful books available for download are priced at just $1 or $2. Understandably, their creators are often reluctant to give away what can be months or even years of hard work at such a pittance. But the most successful books make up for this by selling not a few copies or even a few hundred copies, but thousands or even half a million downloads.
On the other hand, though there’s little research to prove this, I’m not convinced that there’s much to be gained by pricing something under $1. A dollar is so little these days that I doubt most people who are willing to purchase a title would purchase that many more, were that title priced at 50 cents. That might be true for music, with which someone might want to purchase an entire album, and that’s why downloadable albums often come at vast discounts. But for a single download of anything, I’m not sure that pricing even lower than $1 would make such a vast difference as getting the price down to $1 or $2 in the first place.
In the comics industry, comics prices have steadily risen for decades. $3 or $4 for a 22-page issue becomes a big problem when that issue represents only a few minutes of reading time. In comparison, a video game might cost $60 but represent hundreds of hours of amusement. A music track might cost $1 and last as long as the comic, but it will vastly beat the comic in value, because music is generally listened to over and over again. A $1 track that goes into heavy rotation on someone’s portable mp3 player has immense value, relative to a comic.
One of the effects of this is that many readers, especially in this economy, can’t afford to buy as many comics as they used to. 50 comics a month comes to a minimum of $150, often closer to $200.
There are plenty of titles that this same reader might purchase, were the price lower. For example, most Batman readers don’t buy all Batman-related titles every month. They simply can’t afford to, not if they enjoy the hell out of Batman, Inc. and Batman: The Dark Knight but aren’t all that keen on Red Robin. Yet they have a demonstrated interest in Batman, and they’d likely purchase those ancillary titles if they were priced at $1.50 instead of $3, which might better reflect how much enjoyment the reader got out of them.
Similarly, Marvel and DC have engaged in many huge crossovers, which can involve around a hundred issues. The companies take pains, more or less, to avoid requiring readers to purchase all of these issues, since the average comics reader simply can’t afford to do so. Instead, the reader chooses only the ones he or she likes the most. This might include titles that are new to the reader, and the company hopes that this will happen, because a certain percentage of these readers will continue with those titles. Comics readers tend to be completists, and they might well want to at least see where those titles are going, since they’ve read a few issues of them. But for most readers, continuing with those titles is an expensive proposition, at $3 (or more) a month for a single title. Thus, they usually drop these titles immediately after the crossover, and the result is that crossovers typically boost sales on titles only for the duration of the crossover.
Consider, for argument’s sake, if digital comics were priced differently. Ideally, they might be priced at or near their print equivalent, perhaps for the first month of release. So if you want the new Batman digitally right when it comes out, it’s going to cost you the same as the printed version. (In the long run, I suspect that even this price will drop, but it’s worth advancing as an argument, at least as an intermediate step.)
After that month, perhaps the price drops from $3 to $2. After another month, it goes down to $1. The same price that every single issue in the company’s back catalogue is at.
How many more sales would this result in? It’s hard to imagine digital comics readers paying $3 for, say, Captain America #126. But at $1, it becomes a lot more palatable.
Right now, people might look at a run of issues and balk at even trying them out at $3 a pop. After all, if they’re good, that reader’s going to be tempted to get them all, and even a run of twenty issues comes to $60. At $1, it’s a lot easier to try new things — especially if they’re downloaded virtually instantly, resulting in instant gratification.
And just like that, every issue of every series has become one of those $1 try-out issues. Companies could even offer the first issue of select series (e.g. 100 Bullets) for free.
All of a sudden, all those comics readers who would like to purchase many more comics, were the price lower, would likely do so. Batman, Inc. is still going to sell better and make more money than Red Robin. Especially if the price is elevated in the first month or two of release. But Red Robin is suddenly going to sell a great deal more, because if it’s worth $3 to 25,000 Batman completists, it’s almost certainly worth $1 to 100,000. And if it gets even the tiniest bit of buzz, instead of scaring readers off because it looks like part of a sprawling Batman line, general comics readers are going to be a lot more likely to try it out for a buck.
Of course, there can also be digital subscriptions. This might also allow for a previously unprecedented “line-wide” subscription, whereby a reader could (or would automatically) download every title in a major corporate universe for a single fee. Preserving the idea of charging more in the first month or two of release, this line-wide subscription might have several options, depending on how long the reader wanted to wait. Downloading a single issue before that time could then be prorated, so that readers who just couldn’t wait for a title could do so at the difference in cost, which would encourage the practice and mean more corporate money.
Naturally, there can also be albums, not unlike music albums or trade paperback collections. So if you want to purchase Grant Morrison’s entire run on Batman, you could do so on a per-issue basis for $1 an issue. But you could also get them all at a discount.
And just like some downloadable albums or trade paperbacks, bonus materials could be included in these albums. Companies can still publish expensive hardcovers on good paper for those who want nice printed versions. But the downloadable album can contain the bonus material in these, and that’s one way of selling the same material, over and over again.
In addition, this would allow a few older issues to be included in the album, not unlike how trade paperbacks are sometimes padded with related but older material. The same can also be done with single issues, as it sometimes has been with printed comics. Readers often resent this, since it invariably means higher cover prices and being forced to buy older comics they might not otherwise want. But with downloaded comics, this material could be included for free. And it could be linked to the archives for those issues, so that readers who likes these free samples of older material could buy more, either at $1 a pop or in their own albums — which may also include free samples, drawing readers to other material.
If Watchmen‘s sold a million copies, how many more would it sell were the first issue free and the rest $1 a pop? Or as an album for $9, with a bunch of free sample issues included? Of course, if you want all the bonus materials, you could also get a $20 download that includes those too. Or a $100 deluxe Alan Moore package, with Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and his DC Universe work, plus all the bonus material.
And the best part of this is that it’s virtually free to set up. Instead of paying an editor and a printer to assemble and proof a new edition, a single person can assemble these files in whatever new combination makes sense.
And there’s always the comparatively pricey printed versions, for those who prefer that.
This is important because there’s a principle in business that calls for products to be sold at multiple price points, in order to maximize profit. Customers can buy a regular coffee at Starbucks for $1, but they can also buy a fancy, customized blended beverage for $6, which only includes a little ice and some syrups, for a much greater profit margin. The same principle applies to coupons: penny-pinching customers can take the time to cut them out or print them up, but those willing to spend more will pay the higher price, thus maximizing profit.
Apply this to comics, any you have the $1 bare-bones version of an issue, for those with only a casual interest or not a lot of money to spent. But you’ve also got the deluxe album downloads and the fancy printed collections, for those who are less, shall we say, cost-sensitive.
So there’s no need to leave any money on the table.
Issue #3: DRM and Digital Formats
Mark Waid has also brought up the issue of DRM, or digital rights management, which generally causes downloaded files (such as all music purchased through iTunes) to be limited to a certain number of copies (often three). This means that, when your computer or mp3 player crashes and you try to move your music library to your new device, you can suddenly find that you’ve reached your maximum number of copies. And then you lose your entire “library.”
Because it wasn’t really yours. You were encouraged to think so, that you were building a library, but in fact you were only renting.
To make matters worse, iTunes uses its own digital music format (m4a), which can only be used by Apple devices and programs, such as iTunes itself. If you’ve ever tried opening the download you just purchased through another music player, you feel the same way you do when you realize that you’re renting.
Like you’ve been ripped off.
And it’s worth pointing out that there isn’t a single DRM formula, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been broken. Every time companies put a new system of DRM on CDs or DVDs, people figure out how to break these systems and disseminate the information. Others make programs to get around the DRM.
The result is that DRM (1) only deters those who don’t know what they’re doing and are too lazy to find out, and (2) spurs ill will towards the companies involved. These, in turn, can spur piracy, especially when it’s easier to download illegally than it is to bother figuring out how to get around a particular form of DRM.
The ill will this creates is not insubstantial. Apple used to be considered a tech-friendly, information-neutral company. Most tech people might love their devices and how those devices push the overall market, but they now regard the company as something akin to the spawn of Satan, a vehemence previously reserved for Microsoft.
In fact, DRM has faced such a grassroots movement against it that the recording industry’s representatives have themselves reversed course and capitulated, at least publicly, and proclaimed it dead, essentially admitting that it not only hasn’t stopped piracy but has actually encouraged it. Again, if the music industry is ahead of the digital curve relative to comics, there’s a lesson to be learned here.
I’m not going to offer a solution for DRM here, nor prescribe a file format — except to say that the latter shouldn’t be the often slow and unwieldy pdf, which makes great sense for books consisting mostly of text and not much for comics, which consist mostly of images.
I’m only going to say that it’s important to be sensitive to these issues, and that the file format shouldn’t be proprietary, like Apple’s m4a.
To fail to take these into account means only cautiously putting one’s toes into digital comics, a half-measure that encourages the piracy that legal digital comics should be capturing and monetizing.
Issue #4: Royalties and Creator Fears
Retailers seem especially worried about digital comics, but so too do creators. This became especially obvious in the hostility that greeted Mark Waid’s comments. Creators are understandably worried that digital comics will rob them of their livelihoods, such as they are. Most comics creators aren’t rich, and you can hardly blame them for their fear.
But it’s worth mentioning that getting this backlist online could radically help comics creators. There’s been a lot of attention to the poverty of many older comics creators, who didn’t exactly have pensions as freelance creators. With digital backlists, these creators could earn a lot more royalties. In fact, every creator could be assured that all of the work they have ever produced would remain available for download.
It’s true that this benefit won’t be spread evenly, among all creators. We might be tempted to speculate that this benefit would accrue disproportionately to creators whose backlist isn’t currently available in its entirety. There may well be some truth to that.
That’s especially not a bad thing for ageing comics creators, many of whom have relatively little in print and no pension on which to rely.
But I don’t think major comics creators are going to be short-changed either. It’s not as if digital comics are going to eliminate the concept of hot names. There will still be celebrities, and their fans will still gobble up anything those celebrities do.
Likely, this will be even more the case: Grant Morrison can sell 100,000 printed copies of Batman, Inc., but his creator-owned Seaguy sells something closer to 20,000. This scenario is not unlike the difference between Batman, Inc. and Red Robin, described above: fans of Batman, Inc. have an interest in the other, lesser-selling title, either based on a character or a creator, but not enough interest to make the purchase at $3.
In other words, the digital comics model outlined above could help lower-run or “forgotten” creators, but it could also help big names find a bigger market for their more niche or creator-owned projects.
This would intrinsically tend to lead to more diversity, in terms of the comics offered. And as described above, that’s a very good thing for the health of the industry.
Where We’re Going
There just might be a utopian world on the horizon. A world in which the average comic is read digitally, on an array of portable digital devices. Where if you’re bored at the airport, or as a passenger in the car, or anywhere, you can easily and quickly download a comic, at a minimal cost. Where you can try out titles easily and cheaply. And where, if you do want to follow Marvel or DC’s entire line, you can do it (arguably if you’re willing to wait few couple months) at about the cost of following a third of those titles now — or even a bit less, with a subscription.
Printed comics would still exist, but the monthly “pamphlet” would become an increasingly niche market, one likely to diminish over time. Their price would likely rise as demand fell, and they might change their format as a result, shifting towards larger anthologies with greater value per page (not unlike how many printed comics used to be, in the 1930s and ’40s).
Meanwhile, printed collections would probably come to represent a bigger and bigger percentage of the market, since people are more likely to want a beloved book permanently on their shelves than a magazine in a box.
Both printed comics and printed collections might increase in quality, as a way of making them feel truly special and justifying their price. The ideal printed comic could be an art object, something beautifully designed that you’d want to leave on your coffee table, alongside The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, if you’re snooty, or Time and Newsweek if you’re not. In a world where print is considered an expensive indulgence, expect printed comics to escape their newsprint, pulp roots more and more.
Comics stores in this world would still exist but in fewer number. Already, they’re being supplanted by bookstores; now, they’d also be supplanted by every mobile device. The stores that survive might specialize in printed back issues and in knowledgeable staff. Already, most comics stores are also gaming stores, along with odd knickknacks like statues. Perhaps, as printed comics became increasingly expensive, they’d be a poor match for gaming, which is almost invariably cheap, and reach instead towards other expensive print concerns, such as books, art books, and posters or prints.
What’s far more certain is that digital distribution of anything involves forces that push industries towards decentralization. For example, record companies don’t make a lot of sense to established bands, who must each pay for the nine others that fail. When everyone can sell books or music online, the big publishing houses lose their hegemony.
Applying this to comics means that DC and Marvel will lose market share, though they’re in no danger of dying. And it should be pointed out that, even if I’m right about this, they should embrace digital publishing as early and as much as possible, because even if the digital landscape is likely to decrease their market share over time, the earlier one gets in, the more of the digital market one is going to initially capture. Entropy might takes its course in any environment, but the surest way to kill any company is to refuse to adapt.
Still, the cost of entry is much less, when it comes to digital. This means that publishers will have increased competition, and that competition can come as fast as any group of people creating comics and putting them for sale digitally. Again, publishers shouldn’t be unduly afraid of this: in the digital world, it’s the new normal. Adaptation is a constant process, and the need to adapt is only going to become quicker.
In other media, the move to digital has involved an explosion of output, since distribution is now easier. But the flip-side of this is that criticism becomes increasingly impossible. No one can pretend to know what was the best novel published last year in the U.S., when there were something on the order of 100,000. This is the compensation big publishing houses retain: lacking any ability to actually read everything that’s out there, critics and reviewers pay attention to the publishers with the big profile, assuming that most of what’s good will come from there.
On the other hand, this explosion of output means an increase in diversity. In comics, this will entail a shrinking market share for super-hero comics. There’s no reason to think that super-hero comics will ever die out, nor is the day when they represent a minority of all comics published in the U.S. even on the horizon. But one can expect that this percentage will continue to shrink. When everyone has immediate access to any comic, there’s no reason to think that those purchasing comics will prefer super-heroes in as great a percentage as comics readers do today.
All of these developments are good for the medium of comics, not just in terms of their diversity but also in terms of readership — although not entirely good for the medium’s existing publishers or stores.
But in business, as in biology, you either adapt or die. And the damage to existing publishers and stores will only be greater, the longer change is delayed.
Of course, I could be wrong about any or all of this. Predictions are usually wrong because they fail to take into account both unknown elements and cultural effects. Although digital distribution may inherently argue for a greater variety of comics genres, culture alone could mitigate that — although the success of both Vertigo and manga would argue otherwise, at least over the long term. Equally, the existing habits of comics readers could force U.S. comics back to newsprint to keep costs down, turning comics stores less into French-style emporiums of printed matter and more into Japanese-style manga shops with paid lending plans.
No one could have predicted that iTunes would come to dominate music downloads so completely, and some similar platform could come to dominate comics distribution in a way that limits the decentralization that digital naturally entails, in turn potentially limiting the diversity of available comics and helping to prop up existing publishers. But in the long run, this same centralization also spurs piracy — surely, the practices of iTunes are the biggest encouragements to music piracy still existing today, not to mention the rise of increasingly successful iTunes competitors. Thus, the potentials of digital distribution themselves continue this process of decentralization, meaning that iTunes too will have to adapt or die.
In any case, these are my thoughts, at this present moment, in this changing environment, with all the ensuing fear and the exciting potentials that it conveys.