On Digital Comics Distribution

We all know it’s the future. We all know we’re behind the gun. Playing catch up. And scared.

But we’ve been here before.

Ten years ago, the music industry was in a similar situation. Napster had changed everything. Suddenly, CDs seemed hopelessly out-of-date. Music became free. CD sales were suffering, though correlation does not equal causation, which is impossible to establish in this case.

Even scarier for the music industry, the people downloading were college kids. The hippest, youngest audience, the ones who could be counted on to buy all the new CDs with their disposable income. These were heady days, when online gurus were telling us that information wants to be free. Accustomed to the internet providing free content, they were now getting used to music being free.

We all know the story. But it’s useful reviewing the industry’s response, because it provides two different paths to take.

Option 1: Illegal Downloading is Theft. Go Hardcore.

In the first phase of their reaction, record companies started suing. They shut down Napster. Then they started suing individual downloaders. And they created advertisements to drill home the idea that downloading was stealing, pure and simple.

Now, imagine that you’re a college kid, used to the internet. This sort of total equivocation between file-sharing and theft smacks of every bad anti-drug ad you’ve ever seen.

For one thing, creating a copy of a file just isn’t the same thing as stealing a product from a store. It’s more like sitting in a bookstore and scanning pages to be read later, not lifting the actual book. No merchandise goes missing. True, it’s theft of intellectual property, but it’s not like stealing a manuscript off someone’s hard drive. This is information that’s already out there — and wasn’t legally available in mp3 format.

Secondly, file-sharing, although later upheld by courts to be illegal under most circumstances, wasn’t clearly illegal at the time. There was no brick-and-mortar, physical analogy for this transfer of bits and bytes from one computer to another. Was it analogous to someone giving away a mix tape? Did it matter that neither the person giving nor receiving knew each other? Or was it analogous to outright theft? The courts decided on the theft model, but with major

Thirdly, file-sharing had an anti-corporatist slant. It’s easy to feel bad for the Mom and Pop who go out of business from theft or from Wal-Mart. It’s harder to feel bad for Wal-Mart. And it’s harder still to feel bad for EMI, when all that’s being stolen is information only for sale in another form (CDs).

And please, don’t tell me theft means increased prices and sales equal lowered ones. That’s business theory, not business fact. A company is far more likely to use excess money to jack up its executive bonuses. Just like lowering corporate taxes doesn’t mean that money goes to hiring new people. It’s a big pool of money, and it doesn’t think that way. You can’t have multi-million-dollar executives with corporate jets and expense accounts, then claim downloading is forcing you to pay artists less. A child could can bullshit on that.

And wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll about rebellion anyway? You can’t sell anthems of resistance and then be surprised when people resist.

Given these factors, it didn’t exactly help the corporate cause to have scared kids who had been fined tens of thousands of dollars pleading with their local newspapers and TV stations. Yes, they’d done something wrong. But you’d get fined less for using a puppy as a kickball. To stop illegal downloading, the record companies felt they needed to take a hard line, and that meant making examples out of people. But examples can also be victims.

But that was the record companies’ initial reaction: go hardcore. It didn’t work. It made kids into martyrs and only raised every of the above counter-arguments, demolishing sympathy for the corporations in anyone but the most fundamentalist conservative. In other words, some of the parents of those rebellious, downloading kids.

Option 2: This is Reality. You Can’t Fight Change. Figure out How to Profit from It.

We all know the resolution to this story. No one’s stopped illegal downloading of music. Information may not want to be free, but it sure is going to be in some form, like it or not. You can’t keep every single person in the world from ripping CDs to mp3s and putting them on a file-sharing program. You can shut down Napster, but the genie’s out of the bottle. Napster turned into torrent sites. Nor can you send cease-and-desist letters fast enough to get those many programs from listing your songs. Not if you want to, y’know, still have time and resources to make and market music.

And there have been many studies that show that the more media is available for free, the more it also sells. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s generally true. If you like the song enough, you want the CD — or at least the official, high-quality mp3. You want it for your iPod and your car. And when the next CD comes out, you’ll probably buy that too. You’re a fan now, and you feel good supporting the artist too.

At this point, the illegal downloaders are using mp3s as free samples. Or at least enough of them are to make this a valid business model.

Now, this might work more in favor of less-established artists. It’s easy to see how a nobody can skyrocket to stardom based on a few million free downloads. We see it on YouTube every day. The more established artists might get a lower conversion into sales, but that’s a cost of doing business, a force that counter-acts economies of scale and the benefits of market saturation. If you get onto top-10 stations and everyone likes your song just because they’ve heard it so often, you get less conversion into sales. Deal with it.

It turned out, after all, that the kids weren’t lying. A lot of them said they’d buy mp3s if available at a reasonable price. Stores like iTunes and eMusic have made a fortune because these kids weren’t lying. Or again, at least enough of them weren’t to make some people very, very rich.

Importantly, these new mp3 stores didn’t try to gouge people. Anything over a dollar a track just feels wrong for copied bits and bytes. This is key, because the model doesn’t work any other way.

Here again, there are benefits for the smaller artists. Sure, the big acts were always in every record store. But trying to find some indy acts, let alone international music or jazz or classical, and you often didn’t have a store nearby that carried it. Now, you’ve got virtually everything instantly available. You win, the artists win, and everyone’s happy.

And so we reach the new normal. Yeah, you might hear an artist bitch about illegal downloading now and then, how it’s the same as robbing a street musician. But you’ve got Starbuck’s giving away cards for free mp3 downloads on iTunes every single week. Eminem’s not going broke anytime soon, but Architecture in Helsinki is almost as widely available, and Antoine Dodson’s got himself and his family a new life.

I call that a win.

Sure, there are long-term issues that haven’t been resolved. The big acts are still huge profit-makers, especially in concert, but most acts fail. Record companies, always about the bottom line, have become even quicker to drop these acts. So it’s harder to get your second album made than the first.

And then there’s digital rights management (DRM). Buy a song on iTunes, and you can only copy it a few times. Burn it to a CD for the car, then your iPod, then your iPhone, and you’ll likely find you can’t copy it onto your new laptop when your old one dies. You didn’t read the fine print: you might have paid your dollar, but you down own the song. You’re just renting.

But even with these problems, the music industry’s a much better world than it was a decade ago. Music’s more likely to be free legally. It’s free illegally too, if you want. And even obscure acts are widely available in digital formats at reasonable prices.

And here’s the lesson: don’t just accept reality, embrace it.

You can hate change, but that won’t stop it from coming. You might retard it a little, at the price of looking like an ass, but at the end of the day, you’re just a silent actor who couldn’t translate into talkies. Video killed the radio star, but only because he refused to get with the times.

The State of Digital Comics

For years, comics have had it easy. We’ve watched as Napster rose and fell. Everyone knew video would follow, as bandwidth increased. That’s reality now: many movies now make as much streaming through Hulu and Netflix as from DVD sales.

Now, it’s books’ and comics’ turn.

Partially, the delay has been because of comics’ lower levels of readership, relative to listeners and viewers of music and movies. Because more people want Katy Perry albums than the newest issue of Invincible, there are more people sharing Katy Perry albums.

The delay has also been technological:  it’s harder to upload a comic. You have to scan every page. With a CD, you just put it in your computer and let a music-ripping program do the work for you.

Yet despite these roadblocks, it’s been reported for years that most comics ever published are available online, including many that are no longer in print. There are even two file extensions used only to share comics.

Yet try to find most comics available for sale in digital form. You can’t.

Meanwhile, even the book industry has tried to catch up. Apple’s prepping for a war with current market leader Amazon over digital book pricing. Amazon’s even taken a loss on most digital book sales to increase its market share, making it back through sales of Kindle readers. Anyone can upload and sell digital books now.

The press recently learned this, when it made a huge news story over a single author’s self-published “guide” for pedophiles appearing on Amazon. Of course, the only real way to prevent this is approving books before they’re uploaded for sale, and that’s very old publishing — not to mention a recipe for losing all that market share overnight.

Hell, even U.S. diplomatic and military correspondences are being file-shared through WikiLeaks. It’s a new world.

But talk to most people who actually work in comics, and you’ll hear abject fear about this situation. Most comics creators aren’t rich, and the idea that they can’t stop people from downloading their product for free is nothing short of abjectly horrific.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a long history of digital comics.

After changing the industry’s awareness of itself with Understanding Comics and other works, Scott McCloud went digital. He struggled with the technology at the time, including the lack of a system for charging readers small payments. And he mostly experimented with the form, with the “infinite canvas” of the webpage as opposed to the concrete dimensions of the comics page. But he was there.

Years ago, CrossGen put its entire back catalogue of comics online. Like iTunes, this was a rental model, though CrossGen used a subscription model in which you’d lose access if you missed a monthly payment. Still, they were doing it, much like they were experimenting with trade paperback anthology collections — shortly before going bust.

Warren Ellis, always a leader in promoting both comics and technology, got the chance to combine these interests by venturing into digital comics, creating a model by which the content is serialized for free online before being collected in trade paperback. Some readers are always going to prefer the hard copy, just like some music-listeners are going to want the CD. But it’s fair to say that the creators made less than they would have through a mainstream comics publisher, and not everyone is as big a draw as Warren Ellis.

And of course, there are digital comics platforms available today, mostly also using a rental model, usually DRM.

For years, Marvel and DC have been experimenting with digital comics, first through putting key issues online and more recently though original content, but both have resited making their archives available.

Thus forcing people to “steal,” if they want comics in a digital format.  Exactly like mp3s in 2000.

Nostalgia is Killing Us (or, Hey Kids! Comics Starring Daddy’s Old Super-Heroes!)

Why this resistance? Aren’t comics-readers a forward-thinking bunch?

In many ways, yes. But in other ways, comics are intensely conservative.

To be sure, change is frightening. Because comics haven’t been proactive about digital distribution, they’re now in the position of the music industry in 2001. Because of that example, they know better than to crack down the way the record companies did. But iTunes isn’t really there yet.

One reason for this resistance may be that comics have stayed relatively static, as either newspaper strips and short magazines, for most of their life. It’s only really in the 1980s that the trade paperback or graphic novel form took off. Comics readers embraced it, in part because it represented legitimacy. And this had a self-reinforcing effect: as graphic novels became more dominant, single issues (“pamphlets,” as some proponents of the graphic novel form called them, emphasizing their brevity) became increasingly decompressed, just chapters in a serialized narrative headed for eventual and more permanent collection.

And comics readers are a quintessentially nostalgic bunch. It’s responsible for the best and worst of the medium. It meant the return of super-heroes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It meant a new Flash and that he’d meet Jay Garrick. But it’s also meant increasing levels of continuity, especially as the comics readership ages, which in turn make comics increasingly inaccessible to new readers.

And the rise of decompression has meant that stories are ever more spaced out, taking up more issues, few of which tell a complete story on their own, hasn’t helped. Many issues are unintelligible to new (or often returning) readers. While likely an effect of continuity already rendering many comics insular, the result is a sort of snowballing into increasing levels of insularity, in which more and more comics are sold to an audience base that’s largely incapable of expansion.

This nostalgia’s crippling us. The return of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen represents the ultimate surrender to nostalgia, to an ageing comics audience who remembers and loves these incarnations of the characters. And there’s a place for that, just like there’s a place for L.A. Law reunions: the more the merrier, I say. But it’s neither in essence nor on its face anything vaguely resembling the future.

As for the kids, well, they’re not buying the kid-friendly versions of DC and Marvel super-heroes. That’s what their mommies and daddies buy them, because their mommies and daddies think they’re hip for liking comics and want their kids to like a kiddie version of what mommies and daddies grew up on, so they’ll eventually graduate and dive into the continuity-laded parent titles. The kids politely take your kiddie super-hero comics, but what they really want is Scott Pilgrim. And above all, manga. Lots and lots of manga.

But digital? That’s something else entirely.

Sure, digital’s scary. But it’s also an opportunity.

Consider one voice in the wilderness: Mark Waid. His interview on the subject at ComicsAlliance.com was easily one of the best comics-related interviews of 2010. Waid’s pledged himself to exploring digital distribution, using different models. And he’s not concerned with getting rich doing so. Instead, he’s concerned with getting a diverse array of comics to survive into an inevitable future, one in which digital becomes the dominant mode of distribution.

As part of that, Waid has rightly seen that these digital comics can’t be as insular as today’s offerings. He’s championed an end to decompression, or at least a return to the idea that each issue should, even if it’s part of a larger tale, offer a story in and of itself. And he’s argued that comics need to push beyond their current dominance by super-heroes, if they’re going to expand their readership.

In other words, as we’re expanding into digital comics, we’ve got to rethink what comics we’re publishing. Because just like the graphic novel changed the format of comics, so too will digital comics.

To some, this makes digital comics only more frightening. To others, this is simply an unavoidable fact, and it’s our responsibility to confront and adapt to reality as it is, rather than trying to hold onto things as they are or once were.

The Backlist

The longer we fail to address these matters, the longer we, as an industry, are only rewarding piracy. Because if people want something in a digital form, it’s only smart to give it to them. Sure, a certain percentage of those downloaders are going to pirate no matter what. But some of them won’t, as the history of digital music demonstrates so conclusively.

Imagine if a music album were available only on vinyl. Then cassette tapes come out, but the album is never reissued on cassette. People are going to make copies, dubbed from their vinyl albums. And circulate them. And it’s really hard to blame them, since you don’t have a cassette version available.

It should be pointed out that this is the case with the vast, vast majority of comics ever published. Most of the comics from Marvel and DC’s vast back catalogue currently aren’t available in any form, except for pirated digital copies — unless someone wants to track down back issues, often at inflated prices, from which the publishers and creators don’t see a dime.

All the collections available today — the big black-and-white Essentials and Showcase books, the huge hardcover omnibus volumes, the trade paperbacks and beautifully produced archives — don’t add up to more than a tiny fraction of these companies’ backlist. And even those aren’t available digitally, for those who prefer that format.

That’s called leaving money on the table.

It’s a bad business practice.

It also encourages piracy. That, in turn, promotes a culture of piracy. It trains readers to expect that digital comics are free, to habituate themselves to downloading through pirated sources.

This doesn’t just represent lost money. It represents lost future money. It means that, when you do get this catalogue online, it’ll take even longer to condition people to download it legally, when they’re accustomed to the equivalent of the old Napster.

Read the Rest

We’ll continue tomorrow, examining issues like release dates, the impact on comics specialty shops, pricing, DRM and digital formats, and creator fears over digital. I’ll also venture to guess what this new status quo might look like, when all’s said and done.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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