Yes, I Hate Digital Comics
Having said that…does what I feel really matter anymore…?
Like many of you, the thought of reading an entire comic on a computer screen feels more than a little perverse to me. Being able to physically hold a book in my hands is one of the coolest things about reading---to me anyway, and that’s the biggest reason I’ve had some difficulty properly embracing even the idea of digital comics. And obviously, this is not meant to disparage or trivialize the work that people have been doing with the format over the last several years. There’s a real possibility that I’ll consider releasing a project or two digitally in the very near future, but personally, I just don’t enjoy reading comics that way. But it is clear that a lot of folks do, and our personal feelings about this are rendered moot when you consider the long-term implications of Diamond’s recent decision to increase sales benchmarks.
Besides making it clear once and for all that the comics industry is hardly “recession-proof,” it’s also a major blow to those still convinced that relying entirely on Diamond Distribution is a sustainable business model. 2009 will be a critical year for the entire business, because of the economy and the 800-pound elephant in the room with the sentence, “How is the digital age going to affect comics?” written on it. It now appears that we’ll be forced to answer this a little sooner than expected and get used to the awful, inconvenient truth…the future of comics heading into the next decade is digital. This is whether some of us (including me) like it or not.
Diamond has been taking a beating on the message boards and such, but that’s something of an easy response, and one that completely overlooks our own culpability. There is no question this move will negatively impact a number of independent publishers, but seriously, we as fans and retailers have done a great job of that on our own. We have made it increasingly difficult for anyone but the major companies to make decent money producing comics, and the margins between have been extending for years. And even if blaming Diamond for that feels right, the truth can be found in the sales numbers of creator-owned projects from some of the biggest names in comics like Bendis, Millar, Brubaker, Ellis, etc. The fact is that while all of them have written enormously successful creator-owned material, it can only garner a fraction of the sales their work-for-hire material does. This is the true issue, the true problem with comics that not even digital distribution can instantly solve. As an industry, we have long cultivated an almost violent allergy to anything “new,” and that’s the thing that continues to hold us back.
A significant number of people reading serialized comics are perfectly happy to keep reading the same books and characters they’ve always read month after month and year after year. When the Previews catalog becomes that much slimmer in a couple months, most people won’t even notice. Again, talking amongst ourselves on message boards and comic sites, this is clearly the most relevant thing happening in the biz, but the true majority just doesn’t care and likely can’t be made to. So instead of hammering our fists into a brick wall, trying to get people to buy something they are loudly communicating to us that they don’t want, we must instead think. Is it really still possible for a smaller publisher to rely solely on the Diamond model and achieve success? If not, how do we efficiently and successfully reach a potential audience that actually does want comics featuring new concepts? Most importantly, now that we’ve _____ it all up, are we really determined about fixing it?
If you are a comic book company and are not seriously considering some method of digital distribution, then in the next couple years, you’re likely going out of business. The smaller the publishing house, the more important this ultimately is. Because honestly, people are already reading comics online, they’re just doing it illegally now, and the people that should be gettin’ paid from them aren’t. Folks are not just reading scanned comics online because they’re free that way, but because this is a format they’re comfortable with. So let’s find a way to plug into that and supply some much needed revenue to the companies actually producing the work. Yes, creating a framework will be difficult, but several entertainment mediums have been able to weather the storm of a business model that relies more heavily on a digital delivery system. Comics will be no different.
The most exciting thing about embracing this transition is the possibility that overall production costs will go down, making trying something new more attractive to consumers. Because this is one of the most common justifications for holding onto the familiar over all else, and with 3.99 becoming the new average price for virtually all comics, this will only intensify. Price points are becoming more and more critical, and if you think asking someone to sample a new book for four dollars is tough, wait until you’re asking for eighteen dollars. OGNs are a great format, but I don’t know how viable they are to companies and creators without a built-in fan base, or launching a completely new property.
In general, graphic novels have served as our “magic bullet” for some time now, and while ultimately I think it’s still the most important facet of the modern industry, how we actually get there will almost certainly change. All that matters to a smaller publisher (or an unknown creator) is being able to conquer the bookstore and Amazon market with a perfect bound collection of their stories and behind-the-scenes material. To those people not driven into a frenzy every Wednesday afternoon, locating and going to an actual comic shop is something that seems much more difficult than pressing the little button marked “Add Item to Cart,” and waiting for it to be dropped on your front step. However…the current model doesn’t work nearly as smoothly without being able to serialize the material first. It could be that the “Zuda/Freakangels approach” will be something we see more of, with the ‘net being used to distribute and test the market for a project, before repackaging it into a trade for an extended shelf life.
What I think will be the ultimate turning point is the inevitable introduction of a device similar to the Amazon Kindle with touch screen functionality. Or perhaps I’m simply projecting in the hope of maintaining some kind of tactile connection to what I’m reading. We could download comics, books, magazines, etc. and digest the material in pretty much the same way we do now. Only we’d now have the direct contact with the mass market we’re constantly craving, lower per unit prices, and this could become a complement of the print business instead of an instant replacement. Companies could collect their stories at pretty much the same increments they are now, offering them in fully digital and printed formats. An iTunes model for comics is the future, and the sooner we realize that and get to building it, the better off we’ll all be.
The comics industry is far from doomed, but it does have to make some hard choices going forward. The state of the world economy is forcing our hand somewhat, but anyone that was paying attention knew this was coming sooner rather than later. If someone does not seriously figure out a working model that will attack the comics retailer, the bookstore chain, and the iPhone user all in one very concentrated swoop, no amount of Hollywood presence or interest will sustain us. It’s time to start realizing that Diamond is going to become one leg of an adaptive and progressive supply chain, and not the only hope that publishers have of getting their comics in front of people.
This recession or depression or whatever you want to call it isn’t going to be reversed overnight, and are you willing to stake everything on the hope that the sales threshold won’t increase again next year…or the one after that? Time to wake up and take a few baby steps into the future, people. In the meantime, pre-ordering has never been more important, so if there’s a book you want, tell your retailer to get it for you.
Sorry for the delay, I will become one of the whatever million jobless people in the United States as of Monday, and I was finishing this piece up when I found out. More on that next week most likely. Take care.