Comics Sleeping Giant? Apple, e-Books, and the Future

Comics Sleeping Giant? Apple?

Reading what Spider-Man or Batman says in a comic book may soon involve zooming in with the touch of your fingers.

With this month's release of the Kindle 2, Amazon's latest electronic reading device, the publishing industry is keeping a watchful eye on the potential market for electronic books. But comic book publishers are even more interested in the rumor that Apple is planning to accelerate the evolution of color e-books by releasing a large-screen iPod Touch and offering compatible books on iTunes – a move that could impact book publishing the same way the iPod once revolutionized music publishing.

Andy Ihnatko, technical writer and contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, MacWorld, and the CBS Early Show, told Newsarama that there's no question that Apple will enter the e-books market. It's just a matter of when.

"It's absolutely a lock that at some point, Apple will start selling books on the iTunes Store," he said. "That has been the goal for Apple all along – a store where every kind of digital media will be sold. One of their goals has always been to make devices that can play all kinds of different media. It's a win-win for Apple. They make a huge amount of money on software sales, for instance, and they also make a huge mark-up on every device that they sell, so that's exactly what they want to do."

The "device" Ihnatko mentioned is the rumored large-screen iPod Touch. While the Kindle 2's 6-inch-diagonal screen can only handle black and white documents, the vast majority of today's most popular comic books are presented in full color. So the rumor that Apple is planning to release a large-sized iPod Touch means there's potential for a comics-compatible electronic reading device.

"We don't know exactly what they're doing," Ihnatko said of Apple's plans for the larger touch-screen reader. "As with everything that happens with Apple, you know they've already built something like this, and they've probably built three of them by now. And they're usually waiting for some magical light to come on in Cupertino that says, 'Yes, right now it makes sense for us to put this on the market.' But I've always thought that the device we're looking at would be about half the size of a MacBook screen. So we're talking somewhere around 3" x 5" or 5" x 7", or something around there. Now we don't know exactly when that's going to happen."

Ihnatko, who is himself a comic book reader, said the market for electronic reading devices is "still sort of being shaken out," but the iPod touch would offer more than just a way to read books and documents, making the market for such a device much broader.

"You can't sell somebody a brand new device that just reads comics," he said. "You have to sell them a device that plays all of their media, which was something they wanted to have anyway – oh, and by the way, it also supports this comic book format, or this ePub book format. So that's really where it's going. We really need to have a device that has everything."

While Ihnatko called the Kindle 2 a device that "truly nudges the platform forward" in his review of the product, he also pointed out the Kindle would have benefitted more from a significant price drop.

"The Kindle is a device that costs $350-$375, and while it has other features, all it really does is read books," he said. "The iPhone is a $200 device that does a million different things including operating book readers. So really, the next thing that has to happen is publishers have to get together and define a central format that everybody can then support. Whenever Apple does come out with that big-screen iPod Touch, someone just has to write an application that will support this mutually agreed upon comic book format, and then things will start to take off."

And while electronic reading devices may not be making a big dent in comic books now, Ihnatko said publishers should be prepared for what the evolution of a multi-media device that can also serve as a book-reader could do to the industry in the future.

"In comics and publishing, it's more of a case of they want to be in a place where, when this generation stops buying comics, the next generation is going to be the one that is not really connected to physical media," he said. "So they want to be in the position where, five years from now or 10 years from now, to make sure that they can start selling digital comics or digital books in the format that the next generation of 20-year-olds are going to want to buy.

"Every company that I've ever talked to has that in the back of their mind. If they don't feel like they're going to be making a huge amount of money this year on the Kindle books, they feel like if they don't start that machinery up right now, when there's a time in the future when they could be making a lot of money off digital, they just won't have that opportunity," Ihnatko said. "They wouldn't have put all that machinery in place. They're doing it as an investment more than anything else."

As for the rumors about Apple, Ihnatko said he keeps hearing rumors about the company working toward not only a larger iPod Touch, but also plans for a significant addition of e-books to the iTunes Store.

"There's something I keep hearing, and I don't think I'd rank it as high as a rumor, but it's an interesting story that I keep hearing, that for awhile, trucks loaded with books would arrive at a loading dock on the Apple campus, and offload big, big, big, big, huge load of books, and then the trucks would leave empty. And Apple does not have a 100,000-book employee library there on the Apple campus," Ihnatko said. "So one is prone to believe that they're doing something with these books, such as turning them into text for some purpose we can only guess at. There's been a long-standing rumor that Apple has been silently preparing to open a bookstore on the iTunes store, and they want to make sure that they have a very large stock of electronic titles when they do open.

"We don't have any concrete information that they're going to be planning to release this anytime soon, or anytime at all," he clarified. "But I do think what Apple is going to do is they are going to produce a large-screen iPod Touch or something very much like it, and they are going to have a book reader application as part of it that is based mostly on the Adobe pdf format. I know they work very closely with Adobe on all of their publishing. So I really don't think it's going to be a situation where people are coming out with motion comics. People don't much like those anyway, and they're not really comic books. I really think it's going to be a new type of book format based on Adobe pdf that can be sold directly through the iTunes store."

Whether that has an immediate impact on the comic book industry isn't a given, Ihnatko said. Although DC's Vice President of Advertising John Cunningham spoke at New York Comic Con about comic book fans being early adapters to new technology, Ihnatko thinks the real change will come with the next generation of readers.

"A phrase that I keep using a lot when I hear about certain things is, that's a great idea, but a lot of people are going to have to die first. And I don't mean that a lot of people are going to have to be killed, I just mean that if you grew up reading paper comics, that is really powerful mojo," Ihnatko said. "So it's hard to really blow past the idea that holding a screen, especially a little iPhone screen, and reading a comic book that way means that you're still reading a comic book. Now, the people who grew up with the ability to download these CDR packages, either legally or illegally, don't have quite that same emotional connection. So those are the people who are going to be buying digital comic books in huge, huge piles."

Cunningham also pointed out that because comic book publishing has low margins and low print runs, a mass exodus to digital readers isn't necessary to have a potentially devastating effect on the industry. Ihnatko said that fear shouldn't drive publishers to grasp at every new medium available in the digital world, but instead encourage them to simply explore the viability of taking their current format and making it readily available electronically.

"I really think every time I see a comic book company dropping the ball on this is when they're trying to figure out what the next big thing is going to be instead of seeing how people are relating to comics right now. Again, every time I see a motion comic idea, I think they're getting it half right. They're trying to do this special hybrid between animation and comics," he said. "But really, what they need to do, is they just need to say, we're going to take X-number of titles and simply release it as a pdf or some kind of format that the iPhone can handle, or that the Kindle can handle, or that surprisingly enough, people using their notebook computer and turning it on their side can handle. That's a popular way of reading comics digitally. If they don't want to miss the boat, they don't want to waste time trying to figure out how best to build this market and exploit it."

As for the "next big thing," Ihnatko said no one can predict what that might be, but the larger iPod Touch would be something that would be ideal for comics, because it already is.

"The iPod is a perfect comic reader. Even the iPhone," he said. "I mean, I've been reading comics on my iPhone, just as pdfs, almost since they first came out. And the ability to very simply steer your way around, panel to panel, and zoom your way in and out, just using your fingers as an afterthought without any complex structure – it really demonstrates that we don't need some special Flash animated viewer where the camera zooms you from one panel to another. We don't need to see the eyes blink while we're reading the word balloons. All we need is for them to actually start publishing comics in a format and let me worry about what program I'm going to use to read it."

Check back Monday when we explore the concerns of publishers and retailers, including the topic of content piracy when comic books go digital.


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