The Future of e-Comic Books - Some Questions & Answers

iVerse brings Comics to iPhones

As the e-book market heats up and the business of print media slows to a trickle, the comic book industry is looking at how comics can adjust to the changing technology.

While even author Stephen King, a supporter of Amazon's Kindle electronic reading device, doesn't think electronic readers can ever really replace books, the same argument doesn't necessarily apply as well to monthly format comics. The next generation of comic book fans may be enticed by full-color, instantly downloadable comic books on portable screens that could offer a cheaper sell price and higher quality image than their paper-bound predecessors.

And the market for e-books has been growing already. The Wall Street Journal reports that consumers spent about $100 million on e-books in 2008, according to one estimate. Recent news reports have everyone from Barnes and Noble to Google entering the e-book market.

Another significant player in the e-books industry could be Apple, who already offers some comic book titles on iTunes and applications for iPod/iPhone use. Apple took another step toward offering serial comic books for download with the iPhone's latest software update, announced last month. Starting this summer, Apple will allow developers to sell subscriptions in the application store, so comic book publishers can now charge a monthly recurring fee for their content.

And with Apple's reported order last month of 10-inch touchscreens and today's report of a huge chip order, the rumors about a larger-screen iPod Touch that could serve as a color e-book reader become more realistic.

So as Newsarama continues to report about the future of comic books on electronic reading devices, we talked to publishers and retailers about some of the key questions facing the comic book industry as it faces this new technology:

- How do you convince people to pay for digital comics?

As soon as a viable color electronic reader becomes available, the comic book industry would have to convince people that it's worthwhile to pay for digital comics. Using magazines, newspapers and comic strips as an example, consumers have rejected efforts to charge for those services, expecting free digital content to be available on the Internet.

When Marvel launched Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, its internet comic subscription service that has a monthly fee attached, Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley answered the question by pointing out that that "you can get the news anywhere; we're the only ones who have Spider-Man."

That seems to be true, as some publishers have already started to sell their comics for download onto various electronic devices, including several titles available on iTunes for use with applications like the Uclick reader for iPhone. And as Newsarama reported in more detail on last month, Apple is likely to become an important player in the development and distribution of e-books, so iTunes may be the future distribution method for comic book sales.

Stephen King is hoping to convince readers to pay for his novella Ur, which is available ONLY as an e-book via Amazon. Marvel is taking a similar approach to encourage the purchase of the Spider-Woman motion comic by making print readers wait for their fix. Buckley announced at New York Comic Con that the motion comic will be released on iTunes up to two weeks before the same story is available in print.

Christopher Folino, who publishes Catastrophic Comics with actor William Katt, recently made headlines by offering the first motion comic for iPhone with the company's Sparks title. While he still thinks motion comics are going to "blow up by July," he thinks the key to getting readers to purchase comic books on electronic reading devices will be adding extra content. If the larger iPod Touch becomes a reality, the possibilities of combining media will give the digital edition of the comic an advantage over print – one that readers will pay for.

"For example, if they add an artist commentary section to the application," Folino said. "Seriously, if my favorite artist or writer does a commentary on the Kindle and goes into detail behind the story and the art design, like the way directors do on a DVD, then that's something I can't get from a paperback book. And that's just technology and the future calling."

- How does this affect small press?

Michael DeVito, publisher of Th3rd World Comics, said his business sees the growth of the digital handheld market providing "huge opportunities" for small press comics because of the ease of distribution.

"It's something that should be good for publishers of all sizes, serving as a great equalizer in terms of distribution. The price point makes for an easy and cheap entry into any series. At 99 cents, most small publishers are easily making what they would per single issue via traditional distribution channels, if not more, without the overhead of larger print runs," he said.

"Another huge thing here is instant delivery of content," DeVito continued. "It is very difficult for small press people to get our content out to the masses. The distribution process, while necessary, places a fairly large burden on retailers and fans a like. We have to start doing press months in advance of solicitation, hoping that we have made a large enough impact on fans that when solicit time comes around, they will remember, march into their store and pre-order the product. The instant delivery pushes all of that aside. You hear about or see it, you pick up your hand-held, click buy, and you're reading in seconds."

Of course that ease of distribution could also be a downside, DeVito said, because the market could become saturated. "Web comics have seen a similar problem over the past few years. While it's nice that everyone is on equal footing to a degree, people may find it just as difficult to garner attention or stand out with their digital counterparts as they do in print," he said.

Jeff Smith, creator of the comic series Bone, which is available on iTunes in an application formatted for iPhone, said he sees potential for web comics creators, but says his real benefit in offering Bone digitally is getting the public interested in the paper-based collections.

"If you're a web comics creator then I think it opens up a larger audience for your work, as long as the digital reader has access to the web," Smith said. "If you're savvy enough to know how to turn your comic into an application, then maybe there's a new way to go about this where $.99 cents can be charged for episodes.

"For folks like me, who are still toiling away on dead wood, these digital uploads are somewhat bastardized versions of our comics, and function mainly as a way for people to re-read them while on an airplane, or maybe if they ran across it for the first time on iTunes, they'll like it enough to buy a copy of the real thing," he said.

- What about piracy?

Content piracy is always mentioned when comic book publishers discuss digital comics. Buckley told an audience at New York Comic Con that Marvel's digital comics are streaming instead of being downloadable because "piracy is a big issue for us."

"Streaming was relatively simple or us to begin with because it protects us from a piracy standpoint," he said. "This is all new to us, and we'll continue to evolve."

Andy Ihnatko, technical writer and contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, MacWorld, and the CBS Early Show, told Newsarama that there are ways to protect content on downloadable comics, and if Apple does become a major player in the eBook market, then they would work with publishers to develop a DRM, or "digital rights management" access control technology.

"The iTunes store would not have worked if not for the fact that every music publisher came on board and decided to sell their music that way, and they insisted on DRM to protect their interest before they would do that," Ihnatko said. "But now that they've had a few years to think about it, they've sort of realized that DRM just limits people on what they can do and limits the publishers into who can buy their content. And that's why you're seeing DRM now being dropped from the iTunes store. It never existed on the Amazon store."

Ihnatko said he sees the same thing happening with comics, where eventually, publishers are "probably going to have to be comfortable with piracy."

"I think we'll eventually get to a non-protected, non-DRM format for comics," he said. "Comics publishers are just going to have to be okay with the fact that there is going to be some piracy. But I don't think that they're going to get on board to begin with unless there's a way to protect these files."

- How do comic book retailers fit into the equation?

While Ihnatko sees electronic reading devices as something that will only be adopted once the next generation starts reading comics, other industry watchers have pointed out that even current readers are very edge-oriented and ready to adopt new technologies.

Joe Field, president of the ComicsPRO retailers organization, said that if that's true, the effect on comic book retailers would be more immediate than mainline bookstores.

"My hope – and this is a goal all comic specialty retailers need to lobby for – is to work with publishers to make sure comics specialty retailers remain the core focus of their business and that they find a way to work with retailers in making the new e-business profitable for all of us," said Field, who runs Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif.

But the retailer said he believes that the worst case scenario won't play out to the extent that paper comic books will completely disappear along with the shops that support them. "No new media ever fully replaces the one that went before it. TV didn't replace radio, the Internet has not replaced TV, movies or radio... and e-books have not replaced books. Digital reading devices won't replace comic books, either," he said.

"That's not to say big changes aren't on the way, but I've been in this business for more than 20 years of others saying we're selling buggy whips. Still, comic books not only persevere as a viable business and entertainment medium, but continue to find their way into more people's lives than ever," Field said. "Comic book publishers, creators and retailers are still media taste-makers – and the comics reading experience, printed paper held in human hands, is an intimate one that won't be replaced by the sterility of new technology."

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