Could Apple's "iSlate" Be a Digital Comics Game-Changer?

Comics Sleeping Giant? Apple?

While the news, rumors, and speculation of a possible Apple's tablet device are making waves in the digital world, the industry that may be most drastically changed by the device is the world of comic books.

"It will definitely change the dynamic of digital comics," said Andy Ihnatko , technical writer and contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, MacWorld and the CBS Early Show"

On January 27 2010, Apple is hosting one of their famed media events, the entire tech and media world is anticipating it will be to announce a tablet device expected to be called the "iSlate." The comic book industry has been talking about the possibility of the iSlate for months, because the device could be a game-changer for the industry.

Why does Apple's tablet mean so much to the future of the comic book industry?

1) Color Touch Screen

While news and book publishing are already in the throes of a digital revolution, comic books haven't been as affected. The color, vertical format of comics doesn't translate well to a horizontal computer screen, and Amazon's Kindle can only handle black and white.

But that all might change with the Apple tablet, which is expected to have a 10-inch touch screen that would finally offer a viable option for reading digital comics.

"It's going to be the first device that is a true color tablet computer, so we're going to have those features that we desperately need on a comic book reader," said Ihnatko, who is a comic book reader as well. "We need good color. We need crisp displays. We need high resolution because of the digital coloring that's going on these days.

"It also seems as though a touch display is going to be the ideal way of working with these comics. You want to have the entire page in front of you and workable as one page, but you also want to be able to sort of sneak a closer look at what you're reading," he said. "And for turning pages, or manipulating the library, I think a touch screen is going to be the way to go."

2) Existing Audience

Comic book fans tend to be the early samplers of new technology, so there may be a ready audience of tablet users soon after its release. For example, Twitter was embraced very early by the comic book fans, and they were also among the earliest Internet users.

"I suspect the tablet is going to have small market penetration for awhile, although that depends on the price, which I expect to be high at first," said ComiXology’s David Steinberger, whose Comics application through Apple is already one of the most popular reader apps for digital comics. "But I'm sure a lot of comic book people will pick the tablet up, because we seem to have some sort of crossover with tech people."

3) New Audience

While the comics publishing industry is an adult-targeted, multi-million-dollar entertainment business, most book readers don't even have access to paper comics. Not all markets have comic book stores, and there's an audience of only a few hundred thousand loyal readers who buy most comics, visiting their local shops to pick up the latest monthly issue of their favorite serial.

But those same stories have a proven mainstream appeal because Hollywood is constantly harvesting comic books for film ideas. Besides the many superhero films that have dominated movie theaters in recent years, films like Surrogates, Whiteout, Hellboy and Wanted all started as comics.

"The exciting thing about the tablet is that, unlike the current situation with the direct market, we're going to have millions of people to distribute to," Stephen Christy Director of Development of publisher Archaia Comics said. "But we've had comics on the iPhone for a long time, and there hasn't really been an amazing mainstream breakout comic on the iPhone yet. I think the tablet's going to change that because it's a different reading experience. It's a completely different thing. It's much more similar to reading traditional comics."

The distribution method is also a lot cheaper than printing comics on paper, which opens the door for smaller publishers who have limited resources for distribution.

"A lot of us, particularly the guys at my level who have a limited number of releases, are rooting for it because it's a huge production cost save. Huge," said Jeff Katz, who publishes comics through his new company, American Original. "And it just makes sense. The comic book industry has got to expand audiences. Newspapers are the canary in the coalmine, to a large level. And we need to keep people in a place where they think these are worth paying for. I think the price point has to adjust accordingly. But I don't think we have much of a choice but to root for these things to work because it's the lifeblood of the business in the future, because everything is going digital."

4) App Store

Experts believe the Apple tablet will utilize the same "app" technology that is currently used for the iPhone and iPod Touch, which offers an existing, accessible way for comic book companies to release their publications to an audience that is already interested in reading digital books.

While Ihnatko once thought Apple might get into the book distribution business, much like it distributes music on iTunes, he now believes the company will simply provide a marketplace on its App Store like it did for the Amazon Kindle app.

"I think Apple will simply say here are the tools you need. They are free. We just want a cut of every sale you make. And this would be a good deal for those publishers," he said. "There are a lot of reports that Apple is making it very clear to publishers that, we don't want to own your business; we just want to make money. When you make money, we make money."

The future of digital book readers has more potential now than ever before, as Amazon recently announced it had sold more digital books during the holidays than paper books, and Kindle digital readers were the Internet retailer's top gift item.

This past year also saw a substantial growth in the strength of the App Store market, which launched just 18 months ago with 500 apps, but has now passed 3 billion downloads and 115,000 apps. And that existing marketplace is one that offers a competitive outlet for comic book publishers.

"Even if they stick to the same App Store cut, which is 30 percent of all sales, that's going to be much, much better than the deal that publishers normally get through Amazon," Ihnatko said. "And Apple's not going to ask for exclusives. It should be a very attractive deal for publishers."

5) Security

One of the fears comic book publishers have had about releasing their products digitally has been piracy. But the App Store technology expected on the tablet would effectively negate that concern, Ihnatko said.

"There is a way that someone can spend time and effort to break into the app and access that comic. But it's not going to be a trivial process. And frankly, anybody who's going to try to get that comic is just going to go to the store and spend $2.99 for a copy and produce scans themselves. And there's no way you'll ever prevent that.

"With the App Store, piracy's not really a big worry. i don't think it's a realistic problem for publishers to even think about," he said.

Of course, the future of comics on the Apple slate all depends on publishers' willingness to commit to the digital format. "The real sticking point has never been the technology of the reader; it's always been the store. It's always been the availability of the comics I want, when I want to get them," Ihnatko said.

So far, most comics’ publishers don't have a significant digital presence for their new monthly comics. But with a giant like Apple entering the field and offering a technology that most publishers have already tried out on the iPhone, reading new comics on a digital reader seems more possible now than ever.

"I think just the presence of the Apple tablet in the marketplace is going to make 2010 the year that all these publishers and all these distributors start to commit to electronic publishing," Ihnatko said, "not just because of this one device from Apple, but because of the presence of several tablet devices from companies that have been spurred on by the release of the Apple tablet. "

Along with the delights of reaching a wider audience and eliminating publishing costs come several challenges that the comic book industry is facing. One of the biggest is the established method of distribution supports hundreds of existing retail businesses through the "direct market" of comic shops. A digital revolution would, presumably, be detrimental to that direct market of stores.

"It's going to be a very interesting push pull, because we all want to support the direct market," Katz said. "We love the direct market. But at the same time, we've got to expand audiences. The same debates we're having about this in comics is the same debates that we've been having for 10 years in film, and that were going on in music prior to that. We're all getting caught up in this.

"But everything's going to be digital at some point. The audience demands having what they want, when they want it, how they want it. That's just becoming the nature of the game here," he said.

Christy also pointed out that advertising in a new tablet-driven marketplace will also be a challenge, particularly if the ease of distribution means more comic apps, making it tougher to differentiate one comic over another.

"It's new technology. It's definitely going to help revolutionize the way we read and the way we distribute our product," Christy said. "But along with that comes another interesting set of challenges that are similar to the challenges we already have with the direct market and the book market, but are new and different in scale, that we'll have to figure out."

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