As common as digital comics are today, there was a time when the introduction of electronic comic books was alarming for many industry watchers, some of whom predicted a negative effect on physical retail comic book stores.
In fact, in 2011, when DC Comics relaunched its comic book universe under the heading "New 52," a large part of the initiative was to release digital comic books on the same day as the print versions — something that most publishers had avoided previously because of fears that they would cannibalize the current print market.
More than five years later, the digital comic book industry seems to have little to no effect on print comics, according to retailers and publishers we asked about it.
As Newsarama continues a series of articles examining issues affecting the comic book industry's direct market, we now talk to retailers and publishers about how digital comic books are affecting the print market and what the future holds for digital comics.
Importance of Print
Despite digital success, brick-and-mortar retail stores are still considered the main distribution outlet for comic books, according to the publishers we contacted.
"The direct market system is the bedrock of our industry," said Dinesh Shamdasani, CEO and chief creative officer at Valiant Entertainment. "There’s no doubt that digital has a dependable audience, but the bulk of reoccurring comics sales and audience growth comes from brick and mortar comic shops.
"We’re living in a time where more and more comic shops are designing their retail space to be as accessible and welcoming to readers of all walks of life, and it’s certainly paying off," the CEO said. "It’s the lifeblood for gaining new readers, as they can offer suggestions based off of taste and personal preference, build a sense of community, and also provide direct feedback to publishers on what’s working and what isn’t."
Besides, retailers and publishers alike believe the digital market hasn't really hurt the print market.
"Digital has had no impact in drawing away customers from our store," said Bret Parks, owner of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I find that our customers still prefer having the physical copies of books. If it has boosted sales, I wouldn't know because there are so few people who even mention digital downloads."
Randy Stradley, vice president of publishing at Dark Horse Comics, said his data shows that print is strong despite a growth in digital. "I don’t think digital sales have siphoned off print sales to endanger the direct marketplace," he said.
Charlie Harris, owner and operator of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz., said he also benefits from sales through comiXology's program that allows customers to give a kickback to their local shop.
"The fact that my regular customers who also read digitally enter the name of my shop when they order from comiXology is enough of a financial buffer to increase rather than decrease readership," he said. "And I know many customers who buy the 'analog' copy but download and read the digital copy while at work or waiting in lines. Most of the illegal copies kicking around on the internet seem to be manga. DC drops ninety-nine cents in my bank account every time one of my customers purchases a two ninety-nine comic from them, so I'm certainly not complaining!"
"I think the effect that digital has on the print market is pretty much a wash right now," said Joe Field owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif. "On one hand, there has been some migration of those who bought print comics now reading digitally. On the other hand, digital comics are a portal for new readers to come into fully stocked comics shops. It's the modern equivalent of window shopping. We see something we like and want to own the hard copy."
The other benefit is that brand new comic book readers are less likely to travel to a comic book shop than they are to try the medium online. And eventually, publishers and retailers hope they buy a print copy of their favorite titles.
"We still feel there is a larger audience to be reached via digital distribution," said Stradley of Dark Horse. "Especially lapsed readers, hardcore gamers, and general pop culture enthusiasts . . . and digital allows us to do this."
"I Love Digital," said Jess James, owner of Jesse James Comics in Glendale, Ariz. "It has been our No. 1 source of increases over the years since its arrival. This is a grand way to bring in new excited customers and also showing we can market to this type of customer base. The more the better, any awareness, increases our opportunity to sell more books to the parents sons or daughters."
Ryan Seymore, owner of Comic Town in Columbus Ohio, agreed. "Digital has brought in new and younger readers," Seymore said. "Having the access to lost cost product testing an entire new generation of comic fans has begun to emerge. The digital only reader is certainly a fixture of the medium but nothing will ever fully replace the in shop experience and tactile component of collecting hard copy comics."
That said, the viability of the direct market depends on publishers still making print a priority. Although the print market is currently healthy, a significant growth in digital — and decreased importance of print — could change that one day in the future. "Imagine this scenario: digital sales increase to the point that either Marvel or DC (it wouldn’t have to be both) decides that removing printing costs from their overhead and selling their comics as digital exclusives would boost their bottom line," Stradley said. "Poof! The direct market would be gone overnight."