The digital comics marketplace is still in its infancy, but there's one thing that's becoming obvious: Digital comics are here to stay.
But the immediate question that follows is: Are print comics here to stay? And is the current print market -- made up of small, local comic shops -- in jeopardy?
The future of comic book stores isn't a new issue, but it's become a much hotter topic now because of "day-and-date digital," which means digital copies are available the same day as print.
Today, Marvel joined DC Comics on the ComiXology website, offering new comics to digital customers.And just in the past two weeks, Marvel has started releasing its Spider-Man titles on the same day that it releases print, and the publisher intends to do the same with its X-Men titles by November. And on August 31st, DC will begin releasing all of its comics digitally on the same day that it releases print.
Publishers are obviously hoping these moves will grow the digital market for comics. But what does it mean for the future of paper comics and the specialty shops that sell them?
Will Anything Change?
Two years ago, comics seemed to be one of the last segments of the print market that hadn't been replaced by digital. Dozens of newspapers and magazines were halting print publications or stepping up digital. But comics? Not as much. They just didn't fit computer screens well, and e-readers were all black and white.
That all changed once the iPad was released. As soon as the full-color reading device was available, Marvel released an app for digital comic reading, and DC Comics quickly followed suit. Dozens of other smaller publishers made their products available for the iPad, many through the Comics by ComiXology app.
Yet the vast majority of digital comics were back-issues. New comics weren't available digitally until months after their print release.
"Throughout 2010, the big publishers just seemed to think of digital publishing as a marketing tool," explained Andy Ihnatko, tech writer for Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets. "Their thought was that people who read old issues digitally would come into the stores to get the new comics in print. But I think what readers really want, particularly those people who use iPads and other tablets and phones, they really want to have digital comics as an option."
That "option" is what DC is promoting with its huge marketing push in September, and according to Ihnatko, who is also an avid comics reader, the advertising will have to work hard to educate readers about the new status of digital comics.
"I think that, going forward, it's going to require that publishers are going to really need to train all these people to think that if there's a new comic on Wednesday, you can come into the store and get it, or you can actually go and download and get it," Ihnatko said.
While DC, Marvel and other publishers maintain that the "migration" of print readers to digital is not the goal, even the most positive folks realize there will eventually be an effect of digital on comic shops.
"We hope and expect the influx of digital readers to be an additive layer of business on top of our existing print business," said Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics. "That's not to say you're not going to have some conversion of print-to-digital customer. But we've found that the huge majority of print customers prefer comics in print, and they are going to stick with print."
Joe Field, president of the retailing organization ComicsPRO and owner of Flying Color Comics in Concord, Calif., agrees with Lee's claim. But even he admits the long-term future of comic shops is questionable.
"I still think there's a long life left for comics because I think it's a different beast than other print media that have had such a difficult time because of the migration to digital," Field said.
"I do think that, down the road, there is that generation that's growing up with all things digital and sure, there's likely to be more migration. I don't doubt that," he said. "But I also think that we're still ... where we are with digital comics right now is where print comics were when Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was hawking his reprints and hoping to turn them into something."
David Steinberger, CEO of leading digital provider ComiXology, said publishers like DC and Marvel believe their new digital customers will be an added business to the existing print market.
"That's why DC is doing these national ad pushes," said Steinberger, whose company also powers the DC and Marvel apps. "DC believes this is a passionate and interesting pastime for more than just the existing audience. And those people aren't necessarily near a comic book store or they don't know where one is.
"That's the thing about digital. It allows people to pick something up easily and simply where they are," Steinberger said. "And we have a store finder in the app. At the end of every comic, there's a little 'buy in print' button so you can see where a local store is. And hopefully, we'll continue to drive people there as well."
Size of Digital
Field said retailers should obviously keep an eye on digital, but he doesn't believe the "digital invasion" is worth a doomsday prediction because it's still so small. Field said the digital market was estimated to be between $600,000 and $1 million for 2010, while the print market was between $640 million and $700 million.
"At the ComicsPRO meeting in February, Jim Lee held up a piece of dental floss and said, 'This is the digital market,' and then held up an eight-and-a-half by 11 sheet of paper and said, 'This is the print market,'" Field said. "And in talking with higher-ups at DC since the announcement broke, their feedback to me is that they feel like we can move that eight-and-a-half by 11 piece of paper to being a legal sized or 11 by 17, while the digital will move up from dental floss to dental tape.
"That may be a torturing analogy, but I think it still shows where their bread is buttered," Field said. "They cannot really migrate everyone over to digital because it throws all of the rest of their business structure out of line. Essentially, print is paying for their foray into digital, just as it has paid in the past for their expansion of their book program and expanding all kinds of different things. They use their print comic sales, as most publishers do, as the base from which to grow, not the base from which to chip away and try to migrate it over to something else."
Ihnatko said the eventual growth of digital comics is inevitable, but he doesn't think it will completely wipe out comic book shops anytime soon.
"I do think some shops are going to be affected by this, if this transition happens. But I think the good shops will still stick around, because they'll still be serving a very large market that likes the weekly experience," he said. "And you have shops that were smart enough, years ago, to say, 'You know what? Maybe we will sell T-shirts. Maybe we will sell gaming cards. Maybe we will sell model kits. Maybe we'll sell other products just to make sure we don't put the entire future of our business in this one product that may or may not continue to be successful in five or 10 years.'
"But you can't make decisions based upon what will happen to retailers or what will happen to other aspects of the business," he said. "Otherwise, you'll hold onto whatever customers you might have had five years ago, or 20 years ago, when you first went into business. But all those people tend to actually die as they age, and they move away or they get other interests. So unless you're bringing new people into your customer base, that's just the end of a business for anybody."
Field agreed that the smart retailers will find a way to make it through any difficulty, whether it's digital comics or something else. "Like anything I've been involved with over the last 25 years," Field said, "the retailers who learn to adapt are going to survive and thrive, and the ones who really take a negative approach are going to have a more difficult time with it."
If You Can't Beat Them...Part of that positive approach, Field said, is embracing the opportunities to work with publishers and distributors despite the fact they're embracing digital. He pointed out that while DC is putting efforts toward its digital program in September, the company is also willing to work with retailers on co-op advertising for print comics in their markets.
Some distributors are beginning to offer comic shops the chance to sell digital. Diamond Distributors, from which stores buy the majority of their paper comics, has started to also offer digital comics for the retailers to sell.
And ComiXology, the leading digital distributor for comics on Android and Apple's iOS, is giving retailers the chance to sell digital comics through their websites. "We're giving them the option to have a digital storefront if they want to take advantage of this additional market," Steinberger explained. "It is a fact that starting on August 31st, you'll be able to buy any DC comic where you want, whether it's digital or in a store, for any customer. That's a fact. And this is a way that stores can give both of those options to their customers, and profit from both options."
Death of Paper Comics?
Ihnatko said it's not time yet to sound the death knoll for paper comics, because there is still a whole generation of readers who prefer that format.
"There are people who grew up with paper comics, and that's how they define comics," he said. "Not only the physical paper, but also the practice of finding a comic book shop you like and going there on a regular basis. Most people that I know that are regular comic book readers have a real allegiance to their local shops, not only because they are good stories, but also because that's sort of their clubhouse. They really like that 20-second to two-minute conversation they have with the shop keeper or someone else they happen to bump into there from time to time."
He said digital will only take off once a whole new generation of people buy their first comics in that format. They'll continue to buy in that format, because digital will seem like the normal delivery system for that generation. And although he thinks the DC relaunch in September could be the start of that transition, it will be awhile before it catches on.
Field said he agrees, to a point. He's not sure that all kids who see digital first will prefer that format, because he sees the thrill that kids get from paper comics.
"I think it's partially a generational thing," Field said, "but I do a lot of work with teachers and librarians. And when it comes to comics, younger readers get off their digital devices to read comics in educational environments. We see the fascination kids have with printed comics all year long, but particularly after Free Comic Book Day. And we see just so many kids getting excited by comics, by having something in their hands that's not digital."
Plus, Field pointed out that the current delivery system of digital comics may not be the preferred way to read them in the future. And until that digital distribution feels more permanent, it's difficult to tell what might happen.
"There's a lot of people who still don't know what to make of the digital thing," Field said. "They don't know what it will become. They don't know if the format will remain the same. And given how fast formats change in all forms of media, it's not a safe bet to believe that buying your digital comics for the iPhone or iPad or whatever tablet device is going to be what that format will be two years, five years, 10 years down the road."Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!
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