Digital Storefronts Debut to Mixed Retailer Expectations

Digital Comics Storefronts Debut

In a week that saw disappointing news for comic book retailing, some comic book stores today began trying to reap the benefits of the growth in digital comics.

The Digital Storefront Affiliate Program, which leading digital distributor comiXology promised over a year ago and officially announced in January, finally began today with the launch of more than 90 retailer-affiliated websites that sell digital comics.

The news comes on the heels of the announcement yesterday that leading comic book retailer Atomic Comics just went bankrupt, shocking the comics retailing industry.

According to David Steinberger, CEO of comiXology, the "Storefront" program allows brick-and-mortar comic book shops to offer digital comics on their websites, then gives them a portion of the money from those sales. Customers can read the digital purchases on the Comics by comiXology website and all the company's mobile apps, including those on Apple iOS and Android.

Joe Field, president of the comic retailing trade organization ComicsPRO and owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, Calif., said the timing of the comiXology Storefront launch may seem ironic with Atomic's bankruptcy still in the news, but it's actually more closely linked to next week's August 31st start of DC Comics' "New 52" initiative. Beginning next week, all DC's comics will be available digitally on the same day as print, with DC working almost exclusively with comiXology.

Other publishers have joined DC — including Image, Boom! Studios and Dynamite — to give sales incentives to retailers who participate. So far, Marvel is not participating.

The Storefront program may help alleviate growing concerns from retailers who see digital comics as a threat to the print industry on which they thrive. "I hope it develops with everyone's interest at heart, because I don't think this market survives if it's just a digital market," said Field, who recently spoke in detail to Newsarama about the digital-versus-print argument.

Best known as the retailer who first conceived the now-annual event Free Comic Book Day, Field said he sees no problem with print retailers also selling digital comics on their websites — as long as everyone in the publishing business understands it's just small part of the comics business.

"I've been a comics fan too long to want to see the demise of the medium because of a huge rush to thinking that digital is the be-all and end-all. 'Cause it's not," Field said. "It's a format. It's not a medium. Do I carry hardcovers? Do I carry 'Absolute' editions? Do I carry 'Essentials?' Do I carry 'Masterworks?' Do I carry periodical comics? Yes, I carry all of that stuff.

"Well, the way I see it, carrying digital comics is a piece of that," he said.

Chris Niles, owner of Legacy Comics in Laredo, Texas, launched a new digital sales site through his regular store website after participating in the beta program for comiXology.

"When comiXology approached us about the opportunity to sell digital comics directly from our own website, we didn’t even blink," Niles said. "We had such a positive response from our customers that participated in the beta program that we knew before the project was even completed that it would be a success."

The news about comiXology's launch of the Storefront program comes just after leading retailer Atomic Comics announced it was shutting down its four stores in Phoenix after more than 20 years in business. In response to the Atomic Comics news, Field had indicated that comic retailers have to "evolve" like any other small business to survive in a changing market.

Niles said he sees the comiXology Storefront as part of his store's efforts to evolve.

"The business of comic book retailing, especially in this economy, is about adapting and diversifying," he said. "Anytime you can provide additional services to your customers while still keeping them in your store or on your website, you really need to take advantage of it."

The Storefront program adds to comiXology's existing relationship with many store owners because the company also offers an online tool for retailers, which allows customers to view previews and place orders for print comics from their local store.

But another distributor with an existing retailer relationship is entering the digital business. Diamond Comics Distributors, the largest distributor of print comics to retail stores in America, is offering comic shops the chance to sell digital content over the counter through a partnership with iVerse.

While the cooperation between print and comics may feel like retailers are taking an "if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them" approach, Field said his store will be participating in comiXology's Storefront program only because a few customers specifically requested it. "I have customers who are very tech-savvy, and in some cases, they prefer to buy their comics digitally, but still want to support me as a retailer," Field said. "I had some people come to me and ask if I'd set up this digital storefront so they could buy their comics through me. And I said, 'I will do it for you.'

"So I saw it as a part of serving my customers in the best way I can," Field said. "That's my goal as a retailer, is to serve every one of my customers in the best possible way I can. And if it means that I sort of 'acquiesce' into having a digital storefront, I'm willing to give it a shot."

Field said he's not sure there's a lot of money to be made by retailers who offer digital comics. "Maybe there is a little bit of money to be made there, but I don't know that I'm going to be able to buy a pack of bubble gum off of it," he said. "We'll see how it develops."

But Niles said his current comiXology website brings his store a "huge amount of business," not only through digital sales, but by giving his customers the opportunity to sample comics.

"If these products had not performed well for me I would not be using them," Niles said. "Some people might say I am a comiXology 'cheerleader.' All I can say is my shop has seen a very substantial growth in sales and online orders in a very tough economy since I began using the services. We work very hard to be successful. These tools are very effective.

"I see digital comics as a way to reach out to people who may have never read a comic book, generating new customers for our physical store. I see digital comics as a way to own hard to find or very valuable comic without paying a fortune," Niles said. "I see digital comics as a great way to fill in the gaps of a collection. I do not see digital comics replacing print comics."

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