Tricky Question LinkBlogging: Should Digital Drive Print? Art-Free Comics?

Today is Dialogue Free Comic Day, according to Robot 6. What would the outcry be if someone launched an “Art-Free Comic Day”, I wonder?

Retailer Brian Hibbs’ latest Tilting at Windmills column tackles the question of digital comics. His focus is firmly on protecting the direct market and emphasizing the importance of serialized paper comics, so it isn’t surprising that he views online comics through that particular lens. There’s a lot of material in the column, so you should read it for yourself, but his conclusion is this:

The goal of digital should be to increase the number of eyes on comics, and everything possible should be done to protect against cross-channel migration until the audience has grown sufficiently. Digital is the new newsstand! Digital should be able to grow the market for periodical print comics, if done correctly!

In other words, print readers shouldn’t be allowed (my word) to transfer their purchasing online, and Hibbs wants to maintain this by either forcing a six-month delay in the release of a comic digitally or by pricing digital exactly the same as the print version (even though the products are not equivalent). His reasoning for this is simple and direct:

Even a small amount of cannibalization between the channels could have catastrophic impact on small stores — I don’t think the majority of the [direct market] could absorb even a 10% permanent loss of traffic from migration. If stores begin to fold, that is more likely to lead to a lowering of regular and dependable readership than any gains in new Digital customers would offset.

In other words, comic stores can’t afford to lose any customers, so they must be protected if we want to maintain the comic industry as it is now. But what if we don’t? Remember, this is a store-centric argument, and on that basis, I think he’s right. But if you look at the digital possibilities from the perspective of either publishers or customers, you might get a very different answer. Especially if you’re a publisher that isn’t being served by the direct market as it is now.

The idea of digital bringing in completely new customers is addressed by Hibbs’ proposal to feed them old comics, because “something a year old (or ten years old!) is just as new as something released last Wednesday.” Don’t you think a customer is going to notice that a Justice League comic with Vibe and Aquaman with a mullet may not be the freshest material?

One long-standing component of comics is how fans encourage each other to shop. I started buying Legion of Super-Heroes (and thus changed my life) in part because I wanted to be part of the Usenet discussions about them. If you restrict digital-only customers to old material, they’re not going to become the kind of long-term consistent buyers the industry needs, because they’re left out of the conversation.

In short, in Hibbs’ world, print needs to remain supreme, and digital is valuable only in terms of how it drives customers into his shop (and the most desirable customers are those who buy every Wednesday, which means DC/Marvel buyers without much discretion). I think that’s short-sighted, but then, I don’t have a store I need to keep going.

30 Responses to “Tricky Question LinkBlogging: Should Digital Drive Print? Art-Free Comics?”

  1. Matt Says:

    I wrote a sort-of response last September (!):

    Basically, I think you’re absolutely right. I think the key here is that yes, the direct market will shrink, but it will probably affect stores that are too dependent on Diamond and the mainstream superhero publishers for their survival. I don’t mean to be insensitive to small business owners but my understanding of capitalism is that if your market and distribution changes, you adapt or die. Good stores (like Brian’s, Isotope, etc) have already made this move and are dealing with a number of distributors to diversify their product and appeal to a wider audience. Even if five years from now we can all download Avengers #1 (“a new age for the world’s greatest heroes! Yes, another one!”) on the day of release, there will still be print products that will remain that way and will help the smarter, better stores to thrive.

  2. Ralf Haring Says:

    I pretty much agree with everything you say. Hibbs isn’t “wrong”. His priorities are just different. It is likely that the number of physical comics stores will decrease as digital sales grow (as will the number of physical stores for almost everything).

    I can say that his solutions would not get me to spend more money on either digital or physical comics. Same price for same day release? I’m never going to spend that. Digital must always be significantly cheaper than physical.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Ralf, I’m glad that came through — I’m not saying he shouldn’t think as he does, just that his perspective won’t be shared with everyone.

    The more people talk about digital, the more I want to buy print. But I’m more likely to buy from someone not afraid of digital than one trying to coerce or force me into acting contrary to my interests as a consumer.

  4. Thad Says:

    “What would the outcry be if someone launched an “Art-Free Comic Day”, I wonder?”

    Not quite analogous; a comic can have a writer without having any dialogue. Some of my favorite comics are densely plotted and silent.

  5. Brian Hibbs Says:

    “In other words, print readers shouldn’t be allowed (my word) to transfer their purchasing online, and Hibbs wants to maintain this by either forcing a six-month delay in the release of a comic digitally or by pricing digital exactly the same as the print version (even though the products are not equivalent)”

    Yeah, “allowed” is a bit strong, I think.

    Let’s try this: (Most) movies are released theatrically. Then some time after that certain channels have a period of exclusivity on the home video release. Then some time after that the home video/digital release goes “wide”. Then some time after that it might show up on Premium TV. Then some time after THAT you can get it for free on basic cable at least. Then sometime after that you might be able to watch it on over-the-air “Network” TV for 100% free (albeit it with commercials, and probably edited)

    Is person who is waiting for the last link of that chain being (well) DIS-“allowed” from consuming the media the way they WANT to?

    If I want to (legally) see IRON MAN II *right now* I’m not being “allowed” to do anything but go halfway across town to a physical location and pay a very large sum of money to do so. But…but…but, I want to watch it in my PJs in my living room! Well, I’ve got to wait a bit to do so.

    (Or steal it)

    Why should comics be any different? I mean, maybe they should, I dunno, but I don’t think there’s a ton of differences in the models from the consumers POV.

    There’s tons of films released outside of the “mainstream” system, but, generally, you’re not getting “day and date” release in both Theatrical and Digital (let alone Broadcast..) — some small experiments have been tried in this, but it strikes me that they’re not stellar successes or wouldn’t all films be released D&D in all potential formats?

    Sometimes you really do need to “protect” “archaic” distribution models in order to make all of the money you “need” to make in order to be ABLE to create.

    I don’t see the sense of entitlement among film viewers to declare that all formats/distribution methods should be egalitarian (though I admit I’m not looking that hard) — and films are viewed by the vast majority of the population, unlike our small little, fragile, niche market!

    Why should comics be different?

    “so they must be protected if we want to maintain the comic industry as it is now. But what if we don’t?”

    Clearly we run a very real risk of completely gutting the distribution model that employs tens of hundreds of creators, tens of thousands of stores and employees, tens of scores of publisher employees, and so on — with literally no guarantees that the potential Digital audience will surpass the current audience to the degree that would be needed just to maintain the current level of profitability.

    “Don’t you think a customer is going to notice that a Justice League comic with Vibe and Aquaman with a mullet may not be the freshest material?”


    I’m less than convinced that the mythical new reader *needs* to read BATMAN #699 *this week*. #687 is probably good enough for them, just like how my not seeing the new NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. film until the SF public library gets their copies in, say, December, will be good enough for me as a consumer.

    If I NEED to see it today to be “part of the conversation”, then I have the option to pay $10-ish to do so “Physically”.

    I don’t think people are entitled to instant access to all things the instant it pops into their mind to do so, and that it is reasonable there are different timing issues based upon how I thread the choices content providers give me.

    IMO, naturally.


  6. Johanna Says:

    It’s interesting you bring up movies, since that window is radically collapsing. You probably heard about how a theater chain attempted to boycott Alice in Wonderland because Disney is bringing it out on disc only 12 weeks after it started in theaters, which is a shorter period than used to be standard. The publisher, in other words, thinks getting it to homes faster is good, while the established middleman wants to stick to the way it’s always been.

    Disney won, of course. And since more money is made these days on disc than by selling the theater experience, I bet that window keeps collapsing. Which is why pay movie channels now advertise their original programming more than viewing films at home.

    Then there’s the case where studios got the right to break customer DVRs in order to potentially release on-demand movies much earlier than they do now. I don’t think trying to prevent customers from consuming in ways they’re becoming used to, thanks to new technology, is going to go over so well.

    Publishers, during (for example), the dispute over Amazon ebook pricing, have been trying to make the example that digital books should be considered analogous to paperbacks, suitable for later release, but customers don’t agree. They define books based on content more than format, and I suspect that attitude is going to transfer to comics as well. (It may already have.)

    Which of these map to comics? None, yet, but the debates are going on all over, and fighting to keep things they way they are now (I’m referring mostly to fearful print publishers) is not the winning strategy. I don’t know what is, but inertia is not going to fix anything.

    And comics is tricky because, as you’ve said, the window of viability is so small, a week at best for your standard superhero comic. It’s not like the months before a movie goes to disc or years before a book goes to paperback. So should digital comics be $1 a week after the paper issue is on sale? That’s the point at which that material is stale.

  7. SKleefeld Says:

    As always, Hibbs has good points and thoughtful ideas BUT (there’s always that “but”) it seems to stem from the notion that comic shops are simply extensions of a monolithic distribution system. That comic book shops are like Starbucks or McDonald’s and that you can get pretty much the exact same items with a nearly identical experience in each one. And I’m sure any number of people can attest to being in good, not so good and downright lousy comic shops which don’t exactly have the same “menu” of options. Sure, I can pick up the latest Action Comics from just about any comic shop in the country, but whether or not they have even the latest Dark Horse or Image books is something of a crapshoot. I’m fairly confident Hibbs doesn’t believe in this notion, but the argument as it’s presented, as I said, seems to stem from that idea.

    I bring this up for two reasons. First, the material needs to be available in BREADTH as well as depth. Just having Sandman and Bone isn’t going to be enough. While not everything every made is available as backlist items, obviously, and it’s certainly not financially tenable to stock EVERYTHING, relying on superheroes isn’t sufficient. The retailer will need to have a reasonable range of stock available. Romance, westerns, horror, etc. I understand that Hibbs does stock accordingly at CE (though I haven’t had the pleasure of checking that out first-hand) so I’m not calling him out the practice, but it’s worth noting that that idea is not universal among comic retailers. It doesn’t do us any collective good if you’re able to draw in new customers, only to have them leave thinking it was worse than The Android’s Dungeon led them to believe!

    Along those same lines, it’s up to the individual store itself to become a place people WANT to visit regularly. Not just as an outlet for comic books, but the pop culture equivalent of Cheers, where you stop by regularly for the camaraderie as much as anything else. I can get the latest issue of Fantastic Four any number of places, but I can CHOOSE one over another because it’s just a nice place to visit! I spoke at length on this last month…

    My point is that retailers need to take some initiative too. I don’t think it’d be wise to rely on publishers to do what’s in retailers’ best interests because, in all likelihood, there are going to be some decisions that work better for them as publishers at the expense of retailers. That, I think, is where you can differentiate the print and digital versions of a comic — beyond the content and in the whole experience of the book itself. How does buying the comic in a physical store over a cash register ADD to the enjoyment of the book? You know how women stereotypically remember the store and conditions in which they bought each and every piece of clothing they own? Why can’t buying comics be like that? Use the comic shop as a shopping EXPERIENCE, not a checklist off your Things To Do On Wednesday list. And, unlike the content, the retailer has more direct control over these things!

    (Sorry to usurp your comments here, Johanna. Didn’t want to separate it over at my place and couldn’t log in to CBR.)

  8. Johanna Says:

    Thad, a comic can also exist without art. Check out the works of Shane Simmons, for example, or more obviously, those who use sprites or other software. It’s very rare, but I would think it would be more of a challenge than not using words.

  9. Johanna Says:

    Oh, and Brian, I forgot to say that there’s another problem comparing movies and comics. The DVD is a superior edition, in most cases, to the theater movie: the ability to pause, extra features, no people interrupting the experience. The digital comic is inferior to the paper: you can’t resell it or trade it or lend it. So with movies, you trade off waiting for a better product at often a better price (when you’re talking about 2 or more viewers). With comics, you’re proposing to pay a little less for a lesser product that’s also delayed. The deal is much worse for the consumer.

  10. Johanna Says:

    SKleefeld, that’s a good point, that many wannabe comic readers have no alternative. No local store, or a severely inferior one. I believe that’s why frequent site contributor James Schee gave up reading periodical comics regularly, and I hope he doesn’t mind me making him an example. He lives in a non-urban area of Texas with one shop that wouldn’t offer him what he wanted. For them, a well-stocked current digital store would be a godsend, and they’re not being “cannibalized” in any way. As customers, those types are a pure win. And stores located in active, urban areas with a variety of shop choices probably don’t realize how many customers of that type there are — why should they, since they’re not potential shoppers for them?

  11. Prankster Says:

    This post is an art-free comic.

  12. Nick Says:

    The movie analogy, I don’t agree with. Not least because there’s no substantial difference reading a comic on-screen or on paper, whereas there’s a massive different between watching a film in a cinema or at home.

    What Hibbs is calling for is, rather, equivalent to Barnes & Noble saying that Amazon shouldn’t be allowed to sell books until six months after brick-and-mortar stores like theirs have been selling them. Which is crazy, of course.

    I’m not unsympathetic to Hibbs’ position, but there have to be better ways of dealing with it. Rather than trying to restrict the competitor, surely it’s better to look instead at what you can offer that the competitor can’t? Certainly, that’s always been the principle I’ve worked by (having worked in bookshops in the past, and in a library at current).

    You can’t affect what your competitor does. But you can affect what *you* do.

  13. William George Says:

    “Why should comics be any different?”

    1. Movies have a higher desirability than the superhero comics that make up the majority of the direct market’s business. Which is now a medium for a small core of obsessives.

    2. Assuming that superhero comics are actually desirable outside of our collection of obsessives: The majority of cities and towns don’t have a comic shop but do have a theater. Even if they did, figuring transportation costs into it means that you’d be paying ten bucks for six minutes of a Spider-Man comic versus the two hours you get for a movie.

    3. Small towns probably do have an internet service. As much as I dislike the comic, Penny Arcade gets more eyeballs a month than the direct market sells titles. This should act as a huge hint as to how the audience wants to get their comics.

    4. Even if you do convince this massive potential readership that they want to pay for six minutes of reading Spider-Man, they would rather order it online than go to the trouble and expense of getting themselves to comic shop.

    I know it’s unkind to make “horse and buggy vs the automobile” comparisons, but that’s pretty much what’s happening now.

  14. tyler Says:

    Why do I always get the sense that the “discussion” about digital comics is really about superhero comics? I also get Brian’s points and am sympathetic to his desire to keep his store alive. But the first thing that strikes me is when Brian says, “The goal of digital *should* be.” He’s focusing on his desire versus the reality of how consumers are behaving. And I have to admit I don’t have any really good suggestions for him. I think comic shop owners are in a really tough spot, and I know I’m not always helping.

    I went through a period in college where I read tons of super hero comics, dropping $50/month on comics. I figured out what I liked, what I didn’t and gradually over the years what monthlies I was reading slowly dwindled off until I haven’t followed a monthly comic for maybe 8 or 9 years. What happened?

    I started finding comics (non superhero) online that I enjoyed and I got my fix that way. Nowadays all the ‘current’ comics I read are online, all of the new artists I discover, I discover online. The internet really IS the newsstand of today. Yes, it’s possible I grew tired of what superhero comics had to offer but it’s also possible that what I find online is just much more convenient.

    And when I find something I really like online, that I read regularly, I can’t WAIT until it comes out in a book so I can read it all at once and have it on my bookshelf and share it with people.

    Which isn’t to say that I don’t ready *any* mainstream titles anymore. If I hear about a good storyline running through Batman, or the latest DMZ arc, I wait until the trade comes out and then I buy it – either online, at a bookstore or comic shop.

    Similar to the way I buy music. I sample stuff online for free and then buy what I really like – either through iTunes or my local record store.

    I think the one big advantage record shops (and the music industry as a whole) has over comics is the performance aspect. Record shops (we have a lot of GREAT ones in Mpls) can hold performances, sell tickets to local shows, have exclusive release parties, etc. Comics don’t necessarily have that aspect which is just a part of the medium. True, you can have creator signings and book release parties, but they don’t have the same pull that live music does – at least for me.

    I feel like my comics reading habits are pretty typical of a 30-something guy who is in the comics biz. People are going to get their comics wherever and whenever they can. I would never bother searching for scanlations of anything just to avoid going to a shop or getting it sooner – but that’s me now. When I was in my 20’s and reading Preacher – I looked forward to every issue of that book and if I could have gotten them online ASAP I would have.

    And while the movie analogy that has been brought up isn’t entirely appropriate, there are still some lessons there. I have no problem waiting for a movie on Netflix. If it’s the right kind of movie or my wife and I want to go out and have some fun, we’ll spring for $10 tickets at the theater but Johanna’s right in that the home-watching experience offers so many advantages.

    Comics retailers need to pay more attention to what readers are saying and doing and less to what they think *should* be happening because there’s no way they’re going to be able to turn this thing around on their own and if they keep trying they’re just going to get weary awfully fast.

  15. Brian Hibbs Says:


    “And since more money is made these days on disc than by selling the theater experience…”

    Where are you getting that info? I’m not saying it can’t be true, but checking quickly on BoxOfficeMojo that doesn’t appear to be the case. I checked 6 recent hit films, and couldn’t find any evidence of that.

    One example is Spider-Man 3 — $891m worldwide, theatrical gross. ( Since BOM only lists 12 weeks of DVD, I found this: which says that at 18 weeks of release the total for the DVD was $124m. At the velocity that wk 18 was showing at, I’d gut-check add another $20m-ish in the next 18 months…

    I don’t know what motivated Disney wrt ALICE, but I haven’t heard anything as of yet that this is becoming a widespread practice. (Doesn’t mean it isn’t, just haven’t heard)

    “And comics is tricky because, as you’ve said, the window of viability is so small, a week at best for your standard superhero comic. It’s not like the months before a movie goes to disc or years before a book goes to paperback. So should digital comics be $1 a week after the paper issue is on sale? That’s the point at which that material is stale.”

    Not QUITE, Johanna. While it’s certainly true that the numerical majority of cape books go “stale” after week one (sort of, but unpacking all of the exceptions and oddities and reasons to still stock them would take me another 2k words to write), the Top 10%, which are likely to represent half or more of the gross sales for most stores, don’t go “stale” for months.

    Like, I’m still selling BATMAN & ROBIN #1 thirteen issues later.

    Further, exactly like what I say about trades, if the customer KNOWS the “other format” is coming really really really soon, it psychologically makes it easier to “wait”.

    I have some more replies to make here, but I have to go read to The Boy right now and put him to sleep — but I will say that I absolutely positively wasn’t trying to compare movies to comics as media or even delivery systems, but rather, trying to show that there’s a very extremely mainstream media that staggers release dates for different distribution channels, and no one thinks that this is at all weird or “unfair” or something that is somehow harmful to people who’d prefer to have movies delivered digitally. Why think of comics differently?


  16. James Schee Says:

    Wow Johanna, you remember all my grousing and wrote alot of what I was going to post for me! lol

    Its so weird these days, as even trying to just be a trade waiter hasn’t really worked too well for me. I’ll see something that makes me go “Oh that looks good, I’ll look for that when it gets collected.” then when it does most times I’ve forgotten why it sounded so interesting at the time.

    Which is why having an option to pick and choose some current stuff that gave me that “Oh” feeling to download and read at my convenience would be incredible.

    One thing I’ve seen talked about is price for digital comics, and making them the same price as regular books. But no one pays cover price for things anymore. Whether you are a regular customer at a shop, buy from one of the big discount online stores (DCBS still has insane looking sales when I glance at them), Amazon or heck even the companies mail order subscriptions are far below cover price.

    Surely if there are all those pricing options for the physical copies, something reasonable can be done for digital pricing as well.

    I’m still not convinced that there would be that much overlap between the comic shop audience and a digital one. People who are going to a comic shop are going there for far different things rather than price, as there are already better options if it came down to just price.

    Just as those of us who aren’t going to comic shops, aren’t going to suddenly start, because we have our reasons as well.

    It really doesn’t even have to be digital OR print. I think I’d treat it the same way as I do beloved TV shows. I could watch Buffy, Chuck or whatever TV show I want online pretty much whenever I want. (even paid a couple of times for digital copies of some shows, that you know came out the same week as the episode aired) That didn’t stop me from buying the season sets on DVD though.

  17. Brian Hibbs Says:

    Johanna: “The digital comic is inferior to the paper: you can’t resell it or trade it or lend it.”

    It’s funny, I’ve been listening for weeks to all sorts of people telling me Digital is Superior — it takes no room, it is device portable, there are no interior ads…

    “For them, a well-stocked current digital store would be a godsend, and they’re not being “cannibalized” in any way. As customers, those types are a pure win. And stores located in active, urban areas with a variety of shop choices probably don’t realize how many customers of that type there are — why should they, since they’re not potential shoppers for them?”

    I think we recognize there are many people that fit this bill; just as there are whole swathes of the country without access to, say, theatrical showings of “Marwencol” or “The Little Traitor”. I wouldn’t upend the entirety of Print distribution just for them, though — that is, to a degree, the “price” one pays for living outside of Urban Centers; your direct access to the arts (of any kind) declines significantly. C’est la vie.

    William George:
    “Assuming that superhero comics are actually desirable outside of our collection of obsessives: The majority of cities and towns don’t have a comic shop but do have a theater.”

    I’d be shocked if the majority of cities and towns (that don’t have a comics shop) have theaters that play anything other than, say, the Top 10 films.

    “Penny Arcade gets more eyeballs a month than the direct market sells titles. This should act as a huge hint as to how the audience wants to get their comics.”

    In four panels, and 100% free?

    (ha ha)


  18. Ralf Haring Says:

    Brian, I’m sorry that you are threatened by the possibility of digital comics. Comic stores are not central to the enjoyment of comics. The *comics* are central to enjoying comics.

    If there were a cheap, concurrent digital alternative, I would buy many comics I currently give a pass. Digital is the new disposable single issue/impulse buy. Purchase of physical product in the future will dwindle to only the best material in a more upscale format, i.e. “this is so good I need to own it in a more permanent format”.

    Just like collected editions caused me to drop almost all my single issue buying because of their vast benefits, digital editions will cause me to drop almost all my physical comic buying.

  19. Johanna Says:

    Tyler, you’re right, in that we need to be specific about what kinds of comics we’re talking about. I’m trying to think of an old-style indy serialized series, and the only thing I’m coming up with is RASL, and that’s putting out collections at a rapid clip as well. Most non-superhero (and non-zombie and non-licensed) comic makers have gone to a combination of books and the web to succeed. Thanks for sharing your experience — I think you’re right, your consumption style is fairly common. I also agree with James, that the overlap in customers may be less than expected by retailers.

    Brian, the key answer to “why think of comics different from movies” is that the first-run movie is not a home viewing experience, so comparing digital to home video is natural. However, the first-run comic is a home experience, so comparing reading at home digitally to reading at home in print is natural. (And I’m going to ignore you writing off huge swathes of the country because they “choose” to not live in a big city.)

    As Ralf points out, the much better comparison may be music, disposable impulse purchases of digital singles vs. permanent albums/books for material worth owning for years. Or as James points out, free TV vs. DVD set purchases. The real shakeup in comics may be people thinking more about what they’re going to choose to reread, and making purchase decisions based on that evaluation. I wish superhero companies would focus more on quality than on the “get it now! shock! violence!” approach they’re taking.

  20. William George Says:

    M. Hibbs:

    ““Penny Arcade gets more eyeballs a month than the direct market sells titles. This should act as a huge hint as to how the audience wants to get their comics.”

    In four panels, and 100% free?”

    More or less.

    They’re making a shitload of money. They’re not worried about the future of their business like you are. They can also fill up a convention hall on their own. How many years has it been since San Diego was an actual comic con?

    They’re producing material the readers want, at a price point they’re happy with, in a form that’s convenient for those readers.

    None of which the direct market is doing.

    What you want, in essence, is people to use an iPhones app to find the best places that sell two tin cans with a string tied between them.

    Good luck. You’ll need it.

  21. Tara Tallan Says:

    I always thought the ideal digital model, from a retailer point of view, was that it’s supposed to drive the book sales, not the 24-pg-comic sales. Speaking as a consumer, I stopped buying the monthly comics long before digital, or even web, became a force. I got tired of the floppy format, and the fact that once I put it in a long box I never took it out again to enjoy. I don’t see myself ever going back to the floppies, simply because I hate storing them.

  22. Matt Says:

    Great discussion, and I absolutely love this topic, so I’m gonna jump in with both feet, even though it makes me a little nervous…

    I think there’s some assumptions being made here about which formats are “better” that aren’t universally true, for one thing. The “home viewing” experience for movies is not automatically better. I would rather see Iron Man 2 at a theater on a Friday night with a big happy crowd, but I have a toddler and a 4-month-old, so I will probably be catching it on DVD in about six months time. (But a guy can dream, can’t he?) Conversely, I have no problem enjoying what I’d personally call “smaller” films at home. I may not need to own them, but I’m always glad to see them.

    For others, a good theater experience is always a must, because they love the ritual of it and going for coffee afterward to discuss with friends; for yet others, the home experience is always superior because idiots bring infants to R-rated horror films and kids spill soda on the floor and no one knows how to shut the hell up anymore.

    None of these views are “wrong,” they’re just preferences. I think comics are similar in some ways, different in others. Johanna’s right, I think, in that the actual experience of reading the comic is fairly similar on print vs. digital. (this is where the “I can’t read comics on a screen!” crowd calls me a moron.) This will be more true as the tablet/e-reader market evolves and we see something with a screen comparable to a comic, with color resolution to support the visuals, and maybe even a few steps forward in the storytelling mechanism (down the path that Comixology is moving toward with isolated panel views).

    Tara brings up the space issue, and I think that’s a big concern for some, and especially is for me. I look at my music collection which fits completely on a hard drive the size of an index card (I sold all my physical CDs a few years ago and went digital), and then my comics collection that fills part of a closet, along with baby clothes and suitcases and all the other crap we accumulate, and man, it’d be nice to ditch those without sacrificing the ability to enjoy that material again.

    If it meant waiting 3 or 6 months for first run books digitally, I may be willing to do that; if I wasn’t, the print edition would be available to me for those books I just couldn’t wait to read. I think Brian’s movie analogy fits perfectly here; I do think a staggered release schedule is appropriate for comics, w/r/t print vs. digital.

    I also think the digital market could support a wider variety of material, especially from the corporate superhero publishers. The “mid-list” of books that tend to get great reviews, a cult of fans, and then canceled after 25 issues or so would I think have a far better chance as .99 or 1.99 downloads than as 2.99 or 3.99 print comics. There’s far less overhead so far more potential to sustain. Those could be “day and date” digital releases since there may not even be a physical component to sell. The newest Avengers title, however…it seems appropriate to me that a reader has a choice of formats, with timing as the key factor, and perhaps price. (The pricing issue, where digital is cheaper than print…that to me sorta goes away when you factor in timing. You can get a .99 download of Avengers 1, but you have to wait 3-6 months.)

    The “mid-list” or lower books also tend to plug into the “mainstream” universes far less, so you can envision these books existing more comfortably in their own digital channel, where the print books sustain the “continuity” and so you can buy the print day-of and stay on the story, or be satisfied with digital six months later…just like trade-waiters are today. That’s a choice you make as a reader, like James’ TV analogy, and I think that’s appropriate, to have a staggered system, even if it isn’t what an all-digital type like myself would optimally want. (For me, just download the books into my brainpan via steampunk circuitry, and I’m happy.)

    So ultimately, digital and print aren’t mutually exclusive, and I think that’s important, just as DVD and theatrical releases are important and aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Finally, if they’re not mutually exclusive, you do have some new and exciting opportunities for increased revenue across the board. You have collectors who will potentially buy both the digital and the print version–the digital for ease of reading, and the print for their longboxes. You have the digital readers who will buy these mid-list books day of release as digital and then buy a trade or HC collection with extras down the line because they look good on a bookshelf. (Just like the special-edition DVDs that are purchased by many who also saw the film theatrically.) And of course, digital readers inspired to visit a shop by reading a digital comic.

    Ultimately, there’s lots of potential here too, even if there could be some bumps in the transition.

  23. Matt Says:

    One other thing:

    This is a bold assertion, but I wonder how much the core “Wednesday crowd” would even be impacted by digital, especially with a time delay on first-run releases.

    These are people who collect; they are plugged into these universes; they are interested in the whole experience of going to the shop, chatting with the crowd, and buying their books; there’s tradition and habit and community built into all that, in its best forms.

    Putting digital comics out there, especially with even a small delay window built in for top-selling books, may not immediately impact that core audience. There may be a less devoted crowd that will drift toward digital, but I’d argue with trades and piracy and just reading a damn message board post to get the key plot points so you’re not out of the loop, those people are drifting anyway.

  24. Johanna Says:

    Great comments, Matt, and you’re right that “better” can vary among customers. I used to be one of those “hate comics online” people until I actually saw an iPad — now, I’m just waiting for second gen to get one. Regarding digital only titles, maybe I should try to talk to Archie about how Betty & Veronica Spectacular is doing, since that’s only available on the iPhone. Or any webcomic creator, since that’s their model too.

    I wish the two shops locally I’d like to hang out in were closer to me, but each is 20-30 minutes away, with nothing else near them I need to visit. Because you’re right, that atmosphere is special.

  25. Brian Hibbs Says:


    “I always thought the ideal digital model, from a retailer point of view, was that it’s supposed to drive the book sales, not the 24-pg-comic sales.”

    Part of the problem with the way the business is economically structured is that you’re not going to get Book sales if you don’t have a periodical product to amortize the production costs in the first place.

    If Digital can reach a critical enough mass to replace the revenue streams that periodical comics currently occupy then that’s “fine”, but I’m having a hard time seeing how we get from “here” to “there” without annihilating the economic model in between.


  26. Johanna Says:

    I’m asking this out of curiosity, not animosity, Brian: are original graphic novels just aberrations in that view of the market, then? Smile, for example, (which began as a webcomic before being picked up by a publisher) just went into its second printing, so it’s certainly got book sales, and it was never a periodical.

    In my opinion, the idea that you have to have periodicals to cover costs is a holdover from comic publishers not knowing how to operate like “real” book publishers, with advances and such that don’t have to be immediately recouped with an interim partial publication. But like everyone here, I’m biased. :)

  27. Nick Says:

    Small point about ‘real book publishers’ – when they buy a Graphic Novel, they often expect the writer/artist to have the finished article ready already (or near enough). Possibly because they want to minimise their risk, but this does mean that the writer/artist doesn’t get a proper advance, per se.

    That aside, historically, Brian may be correct, but I’m of the opinion that publishers should be looking at ways of making OGNs work properly – both for the publisher and the creator. Speaking for myself, I haven’t bought any periodicals in years now, preferring to buy in trade, so I’m just the sort of customer who would buy OGNs.

    Also, I do wish people would stop comparing digital comics and paper comics to DVDs and theatre showings of films. I know I said that already, but I feel it needs restating.

    The clear comparator is ebooks and books. They are the exact same thing, after all, the only difference being comics have pictures.

    Therefore, it’s surely instructive to look at Amazon and their experience with ebooks, given there’s plenty of data to mine there thanks to the Kindle and other ereaders meaning Amazon has a large base of ebook customers.

    And you know what, if what Hibbs suggests for comics were applied to ebooks, most of those Amazon customers would have a fit.

    Take the staggered release. “The Big Short” had its ebook edition delayed because the publishers weren’t happy with the price Amazon wanted to sell it at. So people gave it lots of negative reviews – not because it was a bad book, but because they couldn’t buy it in the format they wanted.

    Comics publishers would only piss their customers off if they tried that with comics. Concurrent release is the only way forward, *clearly*.

    I strongly suspect that delaying any digital comics releases won’t drive customers to LCBS like Hibbs wants, but rather will drive them to illegal download sites instead.

  28. Bill Williams Says:

    When we talk about comic readers, we sometimes act like they are a monolithic homogenized group. In fact, comics readers are a customer base made up of smaller sub-groups. All of the evidence I have seen through WOWIO downloads and the Kindle store sales indicates that the digital readers are mostly a new market. That has been true for our sales through iTunes and the PSP store.

    On FCBD, LSP gave away 1,200 digital comics which drove sponsored downloads for the following weeks. There are business models that do not include the direct market as the sole channel for revenue or distribution.

    It is not entirely fair to use the examples of Spiderman 3 or Batman and Robin as a sole example of a specific argument. Most of the effect of the new distribution model will be on the midlist and the lower end of the sales spectrum which have a difficult time in a crowded marketplace. The glut of Spiderman or Batman projects pushes out a movie like MOON or a comic like HERCULES.

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