SLG Goes Digital-Only for Serialization — The End of the Indy Comic Book Issue?

SLG Publishing banner

Long-running independent comic company SLG Publishing (formerly Slave Labor Graphics) has always been a scrappy canary, leading the way and pushing the boundary when it comes to particular industry trends.

They were the first significant publisher to sell their publications digitally back in 2006, setting up their own web store and providing downloadable PDF or CBZ files, although getting readers to participate was a struggle. That same year, they offered certain comic series as digital-only, serializing them online and then selling print collections.

SLG Publishing banner

Now, five years later, SLG has determined that that strategy is what they’ll be using for all of their publications. They will no longer print individual comic issues, instead switching to what they call digital first distribution. From their press release:

“The market has been pushing us away from serialized comics and more towards books and graphic novels for some time,” said SLG president and publisher Dan Vado. “However, it is difficult to publish a 200-page graphic novel from an unknown artist without having some sort of lower-cost entry point like a comic book series to help build an audience, so going digital first seems like a good way to introduce readers to new creators and build an audience which we can build on for potential book releases.”

It’s a smart move. Print costs money. Digital costs server space, on a website you’re already maintaining in many cases. With rising paper and postage costs, digital is a lot cheaper for customers to sample, too. This has been coming since at least 2009, when comic distributor Diamond raised its order minimums, thus requiring small presses to sell a minimum number of copies in order to get into comic stores through them.

The question does arise, at least in my mind, as to whether retailers will support ordering the graphic novel collections for their shelves, without having seen some samples first, but that can be addressed through PDF review copies or marketing materials. And this way, no one passes up the graphic novel because they already have some of the issues, and no one’s disappointed when the last few issues of the series are only available in the collection. I’ve previously speculated that the comic miniseries was going to soon go extinct, and this looks like the first die-off.

At least SLG gets it when it comes to availability:

SLG digital releases will be available in a number of formats and places. From its own website, SLG comics will be available in .PDF, .CBZ, and ePub format “Our ePub files have been formatted to look best on an iPad using iBooks,” pointed out Vado, “but they should look good on whatever you like to read ebooks on.” In addition to selling from their own website, new SLG releases will also be available at the iTunes store for readers with iOS devices who prefer the convenience of purchasing media inside the iBooks application. Nook and Nook Color owners will also be able to purchase books for those devices through BN.COM.

This is in addition to SLG’s current digital distribution through app-based stores like Comixology and iVerse. “People like to consume in ways they are familiar and comfortable with; it’s not my intention to try and force our readers or new readers to have limited choices in terms of digital consumption. SLG has always maintained a strategy and policy of keeping its products in as many venues as will have them and that will extend into the digital world.”

Smartly, the first issue of titles tend to be available to download free. See, for example, Stephen Coughlin’s Sanctuary and Monstrosis by Chris Wisnia.

In a followup (link no longer available), Vado told Heidi MacDonald that very few of their digital comics have sold in triple digits (meaning that most digital comics sell under 100 copies), but with the caveat that “it doesn’t mean much when you consider that most of the titles we have been offering to this point has been older stuff and most of our marketing has been to people who already own that older stuff.” However, what matters is the trend. While print sales are declining, digital sales are going up every month.

Vado continues in the comments, saying in response to a retailer who says he doesn’t have time to “track down digital-primary material” that

SLG comics don’t have much of a place in comics shops anymore. is now outselling the direct market in terms of backlist and it has started to rival the direct market in terms of new releases. A platform where people have low-cost entry points to a cartoonists work and where that entry point can be instantly linked to a place where someone can buy a physical book, that’s a platform where we can achieve faster results and probably more traction overall.

The Direct Market set of dedicated comic shops have, with a few notable exceptions, become mostly carriers of superhero, genre (horror, action), and branded (Transformers, GI Joe, etc.) material. If you’re creating other kinds of comics, then your audience — at least, the one you need to succeed — is elsewhere. The buyers in shops (and I’m thinking here of the retailers stocking their shelves as much as fans buying comics) have been too overwhelmed by the cost of what they “have” to have (ever-growing and more costly superhero universes) to experiment much with new material. Free tastes are necessary to get attention, and that’s easiest to do online, where you don’t have to go through a printer and a distributor and a retailer to get your sample in front of a reader.

Another retailer makes the point in the comments at Heidi’s post that “any statement that includes the phrase ‘most of’ regarding comic shops, is likely wrong. Due to the nature of this business, each and every store is really a unique store, and every market is incredibly different.” If he’s right, then that’s yet another argument for going digital. Instead of crafting different pitches and reaching out to hundreds of distinct stores run by determined individuals, you can work on getting your product into a handful of online marketplaces and formats, and then put your energy into reaching the audience.

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