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

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.

SLG Publishing banner

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.

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. In that link, I 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, 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. Amazon.com 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.


8 Responses to “SLG Goes Digital-Only for Serialization — The End of the Indy Comic Book Issue?”

  1. Ralf Haring Says:

    I wonder how long it’ll be before mid-range companies like Image or Dark Horse or IDW follow suit?

    I also seem to remember CrossGen publishing all their comics on the web via a subscription service way back around 2001-2, way ahead of the curve.

  2. ComicsCritic Says:

    Unfortunately, smaller Indy comics are a niche product in an ever increasing niche market. Most walk-in customers to a comic shop won’t even get to see an issue of a Slave Labor book on the shelves unless they’re in certain shops in major cities like NYC & San Fran.

    I owned a shop in the 90’s and carried SLG, Cartoon Books, Kitchen Sink, Mirage, and other small press publishers. I literally had to hand sell those books to customers I knew would enjoy them. A great majority of retailers now either don’t bother doing that or don’t have the staff/time to do it. So those small press books don’t get ordered or sold and it’s up to the creators or publishers to do get the word out through alternate means.

    It’s a shame. Our society, for the most part, either looks down upon or worse, ignores, the fact that comic books are a great medium for entertainment. While those negative perceptions remain, it makes it very difficult to increase the market to where small press books are viable in every store.

  3. Johanna Says:

    I’ve seen more change over the past decade from “we retailers are the connection to the customer and want to hand-sell” to “why aren’t publishers doing more to create customers for their books and driving them to our shops?” Probably because of the glut of material out there. It’s very hard to be a well-stocked shop and no one can (or would want to) carry everything any more. It’s too expensive. And with more material to handle, you’re right, there’s less time to be familiar with it all and provide that kind of selection service.

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  5. William George Says:

    ” Probably because of the glut of material out there. ”

    Aye.

    The reason for the Nu 52 isn’t because they think it’s a catchy rhyme. It’s because fifty two comics have a better chance at crowding the competition off of the limited shelf space at the shops.

    This has been Marvel and DC’s M.O. for a very long time now so I can see why SLG would decide to go for a market where this can’t be done.

    I think it’s good they’re not sticking with the extended rental (and thus stupid for consumers to buy) formats that are the comics readers apps. At least, I’m *assuming* they can’t enter your computer to delete the PDF you downloaded from them..

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