This past weekend there were 2 comic book conventions, Wizard World Philadelphia and Heroes Con in Charlotte. There’s been a bit of a drought in terms of announcement and news in comics lately, so it comes as no surprise that this weekend featured a ton of news about creative teams and comics and the like, but on Sunday at Heroes Con there was one panel with a very important announcement, and that was the public announcement of Longbox, a digital comics solution.
Longbox is most easily described as an attempt at being the “iTunes for comics” and that’s a pretty accurate description of there ever was one. The coverage of the Longbox panel over at CBR explains in great detail what the product is, how it works, how much it will cost etc. so I’m not going to re-summarize it for you, just go there and check it out. What I would like to do instead is to weigh in on the idea of digital comics and whether or not Longbox stands a chance.
We’ve been talking about digital comics for a few years now. With the emergence of files in such formats as .PDF, .CBR and .CBZ, combined with the distribution power of bit torrent, a vibrant pirate community around comics has been established. In addition to illegal means of digital distribution, we’ve seen various fits and starts by some publishers of putting their comics online, with the biggest attempt by Marvel with their Digital Comics offering, which puts both recent and old comics online for reading (yet not offline). And to clarify, when I’m talking about digital comics, I’m not addressing web comics, which are an established part of the tapestry of the web (and includes Zuda Comics from DC Comics, whereas DC Comics does not have a digital comics offering for their mainstream/superhero titles as of yet).
Whenever the concept of digital comics comes up, it’s hotly debated. Do we even want to read comics on a computer (or a hand held device like an iPhone or Amazon Kindle)? Regardless of the answer to that question, it’s inevitable. The costs of printing and paper are constantly increasing, and the cost savings associated with digital distribution is too tempting to be passed up. Additionally, the fact that people are reading their comics in a digital format, whether you want to or not, proves that there there is a market for it on some level.
The time we’re in right now reminds me a lot of music and the emergence of digital distribution of music in the late 1990s/early 2000s. I’m not sure how many of you were around and active online at that time, but if you were you’d remember that it was the wild west. You had a rapid development of file formats such as MP3s being adopted by many users, the increase in Internet access combined with file sharing technologies such as Napster lead to rampant pirating of music. The record companies were slow to acknowledge that this was the future with some labels sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring it (somewhat like DC Comics) and others saw the writing on the wall and attempted their own proprietary solutions (somewhat like Marvel Comics). It wasn’t until the emergence of commonly accepted file format, in this case MP3, and the emergence of a third party application with no ties to the record labels other than distribution deals, in this case Apple iTunes, was the digital music revolution able to be controlled and commercialized. Sure pirating of music still exists, but by no means is it as rampant as it once once, with the majority of the population falling in line and buying their music again through iTunes or other services like eMusic or Amazon’s MP3 store. The comic book industry is in a very similar position and in discussions of this topic I’ve said it’s going to take a third party to come in and set the standard for the application as well as the file format before the pirating of comic books digitally would be curbed and for digital comics distribution can be accepted by the people.
Is Longbox that solution?
Right now it’s too soon to tell, but if anything has the potential to be, it sure looks like Longbox could be the real thing. It seems to have the details sorted out, mainly a desirable price point – $0.99 per issue, along with it being a local client application (meaning I don’t need to be online to read the comics I download) could build the recipe for success. It could be a world where you may buy less physical issues, but at 99 cents per “issue”, the opportunity for sampling or trying new titles is sure to increase. I can see a future where issues are purchased via Longbox, and then the money savings are translated to increased sales in trade paperbacks or original graphic novels, easily.
Now the emergence of a digital comics distribution system is surely to be seen as a threat to Diamond (the main distributor of comics) and local comic book stores. I don’t really have anything to say on that other than that they’re going to need to change or die. I don’t want to be in a world where the local comic store doesn’t exist, and I don’t think that will happen, but the direct market has been a problem (mainly due to Diamond) for years now and the future is inevitable. They’re going to have to evolve their business if they want to survive, it’s just that simple and could be a whole other article so I’ll stop for now.
So what will it take for Longbox to succeed?
As I mentioned above and if you read the details, Longbox is getting a lot of things right. The price point, the method of distribution etc. But the thing that will guarantee the success of Longbox (or any other attempt at third party digital distribution) is the content available. It’s great to hear that Top Cow and Boom! Studios are on board, but that’s not enough. Unless Longbox can establish agreements with the big 4 publishers: Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics, it won’t succeed, and I’m sure they know this.
Again following in the footsteps of digital distribution of music, or movies and TV shows for that matter, it’s all about the content. The reason why Apple iTunes was successful (aside from the iPod integration) was that it was able to get the music that we wanted in their music store. I remember 10 years ago as other digital music distribution start ups emerged with independent artists and smaller labels, and while it was really cool, if you weren’t into any of those bands or labels, you weren’t spending your money. It’s as simple as that.
Another aspect Longbox has going for it is in the war against digital comics pirating and creator rights. I know a lot of people who download their comics via bit torrent, and despite whatever rationalization they make for themselves, like it was with music year ago, it’s still stealing. No way around it. When a comic is downloaded illegally, it’s the same situation as stealing the issue from the local comic book store. No one is actually getting paid for that work or is the “sale” or consumption of that issue by you, the reader, is being counted which directly affects the publishing future of many books. I’m not going to speculate that maybe Captain Britain and the MI:13 was canceled because of people bit torrenting the issues, but rather think about the number of people who might have given it a try digitally, and have been counted by Marvel as part of the greater readership.
Digital distribution allows for an infrastructure for comics to be sold and counted which will only help the creators in the long run. With the recent changes by Diamond in the sales limits needed to be distributed, a ton of independent creators are being shut off from the local comic book stores, which is a damn shame. But think of the potential of an indie comic creator to provide his or her comic digitally, generating sales and buzz which could either fund the production of the print run for the comic or lead to a distribution deal (or other work) with another publisher. Currently the avenue for success for small creators is incredibly tiny, if not impossible. Digital distribution could open up those opportunities again to the future comic creators.
I’m incredibly optimistic about the future as presented by Rantz Hoseley (CEO of Longbox, and editor of Comic Book Tattoo from Image Comics). Longbox seems like a great solution for both reading as well as distributing digital comics. I’m sure there are others working on similar products and I’m guessing the next year is going to be very active in this area. Ultimately it will come down to the comics available and how much the publishers are willing to play ball. I hope, for all of our sakes, that Longbox is the solution and the publishers come to same conclusion that I have: Digital comics are inevitable. Change or Die.