Over the past few years, the comic industry has talked about digital comics as if they were jet-packs or space colonies – some sci-fi dream from the distant future. Or more like an apocalyptic vision of the future where warm-and-fuzzy pulp and ink has been replaced by cold and uncaring electronic Replicants. We’ve heard the doomsday talk of a digital revolution when soulless machines take over and lay waste to your local comic book shop. The end is nigh.
There have been some signs of resistance however. Publishers, both large and small, have banded together like rebel forces on the ice planet Hoth. They offer us a glimmer of hope that the future can be fought with weapons like Marvel’s “Digital Comics Unlimited”, “Comics” by ComiXology or the Graphic.ly “Digital Comics Solution”. They have even gone as far to offer a support program for retailers so their customers can buy digital comics in their favorite LCS. Fear not soldiers of the printed periodical – help is on the way!
Unfortunately, the war may have already been lost.
Monthly sales of printed comics are plummeting. Book store chains (buyers of graphic novels and trade paperbacks) have claimed bankruptcy and announced hundreds of store closings. Every month we hear the death rattle of another comic shop closing their doors. Meanwhile digital reading devices like Apple’s iPad have given people an excuse to switch from paper to pixels.
Like books or music, television, and movies before them, it is only a matter of time before reading comics digitally are the acceptable norm and not the rarity. And like record stores, video rental chains, and corner book stores – the writing is on the wall for local comic book shops and distribution centers like Diamond.
Last month Amazon.com announced that for the first time in history ebook sales outperformed paperbacks. “So what?” you say, “What has that got to do with comic books?” How long do you think it will be before Amazon perfects a color version of the Kindle? The T1000 model is coming to kill you from the future.
Even more dangerous though is the hidden war going on in the shadows by pirates and guerrillas. Internet piracy is not going away. If anything, it will become increasingly easier and in the minds of future generations, more acceptable. As digital readers become less expensive and easier to use more comic fans will look for a digital solution. These tech-savvy individuals will be hungry for content and looking for the easiest and cheapest way to get their fix of four-color funny books. If society (or Wikipedia) tells us anything it is that humans are basically lazy and willing to cut corners and/or break the law if it gets them what they want with the least amount of effort. Right now, downloading pirated versions of your favorite comic books are easier than trying to get them legally. That is a fact and one I think too many in the industry are ignoring.
Right now if you wanted to buy a digital copy of 95% of the comics that come out next Wednesday, you couldn’t. No publisher is offering day-and-date digital comics for even half of their monthly catalog. Publishers are reluctant to have day-and-date digital comics because they are afraid it will upset the apple cart. The first major publisher that goes day-and-date with all of their comics is sure to feel a backlash from both distributors and retailers. It is hard to blame them though. Who in their right mind is going to anger their best customers by exploring the wilderness of the digital domain? Retailers and distributors fear that once consumers can buy comics online, there is no reason for them not to. So publishers are trying to keep them happy while at the same time pushing back against the inevitable and irrevocable change to their business model. The problem is, the model is being changed whether they like it or not. The longer they wait the more comfortable their customers will become with not paying for their products.
The lack of content is only one part of the problem. Let’s say that all the major publishers did go day-and-date digitally. All of the current digital solutions offer you the ability to buy your comics through their online store and read it with their proprietary software. You don’t physically own a copy of the book and they don’t make it easy to read wherever or whenever you want. You have to be logged in to their system in order to read the books you purchase and you cannot trade them with your friends. It is much more like renting a movie or than buying one but it costs the same and I can’t bring it home.
If tomorrow you go to your local comic shop and buy a copy of the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, after you pay for it you can do whatever you want with it; You can give it away, you can trade it, or you can put it in a plastic bag and hope that someday it will be worth a fortune so you can sell it on eBay. It is yours do with as you please.
Tomorrow if you want to buy a digital copy of the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, you can’t. Even if you could, you wouldn’t actually own a copy of it anyway. They want you to buy their products but when you do, they don’t want to give you the actual rights of ownership that normally would come with a purchase.
I don’t know how many people in the comic industry know this but every week, there are people all over the globe that are scanning nearly every comic book that is published and putting them online for free. No, I’m not going to tell you where to get them, but if you are reading this article you are only a couple of clicks away. Thousands and thousands of megabytes in pirated comics are downloaded every single day. There are scanners out there working on having a digital version of every comic book ever published online for anyone with a high-speed connection to download. On the flip side, publishers are making it difficult for readers to get the same content.
Here’s a simple analogy:
Joe Comicbookfan is walking down the street and decides he wants to pick up a big stack of the latest and greatest comic books on the shelves. Joe has two options.
Options A: Joe runs all over town to every comic book shop he can find. Most of the stores don’t have the latest issues of the titles he wants, but they do have some back-issues if he wants to catch up on his favorite character. Does he want to start with the Golden Age stuff or just jump in to the latest Big Event from three years ago? No, sorry we don’t have the hot new issue of that title yet but check back in a few months and maybe it will be here. One more thing, I’m sorry but you can’t take that out of the store, you’ll have to read it here.
Option B: Joe is walking down the street and trips over a big box full of all the latest comics. There is a note on the box that says “Take me”.
Is anyone out there still wondering why comic book sales are dropping like a concrete seagull?
The worst part to me though is the fact that we have all seen this before. Take a look at the music industry. After the advent of digital music players, Napster and other file-sharing software allowed people to download and share any song they wanted. Millions of songs were being downloaded illegally. Producers, artists, and labels were losing money by the truckload. The industry tried to prevent it using some of the same techniques and in some cases they were successful but in the end they wasted a lot energy and money trying to prevent something that they had no chance in stopping.
Then along came Apple and gave the world iTunes. At first people thought it wouldn’t have much of an effect but it gave consumers a simple, effective and affordable alternative to stealing music. Today, millions of dollars worth of songs, television shows, movies and apps are purchased from them every week.
What the comic book industry needs to do is stop fighting against the inevitable change from print to digital. Learn from the history of other industries so that they can make the transition less painful for everyone involved. Look to the future as a possibility to expand your base instead of simply trying to hang on to something you will never be able to keep. There are generations of kids yet to be born who will possibly never own a printed comic book or walk into a comic book store but hopefully that won’t stop them from reading them.
Digital Comics are not the future, they are already here.
Resistance is futile.