Digital Comics and Your Local Shop – A Bookseller’s Perspective

Note: iFanboy is owned by Graphicly, a digital comic book distributor.

It was immensely interesting to me to read Jimski’s article about hitting a personal tipping point for digital comics. Interesting because it mirrors a tipping point for the whole industry – a “moment of critical mass, the boiling point, the threshold.” (Thanks, Mr. Gladwell!) In early 2012, I feel like we’re finally passing that threshold. Color tablets are like the Nook Color and Amazon Kindle Fire are readily available and getting cheaper. Digital platforms like Comixology and Graphicly are making it easier to get most, if not yet all, of your comics in one place. Most publishers are doing day-and-date releases, and some discount titles after release. After years of “I think I can,” digital comics are poised to slip into “I knew I could.”

It’s particularly interesting to someone with a day job as a bookseller, because it’s a tipping point the book industry at large hit a few years ago.

Those key factors – platforms, unified formats, and universal releases – grew like crazy in the book world over the last half-decade. Though ebooks have arguably been around since the 70s, the world’s largest internet retailer launched the Kindle in 2007 and blew the market open. “Explosive” is an understatement when it comes to the growth of digital books over the last 5 years. Ebooks are still a small chunk of the book landscape, but they’re growing by leaps and bounds while print segments slow or shrink.

The runaway growth has made for a seismic shift in the world of bookselling. It’s not the only factor, of course. Amazon’s blow to traditional bookstores when it comes to print can’t be underestimated, and a tough economy hasn’t helped keep your neighborhood bookstore in business. Despite all this, nimble independent stores are able to survive and even thrive. It’s a fact worth considering when we look to comics. They’ve been hit by online megastores and a recession as well (and a total market that’s been shrinking for years), but they’re only on the edge of the massive shift that digital will bring.

The question is; will comic shops survive? And, frankly, should they? It’s on my mind not just as a fellow retailer (my job, like theirs, depends on getting and keeping customers), but as a fan. I’m one of those lucky folks with a local comic store that’s the Platonic Ideal of a comic shop, and the last thing I want to see is shuttered doors.

As the world goes digital, the local shop needs to cater to customers, not just keep up business as usual. It’s how those nimble independent bookstores have survived as colleagues and competitors closed down. Great local bookstores cater to their customers, hold events, bring in authors to sign and speak, host book clubs, and even diversify what they sell. They do what all good stores do – find their niche and fill it. The key for comic shops, I think, is following that lead. Boycotting publishers with little regard for what your customers are looking for? Maintaining that digital is a fad? Refusing to adapt to a constantly shifting market? Crummy service or actual disdain for customers? That’s not how to survive.

As Josh put it in episode 319 of the Pick of the Week Podcast, retailers need to appreciate the value of their own product. Not only the physical product, but the physical space – a “third place” for many consumers – has a real value. There’s ways to promote this (see: events, authors, clubs, diversification), and there’s ways to not (see: boycotts, heads in the sand). There’s more than enough at my shop to keep me around, even as I shift some of my purchasing to digital. Casablanca is deeply involved in our local community, hosts a killer convention every year, offers discounts to regulars, brings authors for signings, has a fun clean space, hires staff that knows their books and knows what to point me towards … the list goes on and on. THAT is value, and that ensures I won’t be using their store as a showroom for digital.

One great thing for bookstores that will be a tough hurdle for comic shops is that many call sell their customers ebooks directly. Formats like Google ebooks are sold at a number of independent bookstores. If I want to buy a digital copy of Zone One from my local bookstore I can; they’ll get their typical cut of the sale, and the publisher gets their chunk. As far as I know, there’s not a comic publisher out there that offers the same deal. There have been initiatives to push digital buyers into shops (Marvel’s $5 couponsbundled hard and digital copies), but outside of the fairly limited ComiXology Digital Partners, there’s no option for your local shop to just sell you the comics you want digitally. The burden is on the retailer to give the customers what they want, and if they’ve got no possible way to do it their job gets a hell of a lot tougher. I don’t know about you, but paying a premium to own the same book digitally and physically doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Most of the time, I’d like one or the other.

It remains to be seen what value, if any, publishers will put in traditional retailers as conduits to digital sales. Speaking of digital sales, checkout an online shop for office supplies and equipment.

The debate masks one important fact in both both the comics market and the traditional book world; this isn’t a zero-sum proposition. No one short of Zebediah Killgrave is going to force you to buy only print or only digital, and one need not exist only without the other. Personally, I buy some of my comics digitally and some in print, and some of my prose in each format. I haven’t hit the all-digital tipping point that Jim described, and I’m not sure I ever will. And I don’t have to. As long as I can, I’ll buy the stuff I want to write in, or share, or get dirty, or flip through like a maniac, or sell to a used book shop, in print. I’ll buy ones I want to cart around on a tablet, or listen to embedded extras, or exist only in one format, digitally.

One of the great things about this democratization of access is that the power is all in the customer’s hands. Wearing both my comic fan and bookselling hats, all I can suggest is that you use this great power responsibly. Buy the comics you want, how you want, where you want. The best comic shops will adapt and thrive, just as many of the best bookstores in the country are. The death of print, and of the local retailer, has been greatly exaggerated. I recommend that you encourage your shop to give you what you want (and not the other way around), and reward them when they do.


  1. Sounds fair.

  2. i wonder why the shops can’t band together and in some sort of an organized fashion demand more return-ability from the publishers for the books? You can’t sell whats not on the shelf….but i get the rub that they don’t want to buy inventory that they can’t guarantee will sell very quickly. Seems like a recipe thats very unfriendly to the end customer by discouraging discovery.

    • That does bring up another great difference I forgot to mention – while bookstores are able to buy a lot of their stock on a returnable basis (especially the things from the big publishers in NYC), my understanding is that comic shops buy their books mostly on a direct, non-returnable basis. Where bookstores are able to and sometimes encouraged to try out new books and authors, I’m sure being stuck with stock that doesn’t sell is be a tough hurdle for comic shop owners.

    • y’know the returns don’t get thrown away…they get resold (sometimes to the same bookstore) at heavy discounts to be sold as remainders…thats where all those tables full of bargain books at B&N and others come from.

      Imagine a remainders bin for comics?…even if Diamond offered it as an internet back issues at discounted prices thing. or just resold them in bulk…that would be killer!

    • Returnability is more dangerous than you realize. Comics were returnable for many years and it almost killed comics. Dc made it work on he new 52 on a limited basis. While you see books on the remainder bin you don’t see them for magazines and you usually don’t see any cheap mass market paperbacks. The cost of shipping and storing and shippng and string of a 3 or 4 dollar periodical that gets cheaper each time would be very prohibitive. It moves the full risk on he publisher, who is already assuming the financial risk of creating the comic.

      That being said, some sort of limited Returnability on the first few issues of a new book seems reasonable especially for small publishers that are not really paying the creators up front and who need added exposure even more

    • maybe it is dangerous, but i kinda feel like the same tired strategy of having publishers and creators yell at fans to pre-order (and then blaming the same fans when stuff gets cancelled) isn’t that solid of a strategy either. I always maintain you can’t sell whats not on the shelf. It really discourages discovery and keeps new fans away by making buying comics that much more complex and “hardcore”.

  3. Thanks for the awesome article, Josh. It’s a positive addition to the “will they won’t they close?” conversations in the comic community. I think you’re right about multiple options vs. all or nothing in the long run. My wife and I are pondering getting a Kindle Fire. When I went through my list of pulls at my shop, I realized, yeah, there are books I can easily download to read. (I’m not a digital format proponent, but i’m willing to give it a go. It certainly would be a space saver.)…

    BUT, there are also books I want to buy in print. Books I’ve always collected in print. Books I love to see in their full “regality.” if that’s a word. Books that I wouldn’t want to read in any other way than in my hands, with real pages to flip/spread out. No matter if we buy that Kindle or not, I already know my shop will always have my business.

  4. I made a point about this very topic recently. The discussion always steers toward a shops inventory, ambiance, events, discounts, etc. and customer relations. We can say that’s the problem until one gets blue in the face. There’s the problem right there, but not really. It all boils down to one thing: Convenience will win out over effort every time! Why go all the way across town to that place when I can just bring up my comics on the mobile devise or tablet instantly. Where am I supposed to find a place for all these stacks build up? And the list of reasons goes on. Article after article has been written about how easy digital is to deal with. And it is. the truth is I’m not sure what more a good comics shop can do to compete with what is easy.

    • The reason I visit my comic shop every week is that it is also a social habbit. I see my friends, we grab a coffee and we talk about stuff (sometimes even comics).

      Sometime we go for a beer after the shop closes and sometime I don;t even buy any comics, but that doesn’t matter to the owners.

      I don’t think I’ll ever read all of my comics digitally, but even if I did, I would still visit the shop to check out new titles, pick up the odd TPB and to talk to my friends.

      Comic shops need to be friendly, welcoming and serve coffee and cakes 🙂 Then they will thrive as my LCS has done for nearly 21 years.

  5. I wonder if the number of printed comics will go down by a large enough number so that they will actually become collectable (have value). Or if that happened it wouldn’t be profitable for the comic companies to produce them anyways. Maybe some day they will make say 10,000 serial numbered issues of each major comic, to cater to collectors.

  6. I think for many retailers, it’s about changing your audience. I stopped buying single issues almost half a decade before I downloaded my first digital comic. But I was still a proponent of my LCS. Digital has turned me back into a monthly reader without changing my LCS habits one bit. I buy 2 or 3 titles per month digitally and stop in my LCS once a month or so and pick up my favorite trades as they’re available. Interestingly enough though, my LCS has diversified as well, running gaming and trivia nights and has expanded to include a full service coffee shop as well. To me, Legends Comics in Omaha, NE is doing it right.

  7. I’m not sure why I would want to buy comics digitally. Are they cheaper that way? Comics are art. Perhaps not high art, but at least folk art. And they are collectibles. If you could afford an engraving by Durer, would you want a physical engraving, or would you be satisfied to hang a large screen TV on your wall with an image of a Durer engraving? You can’t take a digital comic to a convention, and have it signed by the writer or artists. Books are really not analogous to comics as collectibles. I’m sure there are a few first editions of “The Old Man And The Sea” out there signed by Hemmingway, but readers generally do not buy books for the physical reality, but for the abstract writing.

  8. what is the best size dimensions for reading on a tablet?

  9. This article has so many great points in it that I can’t help but give a big Huzzah to Josh Christie. I recently relocated across the Great Mitten State from the suburbs of Detroit to Kalamazoo. Going from my hometown store to the one I shop in now has been mind blowing. They do simple things like talk to me! They want to know what I’m reading which creative teams I enjoy. Cynics may say “well they just want to know what other products to sell you.” To that I say, GREAT! As an avid fan of comics my tastes are pretty mainstream and in all reality don’t expand further then the DC(n)U. Two weeks ago one of the gentlemen at my shop noticed I was reading JL Dark so he recommended some of titles of the characters in the book. So I went and got myself some Madame Xanadu and HallBlazer. I also recently picked up playing Live RPG’s. When I went in to pick the materials I needed the gentleman at the counter spent 25-30 minutes talking to me (It was a Saturday and the store was jumping) Yes my local store costs me more, but as pointed out in this article, I got the 25-40% back in customer service. In a world where we are all becoming disenfranchised with human contact my LCS goes out of their way to make me feel like their favorite customer. And when you consider I’ve only been going in for about a month, I’ll say they have won my business without question.