Retailers on Digital Comics

Most of the debate about digital comics and the future of paper comics centers on the readers' preference in media.  They either do or don't mind the digital form over paper.  The next hot topic is the issue of price, and as we've seen on this site many times before, opnions are varied, but it turns out that people want to pay as little money as they can. The acceptable amount depends on the individual consumer.  Every once in a while, however, the issue of comic shops is brought up, the idea being that a full on successful onslaught of digital comics could spell doom for many comic book retailers.

I've got my own thoughts about the subject, but I've never worked in comics retail, so I went to some retailers to get their thoughts, since they're the people it will affect the most, certainly more than most comic book readers.

 


 

Tom Adams – Bergen Street Comics, Brooklyn, NY

We just opened our store in March 2009, well aware of the rising popularity of digital comics and realizing the potential for an explosion in that popularity with the coming of a long rumored Apple tablet device. Now, as then, we see digital as one more option our customers have for purchasing their comics.

Already, our customers can choose to shop with an online discount retailer, download comics illegally, or shop at any of a dozen other comic stores within a 15 minute subway ride from ours. We'll continue to operate Bergen Street Comics in a way that we believe makes it as welcoming to both new and longtime comics readers as possible, creating an atmosphere and an experience and providing a selection of comics that will keep people coming back.

Of course, digital comics and the shift toward "day and date" delivery will cause big changes in the Direct Market – of which we are a part. While there are countless changes that we would welcome, we can't fully predict what these changes will be, just as we can't predict if the hoped for arrival of new readers turned on to comics that they tryout on their iPad will ever materialize. We can hope that what we're doing continues to be successful, but we think it's important to remember that even the "good" shops, the ones that you might think are doing things the "right way," may not be able to thrive in this new developing market. There are currently too many unknowns.

Maybe that's the most important thing to remember when discussing the future of comic shops in the age of digital distribution: No one really knows what's going to happen. We can speculate and offer up our vision of a model that best suits our own wants and needs. We can say, "There should be a six month wait between the availability of printed comics and digital," or "All comics should be made available for download immediately at a price between $0.99 and $1.99," but that doesn't mean that either option is realistic or financially viable for creators or publishers.
 


 

Scott Samson, Manager – Fantasy Shop South County, St. Louis, MO

In regards to the current push for digital comics by publishers large and small I have to admit that I am of entirely mixed feelings. The idea of getting comics in front of more potential readers is an honorable and worthy quest. The idea that it might get those readers into comic stores and buying from traditional retailers is not an exact transition in my mind, but might possibly be the kind of thing that I could see happening. I've been reading comics since I was 7 (the comic was Green Lantern Special #1 from 1988) and while I certainly understand the desire of many to have comics in a digital format, to me comics means going to a comic store and reading floppies everywhere from the couch to the throne. With modern technology being what it is, I can certainly understand that I would still be able to do all of that with digital comics. It just doesn't hold the same appeal. But that certainly doesn't mean that I think that everyone is of the same opinion as I am. I get that other people want something cheaper and that they don't particularly want to have to store the physical artifact of the story that they've read. I don't think of myself as a Luddite, but this is something I'm passionate about. There is something about the books themselves to which I am fervently attached. I hope that the people who want to read digital comics enjoy the stories, and that the people who decide to check out comics because they are available in digital formats enjoy what they find there, and I hope that the people who continue to buy comics in the tried and true format of monthly paper releases enjoy the stories that they read. I understand that it is a storytelling vehicle and that the same stories could be told in any fashion but I think that Cory Doctorow's thoughts on the iPad and Marvel's Comic App are pertinent here:

"I mean, look at that Marvel app (just look at it). I was a comic-book kid, and I'm a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics. And the used market for comics! It was — and is — huge, and vital. I can't even count how many times I've gone spelunking in the used comic-bins at a great and musty store to find back issues that I'd missed, or sample new titles on the cheap. (It's part of a multigenerational tradition in my family — my mom's father used to take her and her sibs down to Dragon Lady Comics on Queen Street in Toronto every weekend to swap their old comics for credit and get new ones).

So what does Marvel do to "enhance" its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney."

Ultimately, I am good at what I do (and I think that if you ask any of my regular customers that they would tell you the same) and I don't want to have to worry about what I would do if I couldn't do it. Consider that comic fans aren't the direct customers of the comics industry. Diamond acts as a distributor for them. The comic stores all over the nation are the ones buying them. We are their customers and their sales force. So I just hope that the plight of the comics store owner is taken into account. The Fantasy Shop has been serving the Saint Louis Metro Area since 1981. Just shy of 30 years. I just hope that the actions of the comics publishers will allow us to be here in another 30 years.
 



Ken Derrick, employee – Black Cat Comics, Salt Lake City, UT

I have had many conversations with shop owners throughout the valley about digital comics and it feels like print comics are locked in a corner away from digital. People who view it as light entertainment I've spoken with, want digital comics and the occasional trade paperback. It seems the hardcore "every Wednesday" fan wants BOTH. Back issues are almost not to be found in the older shops, postage is too high to track things down on eBay and Marvel.com has an easy answer that I hope DC follows. [which they did with their own app -j.]


 



Kody P. – Silver Snail, Toronto, ON, Canada

I personally am kind of excited for the future of digital comics. At first it scared the hell out of me. People are talking like it's going to be the end of the printed comic. They may be right, but I don't see that happening for quite a few years. Not to say that digital comics, especially simultaneously released with printed comics, won't affect our sales. That's expected. I just know there's enough of the older generation or comics readers still not keen on reading comics off of an iPad or PC. Speaking of the iPad, a regular customer of ours brought his in a while back to show us how spectacular comics look on it. I was pretty impressed. Anyway, as long as distributors (Diamond) are fair in informing retailers which books will be available for digital release at the same time as its printed version, I don't think it will hit us as hard as some people do. Like I said though, I'm sure our numbers on monthly books will take a hit, but there's still going to be the steady trade paperback sales as well as art books and other printed media that just won't work on a digital level. The Silver Snail, thankfully, also has toys, statues and other collectibles to fall back on when our comic books sales take a dip. I do worry a bit for comic book focused stores that might not be able to make it through the transition, the stores that rely on the subscriptions and weekly comic book sales might have a harder time than the stores who carry a lot of other product like gaming merch and statues. It's all so uncertain though. I'm sure as the price for the ipad lowers and the amount of titles available digitally increases, we'll see more and more people making the move to digital.
 



What it comes down to, much like the people working in digital comics themselves, is that there's a great deal of uncertainty about what the future actually does hold.  There's a heck of a lot of armchair prognosticating about what will or won't, or what could or should happen, but no one knows.  The thing that is clear is that something will change, and it's absolutely necessary for the survival of comics in general that everyone on all sides, from publishers to distributors to retailers to readers really think about what sort of a comic book industry they want, and how media will be consumed.  As always, smart people will adapt and flourish, and some will be left behind.

Thanks to everyone for their time and thoughtful responses.

Comments

  1. I agree with the comment on the stores that don’t carry other products will probably be the ones hit hardest. I’d love to have cheap day and date digital releases but not at the cost of my local shop.

  2. there are titles i will always buy in physical form, but i’m ready to move towards getting most of my stuff digitally.  i don’t think wishing for an "itunes" for comics that supports all publishers at a reasonable price point is such a crazy notion.  i would probably buy more than i am now, due to price and storage issues – plus it would make it easier for me to justify those big absolute hardcovers!

  3. You guys didn’t interview a Colorado retailer? How does that even work, Graphic.ly is in Boulder!?

  4. I’m always going to be a physical copy comics fan.I buy my comics on mail-order from my nearest comics shop which is over 100 miles away. I feel that cheaper day and date release comics would allow me to get a taste of more titles and would make me actually increase what I buy from my LCS.

  5. I got back into comics when i illegally (sorry) downloaded Year One, TDK and The Hard Goodbye. I bought all three the next week and I’ll be sticking with the physical format. Although I only read trades.

  6. When music went digital, nearly all music stores shut down.  That may have been more due to piracy.  Lots of people lost their jobs, people I even know.

    Not only did music retailers suffer, but also record companies that make music, as well as musicians.

    Makes you wonder if even Marvel & DC will suffer, not just retailers.  Comics and music are not the same, but their could be similarities.

  7. Bergen looks nice.  Pending on the weather today I might take a walk over there when I get a chance.

  8. Do I think digital comics are a necessity?  Absolutely.  For one, the comic demographic is aging.  This is an opportunity – albeit clearly not a slam dunk – to try to attract new, younger readers to the medium.  Two, it allows across the board price reduction.  Three, the global trend for all entertainment mediums (and indeed for almost all things) is and will continue to be toward maximum portability and minimum amount of space/resources consumed.  

    That being said do I think I will ever embrace digital comics? Probably not.  To me there is something lost in the transition.  I feel the same way about digital books.  It also seems weird to have to pay for something that only exists in cyberspace.  But that’s just me.  

  9. Comic companies have done a good job of staying behind the digital revolution until they could see the way to do it without losing money.  The same cannot be said about the music industry and the rest of the print industry.  I’ve gone around and around with friends about the job losses and decline in quality product that the digital revolution has had on the rest of the print industry, but I think that comics might actually be able to go up in quality if they charge the same price for a weekly take home of books to just give you weekly access to all a publisher prints.  Will this mean more job losses as comics shops go out of business?  You bet.  What’s the answer?  I have no idea.  

     

    Economists often point out that in cases like the car driving the horse and buggy out of business more jobs were created in the auto industry than were lost in the horse and buggy business, and land that was used to previously feed horses now could feed cattle or humans. The real problem with the digital revolution is it’s the first case of a new industry taking jobs from the old (in this case by streamlining delivery so much it cuts out over 50% of the workers involved when you think about paper, printing, shipping, and retailing) and doesn’t really offer anywhere near that on the back end. 

     What is more interesting is how the meeting place for comics geeks has always been the comic shop, but now it will have to be in forums like iFanboy.  The drive for monopoly is more pronounced in social networking, so does iFanboy think it can take on all other forums for your comic discussion?

  10. Bergen Street Comics is a beautiful, beautiful shop.  Thank you to Tom for letting us have the iFanboy party there.

    At the Digital Distribution panel at NYCC, the Marvel rep (his name has slipped my mind) talked about the role digital played as a gateway to comics and an advertising tool to get people into shops.  We may find that Digital comics end up being a complement to, rather than a substitute for, traditional paper comics (for a segment of the market). 

    @PDubble – The term economists use for the phenomenon you are referring to is Creative Destruction.  The idea that new jobs are created when innovation obsoletes an industry.  It is very, very hard to measure the number of jobs lost and created due to changes of this nature.  It may be difficult to tell what new jobs are created (and which are lost) directly due to the change.  The demand for digital devices might rise, creating new jobs, while a number of workers in the publishing industry lose their jobs.  The quality of the job must also be considered.  

  11. It does not matter to me if same day digital only was only $.99. I’m just not interested. I’ve tried it, and for me, it takes the magic away. I do not want to spend any more time in the digital world than I already do. Of course, I can see why the stores would be worried. It is already such a niche market, and it will only become more of one as digital takes over. Only the strong, most interesting, and most welcoming (ala Bergen Street) will survive, not unlike the vinyl stores that still exist.

    Side note to the iFanboy team: For the next meet up, how about some of those goofy name tag stickers (you know, "Hi, My Name is _____")? I could have said hi to stuclach and the other regulars!

  12. I second HailScott’s request for nametags (even though they are incredible dorky).

  13. The reality is that retailers should be terrified because the move to digital is their doom. Period.

    The comments here seem to be "great idea, not for me", which is fine except that comic buyers are aging and new ones (if they come to exist) will grow up reading books on Kindle’s and ipads and won’t feel any of the nostalgia for physical media that current buyers do. They will either want them digital or not at all. 

    I live in Toronto (where the snail is) and we are down to maybe 10 decent comic shops in a city of four million…in 1984 (before the crash) they were all over the place…in 2030, I’d bet any amount of money you want the city will have less than 5 primarily comic oriented stores…it is inevitable…as soon as there are enough comic buyers going digital, the retailers and Diamond are getting their butt’s dumped by Marvel/DC.

    P.S. I have to say, not trying to be too mean, that the idea of sharing comics is pure nostalgia from like 1950. Todays’ bag/board culture is not heading home and handing their comics around a table to be read by six people. I doubt very much that more than 10% of comics are ever read by a 2nd person.

  14. I agree witht the sentiment about sharing comics.  It’s not done.  Comic readers are often solitary. The sharing comes on sites like this one and on Twitter, but sharing the actual objects? That’s an anachronistic practice for the most part.

  15. @therantguy and josh — well, to be fair, Cory Doctorow’s quote was about what we did as kids. And back when comics were on spinner racks in supermarkets and drugstores, I used to totally buy comics and trade them or loan them to other kids. It’s not 50s nostalgia. It may be 80s nostalgia, since there are no more spinner racks. But I think it’s more about childhood nostalgia.

    The problem is that comics aren’t read by kids, and I think Doctorow’s comment stems from the idea that publishers essentially have a new spinner rack at their disposal, something that kids COULD use to discover and share comics like we used to back in the day — so that comics don’t HAVE to be a solitary form of entertainment for 30- and 40-somethings. In other words: this is an opportunity to use a new format to try to stake a claim with a new generation of young readers — and that "sharing" digital comics might help that along.

  16. Well… my neighbor Derek and I aren’t swapping issues every weekend like we did in 1987, but I am sharing about half a dozen trades right now. Plus, I know some web site owners who share books somewhat willy-nilly. It’s all anecdotal no matter how you slice it, of course– nothing happening to me personally proves anything about the industry– but I think the only reason there’s not a lot of sharing going on anymore is simply that most of us don’t know anybody else who reads comics. Or reads, for that matter.

  17. I have mixed feelings about the digital migration of comics. As an independent cartoonist, I think digital distribution for my color comics could save me money, because printing in color is super expensive. I may have had to create the comic in black and white if printing was my only option, which would be a disservice to my story because color is important to the plot and atmosphere. On the other hand, I only buy graphic novels in physical form at conventions (or get them from the library). I like the fact that I can take them with me wherever I go (I don’t have a fancy iPad). I agree with therantguy’s prediction of the decline of comic stores – sad but true. I also agree with Jimski on the fact that I didn’t know anyone else that read comics growing up, so I really just kept them to myself.  Now that comics and graphic novels are getting "cooler" (maybe because of the comics movies, or the fact that they’re in stores like Borders and even the library) more of my friends are familiar with them, and I actually started a comic book reading group awhile back, where we got together and discussed issues in stories like Maus.

  18. I like this page.

  19. I guess this article made me wish that these people who posted were my LCS owners.  My personal push for digital comics has been heavily influenced by my LCS who has failed to step into he 21st century.  He over prices everything, and never has the books that people buzz about.  Why? Cause he’s been selling comics since 1976 and apparently has been doing so without any innovation.  He told me once, and I quote, "I think the whole buying comics and books on that eBay fad will eventually pass.  That’s why I don’t sell stuff on there."  And this is a guy with thousands of back issues.  What really grinds my gears is that he owns (2) out of the (3) of my LCS within reasonable driving distance.  I guess since I got my iPad I have been loving my buying and reading experience.

  20. Seems to me that having a model akin to the way most blu-rays are now released is the way to go i.e. a hard copy with a digital copy included.  Simply put, if you offer the consumer a hard copy that comes with a code for a digital download, you create added value for minimal cost.   I’m one of those collectors who wants both a digital and a hard copy.  Love my floppies, but also want the option to carrying a chunk of my collection around with me digitally on my Ipad.  Of course, there should be the digital option for those who want only that, but a combo (analog/digital) seems to satisfy all needs while at the same time giving the comic stores a fair shake. 

  21. @earwigg—-or moreover how some current bands are releasing music. Sell a nice vinyl record and include a free download coupon code for iTunes so you can put it on your iPod. 

    Sharing comics–i did that in like 3rd grade, we’d swap at recess GI Joe, Garfield, MAD, Superman, whatever. But they were all beat to hell and kinda stayed at school. I remember sitting in friends rooms and reading each others comics cause we didn’t have enough allowance cash to get new ones. ahhh the good ol days. 

    I think we’re all failing to recognize the good purging that digital comics could cause. Every city has those crappy comic shops…where its dirty, musky, overpriced and the owners are mean and don’t seem like they even read comics. Those shops need to go out of business, and a digital purging could help that. My city has about 10 comic shops, and 8 of them are really crappy and wouldn’t be missed that bad. 

    Its time for shops to figure out ways to evolve. We’ll see some exciting innovations in the next few years i’m sure. 

  22. @Earwigg…your idea is something that I would support. A physical copy with a code for digital download (for one price) seems like a happy medium. If you only own the digital version, can you print it?, download to other devices? share it with another user, or back it up to a disc?

    As digital comics become more prevalent, the LCS will go the way of Tower Records et.all

  23. @jesse1125–printing and binding your own copy of a digital comic will cost you more time and effort than just buying it straight up.  

  24. First, Josh – great article.  It helps a lot to see what purveyors of this market think about the changing times. 

    I don’t currently buy floppies, but would if they were released day and date and current pricing (or less) so they would gain my business from just the trades or HCs I buy now.

    I don’t have an affinity to an LCS, mine is quite a drive away and I can’t bring myself to pay retail for something I can get much cheaper in a full story form months down the road (nor do I have the storage capacity to keep floppies around).

    I agree that it is sad to have to part with the excellent LCSs that have made it through the hard times, but I agree with others that they will eventually go the way of the direct market music stores and die off at a slow pace (this has already been set into motion with the growth of the trade market and the popularity of online retailers).  The only stores that will survive are the ones that will diversify as my LCS has done by offering comics, novels (used and new), sports cards, toys, etc – but even he will admit that his sales have taken a big hit and though most of his patronage is comic related it has started to drop off and weekly customers have become less frequent.

    As portable devices start to evolve and compete, the digital market will grow and the direct market will shrink – simple economics.  I can say that I will still buy trades/HCs for those stories that I enjoy the most (as I believe others will too), but I don’t think the weekly floppy market will survive this transition.  The jury is out if this is a good or bad thing for creativity if compared to the music industry.  I personally think the market segmentation of the music industry has led to its current predicament more than digital vs physical distribution methods.

    I also agree that the stores listed in this article look very cool and I wish I could get around to visiting them. 

  25. @wallythegreenmonster…just trying to illustrate the point that if your hard drive/ipad(whatever) crashes and you lose your digital copy, what recourse do you have to maintain your own version?(like burning music on a disc)

  26. @jesse1125—totally there with you. I’m a graphic designer and love print, and def agree with you that what you are talking about is the weak point of our digital everything future. 

    I view digital comics as disposable, consumable media, like newspapers…..Printed trades for the archival library.  

  27. @jesse125 – comixology and the marvel app remembers your purchases and stores your purchase history in the cloud, you can redownload if needs be though I understand your point on longevity and the grey area of ‘ownership’

  28. first I gotta start off with a big WOOOOOOO for scott and the fantasy shop 🙂

    Anyhow, umm yeah what can I say I love my floppies, but I hate trying to find a place to put them when I’m done, I do lend them out to a small segment of friends but quite honestly if they were available in a easy to get digital form I’d probably send most of them that way. I know that before I’ve stated that I would buy small press comics from digital sources if they were available on same day releases. But I don’t know… sorry for the scattered thoughts…