Navigating the Digital Frontier: Why the Comics Industry Should Embrace Digital (or End Up like the Music Business)

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There were several seismic events last week in the world of print as it relates to comics. The first, of which I'll be reporting on separately, was the death of Wizard (or at least its print version), arguably the largest and most visible comics coverage publication (but by no means the best). The second, and potentially most important, was the news that comiXology would be creating a Digital Storefront Affiliate program in an effort to bring local comic shops (LCS) into the digital world.

The Digital Storefront Affiliate program has set off a wave of responses from publishers and creators alike with the biggest question centered around what, exactly, will entice customers to buy from their LCS digitally rather than through comiXology's normal routes. It's a fair question but there's a larger one lurking around the corner: should digital comics even attempt to lure in traditional comics fans?

The point remains that traditional comics fans are far more likely to be collectors; this obviously isn't the case all of the time but it goes without saying that a fairly large percentage of people who know where their LCS is and frequent it probably aren't buying comics in print simply because of convenience. Which makes comiXology's extension of the olive branch to the brick-and-mortars nice but unnecessary.

The hostility some retailers have shown the digital industry and those that use it has been, at best, bizarre. Comic shops appear to be treating the digital frontier as an enemy when it's clear that the likelihood of digital comics replacing their print counterparts, as long as that print counterpart is collectible, is slim to none. In fact, the digital comics movement could even be seen as one huge recruitment tool for comic shops, a format that can make the transition to comicdom smooth for new fans by showing them what the world of comics is really like rather than the notion they may have in their heads based on stereotypes and pop culture treatment.

The furor is, in some ways, akin to the blame trades were given when they exploded in popularity over the past two decades, where creators and other industry types felt that trades could only mean the death of the single issue and therefore the collapse of the industry as a whole. Obviously that doomsday scenario did not come true and likely isn't going to; you could even argue that the emphasis on multi-tier arcs that trades ushered in has in fact given the comics industry some stability that it was lacking in the anything goes 90s.

Nonetheless, comiXology's announcement is still vague enough that there's plenty of things that need to go answered. Will the digital storefront they propose be similar to Amazon's Marketplace or something altogether different? What incentive will there be to have consumers use the storefront instead of comiXology on its own? And will those incentives cannibalize comiXology's own sales?

Worse, given the news from late last year that Diamond would be entering the digital world will there be pressures on your LCS to use Diamond instead if they too decide to have a storefront? Diamond's monopoly on traditional distribution has played a large part in the implementation of digital sales systems by some publishers hoping to avoid the same thing in the digital world, such as Dark Horse. Considering even the mighty Marvel couldn't disrupt Diamond's monopoly it isn't unreasonable to ask what strategies Diamond might have lined up to combat this move on their profit line by multiple players, even if at the moment it isn't exactly clear how profitable digital comics are.

Publishers Weekly did the numbers on the digital frontier and their report was making the rounds at the same time that comiXology's announcement was on the Twitterverse. Publishers Weekly's report, which is required reading, effectively proved that major publishers and creators don't stand to make much on digital comics compared to print. One of the large incentives of using digital, the lack of traditional costs like printing, was found by PW to not make enough of an impact to save major players all that much money.

PW used Mark Millar as their main example of this, since he's been one of the most vocal opponents of digital comics. Using standard Apple rates for their formula (30% to Apple and the rest divided between publisher and creator and whoever else gets a cut), PW found that on a $1.99 digital comic, the most Millar could hope to net per issue would be a little over half of what he stands to make on his typical paper print run, i.e. about $.70 to print's $1.20. At $.99 it was, obviously, even worse.

But here's where it gets interesting. Even given that dip in potential revenue, small comics creators and publishers stand to net quite a bit, especially if they only go the digital route and eschew a print run. Since major players like Marvel are, according to PW, likely printing more than 50,000 copies of each issue and are also likely to be sending it overseas to get printed for an even cheaper amount, print remains their bread and butter. Small publishers and creators don't have this luxury though and are normally doing smaller runs at more expensive locations since printing in China isn't feasible at that small of a run.

And let's face it, the type of works smaller publishers and creators are doing, a world that could be said to include everyone from Los Bros. Hernandez to Chester Brown to your next door neighbor, digital retailers like comiXology are also desirable because of where they can get you and who they're more visible to. If you're a small publisher, your distribution probably doesn't reach globally in print form and if you're a small publisher not focused on super heroics, you just might be more likely to appeal to the average iPhone and iPad user.

Which brings us back home. Is it smart to fight digital tooth and nail? Given geek culture's rapid embrace of advances in technology, is there any sense in delaying the inevitable? The comics industry has a rare opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the publishing and music worlds, two industries that are no longer viable in their traditional forms, and get on board the digital ship before it's too late. If the industry is smart and uses digital to its advantage, there's no reason why both aspects of the industry can't still thrive.

What it will take is a willingness to view digital for what it is- a quick and expedient method of distribution that holds a lot of promise for newer and smaller publishers and creators and could be a great form of advertising and marketing for the major players.

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