I find myself ranting about digital comics with a fair amount of regularity; let’s talk about it, hm?
There was a time in my life, not so long ago, that the title I held in my day job was “bookseller.” I remember the advent of the eBook
(current era, not the turn of the century Stephen King digital experiment where he allowed readers to download serialized chapters of an exclusive story on the honor system, charging $1 for most chapters. The experiment failed when the price moved to $2/chapter, even though the chapters had double the content)
and can clearly recall thinking that this whole writing thing better work out quick-fast, because selling physical books in the retail sector isn’t going to last much longer.
Just two years later and Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is selling kitchenware on its website, not to mention devoting more store space to both NOOK and toys and games, and there’s that Amazon Kindle thing folks keep talking about. More traditional publishers are getting on board with digital, and though pricing is still shaky in some cases–I firmly believe that eBooks should be priced lower than the cheapest print edition available, something traditional pubs don’t quite seem to agree with yet–for the most part, authors, readers, and everybody between seem to be getting on board with creating a somewhat uniform marketplace, including a basic pricing structure, content availability, and the freedom to enjoy reading on the device of your choice. Digital is here.
That’s traditional publishing. Comic publishers seem to have their heads up their asses.
There are two clear areas of digital comics, both of which are in dire need of an overhaul: pricing and distribution of digital content also available in print (think of that stupid phrase, “day-and-date”), and new digital-first content. The former is, probably, less egregious than the latter, so we’ll start there and end on a high note.
If somebody, ANYBODY, can explain to me why I have to pay $3.99 for a book that costs $3.99 in print on the same day, I’d be thrilled to hear it. Bonus points if you can do it with a straight face. While you’re at it, tell me why most publishers are keeping collected editions off the digital market or, if they are available, setting them up with exclusive deals limited to proprietary hardware that isn’t even well suited to reading comics (I’m looking at you, 7″ tablets).
Publishers need to be creating the content themselves and then offering it through distribution channels, just like they do with print books. If you want to partner with Graphic.ly or ComiXology, be my guest, but the available content should be bookstore-style: the same thing available in each, you just choose your preferred reading app and vendor. It’s up to those services to differentiate themselves by way of reading interface and pricing, where possible.
(and P.S. the content you buy from one vendor should work with the other’s app. Sorry guys, but I don’t have to put on a different pair of glasses to read physical books I ordered from Amazon when I’m done with one I bought from Barnes & Noble. At the end of the day, I want the book that I paid for to be on my device and available to read wherever I please, however I please)
And pricing! For the sake of all that is holy in Geekdom, pricing on comics HAS to fall below print editions. For that matter, I’m of a mind that if you buy all of the issues in a particular collection, you should have the option to compile and upgrade for free if there’s no additional content in the collection or a small fee if there is. Here’s a great opportunity for publishers to convert some trade-waiters into digital-first customers, and some single-issue collectors into trade readers via an “up-sell.”
Now, if comic publishers can sort that mess out, we creators can start thinking seriously about digital-first projects. Successful webcomics are few and far between, and truly successful digital editions of books seem to be even fewer, though it’s hard to say when most publishers aren’t willing to share their download numbers. What’s missing is a middle ground.
Readers are adopting digital reading for comics despite the hindrances – in fact, ComiXology hit #2 on Apple’s highest grossing app list back in September. We also know that, by reader measure, webcomics have found dedicated audiences but have, in most cases, lacked to ability to monetize it in a meaningful way that supported the creators. Ad revenue may cover the server and domain costs, but rarely does it generate the equivalent of a page rate that might let you keep your lights on or eat something other than store brand Mac & Cheese.
That middle ground needs to buck this trend of emulation in digital comics – and by that I mean distribution ideas, not content, though exclusive, digital-first content seems to have been the graveyard of “projects we can’t justify printing” in many cases.
Part of the reason webcomics are successful is, yes, because they’re free in most cases. But the other part, the larger piece of the puzzle I’d argue, is the frequency in which they’re released. Faithful readers are treated to new content in regular, weekly doses. The conversation between fan and content, fan and creator, really, is treated less like a monthly subscription and more like a serialized TV show.
I’d gamble that, if properly supported by a publisher (or, in the case of self-publishing, properly advertised to an established fanbase and/or supported by industry notables), weekly or bi-weekly releases of six or eight page chapters for a $0.39 – $0.49 charge, would be picked up in a hurry by comic fans, especially with the first chapter or two made free of charge. Throw in a discounted subscription that asks the reader to pay for a full year up front (under $20 for a weekly release/two trade-sized books, under $10 for bi-weekly/one trade-sized book) and an app that compiles it into a single book as it’s released, downloading new chapters automatically each week and you have a winner. You can even toss in an option to pre-order a print edition if you’re so inclined and digital sales balance out to pay for a print run (or if pre-orders earn out).
There’s a much bigger name in comics than mine that shared some of these same thoughts a few months ago and started my wheels turning. In case you think I’m just spewing crazy talk, some of the above is his gospel; other bits I’ve added. It is, without a doubt, the way to go. Creators need to be willing to take a chance to reach readers. New creators, like myself, have already seen how unwelcoming the direct market can be. Digital distribution allows you to reach a broad audience, one that isn’t limited by the tastes and preferences of the one or two people responsible for ordering books for the shop. There are some great shops out there, ones that focus on well-rounded selections and hand-selling books to readers that they might not have heard of, but they’re few and far between. Digital distribution does away with the comic guy from The Simpsons and allows readers to experiment with everything that’s out there, not just what’s in front of them.
I believe in this enough that I’m planning to try my next-next book this way, if the publisher agrees. The actual next book is already set up with a tremendous publisher in the traditional publishing realm, but the one after is still being prepped in pitch to show the world. That’s the one I’m setting my sights on with this. If you’re a creator and you like what you see, go to town. I don’t need to be the first and, honestly, the more of us that go this road, the more attractive it becomes to readers and publishers.
In a lot of ways, I wish the Stephen King model had worked out better, an unsecured download based on the honor system. At the time we didn’t have standard high-speed internet in most corners of the country, nor did we have low-cost ereaders like we do today. People waffled at paying a capped price ($13, I believe) for a serialized ebook if the chapters cost more than a dollar. Now people are fast-adopting digital content and while traditional publishing is getting its act together, comics are being left in the dust and looking a bit silly.
I hope comics can claw their way back up the book industry heap and set a new distribution standard, one which could be adopted by other media, and even traditional publishing.
Won’t that be nice? To point at comics and say “Yeah, it’s cool that you like this, Random House, but THEY did it first.”
Let’s make that.
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