Archive for September, 2010

A Serious Word on “Funny Books”, Part 2

I’ve given this much thought, as much as I can without being intimately aware of the financial politics between Diamond Distributors, publishers, and local comic shops.  And I think I have a possible solution.

The complexities of the comic industry largely involve five groups of “People Who Must Be Happy” with any approaches to digital comics.

  1. The Publisher
  2. The Distributor
  3. The Creatives
  4. The Retailers
  5. The Customers

So far, publishers have been very cautious in approaching the concept of digital comic distribution.  DC Comics for example only offers a few issues of “current” material, typically items that will sell well at retail thus run the lowest risk of cannibalizing sales for retailers.  The vast majority of items offered on DC’s iPad based distribution platform, are books several months old and unlikely to be in popular trade paperback form.  In addition, most of the offerings available are only $1.00 less expensive than actual printed material.

When you’re dealing with a six month old back issue of something most shops have already tossed into the bargain boxes, that $1.99 price might even be more expensive than a “dead tree” product – if you can get one

To keep publishers happy, you need to decrease the volume of piracy while increasing the availability of product.

To keep creators happy, you need to increase the volume of product sales while increasing the amount of royalties.

To keep distributors happy, you need to keep the supply chain intact and expanding.

To keep retailers happy, you need to protect the supply of product that stocks shelves every Wednesday.

To keep customers happy, you need to offer them increased value for the money, and in ways they want it.

When we boil all of the above information down, we come to a single overriding need to keep all five of the groups I listed previously happy. And I believe that a solution exists, if publishers are bold enough to take it on together.

So this is my proposed solution:

I suggest a joint venture between publishers and Diamond Distribution (though Diamond could be bypassed with a bit more effort on the side of the publishers) to create a dual distribution model for physical comics with added digital downloads.

It’s a simple thing to say “Buy dead tree, get digital free”, but a very difficult thing to contemplate when you’re trying to balance the needs of all five aforementioned groups.  Yet, that’s exactly what I’m going to attempt here today.

There are two pillars supporting the approach I suggest tonight, first and foremost is the retail market.

When a person purchases a comic at retail, the clerk should be able to scan each individual item purchased into a computer connected to a database holding records of an account previously created for that customer. The scan would be a simple one – denoting the issue of the comic being purchased – and this would be transmitted along with the date of sale to a centrally managed server.  This server could be managed by a joint venture formed by publishers, or even by Diamond itself.

This server could then use the central records to verify that the retailer is only scanning in copies of issues legitimately sold.  If the number is exceeded by the retailer… well, the customer trying to get his digital copy of a book no longer granted to the retailer as a valid item is going to be a pretty unhappy customer.

The upside to this first scenario is that the customer gets his comics on day of release, and knows he will have a digital copy for later reading.  This would appeal to both collectors who might never crack the spine on a weekly issue, and to the avid readers who don’t want to sort through ten longboxes to re-read a story that suddenly has greater relevance or interest. The publisher continues to make money on sales, creators make money on royalties, distributors make money distributing, and retailers make money with happier customers. The only downside is that this leaves no room for digital-only sales, which is where our second scenario comes in.

For our second scenario, we look at the idea of digital sales.  Transactions where a comic is primarily distributed online in digital form. This is where the real risk-taking comes in.

My suggestion here is that digital comics be made available one or two weeks after arriving at retail, as well as those issues included with a purchase. If a comic is purchased at retail on the first of the month, it would only be unlocked and available digitally on the fourteenth. It would be $.50 cheaper, and available on the fourteenth for those who might be unable or unwilling to take advantage of a retail opportunity.

In the case of the $2.49 digital comic, I would suggest using the “premium” over today’s $1.99 price to subsidize the expenses incurred by retailers and the distributor in setting up the hybrid physical/digital infrastructure. Apply the money to the operation of the authentication and distribution servers, and to reduce or even eliminate the cost for affiliated retailers to sign up users and authenticate purchased comics. This would also enable the publishers and creators to turn a profit in a manner largely compatible with that of physical issue levels – if not greater.

I believe that this kind of approach, or one slightly modified, would best serve the needs of all those involved in the creation and sale of comics.

One thing (among many) I have not covered, is the format these digital comics should take.  As a consumer, and someone well acquainted with the technology of DRM and format obsolescence (ask me about the Commodore 1541!) I would obviously prefer unprotected “.cbr” style archives.  Were I a publisher, I’m fairly certain my thoughts would tend to run more toward ideas of “lockboxes” and “embedded keys”.  I can only suggest that anyone considering implementing this kind of scheme look to the music market, and see where growth and innovation has led to the rise of the unrestricted MP3.

My thoughts on this idea are many, and they range from the simple “at the counter” implementation right on up to graphic novel pricing and authentication server structuring.  However, I’m going to end this little rant for the moment.  If anyone happens to read this and has further ideas or concerns, please let me know.  I’m always up for a good discussion.

A Serious Word on “Funny Books”, Part 1

As those who know me are fully aware, I spend far too much money on comic books.  Not enough to put anyone’s kids through college, but definitely enough to make a small dent in my local shop’s rent every month.  Usually, my monthly expenses at the shop – DK’s Sierra Mountain Comics in Carson City – run between $125-175 over the course of a full month’s pull list. I don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t gamble, so I figure I’m allowed one good vice.

My personal comic poison of choice is the DC Universe, which in the eyes of the vast majority of people is the “one with Batman and Superman in it”.  Eighty or ninety percent of what I spend money on every month goes to keeping up with the storylines, continuity, and characters I enjoy reading about in DC’s output every week.  Writers like Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, Eric Trautmann, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and the unstoppable Geoff Johns to name only a few, have made comics an art form that this 36 year old “pathetically aspiring” writer can really appreciate.

(And Dave, that comment above was sarcasm. Don’t chew me out for low self esteem about my writing again!)

Because of those writers, and the characters and stories they get to work with, I have no problem shelling out a couple video games worth of money every month in order to support creators I enjoy.  However, there is a dark side to comics that’s raised a lot of discussion and debate over the past few years. Something that upsets creators, scares publishers, and very likely terrifies small comic book shop owners:

Illegally downloaded comics.

I’m going to go right out on a limb here and admit that yes – I have downloaded comics from the Internet.  In fact, downloading copies of Dan Jolley’s (And later, Stuart Moore’s) run on the rebooted “Firestorm” comic from a few years back is what got me buying any comics at all. The incredibly frustrating combination of impatience, lack of money, and distance (100 miles) from the nearest comic shop lead me to download what I couldn’t buy – which at the time was quite a lot.

There are a number of factors that I believe need to be understood before tackling the issue of downloaded comics, and it is my hope that I understand enough of them to put a solid proposal of a suggestion out here for someone in the industry to consider.

Before I put my suggestion on the table, let’s take a brief moment to try and summarize what happened to the industry as a whole to get where it is today.

In the 1980’s, the comic reader started to get older. I’m not qualified to say exactly how, but it was likely a combination of decreased retail availability and broader entertainment options for the “traditional” comic book buyer. Additionally, comics began to openly feature more mature themes than had been previously done.  The “Comics Code Authority” stamp given to most mainstream weekly comics became less of a requirement for publication, and more of a dividing line between the mature and the youth-oriented.

In the 1990’s, following this market contraction, the speculators arrived.

Suddenly, comic books were collectibles – not things to be purchased, read and tossed in the back seat of Grandma’s car on a road trip to Spokane. For some publishers, quality became less of a concern than novelty or shock value. Foil covers, alternate printings, special sleeves, variants galore. The bigger companies, Marvel and DC got in on the act with a vengeance. Smaller ones struggled to get anything they could onto shelves, whether or not it was actually good.  Some small publishers, like Image, made bigger waves than even Marvel or DC at the time. But when the speculators finally came to their senses, the market collapsed, right along with dozens of publishers and distributors.

“Moichandising, where the real money from the movie is made.”
– Yogurt (Mel Brooks), Spaceballs

In the wake of this crash, the industry was left in a very difficult spot. Sales of new comics no longer held a high place on the balance sheets, if they ever truly did.  The real money came from merchandising the “big” characters such as Superman, Wolverine, Batman, Wonder Woman. Accountants for publishers increasingly saw the weekly comic as a fairly inexpensive way to generate buzz around movies and merchandise.

But the worry about digital comics and illegal downloads is real.

Some publishers have income from merchandising, but most creators don’t. The artist on last week’s issue of Batman doesn’t see a dime from The Dark Knight.  The writer who shepherded Superman through the mid 80’s sees nothing from sales of the original Christopher Reeve films. And your local comic book shop owner sees absolutely zero from the sale of Superman T-shirts at Wal-Mart.

So how does the industry respond to the threat of pirated material?

Please continue on to Part 2 in order to read my suggestion.

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