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.