I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
Every time I think I’ve covered the issue of digital comics I think to myself “Well that’s it then, nothing much else to say.” Funny how it turns out that something powered by state-of-the-art technology manages to keep changing, evolving and staying…well, state-of-the-art.
It should be a surprise to no one that Marvel announced a couple of weeks ago that it was going same-day digital for their entire line by the end of March. Some places say that they’re going “day-and-date” digital, but I’m not really sure if those people know how words work. Then again, maybe they go into a restaurant for “food-and-meal.” Nit-picking aside, this was only a matter of time. Digital distribution is obviously here to stay, so only having a select few titles available as soon as the print edition hits doesn’t make a lot of sense. DC’s New 52 was the perfect time for them to take that step, but it was Archie comics that were the initial innovators for line-wide same-day digital. Not only that, their digital editions are cheaper than the print ones ($1.99 as opposed to $2.99).
Some people may scoff that “Well, that’s just Archie” but that kind of commitment to digital is pretty significant. I may not be a digital comics reader myself, but as someone who has done their fair share of reading about the digital market for prose fiction I can tell you that price counts. It’s not just a matter of “I want it to be cheaper” (although let’s face it, that helps), but about perceived value. Consumers aren’t entirely stupid; they know that a digital version costs far less to produce than a print one. That’s just science. There’s no print costs, shipping costs to distributors or mark-ups from retailers to you, the comic reader. While digital distribution sites like Comixology certainly have a mark-up, that’s nowhere near as many costs that have to be met by publishers working with print editions. Customers know this, and as digital distribution becomes more prevalent that’s something that will have to be addressed. Of course, lower prices means sales have to increase to make up for the diminished cuts for everyone involved and you have to be pretty sure those sales increases will be there otherwise you’re back to raising prices (which people tend not to like)
When it does, the question becomes “What happens to comic shops?” As news of digital distribution began to circulate during my final year at Super-Fly, it was clear retailers were very cautious about what it meant for them and their stores. Many times we joked that we were working in a buggy-whip store just as the automobile came on the scene. I don’t think things aren’t that dire for the direct market and probably won’t be for quite some time. There’s still a large chunk of readers (myself included) that are just reading comics in print. With digital sales going up, that means that we’re seeing new people picking up or coming back to comics, and that’s good for the industry as a whole. IDW CEO Ted Adams made a point of this in his keynote address at the last Diamond Retailer Summit I went to in 2010. Much of it was spent trying to convince retailers that digital would not mean the collapse of their businesses. It was a hard sell, but it seems like there’s been a bit of truth to his words. Both major comic publishers have made a strong commitment to digital distribution and the sky hasn’t fallen (like many were thinking it would when the Invincible Iron Man annual was first announced as being same-day-digital).
The thing to remember is that the digital comic reader is probably someone who isn’t reading in print anymore. It’s hard to say if that means they’ve left print for digital or are coming back to comics because of digital, but since comic sales seem to be trending upwards for the year it seems like it’s more of the later than the former. It’s entirely possible that there will be folks that leave print for digital the more it’s offerings are expanded (or if costs are cut), but with a wave of new devices like the Kindle Fire and the new Barnes & Noble Nook that’s also an increased number of folks who are ready to come back to comics once they see that Marvel, DC and Comixology are available on their brand new device. As with the Strawberry Shortcake vs Wolverine debacle, it’s also important to note that the digital comic reading audience may not be the super-hero comic reading audience. For good or for ill, super-hero comics are still the lifeblood of the direct market store. While there’s plenty of great titles for the casual comic fan or non-superhero comic fan to explore, this may well be an instance of a tide rising all boats. New or lapsed comic readers may try something out digitally and then expand into purchasing in print.
The next wave of digital may already be upon us. Viz is releasing new volumes of some of their manga not just for cheaper than print but also ahead of those editions coming to America (perhaps cunning linguists can call this practice “future-and-present” or something equally redundant). Viz is looking to get those volumes in line with the releases in Japan so they can begin putting out their digital only version of Shonen Jump, but it’s a practice that’s not going to go unwatched. DC also just announced that their new Batman Beyond Unlimited series will have content that’s released first digitally and then collected into the 48-page print edition. Webcomics have been pioneering this practice for a while (see: Axe-Cop, Freakangels, DC’s entire Zuda line before it was shut down), but this will be the first high-profile test of these practices (no price has been given that I can find for the digital components so we don’t know how it will compare price wise with the print version).
I don’t know what it will take for me to start reading comics digitally, or if I’ll ever make that switch. I don’t have a device outside of my desktop PC for reading them and even if I did I’m still getting a pretty good deal on my comics right now (yes, you can count me as one of the people who has a hard time paying full price for the digital version of something). I will say that the idea of forgoing hard copies of single issues for digital versions and then purchasing print versions of trades is very appealing to me. Comics aren’t immune to the ways that all of entertainment is changing around us. I certainly don’t want to see comic shops fall by the wayside, but they are going to have to make changes, just like everyone else. Hopefully, those shops that realize that digital can bring in a whole new wave of customers will continue to thrive and those that want to seal up the club house won’t.
Filed Under: Back in the Game