Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Digital Debate

If you've been following any of the comics news sources this last week you would've undoubtedly heard about Archie Comics' decision to go "same day digital" (previously referred to as "day-and-date"). This means their comics will be available on digital devices the same day as it comes out in paper. It has sparked a lot of controversy over whether or not it was a good move. And for who?

Before I begin with this let me say that I love paper comics and I've been reading them ever since I was a kid. I read countless comics before I understood the idea of "collecting" and it wasn't until Marvel's Contest of Champions back in 1982 that I actually started to keep up with them.

Back then you could walk into any convenience store or grocery store and spot a spinner rack of comics just waiting to grab your attention.

Things have changed a lot since then and comics have become more or less a "niche" medium after moving into stores that specialize in them. This happened around the late 1980s with the direct market.

The appeal of the direct market was that comic publishers didn't have to censor their stuff as much and they only had to cater to people who already knew what they were.

This also took them away from the general public.

I live in a small town where we have three grocery stores and a Walmart Supercenter. There are no book stores or record stores for at least fifty miles.

When I was a kid and I made my weekly (or even *daily*) trips to the convenience store I did so by either walking or riding my bike. No kid can walk or ride a bike that far. At least not safely.

I recall last year I had a lady in my store with her two daughters. I would guess they were around 14 to 16 years old. I asked if they read anything. They replied, "Yeah... text messages!"

The thing is... in areas like mine kids don't read. They haven't in years. Unless they're told to for school.

The books and magazines sold at Walmart are not geared towards them. There's the workout mags, the gun & ammo mags, the cooking mags, the celebrity tabloids... but nothing for them aside from the Harry Potter books. And if there hadn't been a movie, they wouldn't be there either.

The digital age of comics may be what will entice new readers to check them out. It's a format that the current generation understands. Almost everything today is either smartphone-friendly or making moves to jump on before they get left behind. Comics are no exception.

A lot of people worry that it will bring an end to the direct market and cause more problems than it's worth.

One major change will be availability. If you happen to walk into a comic shop, you may see twenty copies of the latest X-Men book and maybe even a random issue of John Doe's indie comic.

What happens when the indie comic has the same reach as X-Men? What happens when a reader who passes on X-Men #3 and 5 because #4 isn't there has all three available..?

One of the biggest complaints I've ever had with the direct market is that if you discover something... You're already behind because -even though you have the latest issue- the next available issue to pre-order is months away. This means if there's no local comic shop you have to wait and back-order them or hope that you come across them at a later time.

Another complaint is the whole "buying on faith". Anyone who's ordered from Previews knows this. A new book is coming out and you think you may be interested. But all that's available is a short blurb and a cover (done by someone other than the regular artist). You could go ahead and pre-order it but... you'll have to order the next two issues before the first one even arrives at the store. And then you get it... It sucks... but you've already ordered two more...

Granted, you can flip through a whole comic at the shop and not buy it at all. Or pick it up if you like it. The sampling before you buy aspect is one of the best features of comic shops.

However, a lot of publishers are releasing previews that you can get for free before buying digital.

Sometimes, I think it's funny how comics went from being something a select few were constantly advocating their relevance and shouting "Read these! They really are good!" to folks withdrawing and recoiling adding "But only if you get them from me!"

We shouldn't be fighting over who gets the privilege of bringing the art of comics to a new audience. We should be embracing the new audience and be excited about where the future can take us.

Self-publishers, especially should take note because the people who are coming to read digital comics are coming fresh with only DC and Marvel's movie-related characters holding any advantage. The average Joe doesn't know Booster Gold from Captain Universe.

Walking Dead is already a digital hit that was spurred by both the excellent AMC series and the move to same day digital.

The digital comics field is a more level playing field right now and it's really anyone's ballgame.

Here's what I think the end result will be:

1. Yes, shops will be closing. Not all, however. The ones that are smart will move online or focus more on trades and comics/video game related merchandise. If they do that they will actually thrive. A lot of comic shops already put less money into single issues and only do pre-orders for customers.

2. I see more comics being moved to "same day digital" and even more titles being released "digital only" to see if they have an audience before printing. Something like Top Cow's Pilot Season would be a great candidate for this kind of approach.

3. I expect "floppies" (single issue comics) to slowly fade out, with the digital editions replacing them and then being collected into trade paperback (to be sold by that direct market). And then, if someone really wanted single issues "print-on-demand" could be incorporated here.

4. You'll get more impulse buys. Hell, I bought several comics digitally (that I probably wouldn't have planned to) in the last month just because they were accessible.

5. Kids (and adults) that before were too afraid to be seen reading a comic can read something on their phone without being criticized... And then if it's good they may even talk about it.

6. It may actually lead to more sales of paper comics. For example, I tried out Artifacts #0 and 1 on Comixology and I've ordered the actual comics up to #4 because of it (including a physical copy of #1).

Honestly, if the comic publishers really wanted to hinder the move to digital, they'd put the comics back on the newsstands and stop limiting the viewership.

Further reading:
Archie Going Same Day Digital
Comixology - the current leader in digital distribution.
Marvel's own digital store.
2000 AD Digital

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