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Jim Lee’s Digital visual analogy

Brian Hibbs

I’m just back from Dallas, and the 2011 ComicsPRO meeting. It was a very very very good meeting — there is literally not a more productive weekend in comics on the calendar, though a lot of what happened and was discussed won’t, necessarily, interest you the consumer.

I will, I think, have a much fuller report in a few weeks in  the next TILTING, but in the meantime I want to share one bit while its still fresh in my mind.

A lot of time was spent on discussing Digital, as you might expect, but early on on the first day, DC co-Publisher Jim Lee made a visual analogy that sort of guided my thinking for the rest of the weekend.

Jim held up two hands. In one hand he had a regular 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, and in the other, he had a piece of dental floss. The former, he said, represented the revenues from print comics. The latter? Revenue from digital.

Now, clearly, digital will continue to grow — heck, maybe with a lot of effort and brain cycles, it might even grow to be the size, say, of an index card, but the actual real on-the-ground reality of digital comics sales are that they are a virtually (heh) insignificant way of making money for the publishers.

This same idea was echoed again and again and again by each and every publisher at the meeting, and even the very providers of digital services: this is not a significant revenue generator as of yet, and certainly NOWHERE NEAR able to match, let alone surpass, the sales from physical print comics.

We’re a niche market. A successful niche, to be sure, but a niche nonetheless, and not one that simply putting comics content in front of civilians will INHERENTLY and effortlessly drive sales of any huge value to the overwhelming majority of the market participants. As near as I can tell, most to the evidence says that digital is selling primarily to the lapsed or geographically-unable-to-participate markets (40%, I kept hearing over and over again, of sales are coming from Europe) (40% of a piece of dental floss, remember!)

If you’re a rah-rah digital booster, that’s perfectly fine. But I’d ask you not to make the same mistakes of the previous generations of fans-but-not-business-people who have said things like “If only we had comics related movies, that will fix all of our problems!” or “Manga sales are going to solve all of our problems!” or “If only we were in bookstores, we’d solve all our problems!” or any of that. All of these theories have turned out to…. well, not be reality-based is the kindest way to put it.

Digital isn’t a magic bullet, and virtually every person with an actual business involvement in the production and sales of comics understands this. Digital is magic dental floss.

-B

39 Responses to “ Jim Lee’s Digital visual analogy ”

  1. Well said.

  2. I don’t understand what people are talking about when they talk about digital. I don’t understand the arguments– it’s just so divorced from my experience of how I use the internet. I have an iPad– got one from family; never use it; NEVER. Came in handy when I traveled; I travel about… two-three times a year though; not that often. Maybe the rest of you are jet-setters. But even then… It’s strange to me that people use the internet to “purchase apps” from legitimate vendors and spend their money on “content.” That just has nothing to do with how I use the internet, so on some level I really, really don’t get it.

    Do indie comic creators think it’ll make their comics easier to find and purchase than in the direct market, and increase sales for that reason? I mean… I guess there’s some kernel of truth to that. But: why do webcomics cease to exist? Webcomics are free. I’m busy making my free comics. Other people are busy making their free comics. Free’s the best price point for new comic creators– at least if you believe the greatest enemy for a new artist is obscurity…

    Access has been a problem for non-mainstream comics, but hasn’t the bigger challenge always been promotional? And that only seems to get infinitely worse in a digital environment, so… I mean, look at a comic like Old City Blues– there’s been four issues of that, fun art, I think Brandon Graham’s said nice things, and… you know, how much on the radar is that of, like, any of the big comic sites…? A few people have broken through, obviously Kate Beaton, Axe Cop, Emily Carroll… a few people here and there, but… how does that get better when people own iPads exactly…? Ultimately, time and attention are finite, and as much as Comics Alliance and CBR’s coverage overlaps at times… I think maybe there’s a limit to how much those sites can cover without becoming, like, like the end of a rap song, where names are just being yelled out… “There’s a Player’s Club in Atlanta, everybody.”

    I just don’t understand the arguments… Or what changed because… Webcomics have existed for 16 years now. Or you can read 3/4 volumes of Powers online, and the number of people reading Powers isn’t drastically different for it… Or… or… I mean, I think it’s worth noting that there’s Player’s Club in Philly, too… Player’s Club in Memphis…

  3. Beware of looking at the present to predict the future:
    http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Impact-Highly-Improbable/dp/1400063515

  4. Why then are Ebooks taking over the print market? Are comics immune because they are a ‘niche market’? Is there any other example of a niche market that didn’t go digital in the past few years? Nothing I can think of. Even movies are shot digitally now.
    I feel like retailers are trying to reassure themselves that everything is fine and nothing will ever change, with the help of a prominent Time/Warner employee. Weird situation.
    And I could be wrong.

  5. So, at the moment then Digital is cannibalising the existing print audience with a few gains from returning/geographically isolated readers, which is by no means a salve for declining sales (assuming we have all agreed sales are declining.

    I’m probably wrong but it seems to me that the combination of Digital/LCS/bookstores should give comics access to the largest potential audience that has ever been possible in the history of comics thus far but…the actual pounds in the till are going to stay roughly the same unless this potential audience is given a reason to be interested.

    Doesn’t Digital just remove the excuse of ‘accessibility’, if it is implemented in a coherent and efficient manner which (eventually) it will be then I don’t think it’s about distribution any more – it’s about marketing. Which is the Companies’ responsibility.

    Getting people to want your product is quite important. And I mean more people than those who already want your product. This may even involve changing the nature of your product. It will certainly involve the death of complacency and some hard work and harder thinking. People like spending money (it’s a Flash Fact!) so give them a reason to spend it on comics.

    My point, at last: I believe the necessary tools are all here right now to build the best and brightest future comics have ever had. IF comics can be made desirable to enough people we can have a sheet of paper as big as a really big sheet of paper and dental floss that unspools from Jim Lee’s hand, out of the room, down the stairs and all the way to the Hooters on the corner!

    We can have Digital AND the DM but comics need an audience big enough to support both. That’s the nub. I think.

    But then I’m a fan not a business person and have probably just made 567,890 errors in conception during the preceding. Feel free to correct me, anyone and everyone.

  6. IMO e-books are taking over because they are *text only*.

    Comics will only really work digitally (IMO) if the art reverts to “splash page only” art, or the simplicity of Archie-style artwork. Which would be a bad thing, IMO.

    While it’s an extreme example, do you think ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY would work digitally? I don’t.

  7. [...] Appreciation Award and set Oct. 1 as the date for this year’s 24 Hour Comics Day. Brian Hibbs offers some thoughts on comments about digital comics made by DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. [Nerdage] Grant [...]

  8. It costs more to buy the full run of All-Star Superman in digital ($1.99 × 12 issues = $23.88) than it would to buy it in TPB from Amazon ($10.39 × 2 volumes = $20.78). Digital will never catch on as long as there’s a print alternative that’s cheaper.

  9. One thing to keep in mind though is that the dental floss is a really crappy and handicapped market. Marvel’s offerings are the more complete but they are also spread over four incompatible services. Lots of stuff from the big two isn’t available at all or is incomplete and all of it is delayed.

    Jim Lee holing up that piece of floss feels an awful lot like the music executives in 2000 grinning about how this digital thing will never be a real business. After all, there were at least four or five (incompatible and locked down) music stores around then and almost no one was buying.

    Two years ago iTunes passed Walmart for music sales.

    Yes, comics are a niche market. That doesn’t make it some sort of special snowflake that will somehow follow a different trajectory than every other form of media that has encountered digital distribution. In fact, I’d wager the niche status makes it less resistant to a sweeping change. Ten years from now a majority of comics will be digital.

  10. My wife and I were discussing a similar issue when it comes to music and movies. There seems to be cultural inertia when it comes to perceiving how media ‘needs’ to be, and only a fairly significant event changes those perceptions.

    Music was perceived to be a ‘hard copy’ medium long after the ability to listen to it digitally came about. It took Napster and the like to make the the mental shift that music ‘should be’ a digital media and that CDs were not a desired format. Movies are quickly moving the same direction–digital delivery is on the rise and studios and pipelines for DVDs are scrambling to keep up (Blockbuster may well be history within a couple of years, while Red Box is scrambling to offload their boxes into private hands as quickly as possible).

    Comics? Well, comics have a culture around them that expect to get hard copies of those comics on a weekly basis. Pirating does exist and digital downloads do eat into it a bit…but the perception is still that comics are a hard copy medium. If and when there’s an real breakthrough that makes digital reading the preferred form, then there will be an issue. But at the moment, comics are demanded in hard copy format by the people that want to read comics. I haven’t seen the application or device that really provides comics in a format that make people change their desire, yet.

    That’s not to say it’s not happening or going to happen soon–just that the ‘right’ digital format hasn’t come along, yet.

  11. “a different trajectory than every other form of media that has encountered digital distribution.”

    Just to be clear I’m on the same page as everyone else: music sales keep plummeting, newspapers are going out of business, segments of the adult entertainment industry have completely devastated, bookstores are closing, TV ratings for hit shows have dwindled, and DVD sales are in rapid decline.

    (All of which now have to also compete with, like, some random girl named Molly. I follow the life-adventures of like six or seven different girls named Molly on the internet and they’re all way more entertaining to me than anything on CBS primetime, let alone comics…? That’s as best as I can figure the trajectory of the culture: towards Molly’s. I really think Molly’s might win this thing; everything else is a total mystery to me…)

    All I ever hear is “well, eventually someone will figure out”– who says that they will? When was the last time anyone figured anything out? If there are people out there who can figure things out, can they be put in charge of education or agriculture or foreign policy or our energy system or our city, state or federal governments or any of the other stuff that’s broke and on fire first? As far as I can tell, no one in this country can figure out anything, except how to put media on the internet for free….

  12. John K (UK) continues to prove why he is the brightest commenter on comics. Yeah, the potential for a bigger audience is *huge*….

    Anyway, something will someday replace physical comics. But in the meantime, all of these things should be looked at as ways to *enhance* existing sales.

    My problem is the DM, as it exists today, is not very good. Most stores only sell Marvel and DC and think carrying one Hellboy book is supporting the rest of the market. (No knock on Hellboy itself.) Yes, there are some *really* wonderful DM stores out there, but they’re limited by geography. I can’t shop at Comix Experience because it’s in SF and I never am.

    But really, with better digital comics, there’s no reason I can’t have a better comic shopping experience and that’s true for everyone. Like John K says, though, it’s the job of the comic companies to engage people and want to try their product.

  13. “Why then are Ebooks taking over the print market? Are comics immune because they are a ‘niche market’? Is there any other example of a niche market that didn’t go digital in the past few years? Nothing I can think of.”

    Ebooks may be doing good, but physical book sales have been up on what they were pre-Ebooks.

    “Even movies are shot digitally now.”

    That’s irrelevant to this – nothing about how films are viewed has changed due to the technology they are shot on.

  14. Ben Lipman: why is Borders bankrupt?

  15. [...] do want to write a bit of a counter-point to his latest post though – not because I wish him, or any retailer really, ill – but because it’d help clarify some [...]

  16. Poor management.

    -B

  17. Poor management and Amazon

  18. I think Ryan H really hit the nail on the head, at least for me. I’ve got an iPad and I LOVE reading comics on it, but the digital market, as it exists, sucks. Digital comics are over priced, distributed in a completely chaotic way, sold primarily in single issues which make it incredibly difficult to figure out where to start and sold as basically extended rentals.

    If these guys were serious about growing their market they would focus on digital trades at a fair price in a format that allows genuine ownership on part of the customer, such as PDF, CBR, CBZ and other eBook formats, and sell them where people really buy their, such as Amazon and iBooks. Hopefully then they can finally attract new customers, get back some of the ones that turned to piracy and create a viable alternative to the DM for customers like myself who can give a shit about paper comics.

    Of course, I’m not holding my breath on this one.

  19. At some point the people actually putting the digital comic files together are going to catch on that there are possibilities beyond jpgs in a fancy zip. The first brainstorm is going to be OCR’d text. Boom, comics are instantly searchable and will read themselves to young children.

    But it’s what comes next that is going to make the comic companies sit up and beg and suddenly take digital comics seriously. And the best part is it’s a call back to a good old comic tradition.

    Someone is going to clue in that as long as you have text in those speech bubbles you may as well get with modern times and hyperlink them. The next time spider-man mentions the last time he fought a villain there is going to be an underline on the words (That’s Right True Believer, Way Back In Issue #48). And when that underline is tapped it will have a little pop-up that asks if you want to catch up on the previous story. If they are really smart it will be able to associate whole crossovers and queue them up in reading order.

    If they are geniuses they will do it discounted. Did someone mention House of M? Catch up on the whole storyline right now for 50% off. Did House of M mention Avengers Disassembled? Just a single click away. It will be the devil’s combination of Wikipedia and TV-Tropes browsing all hooked up to your credit card.

    Run across in interesting villain? click here for their first appearance issue. Like them? A list of all their appearances sorted by series you already have shown interest in. Our system has detected that your collection already has two thirds of all of Stilt Man’s appearances. Instant offer to finish off your collection for 40% off…

    It will be digital crack fueled by a half century of back issues all connected to one another. Direct market is dead. Long live the direct download.

  20. “Ben Lipman: why is Borders bankrupt?”

    I don’t know – poor management seems to be the consensus.

    I didn’t say bookstore sales were up, or that a particular book stores sales were up, I said book sales were up overall.

    I’m not sure if there’s similar sites in US/UK, but in Australia, there’s a site, booko.com.au, which will search a title or ISBN, and list every site that sells it, from all around the world, and rank them in order of which is cheapest (and it figures in shipping costs and differences in currency).

    Often, this is much cheaper than in a bookstore, and if it’s in stock anywhere, can be ordered.

    My totally unprovable guess, based on anecdotal evidence, would be that this would cut into book store sales much more than something than a new bit of tech you’ve got to buy before you can buy E-books.
    Throw in that reports on E-Book sales have figures like ‘increased by 250% this quarter’, means there isn’t actually that many people using it, in worldwide terms.

    By the by, worldwide candle sales have also been at their highest EVER, recently.
    And we’ve had electricity a lot longer than we’ve had E-books.

  21. Ryan, don’t forget that the whole hyperlink aspect creates the possibility of linkable ads which, while we as readers hate ‘em, are as attractive as hell to advertisers and makes for a whole other revenue source for the publishers. hell, design the files to have ads served into them as the user reads and you’ve got a perpetual advertising platform. If getting my book at a reasonable and making sure the creators are making a decent wage means that I have to scroll past a few ads then sign me up.

  22. [...] From The Savage Critics: [...]

  23. “If getting my book at a reasonable and making sure the creators are making a decent wage means that I have to scroll past a few ads then sign me up.”

    Hell, if they targeted the ads for other comics someone enjoying the one they are reading will genuinely like*, then they’d probably get a few more books out of me.

    *I mean what readers will actually like, not what marketing wants them to like.
    So, nothing like the ads at the back of DC’s trades.

  24. Amazon sells more ebooks than paper books.

  25. There is going to be a moment where enough digital readers have been sold for the big 2 to try to switch some titles to digital only, the low-selling books maybe before cancellation. Then they are going to realize that actually those sell pretty well and they are going to switch more titles until sales reach a critical point when their corporate owners will pull the plug on most or all paper printing and become digital only. That will be the end of the LCS, as switching to CDs killed the record shops, and switching from CD to MP3 killed Tower records and Virgin Megastore.
    It’s still at least 3 years away I would think so yeah there’s no reason to be very afraid just yet. But thinking that somehow the medium of comics/sequential storytelling is not going to follow the technological evolution of ALL the media strikes me as weird. I really don’t see what suddenly makes comics so impervious to change.

  26. “Amazon sells more ebooks than paper books.”

    That’s one book seller – one who has been pushing their device.
    They are also rarely the cheapest website to be selling a book.
    Book Depository (US or UK) usually has the cheapest.

    None the less, book sales, like candles, have been at an all time high.

    “That will be the end of the LCS, as switching to CDs killed the record shops, and switching from CD to MP3 killed Tower records and Virgin Megastore.”

    There’s a lot less, but there’s still record stores about – they diversified, and survived.

    “But thinking that somehow the medium of comics/sequential storytelling is not going to follow the technological evolution of ALL the media strikes me as weird. I really don’t see what suddenly makes comics so impervious to change.”

    But thus far, not everyone is reacting to new media like they should.
    Books, CD’s, TV’s and Cinema’s are still being sold in large amounts – why not comics?

  27. Ben, I really don’t know where you are living. I haven’t heard of a place where books and candles (?) sales are up, where you can go to a record shop and where people don’t order books from Amazon, arguably the biggest bookseller in the world. And by the way the Book Depository also sells a lot of ebooks.
    I guess we are not talking about the same thing. I’m not talking about a quaint corner of the world in present day I’m talking 3-5 years down the line and the future of distribution. You have to be kidding if you really think that the future is full of CDs, paper books, regularly scheduled TV programs (as opposed to Hulu/Netflix/Youtube) and periodical comics. Ask somebody 15 to 20 years old what they think about those formats.
    Thinking that nothing will change in the next 5 years is ludicrous!
    10 years go I was buying a lot of CDs, and I would never thought I would only be getting digital downloads down the line. Now CDs are just quaint, and records are absurd antiques.
    Comic creators and publishers have to look at what’s coming up if they want to be successful, and be ready for what come next.

  28. “Amazon sells more ebooks than paper books.”

    Actually, that’s not true.

    Amazon says that they sell 115 e-books for every 100 paperbacks, and e-books outsell hardcovers by three-to-one margin. Which means that, for every 115 e-books, they sell about 38 hardcovers. 100 + 38 = 138 paper books sold, which is more than 115 e-books.

  29. “Ben, I really don’t know where you are living. I haven’t heard of a place where books and candles (?) sales are up, where you can go to a record shop and where people don’t order books from Amazon, arguably the biggest bookseller in the world. And by the way the Book Depository also sells a lot of ebooks.”

    If you live on planet Earth, book sales and candle sales are at an all time high – never in history have more been sold.
    I got this info from a industry (TV) conference late last year, where Herman Konings, who has a PhD in theoretical and consumer psychology, who is head of trend and future research agency Pocket Marketing/nXt.
    (Hence I’m not linking about – so feel free to call it shite as I have no evidence, but I’ve no reason not to trust him. His talk was all about how certain areas of technology are way further advanced than we realize, and how also, just because we can be way advanced, doesn’t mean everyone is interested in that all the time).

    As for people not using Amazon, I use a site that ranks sellers in order of who has a particular book the cheapest – sometimes it’s Amazon, mostly it’s not.
    If a dumb bugger like me uses a site like that, I assume others do as well.
    Amazon may be largest, but it’s not the only – and anything, people using Amazon the most shows that people don’t change habits just because there is a newer and/or better way available.

    As for Record shops, there are at least four in my suburb – most do DVD’s as well – and just as many book shops as well.

    “I guess we are not talking about the same thing. I’m not talking about a quaint corner of the world in present day”

    Neither am I – I’m talking world wide trends.

    “I’m talking 3-5 years down the line and the future of distribution. You have to be kidding if you really think that the future is full of CDs, paper books, regularly scheduled TV programs (as opposed to Hulu/Netflix/Youtube) and periodical comics. Ask somebody 15 to 20 years old what they think about those formats.”

    15 to 20 year olds still use all those old formats – they just use the new one’s as well.

    The future may well change it all – hell, we knows it will – I’m just not hitching my horse to a post that EVERYTHING will change due to one new bit of tech.

    I work at a Pay TV channel (In Australia), and despite all these great options available, subscriptions have kept going up.
    Why? Because the service provider, keeps upgrading the tech the consumers get, and their options for viewing it.

    There’s no reason the direct market can’t do the same.

    Hell, everyone working in the DM seems to think so, the publishers seem to think so – it’s only armchair experts decrying it.

    “Thinking that nothing will change in the next 5 years is ludicrous!”

    No one has said that, just that you’re not looking at the picture of what’s actually happening – just what those with a vested interest are telling you what’s happening.

    You seem to be looking at me as someone who is anti-change, or living in the past.
    That’s not the case – all I’ve been saying is that we’re not at the point you think we are at, or that ebook sellers want us to think they are at.

  30. Alright, I’ll go back to make and publish comic books and I’ll let you go back to your armchair.
    Thanks for the dialog.

  31. “Alright, I’ll go back to make and publish comic books and I’ll let you go back to your armchair.”

    What a complete and utter cop out – you’ve been wrong, and called out on several points – you are playing arm chair expert regardless of what you do, but now you want to hide behind it?

    For a guy who seemed to think Brian had his hands on his ears screaming ‘LALALA’, you’ve gone straight for ignoring anything that disagrees with your pre-established view, and thrown up only strawmen in response.

    If you do publish comics, then honestly, stop believing every press release from the makers/sellers of ebooks, as well as tech blogs who get hard from this sort of stuff – both a vested interest in making it seem like the thing everyone is doing.

    Otherwise, the DM is just going to go on making money without you.

  32. [...] re-read this post on digital comics yesterday (based on Brian Hibb’s post on Digital Comics sales), and I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. For starters how many frustrations I [...]

  33. [...] at some point. But I don’t know if anyone expected it this soon. Veteran retailer Brian Hibbs saw a presentation by DC co-publisher Jim Lee in February: Jim held up two hands. In one hand he had a regular 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, and in the other, [...]

  34. [...] the ComicsPRO meeting last February, DC co-publisher Jim Lee held up a sheet of paper and a piece of dental floss. The [...]

  35. [...] http://www.savagecritic.com/retailing/jim-lees-digital-visual-analogy/ [...]

  36. [...] http://www.savagecritic.com/retailing/jim-lees-digital-visual-analogy/ [...]

  37. [...] history occurred at the February 2011 meeting of ComicsPRO, the association for comics retailers. During that meeting, DC co-publisher Jim Lee held up a sheet of typing paper and a piece of dental floss as a visual [...]

  38. [...] wasn’t the case in 2011, when Lee stood up at a comics retailer conference and held up a 8.5 x 11” piece of paper in one hand, and a piece of dental floss in the other. The [...]

  39. [...] wasn’t the case in 2011, when Lee stood up at a comics retailer conference and held up a 8.5 x 11” piece of paper in one hand, and a piece of dental floss in the other. The [...]

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