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Questions I have about digital

Brian Hibbs

I really like the general level of commentary over at the Beat, and there’s some very interesting stuff being said in the latest thread about Brian Wood’s new missive (which is, in itself a valuable read), but if one thing absolutely slays me about the Beat it is how fast stories scroll off the front page, and the commentary scroll with them. There’s no notification system there, so we’re kind of stuck with a day, or maybe two, of conversation before it scrolls off away into the ether.

 

This page is a little more forgiving in that regard, so let me try to put some thoughts here, and see if it sparks any kind of substantive conversation.

Right, so, first off, a little “old business” first — first off, Heidi is clearly wrong that the DM has not grown. Here’s your chart to establish that. Chris Hero points out that that units on periodicals has shrunk, and that is true, but that’s pretty directly a result of dollars shifting from one format (periodicals) to another (books), but each and every person anywhere who says “print is dead” or “goodbye to physical objects” or any of that other stuff is clearly not arguing with actual real facts.

In fact, even in the music industry, an art form which I would argue EVERYone knows and loves and consumes, and which digital has had an immensely long penetration (relatively speaking, natch), PHYSICAL CDS STILL OUTSELL DIGITAL DOWNLOADS today! So, yeah, print isn’t going anywhere for some time to come.

So, here is question one: is “digital”, in your opinion, equally portable and interchangeable between various media? Do people consume those media in the same ways? There appears to be an advantage to the consumer to be able to store every song you own on a device the size of a deck of cards — does that same advantage naturally and inexorably extend to other media? I’m willing to be convinced either way, but I think that each individual media will have it’s own strengths and weaknesses in individual formats and devices, and I very much think that “well, that’s how it works for music” will NOT play out the same for other media.

One thing about music that few seem willing to discuss is that the music industry went from (in the modern era, at least) selling collections of songs, to selling singles, as a most visible driver of sales. What THIS means is that the music companies & music creators went from an “average ticket” of $15 (for the album) to an average ticket of (let’s say) $2 for the two 99 cent singles that are most popular. Totally pulling a random selection that I happened to listen on my way home on the bus today, Prince’s AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY (great album, BTW!), this album has just 9 songs on it. 7 of the 9 songs sell for $0.99, the other 2 for $1.29, it is on iTunes as a package for $9.51, but I’d be willing to guess that they mostly sell a lot of copies of “Raspberry Beret” for $1.29, and far fewer copies of the full album. Is that good for Prince? Is that good for Paisley Park (the producing studio) or Warner Brother’s (the record company) or, frankly, even for iTunes? Is that good for the consumer? I guess if you only like what you like, and you JUST want to hear “Raspberry Beret”, then awesome for you, you’ve just saved $8.22 if you’re pricing the digital thang, or maybe you’ve saved $13.66 compared to “list price” of the CD/Vinyl, but does your desire trump the need of the Talent to actually, y’know, make money off all the music they produce, not just the thing that’s most zeitgeisty?

Don’t get me wrong, that $15 versus $2 also created a lot of corruption and evil around it (“By the way, which one’s Pink?”), but most of the musicians I know today tell me that can not survive on the sales of music alone.

There’s also the Spinach argument. I mean RasBeret is probably the most hit-driven of the songs on ATWIAD, but I think I might argue that “Temptation” or “Tambourine” are actually ultimately better songs with something more to say? See, because I actually think that most of the music that I ended up liking the best, at the end of the day, wasn’t the poppest hits, but were the deeper tracks that probably no one really even hears any more.

COULD an artist produce THE WALL or TOMMY, or, fuck, even PET SOUNDS today? Or is everyone jonesing for that one three minute hit that they can sell 3 million copies of, individually? Is that good for culture?

It appears to be inescapable that the shift of the market to the TP has sparked some consumers to change their buying habits in the world of comics — we even have a phrase for it, “waiting for the trade” and we can see how it has not only changed HOW comics stories are made, but WHAT comics the audience is willing to buy and how they do so; why is anyone questioning that the move towards digital will also change buying habits to SOME degree? But, can’t we recognize that the truth of things is that most characters/creators/concepts can’t actually make a living doing what they do as things stand today, and that cutting off even a small percentage of potential customers through switching primary mechanisms-to-buy will make those works UNPROFITIBLE.

The concern of the comics retailer isn’t that there IS digital — fuck, I’m totally all for a mechanism to drive a potentially wide segment of customers to the medium of comics itself. How can that NOT help me? But, rather, that enough customers will “change channels” (of purchase), so as to make segments of work unprofitible to carry. I’ve been pretty straight with you — most periodicals are but marginally profitible; most books are largely unprofitible. That we have stellar, break out, oh-my-god-it’s-like-printing-money successes like WALKING DEAD or BONE or SANDMAN doesn’t mean that this is the way all books can follow. Quite the opposite in fact!

So what this means is that even losing a TINY portion of the readership through Channel Migration could potentially have dire effects. Seriously, if I lost just 10% of my customers, I’m done. And what we also know is that when physical stores close, most of that readership for comics UTTERLY VANISHES. The gist of this is that losing 10% of sales to migration could mean that the other 80% of that stores’ sales are COMPLETELY LOST.

To put this in a more specific way, in the last 90 days we’ve lost/are losing THREE comic stores in SF (out of what were at a dozen); I’ve spoken to at least half of the remaining stores, and while we’ve all picked up a couple of customers, there are logically 3-500 comic readers who have not seemed to showed up in any of the remaining nine stores. They disappeared, into the wind.

Why do you assume that current print readership WOULD switch to digital? Dude, I can assure you that 60% or more of the exciting print audience will NOT switch to digital if they stop making print comics tomorrow. Most of those cats have 10-40 years invested in their mechanism, and the mechanism of delivery is AT LEAST AS IMPORTANT to that audience as the content itself.

I remember, god, do I remember, the strident voices that used to scream “Yeah, motherfucker, let’s get comics into book stores, and the whole game changes!!!!”, and so I really cringe at the concept that the existence, the very fucking existence of a tablet computer changes shit. IT DIDN’T WHEN WE WENT INTO THE BOOKSTORES.

At the end of the day, the issue is, has been, and always will be content, dumbass. Do you seriously think that a readership that has rejected the print comics is going to magically swarm back to digital version, even if they are a third cheaper? Because I don’t think the problem is actually the price — I think it is the content. Most mainstream comics are ineffably shitty. And I totally get you have nostalgic love of a, b, or c, and that keeps you buying ineffably shitty comics, but the general public isn’t going to do that.

The majority of what is sold in comic stores is not going to sell to a wider audience, even if you literally tied people to chairs and MADE them read it. Seriously, charge $1.99 for most of the content we offer, charge 99 cents for it, you’re not going to move the needle as much as so many people seem to think it will — look, that same content is already available to everyone, everywhere via Amazon, and it’s not selling better proportionate to its current reach. You really think digital is going to be the “magic bullet” here? That trick never works!

Because we HAVE been through this before.. multiple times. I mentioned the book market, because these are the SAME things that were being said back then — “now we can truly expand and rise not tied down by the Direct Market!”, and, huh, pretty much not. And, instead, we’ve gutted our own periodical delivery system trying to chase the sure fire book market. Like…. when EIGHTBALL was coming out as a once-or-twice-a-year periodical, we’d sell 150+ copies in the first 90-120 days. Now Dan Clowes only puts out GNs, and his last original package, WILSON, was a huge hit for me (#5 best selling book in 2010). But… I sold less than 70 copies of WILSON in the 20 months since it has been released. BOOKS DON’T SELL AS MANY COPIES AS PERIODICALS. We chased the wrong thing, for maybe the right reasons, but maybe not, and it left us, in my opinion, considerably weaker for it.

Digital is, at best, a mechanism. I totally laugh at Heidi’s suggestion that because the “hot product” of the moment is a Tablet that this means all that much. The “hot product” of 2001 was an Audrey. No one talks about those any more. Maybe the tablet DOES have real staying power, I don’t fucking know, but I think to construct a syllogistic argument that because it is hot today it’s therefore culture changing… well, I don’t buy that, and history would tend to argue against that. Consumer electronics change with the wind.

Or let’s talk about distribution. Many commentators say things like “Yay, we can break the Diamond stranglehold on the market!” to which I ask, do you really want Apple to take over that monopoly position? Really? Because I really think the concept of Amazon and Apple being the two gatekeepers of entertainment to be pretty insanely terrifying.

I really really wonder about the motivation about some of the loudest pro-digital commentators — because some of the things they scream for (like day and date) are really not attractive or necessary for the huge massive untapped “civilian” audience out there that digital could reach. Johnny I-have-never-read-a-comic-before isn’t especially likely to start reading SPIDER-MAN cold at #674 and decide that he absolutely has to start reading the comic monthly from there on out. I sell comics to Johnny and others like him EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR, and I can tell you 98% of the Johnnies out there want a complete story in a book, and, more than that, they want a specific recommendation for a specific great Spider-Man story.

(Yes, you CAN get Johnny to read periodicals, but it takes epic efforts like New52, and, guess what folks? That’s a once-a-decade at most tool)

See, what I actually think is that the majority (like the OVERWHELMING majority) of the pro day-and-date voices are people who are trying to fulfill their own desires, instead of what’s best for comics. And, right on, you do get to express those desires, but the people making actual decisions in this business need to take a longer view.

I personally believe there has to be price parity between ALL FORMATS because otherwise you’re cutting the legs out from underneath one or another. Let’s not even make this “digital” versus “print”, it’s just as true for “periodical” versus “collection”, and I suspect will be as true when we can project comics directly onto our corneas in the future.

I think it is moronic, literally moronic, to ever sell a copy of WATCHMEN for less than it’s $19.99 price. Why? Because it sells fab at that price, and it’s not going to sell better, in any kind of a sustained fashion, by cutting its price in half, that’s not how pricing works. I also think that by having that $9.99 Kindle version, there’s some amount of pressure that that is the “real” value of the work.

I can (just barely) see the wisdom of offering HELLBOY v1 (an $18 book) for a measly $5 IF it were being used as a gateway to selling the ENTIRE SERIES of HELLBOY. But… it’s not. Fuck, type “hellboy” into the search box over there, and the v1 “bundle” ISN’T EVEN LISTED ON THE FRONT PAGE.

What’s the sense of that?

I mean, if it was “Hey, we priced our books at half price, and we sold TWICE AS MANY as print, without impacting print sales negatively!” then I could see the wonder and joy in dropping prices down radically, but I see digital comics pricing as doing certain things “because that’s how it is done”, rather than “does this make sense as a part of an entire HOLISTIC pricing strategy?”

Urgh.

Anyway, no sensible retailer is “against” digital — they’re against dumb and anti-competitive moves that appear likely to cause channel migration by their lonesome. Go ahead and do day and date, I’ll put my real world comic book store up against any existing digital portal any day of the week — physical stores are more conducive to browsing, to discovering something new, to having someone help guide you through the experience, and so on…. but once we start getting away from price parity, I think we have some pretty significant problems.

I’m of the opinion that you should be paying for content, not format, because if you were actually paying for content on it’s own, your consumption price would dramatically increase on digital alone, not decrease. It is the very existence of print that even allow any content provider to even consider reducing the price in the first place.

The notion that any content on the internet should be inherently cheaper than the “physical” item is very skewed, and while I TOTALLY respect the consumer WANTING a lower price (because I, too, would be VERY happy if print comics went back to $1.99, thanks), let’s not set up an economic system which will preclude the comics being created in the first place because no one at all (including the creators) can make any money doing them.

Anyway, I’ve been typing for like 3 hours now, time for me to shut up and actually get some work done, I think. Chime in, if you dare.

 

-B

93 Responses to “ Questions I have about digital ”

  1. I said the PHYSICAL serial format, not all serials. Nothing wrong with serialisation, and I can see it working fine in digital. And I can see people wanted a collected edition to put on their bookshelves. But the monthly physical comic? It’s a lousy format.

    Sorry for the misread. But I still kinda disagree when you call the floppy a lousy format with “nothing to commend it other than nostalgia.” I actually love the format as an object in and of itself, and not just for superhero comics — you’ll have to pry my old issues of Eightball, Optic Nerve and Palookaville from my cold, dead hands. Take away storage issues and give me something like Hank Pym’s Infinite Avengers Mansion in which to house my comics, and I’d never have made the switch from floppies to digital.

    Of course, I’m nearing my fourth decade of reading comics, so I’m willing to admit that my attachment to the current format probably has a little nostalgia attached to it. OK, more than a little.

  2. Marc-Oliver (46):

    “One: Can you name five publishers that will pay writers and artists of stapled comic books “a fair wage” right now?”

    Not really — I’m not privy to specific details. I can make an educated guess on five, but not with enough certainty to write it down.

    “Two: Do you believe Marvel or DC will be able to pay “a fair wage” to more artists and writers of stapled comic books five years from now than they are right now, without other formats entering the equation?”

    More? With or without other formats, I’d largely judge that to be a “no” — we’re already overproducing as an industry.

    “Three: If you’re convinced that price isn’t a factor anyway on the superhero material, as you say, then what exactly are you afraid of when it comes to lowering prices on digital comics?”

    The 10-25% of the audience who think The Rent Is Too Damn High, who might be willing to switch to digital — thereby crashing the market for the other 75-90% and making it so the rest CAN’T get comics.

    Am I that unclear? I’ve been saying this for at least a year….

    -B

  3. @Patrick Ford (50)

    “This in the face of the highly touted sales of the “New 52?””

    Neon Monster closed the month before, Al’s hasn’t had new comics in… a year? and Caffeinated hasn’t quite shut their doors yet (3 weeks, but no new subs from their neck of the woods, certainly)

    “I had thought “The New 52″ was bringing in readers, but you’re saying they are vanishing.”

    We’ve gained “wholly new to comics” (actually, mostly 10+ years lapsed, in reality) readers with New52, and we’ve taken a few people from what I would consider to be the worst store in SF because they don’t have any stock, as a result of n52, but that’s a different impact and phenomena of the “store closes — those customers stop buying comics entirely” one.

    -B

  4. “Digital costs less to make and sell. ”
    @Chris Hero: “Digital costs less to make and sell. ”

    @Hibbs: Yeah… not as much as some people seem to think. Marvel and DC don’t pay for print runs individually…. I think you’re looking at dimes “less to make and sell.”

    Okay, and you’ve been saying that for a while… but that’s on the PUBLISHER end. That affects the price that DC/Marvel charge the middleman (Diamond) and what they subsequently charge you, the retailer. But that cost is NOT the cover price.

    From my understanding, Amazon is able to frequently viciously undercut brick & mortar stores is for three reasons: (a) economies of scale, including (b) lesser overhead costs per title; but perhaps most importantly (c) form the publisher end, Amazon appears to act as a distributor (buying books in bulk at wholesale prices) while from the consumer end, they look like a retailer. Amazon is able to keep its prices obscenely low in many cases because they are cutting the retail price as close as possible to their invoice cost — which may be much, much less than a small independent store’s due to B2B negotiations and economies of scale.

    I understand that the creative costs are high and are a constant across all media; and that printing / paper costs are a relatively minor factor. However, the distributor’s cut and the retailer’s markup are factors that could be SIGNIFICANTLY reduced — if Comixology was moving enough material, I don’t see why their retail price couldn’t be roughly equivalent to YOUR invoice price, while they (and DC) still made a profit.

    Also, digital doesn’t have to absorb losses like a brick & mortar store — while a comic shop uses stacks of a much-hyped bomb to prop up the legs of wobbly tables and pad gaps in the quarter box, the digital store probably never made the risk of buying them in the first place. (I say probably because I’m not sure of the deal structure or commitments Comixology may have established with DC, etc.)

  5. > losing a TINY portion of the readership through
    > Channel Migration could potentially have dire effects.
    > Seriously, if I lost just 10% of my customers, I’m done.

    I’m curious. I can see how losing 10% of your customers overnight would be fatal. But if you lost 10% of your customers over a period of a year, and you saw it coming, would it still be fatal? Do you expect some of them would still drop by now and then for t-shirts and such?

    Have you not been losing any customers until now?

    Also, I’m curious how you feel about DC dropping the prices of their dame-day digital releases after a month. Does it have much of an impact on you, do you think?

  6. interesting tidbit…the all ages comic “Pocket Gods” based on the popular app game, just passed 500,000 downloads in the Apple App Store. The comic sold for .99 and is now free after reaching the milestone.

    The audience is there, its just a matter if figuring out a way to reach them.

  7. (41) “This is actually the inverse of a solid piece of data that Mel Thompson researched — something like 75% of the customer base of a mature comics store is “new to comics” because that store has opened; only 25% draws from other, neighboring stores. The converse is also true, I believe — 75% (ish) of a store’s audience disappears entirely when a store closes. No one, however, has actually done market research on this datum, so there’s some anecdotal evidence to support the supposition.”

    If you think a new physical store near you draws in customers who aren’t already spending money on comics, why don’t you think a digital store will do the same?

    (37) “I think that video games cut off the head of that argument and shits down its throat. Even buying AAA games at full retail, is going to yield a 10-to-1 or better to ANY other media… and yet people are still willing to pay $1 for 3 minutes of music.”

    Personally, I consider money I spend on music to be the best value for money of any entertainment choice. It takes minimal investment to listen to a song (as opposed to greater focus needed to read or watch or play something) so I have a very high chance of recouping that investment over the years and years that I will listen to that music. I still consistently listen to music I purchased 15 years ago. A video game I bought 15 years ago probably hasn’t been played in 14 years.

    (37) “Welll… that’s kind of stupid, isn’t it? I’m not necessarily denying that people think that way, but content is either worth your time/dollar, or it isn’t.”

    No, it’s not stupid. People value digital products less because there are real, demonstrable downsides to buying digital products the way most producers want to sell them. Content is not all that matters and it is odd that you think it should be. If you pay real money for a digital item yet find it has disappeared tomorrow through no fault of your own, then that is a giant downside that should be factored into the price. It’s no different than renting a VHS from blockbuster costing a consumer less than actually buying the tape 20 years ago. The customer should pay less because they don’t actually own the thing for which they’re paying.

    Digital has advantages over physical but it also has giant, giant disadvantages depending on how producers choose to sell their work.

  8. 57 Ralf Haring – a great point, but then why does Apple open very slick Apple stores in most malls to sell cords and such.

    I think my original point way back at #10 on comics being an IP industry holds. Comcis are expected to generate the ideas, maintain an affluent client base, vanguard market penetrtaion at ComicCon(tm) and supply a ready made audience.

    “Cool. A Spider Man t-shirt”

    But what happens when that sizable logistics chain, that market penetration, that database of disposable customers starts folding up.

    So many people here are discounting nostalgia, but with a comics reading audience in the low 100,000 how does that explain all the people who saw Dark Knight? It was people who had been exposed to Batman, likely in the old floppy media, or in TV lord help us.

    How many people get a free Starbucks download of a song of the month from iTunes (they do those in the US right) and imediately go and buy that band’s whole back catalog?

    I think not many. But comic stores are expected to make the investmentr on prodcuts, but not get the customers. Hardly fair innit?

  9. @Steve D (54)

    It is my understanding (probably flawed) that publishers going through an app and the Apple store give 30% of the sale price to Apple, and 30% of the sale price to the app provider (Comixology, etc). I’m not sure if that’s 30% of the NET amount or the GROSS amount, and would be the difference between a 60% discount or a 51% one.

    That’s not dramatically out of line with the wholesale discounts in comics — DC and Marvel, in particular, sell direct to DM retailers at this point, and certainly some accounts (the smaller ones) are buying books at at effective (INCLUDING Diamond’s cut) 45% or so.

    Thus, I am fairly certain that at least on SOME DM sales, DC and Marvel are making a LOWER percentage of cover price on a digital sale.

    I’ve spoken to several publishers who tell me that their MARGIN on print is better than that of digital, but understand this is all second hand.

    @ Goodman (55)

    “Do you expect some of them would still drop by now and then for t-shirts and such?”

    My business model is on selling periodical comics and graphic novels; I’m not a t-shirt store.

    (or, UGH! a game store!)

    “Also, I’m curious how you feel about DC dropping the prices of their dame-day digital releases after a month. Does it have much of an impact on you, do you think?”

    Too soon to tell, ask again in 24 months.

    I originally pushed for a one-year window, and was willing to settle for one quarter.

    @Joey (56)

    I’ve tried stocking POCKET GOD in both comic and book version, and we’ve never sold a copy yet, oddly enough.

    @Ralf (57)

    “why don’t you think a digital store will do the same?”

    Because a digital store doesn’t have a physical presence that people in the neighborhood will see twice a day every day of their life as they walk past it on the way to the bus?

    Digital is being primarily marketed to (IMO) existing print customers.

    “I still consistently listen to music I purchased 15 years ago. A video game I bought 15 years ago probably hasn’t been played in 14 years.”

    My iTunes tells me that in the 5-ish years I’m had it installed, the song I’ve listened to the most (and no, Decline To State, thanks) has been heard 17 times in that period, and it is roughly 4 minutes long — that’s “an hour and eight minutes of entertainment.” I also have 40 or 50 songs I’ve paid money for that I’ve STILL never ever listened to once :)

    Steam tells me that I played FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS 169 hours. (and in 2-3 years I will probably play though that again as well)

    (Which surely means that I’ve heard SOME of that game’s songs more than seventeen times, though…)

    Anyway, this has become a silly thread!

    -B

  10. Is this conversation still going? Maybe I’m late, but this is something I’ve thought a lot about as my own comic buying habits are drifting more and more to digital. I don’t have any expertise in the subject, I can just say what I would like to see.

    First of all, digital subscriptions. Let the content download automatically, like a podcast, and have it available on all my devices (cloud access is not okay, since I am often in areas without wifi.)

    Second, “general admission” browsing. As a member of Marvel Digital Comics Universe, I like being able to casually read any number of back catalogue stuff. This is as a supplement to what’s above, as I see it more as a library that I’m browsing, not content that I want to carry with me. In other words, general admission into the park, but separate E-tickets to ride the major rides.

    Third, more “Previews-style” blurbs before I buy. Just having a title and/or a cover will not be enough for me to purchase and/or read. I often have to surf the web for things to learn enough if I want to buy something. For example, Batwing. The more I know what I would see inside, the more likely I will go on to jump into it.

    Fourth, more done-in-ones. I am getting very tired of a single plot point taking three months or more to resolve itself. Subplots I am fine with– bubble away under the surface as long as you want. But I need some kind of resolution each month to make it feel satisfying. This is the number one reason that I have been shedding titles recently.

    Not that I want to see it, but I would also add an idea– bundle all physical comics into smaller magazine-like formats (and more expensive), but keep digital sales separate (and cheaper). For example, getting the X-Men magazine would have a handful of issues of content packed together for 10 bucks (no more single issue floppies on the stands), or you could buy them issue-by-issue online for 2 bucks each. I would even go so far as to suggest that digital stuff could be broken into once-a-week 6 page serials for a 24 page comic every month.

    I often call this game “as long as we’re wishing, I’d might as well also give myself a mansion and a yacht.”

  11. What I don’t understand is the charge that us digital readers who clamor for day and date digital are somehow being selfish and not looking after the good of the industry. It’s not like we’re buying what we pay for and not giving the books we love their due.

    Digital has actually made me buy more comics. I used to spend $50-70 every month back when I went to the store. Now it’s closer to $100-120 thanks to ComiXology.

    Thus, I can simply throw back the same charge — that the reason digital isn’t growing as a whole is because the LCS has held the industry hostage. Hence, we’ll never see 0.99 and 1.99 comics as long as the LCS-centric industry has to bankroll so many things.

  12. (59) “It is my understanding (probably flawed) that publishers going through an app and the Apple store give 30% of the sale price to Apple, and 30% of the sale price to the app provider (Comixology, etc). I’m not sure if that’s 30% of the NET amount or the GROSS amount, and would be the difference between a 60% discount or a 51% one. That’s not dramatically out of line with the wholesale discounts in comics — DC and Marvel, in particular, sell direct to DM retailers at this point, and certainly some accounts (the smaller ones) are buying books at at effective (INCLUDING Diamond’s cut) 45% or so.”

    If the purchase is made in the app, then Apple/Google take a 30% cut. Amazon doesn’t have in-app purchases available for apps on the Fire yet, I think. If you buy the same item for the same price externally from the app (on the comixology site for comics, on your kindle or on amazon.com for books, etc) then that 30% cut disappears. All of those items are still available for reading via the app just the same as in-app purchases. Some app makers are fine paying Apple/Google 30%. Many app makers like Sony, Kobo, Amazon, B&N, and Rhapsody balked at those draconian fees along with Apple’s mandate that there be no links to make out-of-app-purchases this past summer and removed the ability to make in-app purchases entirely.

    Just think about it for a minute. The processes diverge at the point of having the comic ready to go as a digital file. On the one hand the publisher has to send those files to printer which go to a distributor to be sent to retailers. Those three entities (and all the shipping companies involved) all need to make some money along the way. On the other hand the publisher needs to reformat the files for the app and then send it to the digitial retailer. I find it very hard to imagine that the costs associated with the latter process are anywhere close to the former. (The smart publishers will want to control the entire process end-to-end and run their own digital storefronts, but I don’t think any have the quality control necessary to force their content to be exclusively available through their own store, i.e. there’s no HBO of comics.)

    It’s fine for the fewer # of players involved to make more money than they did before, but the naked greed involved in trying to charge the same price and keep *all* the money with *no* savings passed on to the customer is astonishing. Customers aren’t stupid and realize when they’re being gouged.

    (59) “Because a digital store doesn’t have a physical presence that people in the neighborhood will see twice a day every day of their life as they walk past it on the way to the bus?”

    I see this as being analogous to the consistent placement of comixology’s comics apps on the top ten lists of the various app stores. They even have a spot on the default home screen(!) of all Kindle Fires.

  13. @DanielT (45)
    “Just wait until the comics publishers adopt the Spotify model! I could definitely see them doing this for “stale” material at least.”
    Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited is kind of close.

  14. Comics Publishers have been so desperate to get out of comic books for the past 10 years they broke readership from a monthly base and by doing so killed off off the rack buyers in a big way. Digital is just the next step, digital has taken a sledgehammer to every entertainment medium it devours, devaluing everything available in that format to the consumer. If the movie industry went date and day with digital release and theatrical, they’d go under as well.

  15. “Comics Publishers have been so desperate to get out of comic books for the past 10 years”

    I’d say that’s much more true of Marvel than DC. How much money do you think Marvel would have made if they’d grabbed the Transformers and G.I. Joe licenses when they were available, given both properties previous association with the publisher? They didn’t get them because Marvel isn’t in the comic book publishing business. They’re in the intellectual property warehouse business.

    Mike

  16. Brian:

    “The 10-25% of the audience who think The Rent Is Too Damn High, who might be willing to switch to digital — thereby crashing the market for the other 75-90% and making it so the rest CAN’T get comics.”

    Since it appears neither of us can name five publishers for whom periodical print comics still provide a viable business model and we also agree that the situation is unlikely to improve, I don’t find your logic very appealing.

    Sure, a percentage of people might switch. But the specific format we’re talking about is fading anyway, so it’s a matter of WHEN, not IF, it’ll stop being viable altogether.

    And, for that matter, as Kate points out above, those digital comics are available and downloaded for FREE anyway. To me, that’s a pretty strong indicator that the risks of further diminishing the existing print audience by lowering prices on the OFFICIAL digital editions are being vastly overstated here.

    Don’t get me wrong. I know you’re a brick-and-mortar print retailer, so all you have to care about is selling print books. It makes sense that even the remote possibility of losing a single customer would suffice for you to take a strong stand against cheaper digital comics. I get that.

    I just don’t think anybody should listen to you, because your concerns don’t make sense for anyone BUT you, let alone readers, publishers or creators.

  17. Marc-Oliver:

    I don’t think you can draw any 1:1 conclusions between stealing and legitimate digital purchases in audience behavior. More than that, I’m willing to presuppose that comics audiences are more pre-disposed to behave ethically, because of the content we’ve been reading all of these years.

    I firmly believe (and I really don’t see how you can’t believe, given your efforts in putting together sales reports for years) that “digital only” wouldn’t yield a too-small market for anything that’s not Superman, Batman, or any of the other “major icons”. That there CAN BE a “new 52” is because of the existence of the print market…

    -B

  18. “I’m willing to presuppose that comics audiences are more pre-disposed to behave ethically, because of the content we’ve been reading all of these years.”

    That’s a pretty huge assumption. Everyone I know who used to buy comics now steals them for free.

  19. I guess all your friends are dicks, then!

    -B

  20. I guess all of the local shops are shit-holes that stock poorly and have bad attitudes.

    I guess all of the publishers are asking too much for their product.

    I guess digital comics are readily available across several sites.

    I guess that iPad makes a pretty damn good comic reader.

  21. Sorry – that wasn’t very constructive.

    Just trying to point out that the elephant in the room is a pretty big fucking elephant. Digital comics are easy to get, take zero space to store, look great on a tablet, AND you don’t have to deal with a comic shop. Great stuff for anyone with low moral standards and access to a computer. Comic shops and comic companies have done very little to win that audience back. The product needs to change and the way its sold needs to change.

    Brian, your store has always sounded like a great place to shop. I hope you’re able to weather the change in store for you and your industry.

  22. “I just don’t think anybody should listen to you, because your concerns don’t make sense for anyone BUT you, let alone readers, publishers or creators.”

    Hmm. A retailer with years of experience in the comic industry vs. some internet dick whose career in comics seems to have peaked with translating The Walking Dead into German. Which one has a better handle on the issue?

    Mike

  23. No one is arguing for digital only. That any attractive pricing on digital editions would doom all retailers and force such a digital only world is purely your own supposition.

  24. Ralf, I think it’s reasonably clear that IF digital follows the same path as music, a majority of retail will vanish; and (unlike music) every piece of evidence available says that the majority of those print customers will vanish from the market entirely.

    The open question is if the Wednesday audience will switch formats if at-release books go cheaper-than-print. I suspect that (something like) 75% of the current comics print audience has absolutely NO interest in switching formats, but that the other 25% could be swayed on price alone.

    I KNOW that $3.99 for 20 pages of Marvel/DC content is really unacceptable for much of the audience, because I hear it every day from customers.

    Given that the risk for catastrophic damage is enormous, and that the upside is apparently marginal (the sorta-reported audience for New 52 in CBR’s Rood interview doesn’t sound like anything particularly exciting, and it appears to be declining, just like a standard print audience! And a large portion of DC’s marketing was on the digital copies, and they DID try to drive new readers in that direction), I think that the industry should be extremely cautious about pricing. Bird in the Hand, and all that.

    ***

    Rudi, thanks for the change in tone, I appreciate it, and I was almost certainly too snarky with my “your friends are dicks!” cracks, so I apologize as well.

    -B

  25. Brian:

    “I firmly believe (and I really don’t see how you can’t believe, given your efforts in putting together sales reports for years) that “digital only” wouldn’t yield a too-small market for anything that’s not Superman, Batman, or any of the other “major icons”.”

    First up, I don’t think I’ve been arguing for “digital only,” so I’m not sure where you get that.

    That said, that market you mention is “too small” already, and has been for some time — digital or no digital. And it’s not growing, either.

    That’s the point.

    The industry, as it stands, has two options. (1) Price digital comics attractively for non-existing readers and risk losing a portion of the existing print readership in the process. (2) Keep pricing digital comics prohibitively to protect the progressively declining business model of periodical print comics, which, as you know, is ALREADY failing to pay the vast majority of creators not working for Marvel or DC for their time and work.

    It’s true that Option 1 comes with risks and no guarantee of success. We’re not disagreeing there. But the thing is, Option 2 comes with a guarantee of failure.

    So I’m not sure what you’re proposing, in terms of a viable strategy. It’s not your job to propose anything, of course, but you’re pretty vocal about this stuff, and you’ve been in the business for decades. So, given that you’re lobbying to stonewall Option 1 above, I’m wondering what your alternative is, and where you see the comics market 10 years from now. Selling 15-page issues of BATMAN for $ 4.99 each to a dedicated audience of 20,000? Surely not.

  26. Ah, if only I had, I don’t know, maybe written a monthly column for the last umpty years that described things that I thought were wrong with our strategic planning, and how we might combat them!

    /grumble

    We could, for example, produce fewer titles within each franchise, cross them over less, ship them on time, not raise prices just because, work to build and promote the serialization model, have saner trade collection policies, offer more co-op and opportunities for both advertising and promotion, treat our readership like valued customers instead of walking ATM machines, offer better programs (POS, rack credits, etc) to grow better entrepreneurs, speak more outside our established constituency, etc etc etc, ad infinitum.

    Barring, pretty much only, the losses to torrenting (some percentage will always prefer to shoplift than pay, but hopefully that’s a low percentage), every other problem with the marketing sale and distribution of comics are self-inflicted wounds, most in the name of short-term profit.

    -B

  27. Brian: To be clear, you’re saying you believe that those steps would be sufficient to prevent any further movement along the higher cover price/lower page count/reader attrition death spiral over the next decade, right?

  28. And to try to be a teeny more productive, can I point out that this discussion over digital is practically a carbon copy of the argument over trades in the 1990s? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with digital or trades or that there isn’t a role for them to play in the marketplace. But when people bring up economic concerns over those formats based on logic and historical evidence, those concerns need to be addressed by more than non-responsive “We must embrace the future!” crap.

    Mike

  29. Those, and others, and (CERTAINLY!) 20 different things I haven’t/won’t/can’t thought of.

    I don’t think reader attrition is INEVITABLE (or generational, for that matter), but rather is a DIRECT result of policies that publishers (Marvel and DC specifically, but ALL publishers share *some* culpability) have pursued.

    -B

  30. Brian:

    That’s a good list. The thing is, I’ve been reading your column for years and agree with a lot of what you say, and there have been other suggestions from other people, and Marvel and DC and other publishers have been trying all kinds of things in the last 10 years, some of them with success even, like the “New 52” thing, and… well, we’re still where we are now.

    We’re still looking at a direct market based on monthly comic books that’s very effective and very good at serving its existing readership, and very reliable and stable in a way — but, at the same time, the market for 32-page periodicals has not been growing, and it’s been barely getting by on the skin of its teeth for anyone who doesn’t have a Top 50 book at Marvel or DC.

    It’s utterly failed to bring in new people. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe that’s ever going to change, because the format all this is based on just keeps getting more expensive, and good luck finding that average guy on the street who’s prepared to buy expensive monthly 20-page pamphlets that he’ll have to store in longboxes.

    So don’t you think it may be time to maybe resign ourselves to the idea that, whatever growth there will be in comics, will NOT happen with 32-page periodicals?

    Don’t get me wrong: Nobody says they’ll be going away or that we need to get rid of them or anything like that. In some instances, they work very well, and even when they don’t — as in the majority of cases today — they can still be useful as loss-leaders or provide a (relatively) easy way for creators to get their own stuff out there on their own dime and their own time. That’s all good. I LIKE periodical print comic books, and the existing audience for them will be around for years to come.

    But there’s no growth in them. They don’t bring in new people. At best, they can be kickstarted every now and then, like DC just did. But the ceiling on this market and format remains the same that it was five years ago.

    So I guess if you honestly still believe there’s any growth in serial, stapled 32-page print comic books, then that’s the point where we’ll just have to disagree. I’d love to understand what exactly inspires this type of optimism at this stage, because I don’t get it at all.

  31. The optimism comes from running a good store that sees new faces each and every day of the year, some of whom very much are interested in serialized comics.

    The optimism comes from New 52 (well, -ish, y’know, since they surely overproduced there as well) and seeing the new customers. The optimism comes from WALKING DEAD and the new serialized print comics customers I’ve been able to create there. The optimism comes from BUFFY, which has it’s own crowd of new readers constantly coming in. Or SIMPSONS. or MAD.

    The optimism is because I think there *could* be another SANDMAN, even if we can’t see it right now. or an Y THE LAST MAN.

    The optimism is we’re just one creator, one book, away that sets us all on fire again, and draws in the “civilians”

    And so on and so forth.

    -B

  32. Okay. I’m glad it’s working out for you — sincerely. I’ve been to your store (once, a couple of years ago; you were on the East Coast, unfortunately, or else I’d have said hi), and I have no trouble at all imagining that it’s the kind of place that doesn’t just attract hardcore fans, so fair enough.

  33. Brian,

    Do you envision DM sales growing over the next decade to a point where you would NOT see a decision by one of the major publishers to abandon print/digital price parity as a direct and immediate threat to the existence of your shop and others like it?

  34. Probably not, but more because I’d like to see physical stores (be they DM stores or not) selling most of the goods, not because of growth… DM sales could double, and I’d still argue for price parity because I think the content is what you’re buying, not the base format.

    -B

  35. Or, hm, maybe let’s go the other way — I’m all for $1.99 digital comics… let’s get the circ up on print comics to be able to drop their price to that!

    -B

  36. Yep, we’re solidly in “agree to disagree” territory if you think that expanding the DM enough to drastically shift the economy of scale in that direction is genuinely possible. I figured as much.

  37. Hunkering down and hoping for the Harry Potter of comics to show up is a strategy I don’t think will work. Aggressively embracing the new is one I think could.

  38. That’s clearly not what I’m saying, Ralf. Who the heck is “hunkering down”? It takes work, hard work, to grow and expand our market, work that we do every day, on many levels of this industry.

    “Aggressively embracing the new” does not, I don’t think, even remotely describe day-and-date shipping, or moving to price points that IN AND OF THEMSELVES are not possible for Marvel & DC comics to be profitable in producing.

    I hope digital has tons of crazy success in creating new customers, I really really really do… but I think it should be fairly obvious that replicating the DM is not the path forward on that. IF digital was going to be a proper success for superhero universe books, DC’s efforts of launching D&D at the same time as a repositioning of their ENTIRE line, that, for the first time in comics history actually spent real world money to advertise it’s existence…damn you’d think we’d be hearing “Woo hoo!… but we’re not. We’re hearing very measured statements that indicate digital iterations of print products are largely following print sales patterns and are, at best, a nice additional revenue stream, but certainly nothing that can carry the company.

    (at least… that’s how I read the 2 interviews with Rood this week)

    We have an existing infrastructure that works what I would say is “very good”, but what others might say is “adequate”, at moving a very niche product to an EXTREMELY profitable (when things are working right) business model. Why do I say that? Because no publisher in the DM ever ever ever has to have inventory that they can’t sell unless THEY choose to print over the orders. Non-returnable best-sellers is something that I think the book publishers would love to figure out how to have. My point is that the system “works” — it has a couple of fairly heavy systemic problems, but those systemic problems are still, I feel, more amenable to creators and their rights and their ABILITY TO ACCESS THE MARKET than any other media that I can think of — so why not attempt to keep it in parity with all other markets, when the potential downside could mean throwing the whole thing away?

    -B

  39. Also, Barry: given that there’s really only probably about 1300 “real comic shops”, and given the Mel Thompson dictum (right as rain, as far as I can tell) that 75% of a stores eventual customers are new, I think that with a $40 million investment, a $10k investment package for 4000 entrepreneurs (that is: low cost racks, POS packages, cheap starting inventory, and so on) and figure half of them fail out of the gate, you’d still more than double annual DM sales… which is still a greater than $400 million dollar business. Even if a full 90% of your “seeds” failed — so 400 stores — assuming an average resulting business of $300k/yr, you’d still create another $120 million a year in gross economic activity.

    That’s more than a quarter of the way to doubling the market size, and you’re still entirely divorced from content.

    And what it’s really about is all about content.

    Look, I know that that IS pollyanna, because humans can’t get their shit together to that degree to leverage and magnify what they have… but I think a fella should dream!

    (and do their own part in enacting that)

    -B

  40. “IF digital was going to be a proper success for superhero universe books, DC’s efforts of launching D&D at the same time as a repositioning of their ENTIRE line, that, for the first time in comics history actually spent real world money to advertise it’s existence…damn you’d think we’d be hearing “Woo hoo!… but we’re not. We’re hearing very measured statements that indicate digital iterations of print products are largely following print sales patterns and are, at best, a nice additional revenue stream, but certainly nothing that can carry the company.

    (at least… that’s how I read the 2 interviews with Rood this week)”

    I actually don’t doubt Rood at all (or his Marvel counterpart, David Gabriel) when he says he’s delighted with DC’s digital sales. Looking at his company’s digital strategy, I don’t really see why he would have much reason to be disappointed; they’re treating digital as an ancillary revenue stream for print comics* (partially due to their own inexperience in the digital market, partially due to the nascent state of that market and the limited penetration rate of tablets, and partially just to keep DM retailers like yourself appeased), and getting the exact outcome they should have expected, and at this point seemingly want: a market where digital is – surprise! – an ancillary revenue stream for print comics.

    You can maintain if you want that the current state of the digital market is the ceiling of what’s achievable in that medium, but I consider that wishful thinking from those who have a vested interest in seeing that scenario play out, and I have little doubt that the next few years will prove you wrong.

  41. “You can maintain if you want that the current state of the digital market is the ceiling of what’s achievable in that medium”

    No one can fairly say that Hibbs is saying anything like that. All he’s objecting to is economic decisions that hurt the actual Direct Market in order to promote the theoretical potential of digital.

    Mike

  42. Mike: I’ll concede that Brian might not believe that current digital sales are LITERALLY the ceiling of what’s achievable, but in the paragraph I quoted, he does cite said sales to argue that digital will never be “a proper success for superhero comics,” or capable of “carry[ing] the company.” I don’t think I was wildly off base there.

    As for your latter point, I think Paul put it quite well in #47; as much as I personally loathe print/digital price parity, I can see why it’s a necessary evil for a few years. But that doesn’t explain away other pricing moves the big publishers are making that are hobbling digital at no apparent benefit to the DM, particularly pricing 95% of their back catalogs at twice what they should be.

  43. 89

    One cheesy 40 million dollar movie might produce 120 million in gross economic activity, though? Without the 4000 sets of loan paperwork? :)

    I’d say given the usual greedy media giant modus operandi, the chance of them funding a few thousand small businesses is probably less than the chance of a snowball beating Ghost Rider in the annual Dante to Acheron race. In fact, is probably negative.

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