Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inevitability and Comics

I’d like to talk about an important--and potentially game-changing--decision made by Marvel this past week concerning digital distribution. In terms of the comics landscape, this decision could be the first blow in what will surely be a one-sided war against comic book retail stores.

Overly dramatic?

Well, I certainly have a flair for hyperbole, so usually, I’d say to take everything I say with a grain (read: pound) of salt. But this time--this time--I think I might actually be understating things.

In the past, Marvel has offered digital downloads of previously released comics. These stories have tended to be big sellers with big name creators attached to them. Makes sense, yes? Sure it does.

Price wise, these offerings have undercut single issue (and, therefore, collection) prices, something that has certainly cut into retailers’ back stock sales. But probably not to the extent that they’ve needed to board up the windows and start selling their wares at flea markets.

This week, however, Marvel announced that they would be releasing both the print (to shops) and digital versions of a new book--Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 by Matt Fraction--on the same day.

On the same day.

Marvel hasn’t yet announced the price point for the digital release--which tells me that it’s going to undercut the print release (which is $4.99) by at least buck or two--but retailers are now spending their time alternating between bracing for bad news and hoping for good news.

But a digital release at the same price point as a print release is…well…stupid. I mean, what’s the selling point then, right?

So, the Big Question is, what happens when Marvel moves more of the digital product than they do of the print product? What happens when Marvel gets the final numbers, and they realize--holy cats!--people want digital. And what happens if more people want digital than they do print?

You know there’s going to be a huge promotional push (and not just in comics shops) for the Iron Man digital product, so there’s the very real chance that the digital release significantly cuts into (and possibly devours) the print product.

Look at what happened with Brian Bendis’ Spider-Woman motion comic that also released to stores as a printed version.

A great creative team--one of the premiere creative teams of the last decade, actually--on a popular character. The book was cancelled after seven issues. Bendis says it was because of artist Alex Maleev’s workload doing both the print and the motion comic, which, despite Internet moaning about the reasons given, is likely true.

But the numbers don’t lie, and sales declined with each issue. And that’s something that never happens with a Bendis book. It just doesn’t. But, when you have a motion comic (of the same exact material) selling incredibly well on iTunes (literally topping their TV charts!), is it really a surprise that the one cannibalizes the other?

And I think there’s the very likely possibility that this exact scenario plays out with Fraction’s Iron Man book. If I’m wrong this time, though, I think I’ll eventually be right.

Which is really my point in all this.

Eventually, digital will trump print in the comics industry. It’ll take a lot longer for it to happen with books--book readers skew older than comics readers and the number of book devotees far surpasses the 200,000 or so monthly comics readers.

Yep, I said 200,000.

That’s the entirety of our hobby. Think about it--today’s best selling comics (and I mean, the crème de la crème from the Big Two) sell near that number in stores in North America. Sure, there’s a contingent of comics fans that wait for the trade to ship, and taking them into consideration, I’ll even bump that number up to 250,000.

Ya know what? Let’s make it something insane, like 300,000.

Say there are 300,000 people in America that read comics week to week. Heck, let’s call it 500,000. Still a tiny number of people. No? Atlanta has over 400,000 people. A city. So let’s make it a million, you say? Sure thing! Let’s make it a million, even.

My state has three times that many people in it. And I live in a small state.

So there are two ways to look at it all.

On the one hand we have the publishers tailoring their entire product lines to Diamond and to shops who serve a miniscule fan base. From the publishers’ perspective, it makes absolutely zero sense to continue on in this way.

Zero. None. Zip.

They have their million (well, really 250,000) weekly readers. They’ll never not have them. These are the fans that stuck with (or came back to) comics after the disasters of the 1990s and these are the new fans of the 2000s (like me!) who just want to read good comics and could care less about things like continuity.

We’re already their core market. They don’t have to aggressively go out and get us.

But the comics industry has sought for decades a way to expand their readership. And the iPad literally dropped into its collective lap. For so long in comics, we’ve heard the “old” adage, “one day the whole hobby will be digital, you’ll see.”

I guess none of us ever really thought we’d live through that “one day.”

But here we are. And here is the comics industry--at the crossroads. To the left looks back in time. To the right, the future.

One way guarantees the same profit margins as the past several years, and one way potentially taps into a brand new and enormous market with little risk involved. Every business on Earth would go right.

Comics will, too.

And that brings me to the other side of the coin. Comics retailers are going to be in some trouble, very soon. Ain’t no way around it, Bucky. Is what it is.

I’ve talked to a couple of shop owners about the ascension of the machine--er. Sorry, I mean, the advancement of digital distribution. And I’ve gotten pretty much the same answer from them all.

“When that happens, I’m done.”

Digital means cheaper, faster, higher quality, and not having to drive to a brick and mortar shop every week. Digital means never having to order books online because a local retailer didn’t get them in. Or because Diamond messed up an order, and you don’t want to wait a month to get a book that your shop did order.

Digital means instant and easily accessed backlogs without having to pay back issue or trade prices. Digital means no more storing hundreds (or thousands) of issues in boxes in a closet. Digital means zero printing fees, which means higher profit margins for the publishers.

Digital means an end to the poisonous collector’s mentality, and to variant covers, and to bagging and boarding.

Digital means there are no negatives.

Except, of course, the whole death of the direct market thing.

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