by special Beat correspondent Bruce Lidl
Late Thursday afternoon, as Comic-Con began to really hit its stride, as the shift from panel and show floor to party mode started to occur, the second annual “Digital Comics Now!” panel, hosted by Chip Mosher of BOOM! Studios got underway. In some ways the panel is a barometer for where digital comics stand in 2010. Many of the same faces from 2009 appeared, including David Steinberger from comiXology and Michael Murphey from iVerse, while new members were Wade Slitkin of Panelfly and Micah Baldwin from Graphic.ly. Noticeably absent was Rantz Hoseley from Longbox, an ubiquitous presence at the Convention in 2009.
There was breaking news right off the bat, with Slitkin announcing that Panelfly was about to disappear and is merging with some other multimedia properties into a new entity to be called “Syn.” Details were sparse, but it would appear that at least one of the players in the digital comics space is exiting. In general, though, the rest of the panelists were cautiously bullish on the prospects for digital comics, particularly based on the growth in availability and sales for comics distributed online (primarily via Apple properties, an element that remains consistent from 2009). Steinberger was comfortable representing the admitted industry leader, as comiXology has the largest library of available titles, with over 2300 books, he claimed.
Micah Baldwin from newcomer Graphic.ly was happy to play the role of the bigger thinker, and to emphasize what he sees as his company’s key differentiator, social and community features. Murphey from iVerse seemed to be speaking for all in the group in characterizing the necessity of depending so much on Apple to be an acceptable reality and that some of the early problems around the iTunes have been ironed out, and things were “just not that bad” anymore.
Mosher challenged the panelists to explain how digital comics were going to expand the overall comic book market beyond what his research characterizes as the “300,000 regular weekly shoppers” at the 1800-2000 brick and mortar shops in the U.S. Here the answers were very similar to a year ago, highlighting the potential benefits of bringing comics to non-traditional readers via technology, and to capitalize on the general pervasiveness of comics IP in the culture generally. Steinberger claimed that the retailers participating in comiXology’s program had seen sales increases of “20%” but the general feeling was that digital comics were still too new for much comprehensive data to have been collected yet.
To this observer, the most interesting comment from the panel was really more of a question. Baldwin from Graphic.ly, an admitted “non-comics guy,” talked about the ongoing search for that element that will be the tangible answer to the change in revenue streams brought on by digital. In his view, the music industry has forcibly shifted its priorities to live concert sales over individual unit sales. He wants to know “what will be the live music” of the comic book industry, which is a very interesting question for the CEO of a company that sells digital copies of comic books to ask. Digital comics are, after all, the mp3 in this analogy, and it is the physical comic books that are the scarce good that can still be charged for, like music performances. The price pressure on digital copies is likely to increase in a downward direction, as we have seen in other industries, including book publishing. Because of the intensely collectible and visual nature of comics, far greater than CDs or books of course, comics sales are likely to remain far more dependent on physical sales than those other media, while the successful prices of digital comics are, in my opinion, almost assuredly going to decrease consistently over time. Comics readers may be willing to read comics online, but whether they are actually willing to pay for them in that form, at least in significant numbers, remains very open.
No one at the panel brought up what is surely the big elephant in the room, the fact that illegally shared digital comics dwarf the legitimate ones exponentially. But that explosive topic will have to wait for Sunday’s panel on exactly that theme.