Image Does Humble Bundle Once Again

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By Bruce Lidl

Lost somewhat in the initial burst of news from last week’s ImageExpo was the announcement of a new Image Humble Bundle offering, beginning that morning and lasting until January 21. The “Humble Image Comics Bundle 2: Image Firsts” is a massive collection of digital comics that can be purchased for whatever price the consumer chooses. Included in the basic bundle are the beginning issues of a number of recent series, including Alex + Ada, Deadly Class, C.O.W.L., Elephantmen 2260 Book One, Minimum Wage, God Hates Astronauts, Genius, and Satellite Sam. Paying at least $15 also gets you the slightly higher profile titles The Manhattan Projects, The Wicked + The Divine, The Fuse, Velvet, Sex Criminals, Wytches, The Walking Dead Vol. 22: A New Beginning (#127-132), The Fade Out #1, Nailbiter, Stray Bullets, Southern Bastards, and Shutter. And finally, a stretch price of $18 brings The Walking Dead Compendium One (#1-48), East of West: The World, and Saga Book One (#1-18). For anybody at all interested in Image brand comics, the price truly cannot be beat, especially as the retail price of the comics would be over $300 according to Humble Bundle. Also, purchasers are strongly encouraged to mark a portion of their price paid towards charity, in this case the comics creator focused Hero Initiative. As of this evening, the Image bundle has generated almost $318,000, with over five days left to go.

The current offering is the third Humble Bundle to include Image titles. The first time Humble Bundle included any digital comics was the Image bundle in April 2014 that generated almost $400,000 revenue in two weeks, with titles including Saga, Walking Dead, Fatale, Invincible and Chew. Image imprint Skybound also did a special Comic-Con Humble Bundle in July 2014 as well, which was almost entirely Kirkman based titles such as The Walking Dead, Invincible, Thief of Thieves, and Super Dinosaur. That bundle alone generated $232,000.

Other comic publishers that have released Humble Bundles since April include Dark Horse, Oni, Dynamite, BOOM!, IDW, Top Shelf and Valiant. According to Kelley Allen, Director of Books for Humble Bundle, comics publishers are eager to work with them, and she has a number of ebook and comics bundles planned in 2015 alongside Humble Bundle’s traditional gaming focused offerings. The average revenue number for the comics based bundles so far has been $288,000 for the 14 day period. According to Allen, non-gaming bundles allow Humble to “break out from their core gaming audience” but from the comics perspective, they can also create “enormous crossover” by getting great comics in front of the very large Humble Bundle community. With a very clearly defined, and devoted, young male demographic, Humble Bundle chooses comics with both a logical appeal, like Transformers, Star Wars and The Walking Dead, but Allen also curates high quality titles that may stretch demographic borders. She “pushed very hard” to include titles like Sex Criminals in the latest Image bundle, trusting the Humble Bundle audience to appreciate an outstanding title, even without prior awareness.

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While the Humble Bundles may help expand the reach of digital comics, they are also helping to encourage comics publishers to feel comfortable with forgoing DRM protections for their products. Humble Bundles, regardless of content, gaming or ebooks, do not use Digital Rights Management anti-copying technologies, both for philosophical reasons and from a practical standpoint. As Allen pointed out, why use DRM when the consumer could theoretically decide to purchase the content for one cent in any case? Even Dark Horse, which has been very reluctant to forgo DRM generally, was convinced to try not using it for their big Star Wars themed Humble Bundle in October and was rewarded with sales over $375,000 for the two week offering.

Fundamentally, the Humble Bundle “pay what you want” approach reflects exactly the insights independent game developers have learned over the years in regards to digital sales. Since their products are almost universally available to be pirated, often in formats that are actually *more* user friendly than the official versions, game creators have learned to embrace the concept of giving customers compelling reasons to purchase, in the recognition that they do not have to anymore. Distribution options like Steam and Humble Bundle provide explicit value beyond what a pirated version can give, whether through ease of use, personal connection to the creators, community recognition, charitable giving, etc. The Humble Bundle experiment really leverages the unique potential of digital distribution, as the pay what you want model could not really scale in a system that necessitated fulfillment and postage charges. With this almost “donation” type model there is no extra expense for the seller after the first sale, everything after that is essentially “profit.” And the possibility that the new readers exposed to the material may become fans, and go on to make further purchases, even print purchases in local comic books stores, only heightens the value of the Humble Bundle offering. We are likely to see a number of interesting comics based bundles in 2015 and we will learn if this kind of non-traditional sales can become a significant portion of publishers’ revenue, in much the same way digital has already established itself recently.

More Publishers Join No-DRM Movement at ComiXology

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By Bruce Lidl

A number of comics publishers today joined comiXology’s no-DRM initiative, and will start offering their titles without digital anti-copying technology. Comixology’s announcement at San Diego in July that publishers could now distribute DRM-free focused on a small group of early enthusiasts, including Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Zenescope Entertainment, MonkeyBrain Comics, Thrillbent, and Top Shelf Productions. From conversations at San Diego, it was clear a number of publishers at San Diego would be embracing DRM-free digital comics soon, and  IDW Publishing, Valiant Entertainment, Oni Press, Fantagraphics Books, Aspen Comics, Action Lab Entertainment, Th3rd World Studios, A Wave Blue World, Blind Ferret Entertainment, Caliber Comics, Creative Impulse Entertainment, Devil’s Due Entertainment, GT Labs Comics and Kingstone Media have just made it official.

It is not clear to what extent the publishers will be extending DRM-free backup capabilities to the whole range of their titles, or to back issues that were previously distributed with DRM. In a quick scan of offerings Fantagraphics has already made some titles available, including today’s release of Cosplayers #2 and Jim Woodring’s Jim. IDW has made today’s Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye Ongoing #33: Dawn of the Autobots DRM-free but Godzilla: Cataclysm #2 is not. It may be that it will take time to implement the DRM-free option, or it may be that particular deals with license-owners or individual creators do not allow it. Time will tell how far DRM-free gets extended by these publishers.

As a trend, though, the indications are clear that more and more publishers are embracing a flexible approach, giving their customers increased options and autonomy over their comics purchases. The movement is strong among small to medium publishers, but should put some pressure on the Big Two (and Dark Horse) that have so far resisted the call for less restrictions on their crown-jewel intellectual properties.

Jimmie Robinson on Five Weapons, the Convention Craze and Digital Challenges

By Bruce Lidl

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The Sacramento Wizard World convention was an opportunity for comic fans in Northern California to gather and celebrate their passions with other fans and celebrities. It was also a chance for Jimmie Robinson, a veteran Bay Area comic book creator (and frequent commentator at The Beat) to meet his readers and spread the word about his on-going all-ages Image series, Five Weapons. I was curious to get a creator’s insight about this new convention, but we ended up chatting about a variety of topics, so I decided to make a separate article in its own right. As a long-time participant and observer in the comics industry, Jimmie has a great perspective on what is really happening right now, and he was very generous of his time to speak with me on the show floor.jimmie robinson

Robinson was quite positive about the Wizard show, the staff, and the vibe around the convention center. Everybody was seemingly happy with the turnout and the enthusiasm of the attendees, especially the local downtown merchants. I was curious to hear how his convention schedule played into his work-time and income, and whether he was seeing the kinds of returns on paid sketches, commissions and appearance fees that some artist superstars like George Perez have experienced. According to Robinson, conventions, even well attended ones like Sacramento Wizard, are not “real money makers” for him, as he still has to pay his expenses, including travel and lodging. The worst thing about conventions for Robinson is not the expense, though, it is the time taken away from his work of actually making comics, something he much prefers to do if possible. In general, he limits himself these days to shows he and his team (wife Gail and dog Eli) can drive to, including the Reno Wizard show and possibly San Diego. For him, conventions remain all about “spreading the word” about his books, particularly Five Weapons, his current title from Image/Shadowline, an all-ages tale of the one pacifist student enrolled at a school for assassins (broken up into 5 weapon-themed houses, kind of a killers’ Hogwarts). He emphasized just how “tough” a sell an all-ages title can be. Currently at issue #7, in the second five issue story arc of the title, he has a commitment from Image to publish a third story arc, taking him through issue #15. Depending on how these story arc sell, he hopes to publish at least through #20, which would complete the initial narrative he conceived for the title.

Eli manning the booth

Eli manning the booth

Robinson was “very appreciative of the huge support” he’s received from Jim Valentino and the Shadowline imprint at Image, particularly with a book that may not be the most marketable. And he “regretted” not being at the January ImageExpo, where the homogeneity of the creators on exhibit was negatively received online. Robinson had only complimentary things to say about his experiences with Image.

While Robinson appreciates the personal outreach opportunities conventions give comic creators, he is also “very enthusiastic” about the growth of digital comics, both from a sales perspective but also from a creative viewpoint. Digital sales of his older Bomb Queen title have been “very good” and he has seen bumps in sales of older issues when new ones come out and re-ignite interest. He is also an outspoken fan of comiXology’s Guided View reading enhancement, although he does struggle somewhat with making sure that his books look good when they are going to be converted to the new format. The process of conversion is quite “mysterious” to Robinson, and he does not have any insight at all into who actually does the work at comiXology, but he’s “very conscious” when he is drawing of what kind of panel layouts work best with the new technology.

His one major criticism of the current digital comics trend is the lack of transparency into the data generated by digital sales, as any data he does get from comiXology is basically limited to royalty statements and is usually “way old, usually from two quarters behind.” He is eager to see if he is able to get quicker and more detailed information from the shift at Image to selling directly and without DRM (Five Weapons #1 is available right now for free in either PDF, EPUB, CBR or CBZ formats). Robinson is “completely for” Image’s move to drop DRM and is generally really excited to see his work available in as many formats as possible. As someone who first heard Scott McCloud talking up online comics way back in the mid-90s, Robinson knows first hand how far the industry has come in expanding distribution avenues for new creators to attract readers. He echoed the message oft repeated today, that the challenge is no longer to “break into comics but to stay in comics!”

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It was a pleasure chatting with Robinson and getting his expert viewpoint on a comics industry that  offers both unprecedented opportunities and daunting challenges for even well-established creators like himself. And check out Five Weapons and see how good all-age titles really are these days!

Top Shelf’s Chris Ross on DRM-Free Graphic Novels and Print-Digital Bundles [Interview]

By Bruce Lidl

Indie comics publisher Top Shelf announced yesterday that they will be selling a selection of their digital titles, without any DRM copy protection technology. Joining Image in the trend away from DRM on comics, Top Shelf will now offer eleven graphic novels from their own website in a variety of open formats, including PDF, EPUB and CBZ (essentially ZIP). The selected titles include the groundbreaking March: Book One, The Underwater Welder and a personal favorite of mine, God is Disappointed in You. Despite some slightly overzealous reports to the contrary, the rest of Top Shelf’s digital catalog titles, including standouts like From Hell or Essex County, remain available exclusively from retail partners comiXology, iBooks, Nook, Kindle, Kobo and iVerse, with DRM intact.

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Top Shelf is also innovating by bundling print and digital versions together, by offering customers steep discounts for these eleven digital graphic novels if they purchase a print copy at the same time. March: Book One costs $14.95 for the print version, but you can get a digital copy as well for just $1.99, five dollars off the normal digital price of $7.99. The Surrogates: Volume One breaks down at $19.95 for print, $5.99 for digital, or $21.94 for both if purchased at the same time.

Chris Ross, Director of Digital Publishing, and Lead Designer at Top Shelf was very kind to answer some questions I had about their new initiatives and how he sees the digital trends progressing in comics.

Bruce: At San Diego, you corrected me to point out that Top Shelf had already done some DRM-free releases, even before Image’s big announcement, that had not gotten much attention necessarily. I spoke with Eric Stephenson at ImageCon in January, and they were not releasing data on their digital initiatives yet because they felt it was incomplete. Do you guys feel you were able to learn from your previous DRM-free experiments? What kinds of things have you observed that may have led to this new announcement?

Chris: We noticed a few things—in fact I discussed some of them in the letters page of Double Barrel #12. We here’s what we noticed:

DRM is not a “value-add” for the most part when it comes to selling digital content (at least compared to sales on other value-added platforms). For instance, ComiXology leverages Guided View and a great app, iBooks leverages a different interface and seamless device pairing. DRM choice didn’t affect these and we noticed no discernible or statistically significant changes when we went DRM free for DoubleBarrel—that is DRM-free didn’t hurt our sales through existing channels and was a nice added bonus to folks that only shop DRM-free. But there was some interesting data that suggested it was worth a try, namely a core group of people that would buy DRM-free to support it, to give it a try, or don’t use existing mainstream sources. I’d like to see what’s there.

The second thing we were interested in was trying to pair digital sales to physical sales. We had started talks internally about how to best go through with doing ebook/pbook bundles, but we needed to talk through the DRM-free component and really do it correctly before doing digital-physical bundles—Amazon MatchBook beat us to market, but reenforced that direction might be an interesting one to take.

The third thing I was VERY surprised about: we make DRM-free digital comics available in 3 formats (PDF, ePub, and CBZ), and the most popular format (so far) is ePub. That really surprised me.

Bruce: Dark Horse runs their own digital store, and highlights the flexibility it affords them on pricing and discounting. They also highly value the data that they control, as opposed to relying on partners to provide for them. Did either of those factors (pricing, data) play into this move?

Chris Ross

Chris: The goal of Top Shelf’s digital program was to make sure that it started making money and was self-supporting as quickly as possible—if we had a larger IT budget to support a staff of digital workers and massive app development, I’d have loved to explore Dark Horse’s option for those same reasons (looking at customer data and make data-driven choices based on those). That being said, the crown jewel of our digital program has been the amazing relationships we’ve formed with our digital partners, and I think going 100% independent would have meant missing out on those partnerships. What I hope we can have going forward is the best of both worlds.

Bruce: In the press release you emphasize that many customers want both print and digital, and you are offering discounts for purchasing both at same time. Is that based on any specific feedback/data you’ve seen/heard? Is it a one-time discount offer? Can somebody come back later and get a discount on the digital version from a previous purchase of the print?

Chris: We’ve always believed that digital and print go together and can feed one another—we price that way, we make partnerships with that in mind, and we publish with that in the back of our minds. So these print/digital packages are something we’re very excited about. It’s a new program, and we’re curious to see what the reaction will be. I think that when you’re ordering a book, to be able to toss in a few extra dollars to get an instant download is a pretty sweet convenience.

Think about what it means for birthdays and Christmas presents – you can order the book to be shipped to a friend, reward yourself with the digital comic, and then when your friend receives the gift, you’ve already read it and are ready to talk about it!

Bruce: Monkeybrain has had noted success with a digital first, print second strategy. Is that something you are considering at Top Shelf?

Chris: We actually have for the last few years explored that very same option—LOST DOGS by Jeff Lemire was a digital-first comic. STUFF ABOUT SEX by David Mellon was a digital-first that just recently came out in print. MOTORCYCLE SAMURAI and WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITHOUT YOU? are great digital comics that are eventually heading to print. And we’ve had some really interesting feedback from folks about it—namely that it really doesn’t change or hurt physical sales to digitally release a book first.

Bruce: comiXology has been quite vocal about DRM as a value add, as enabling a cloud experience for reading digital comics that is preferable to managing one’s own files. Your customers will now have a choice for their digital comics, but to take advantage of the discount they will have to purchase directly from the Top Shelf store. Those new digital graphic novels will now exist outside of their previous purchase eco-systems, whether they are comiXology or iBooks or Kindle. Are you worried about fragmentation for readers or do you see a trend towards readers self-managing their digital titles among retail systems? Does the lack of DRM make this more possible for customers?

Chris: I think there’s a few things in this question that should be parsed out a bit, but they are related.

First, I agree with comiXology’s assessment that their platform’s value add doesn’t compete with DRM-free/customer-side curated content. And many platforms have their own value-add’s—comiXology’s value adds include Guided View, a passionate community, and their talent—they have some amazing people working there. Amazon’s is curation and footprint, to an extent (not at the same level as brick and mortar, but it’s getting better everyday) and pricing. Apple’s is the iTunes ecosystem, Kobo’s is their relationship to brick and mortar stores and their pursuit of secondary markets, B&N’s is their brick and mortar presence, Overdrive’s is their relationship to libraries, etc.  All of these have interesting value add’s for customers to consider. I prefer certain platforms to others for different kinds of reading experiences, so I think it’s ok for some fragmentation to happen. It lends a bit of experimentation to customer’s options, to see how it works for them. I don’t think store value-adds will promote fragmentation—I think the lack of an ebook standard for comics and graphic novels promotes fragmentation; an ebook standard that makes publishers and ebook professionals gnash their teeth and pull their hair out causes fragmentation.

As a publisher, we aren’t really interested in voting for one retailer or platform vs another. We see our role as making sure you can read our authors’ work in high-quality editions regardless of format.

Bruce: How did you choose the titles for this initiative? Subject matter? Audience? Existing contracts for distribution rights? Were the creators comfortable with DRM free or did they have concerns? Are they, and/or Top Shelf, concerned with the pirating of their work?

Chris: There were a few things that went into our decision to pick these specific books. If offering Top Shelf books DRM-free is an experiment, I wanted to start with a few authors who were enthusiastic about trying something new. Second, they had to be popular books, a mix of recent releases and active backlist. Third, the content should lend itself to be DRM-free. All of the creators were actively for it (although in a few cases they needed to have DRM explained).

Here’s a funny story: I was looking at a pirate website entry for THE UNDERWATER WELDER. It was a CBZ of it, scraped from the internal asset files of a legitimately purchased digital copy (it wasn’t a scan). And a user thanked the poster saying, “I absolutely love Jeff Lemire! Thanks!” Evidently, this person didn’t like Jeff enough to pay him, but I don’t think that’s the issue.What are the reasons why someone would pirate a comic? Is it truly a format issue? Privacy issue? Is it money? Localization? So instead of building bigger walls and bigger towers, I’m interested inasking why folks are digging underground. Then see if we can eliminate the piracy reasons, or listen to folks to see what works for them.

Now, I might be completely wrong. But it’s worth the time to get data and see if this works in a meaningful way, and to hear what works for our customers.

Bruce: In your Twitter announcement, you mention a conversation with noted DRM critic Cory Doctorow about the “ethics of copyright,” the recent Aaron Swartz case, and how working with Ed Piskor on WIZZYWIG may have affected your ideas on digital distribution. Can you elaborate on how your ideas have changed and where you stand currently?

Chris: I don’t profess to know everything about the Aaron Swartz case, but I certainly found it troubling, the idea that fighting over access to someone else’s intellectual property could become a bullied, life-or-death situation. I’m not sure that publishing media and accessing media have to be so antagonistic. There’s got to be a better way. Especially when it’s something as sensitive, and thoughtful, world-changing, and fun as comics and graphic novels. So, on the one hand, absolutely, we have to protect our authors and creative work, and support them financially. But rather than launching an all-out war against bootleggers, it seems better to direct our energy toward finding new solutions. So, this is part of opening up and experimenting with different ways of thinking about intellectual property and to see if it works for us.