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Are Digital Comics Really In Trouble?

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The ICV2 conference, or at least the accounts of it I’ve heard, have been a little light on the digital comics side of things this year. The pull quote from Alex Lu’s recap was ” Digital sales have grown by 1125%.” To clarify, I’m told that’s growth since the start of digital sales, not the last year.

Digital has been something of a touchy subject for comics insiders in the last year or so.  If you ask around about digital sales, you get all manner of different opinions on their state.  Sales are up.  Sales are down.  Sales are stagnant.

I have a few questions I’m not likely to get answers to that would potentially clear some of this up.

Are we talking about unit sales or dollars or as a percentage of print sales?  Nobody ever specifies.

When people talk about digital sales being up or down, are they factoring variant cover sales into it?  No, really.  That’s a very serious question.  Digital comics are about *readers*.  Variant covers are about extracting money out of *collectors*.  That extraction gets passed on as the dealer prices the variant to account for the extra copies they have to order to obtain said variant, but it’s the collectors who are (so far) happily footing the bill.  Take a look at those Marvel #1 + multiple variant sales vs. “normal” issue sales.  A rational person realizes the collector wallet extraction scenario around those variants is not completely duplicable with digital and you should be judging performance against single cover issues.  Ditto with DC, who aren’t to Marvel’s levels of variant extravagance, but do their fair share.  DC and Marvel are still a big percentage of comics sales, whatever the format.  It’s not hard to picture a world where sales are down compared to the total sales with incentives, but stable or even slightly up as a percentage of non-variant cover issues.

Yes, that means it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where digital sales are both up AND down, depending on how you want to frame it.  It’s an election year – you should be used to people abusing math right now.

The one constant I’m still hearing is about how stagnant Comixology sales have been.  And the reality of why and how this came about is worth repeating.

When the digital market started up, you mostly needed an iPad to get digital comics.  Well, legal ones anyway.  Android tablets and android-supported apps didn’t catch up for a couple years, so you got a HUGE chunk of readers and all the early adaptors locked into the Apple ecosystem.  When Amazon yanked Comixology out of the Apple system, a lot of customers felt a little jilted and alienated.  And let’s be deadly honest – not being able to order inside the app on the primary platform is a TERRIBLE user experience.  That’s not on Comixology, that’s on Amazon.

Now, what SHOULD have happened by now is Amazon fully integrating Comixology into the Kindle.  Then you have a dedicated hardware device and, _in theory_, a new audience opening up to you.  Probably a more casual audience though, with the hardcore readers already having dropped a chunk of change on an iPad.  iPad’s ain’t cheap.  One of the reasons Amazon’s gotten away with the proprietary .mobi format for eBooks is because they grew the ebook market with proprietary hardware – the Kindle.  The Kindle does not seem to be have become proprietary hardware for Comixology yet.  (The iPad very nearly is from a functional perspective.)

Because this integration hasn’t fully happened, you don’t have the full force of the Amazon ecosystem behind Comixology yet and it’s not exactly a surprise the growth isn’t what it was pre-Amazon.  And that growth might come back when Amazon can get around to full integration.  In the meantime, you’re seeing new deals signed for publishers to be on Amazon AND Comixology.  Joint announcements suggest they’re still slowly marching towards that integration.

The place I do have people telling me sales are sometimes up are the bookstore sites like Amazon and iBooks.  (Nobody ever mentions Google Play, which keeps trying to revise their comics site, but if they’ve gotten traction, everyone’s doing an excellent job of keeping it a secret.)  And this is casual readers.

I understand Milt made a comment at the ICV2 conference I’ve been telling digital people in private for at least a year: the opportunity in digital right now is with digital trade paperbacks and OGNs.

Let me spell this one out:

  • It’s pretty clear new readers, especially casual readers, prefer the book format to the serial format.
  • While Comixology/Amazon has locked up a few exclusives, Marvel being the one that’s crippling attempts to build a true rival to Comixology for the periodical market, nobody has an exclusive for the digital tpbs. That’s a level playing field if somebody wants to compete for it like iBooks has.  So far, there hasn’t been much attention paid to this.

And no, DC and Marvel also aren’t the end-all be-all for casual readers.  They’re still very important, don’t get me wrong.  But they’re not as important as they are in the Direct Market and I think the presence of the Direct Market and visions of Wednesday app visits and predictable cashflow have blinded a lot of digital folks to the wider audience.

Not to mention, the last few years have not been the strongest for DC and Marvel’s content.  The deeper you wrap yourself in continuity and crossovers, the harder it is to get a new reader up to speed.  And let’s face it, there have been an awful lot of #1s the last few years that either acted like they were issue #23 or were so steeped in 5 years of continuity that a brief explanation wouldn’t work for someone coming in cold.  Editorial is culpable for some of these problems, not just the tech partners.

And yes, as tired as the refrain is, not having an open source standard like MP3 is for music is hurting comics.  It ties you to a browser for your past purchases.  And you know what?  You can’t completely blame Comixology for this one, either.  You know who wants DRM? Hollywood does.  Disney, Warner Brothers, Hasbro and the like.  If your providers demand it, you don’t have a lot of choice.

So when people shy away from talking about digital right now or suggest that digital is dead, you need to ask yourself: is digital really dead or is it getting hamstrung by byzantine business concerns?

In the meantime, we’re waiting for Amazon to get its act together and fulfill its potential or for someone else to step up to the wider market.

Want to learn more about how comics publishing and digital comics work?  Try Todd’s book, Economics of Digital Comics or try some fiction.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The other thing that Amazon has done to Comixology that is inexplicable is that they no longer have a function that allows you to “gift” specific comics. You can still buy gift certificates, but if you want to buy a specific comic for somebody, that option no longer appears in the shopping cart. I emailed Support about this when I discovered it this past summer, and the response was basically that yes, they took out that function “while making some improvements” and that they “hope to have it back soon” but were unable to provide an ETA.

    (I also pointed out to Support that Comixology’s FAQs still describe the old gifting function as if it were still active. From the customer POV it really does look like Amazon’s left hand and right hand haven’t figured out what they are doing. Incidentally, the FAQ is still unchanged even though my contact with Support was about two months ago..)

    Is the disappearance of gifting likely to have a major impact on Comixology’s bottom line? Probably not, but it does seem like this is a one more example where Amazon has made it *less easy* to make purchases on Comixology. As you point out in your article, this is the exact opposite of what an e-commerce site should be doing.

  2. Complete works are absolutely the way to go digitally. The Direct Market system is confusing and appears way too inclusionary to non-Direct Market people. Buying single issues every Wednesday is not going to work outside of 50-year old men who grew up with it. Plus, as you pointed out, relaunching with a #1 every other year is awful.

    The sad thing is there is an MP3 like format that works great on all devices, the CBR format. But people are so worried about DRM, the big companies won’t touch it. The MOBI and EPUB formats are easy to pirate, but it doesn’t seem to stop book companies.

    The potential for huge growth exists in digital. Hopefully we see it.

  3. comicsatemybrain:

    You can still gift most comics you find on Comixology through Amazon, and the pricing will reflect whatever the current Comixology price is, even on sale items. This, of course, requires the recipient to either have a Kindle or to link their Amazon account to their Comixology account.

    Somehow, I don’t think this is an oversight.

  4. I don’t think that it is entirely fair to lay the blame at Amazon and the like for lack of growth. Sure, if they did better job then we’d probably see higher digital sales, but on the other hand we don’t really see any competitors appearing (and didn’t really see any even before Amazon bought Comixology) and I don’t think that companies like Marvel would be signing exclusives so easily if they saw huge growth potential.

    Main problem is probably price point. Paying 4$ for 5 minutes of entertainment isn’t very attractive and as we heard many times physical production of the comics is taking up only a fraction of that price so we can’t say that physical sales are holding back digital sales much either. I mean, even if price drops to 3,5$ for digital, does it fundamentally change anything? I don’t think so.

  5. “It ties you to a browser for your past purchases. “.

    Well not for every comics purchased on Comixology, right ? It’s true I haven’t use this function for a long time but I thought that you could save some of your comics on your hard drive (in the CBR format actually).

    But not all the companies are playing the game, indeed..

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