A story from the Boston Globe captures the mood of comics retailers who are sitting on the porch sipping an iced tea while the digital tornado comes right for them. Some sip their cool drink knowing that no matter what happens, they had a good run:
But life as Howley knows it may soon change, as the industry rides a digital wave that has already transformed publishing. DC Comics — publisher of titles featuring Superman and Batman, among other characters — said last month that it will soon start selling digital versions of new comics online, on the same day printed copies are available in stores.
“Once one of my customers buys a comic online, then DC Comics has them forever,’’ Howley said. “They don’t need me. They have no interest in keeping people like us in the middle. This really is, in the long run, cutting our own throat.’’
Others enjoy their beverage optimistic that the twister will pass right by:
Matt Lehman, owner of Comicopia in Boston’s Kenmore Square, is hopeful that DC’s digital plan is good news. The easy access of the Internet could bring new readers to comics, he said, yet it can’t replace the clubhouse appeal of a store. “We’re not really that worried about it,’’ Lehman said. “This is a great way for new customers to check out the material online. That can only benefit us.’’
Lehman believes devoted customers will continue to come around, and newcomers who read a few comics online might come in to find out more about other titles.
Another retailer roundtable was conducted before DC began their retailer meetings, and includes such knowledgable folks as Chris Butcher who looks like he’s going to find a good safe place to wait it out:
The issue for me, and I mentioned this online earlier, is that our sales on day and date digital titles are measurably lower than on the non-day-and-date titles. As far as I can tell looking at the numbers, it’s a correlation situation rather than a causation one, but with the announcement that their whole line is going day and date? It’s certainly something that concerns me.
I understand the modern truism that “digital comics have been available day and date for years,” and to an extent I agree with that idea. Piracy has been a real threat for years, done untold damage, and particularly coupled with the recession is likely responsible for the last few quarters of disappointing sales in the overall industry. But there is a generation of consumer who does prefer legal digital alternatives, and that seems to be the 30-50 year old demo that DC is targeting with these moves. More importantly, by offering my customers an add-on purchase of a digital version of the book they’re buying (as they’re doing with the ‘Previews Exclusive’ Justice League of America #1) they’re directly marketing digital to my customers. We may make an extra buck off the sale, but we introduce our customers to a stream of purchasing that directly bypasses us. I can’t see how that isn’t at least a little unappealing.
Douglas Wolk’s recent piece on digital comics for Wired also paints an uncertain picture, and quotes Jim Lee:
As far as he’s concerned, the ink-and-paper comic book is king: “We have this very devout, fanatical, core group of fans, and the vast majority prefer reading comics in print.” He talks about digital sales as a “new newsstand,” a way to reach readers who would never set foot in a comics store, get them hooked, and then point them to places where they can buy more stories on paper. In other words, where some see an outmoded industry, he sees a potential for expansion—a whole new customer base that can be lured in by the convenience of tablet apps and converted to the pleasures of old media.
That scenario flies in the face of every other mass medium’s transition to digital distribution. On top of that, other media—take the recording industry, for example—have had a seven-year head start on persuading customers to pay for downloads. An entire generation of comics readers has grown up with pirated scans as their only digital option. Nobody really knows how many of the people who used to collect comics on paper have shifted to torrenting everything and how many have just shrugged off the habit and moved on to Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or graduate school.
Artwork by Ulises Farinas, from Wired.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.