Monday, March 05, 2007

Digital Comics Discussion

Vaneta Rogers' column on digital comics and their impact on the comic book retailer went live today. It's an interesting column and I was quoted several times. Some of the responding posters didn't like my comments, which I consider a compliment since many of them are clueless.

Here's a portion of the column:
When asked to weigh the benefit vs. the risk, all the retailers said there could be a benefit to digital comics if they are successful in reaching new readers online, while the risk is obvious -- the end of the paper comic and local comics shops.

"The benefit? Exposure," said Paul Stock, owner of Librairie Astro in Montreal, Canada. "The direct market is said to be down to 2,500-3,000 stores. Even if we triple that number to cover the world, we're still barely scratching the surface of the population. Exposing the medium on the net will reach a huge audience, and if even a tiny fraction of that audience decides to adopt hard copy because they prefer the different experience, the market should expand enormously.

"The risk, obviously, is that the public fully embraces the digital delivery, to the point that print is no longer financially viable," Stock continued. "Presuming the publishers have found a way to cash in on digital delivery, the risk is not to them or the creators, but to printers, distributors, and retailers."

Lopacinski agreed. "Digital comic books could be beneficial to the comic book industry if they are used more as a tool to promote comics to new readers than if they are utilized to poach current readers," she said.

But the risk, she said, is that current paper comics readers might be compelled to switch to digital comics "if they are cheaper, if the digital data can be stored long-term, and if the files can be shared for free on the world-wide-web. Especially if they can get them at the same time as the paper issues come out. This could lead to the death of the direct market, or at least the death of many brick and mortar stores."

Click here to read it all.

Let me know what you think about the column and digital comics!

Below are my complete answers to all of Vaneta Rogers' questions. Read on if you're interested:

What's your general reaction to the ongoing news that digital comics are being explored by various publishers? Do you think this move toward digital comics will affect your business? How?

While digital comics can and will take some readers away from the traditional paper format, I have found that many folks who read paper comics do so because they like it. Many people sit in front of computer screens all day, so when they go home and read their comics they do not want to do it in front of a computer screen. My assumption, and we will see over the next few years if I'm right, is that digital comics will have more appeal to people who are not currently reading comics than it will to people who already are regular readers of the paper format.

Younger buyers as well as non-collectors seem to be the people who would show the most interest in digital comic books. Many of these people have already gone with publisher subscriptions or other low-cost mail-order services. At least in the short run I think that the comics-by-mail industry will feel more of the pinch of digital comics than the brick-and-mortar comic book stores. We b&m stores have so much to offer in terms of a variety of products and quality customer service, that fans of our type of in-store experience will hesitate going to digital comics, at least in the short-term.

Which parts of your business will it affect the most? The least?

The "floppies" or single-issue comics will be the most hurt by a move to digital, especially comics that tend to attract teen age readers, as they spend a lot of time in the digital world already. Manga will probably be impacted by the move to digital, as many are target to a tween and teen market.

Graphic novels might see some decline, but I do not think it will be as much as the single issues and manga.

We still have a ton of products that are not books - toys, t-shirts, statues, etc. Those items should not see a down turn because of digital comics. If digital comics draw in new readers it might actually help increase the sales of comic book related items in stores.

What are the benefits and risks for the comics medium in exploring
this type of distribution of its creative materials?

The big benefit is that this medium could increase readership in comic books, and generate a broader interest in comic books and related items. This could help improve the market for back issues and older graphic novels that would not yet be available to download, as well as increase the demand for other items like branded clothing and toys.

The risk is just the opposite - a loss of readership. If digital comics take off and comic book stores cannot sustain themselves because of it, there will be a decline in comic book readership. Many folks in their 30's and up grew up with paper comics, and many of them have to work in front of computer screens at their jobs. These people will be difficult to convince to switch to digital comics, and if their local comic book stores close, they will simply stop reading. Additionally, web sites simply cannot offer the hands-on customer service a good local comic book store can offer. So, someone reading one or two comics might not ever know of other great comics they might enjoy. These days the brick & mortar retailer does a great deal of the marketing for publishers. What will the publishers do when that grass-roots marketing is gone?

Who do you think reads digital comics? And have any of your customers
indicated that they've read digital comics?

None of our customers have said that they read digital comics, and many that we have asked have expressed that they prefer paper comics. For current paper-comic readers who have grown up on comics, I could see a switch to graphic novel format from "floppies" before a switch to digital comics. I believe that the main readers of digital comics are primarily people who do not shop in the brick & mortar stores: tweens, teens, non-collectors and women.

Obviously, the technology and means are there -- do you wish it
weren't used at all? Or if it is to be used (which seems apparent),
then how would you wish it were (or believe it should be) utilized?

Digital comic books could be beneficial to the comic book industry if they are used more as a tool to promote comics to new readers than if they are utilized to poach current readers.

Current readers might be compelled to switch to digital comics if they are cheaper, if the digital data can be stored long-term, and if the files can be shared for free on the world-wide-web. Especially if they can get them at the same time as the paper issues come out. This could lead to the death of the direct market, or at least the death of many brick and mortar stores.

If publishers price the digital comics at a comparable price or make them self-destruct after a few weeks, and release the digital format weeks or months after the paper issues are released, that would help keep current readers buying paper comics, yet mean very little to people coming into comics for the first time as a digital format.

If digital comics do lead to a substantial decrease in the number of
print comics that are purchased, how will your store be affected? How
do you answer the folks who wonder why you can't survive on other
comics-related merchandise? Can't you adjust your offerings to meet

We do carry a variety of other merchandise in our store, but single-issue comics are 45% of what we sell. Graphic novels account for another 17%. If we lost a majority of that business, it would be devastating. We receive the best discounts on comics and graphic novels, which means that they account for an even larger amount of profit than what those numbers illustrate. Then there's the income flow comics provide - we have a portion of our customers come in every single week to pick up their new comic books. This provides us with a fairly steady flow of cash. Without that it would become difficult to purchase those other items like t-shirts, statues and toys, that just do not sell as fast. Unless we completely changed our store's business model, becoming something other than a comic book store, we would go out of business.

Do you think digital comics will overtake print comics as the
preferred way to enjoy the medium? If not -- why not? If so, what do
you think will happen to the comics medium in general if digital
comics do become the norm?

Many of the current readers of paper comics show little interest in switching to a digital format. In the near future there will be people, especially younger readers and those not currently reading comics, who find the digital format appealing. But just as eBooks have not put book stores out of business, I do not think that digital comics will become the preferred format. At least not in the next decade.

However, as today's youth grow up and our current 30 something customer base reaches a point where they are no longer purchasing comics, we could see the trend toward digital comics take hold. The price of portable computers with high-quality screens needs to go down while the storage space and data download times increase. When these two events begin to converge, we will start to see a gradual switch to the digital format in all digital reading materials, not just comic books.

If digital comics were to become the norm, I think that there would be even less tolerance for late issues from readers. In addition, people would demand higher and higher quality art - much like the trend we have seen in video games. This could then take jobs away from the traditional pen and paper comic book artists as the new generation of artists create life-like images in a quarter of the time it takes to draw by hand.

I also wonder how it would impact back issue comics. Obviously there would not be any back-issues of the new, digital format comics. But, would the paper issues of the past become a vintage collectable, or paper trash?

Is there anything you think the publishers who have decided to
explore digital comics could do to help you out as they do so?
Something they could do to insure the viability of your business
despite trying to reach customers without you?

There are several things:

Do not release the digital version for weeks or months after the initial release of the paper format. Make sure that the digital files cannot be shared on-line for free (this will kill not only my store, but the publishers as well). Either price the digital comics at a price similar to the paper versions, or encode the digital comics so that they self-destruct after a pre-specified amount of time. Use the digital format to bring in new readers by creating comics geared to them that are digital-only, while letting them know that they can find similar paper comics at local comic book stores.

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