Saturday, December 29, 2007

Will the Internet Change the World...

The other day comic book retailers like myself were sent an email from a member of Marvel's executive staff. It was a survey containing a handful of questions regarding Marvel's new on-line comics initiative. I know I've posted once before about retailer opinions on this, but some interesting things came up after this new survey went around, and I thought they were worth discussing.

One question in particular spawned some interesting discussions. It asked how the retailer felt about having Marvel's new comics available via their on-line service the same day the comics hit comic book shelves in retail stores. When Marvel's on-line service was announced they said that there would be a minimum of a 6-month gap between when a comic was sold in stores and when it would go live on their internet service. There would be a few exceptions, they'd said, where they would post an issue earlier to help create interest in the series and drive people to comic book stores. But most would be 6+ months between. When it came time for people to spend the money and join up, I don't think Marvel had nearly the interest they'd expected, and some of their internet people were getting the feeling that if they also offered brand new comics on the service, they'd have more people pay the fee and join.

But WOULD they?

I believe that Marvel put their comics on the internet for a couple of reasons. 1. because internet is "the way of the future" and jumping on now makes them "cutting edge." 2. because they think they'll get more comic book readers, and 3. because they know that people are illegally downloading their comics for free and they hope to get those people to move over to their legal service.

As for #1 - maybe it makes them seem more ahead of the game to some people, but I don't think it's essential. In addition, comic book stores foster a comic book fan community. We talk with shoppers about what they are loving and hating. We recommend things that are really good. We let shoppers know when their favorite artist or writer start a new series. Within the walls of comic book stores reside fans of Marvel's products, and that fandom is embraced and nurtured there. The internet community, on the other hand, is full of winers, nay-sayers, skeptics, spoilers, and a variety of other "haters." That's not a positive and fostering community! I know people who have virtually stopped reading blogs and other comic book forum sites because they love comics and don't want to be brought down by all of the negativity on the internet. What happens to comic book fandom when it looses it's positive communities and they are replaced with these negative ones? And would a potential comic book fan read internet comic book sites and want to read comics, or would they decide that maybe those people are too negative and they don't want to become like that so they avoid comics and comic fandom? Is it "cutting edge" to foster individualism and negativity over community and fun?

#2's problem is that I doubt there are many people who avoid reading paper comics but would go out of their way to pay a monthly (or annual, depending on what they sign up for) fees to read comics that they didn't have any interest in before. Today comic book stores are the #1 marketer of comic books. We retailers are the ones that buy ads and hand out free comics and show people who have never been held a comic book before what's what. Comic book stores need customers to buy the paper product Marvel makes, and Marvel needs comic book stores to buy and then sell those products. Otherwise I doubt that most people who do not already have an interest in comics will suddenly see the light.

The flaw in #3 is obvious. I'll use the phrase more commonly used when people are getting "the speech" about living together versus getting married: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? The people who are already downloading Marvel comics for free are very, very unlikely to suddenly decide to pay a monthly or annual fee to read the comics (they can't even be downloaded via Marvel's site). It doesn't matter how new or old the comic books are that Marvel makes available - they won't see droves of people switch from free downloads to their service. Look at cable TV - how many people that get it for free suddenly decide to start paying for it? (without the "interference" of the cable company, that is) Making new comics available on-line will poach customers from stores, not from free download services.

I do still believe that making comic books available on-line doesn't spell the end of comic book stores - not in the near future anyway. It might steer the "waiting for trade" people away from paper, but I think that most of the people who are regular, weekly buyers of paper comics, have an attachment to the paper, and will continue to be faithful. For many of us, reading paper comics today reminds us of simpler times. Times when mom would let us pick some out of the rack at the convenience store or when we'd take a pocket full of change and ride our bikes to the store and pick out one or two on our own. It's a piece of our childhood that has matured with us, and still gives us a feeling of comfort and fun, even if it's just subconscious. There are also still collectors - and they collect those paper issues. And, comic book readers are often loyal to the point of illogic. Store loyalty, brand loyalty, character loyalty, creator loyalty - I've experienced people with each of them. If a reader has stayed loyal to paper in spite of increasing prices and free downloads, I don't think Marvel's service will keep them out of brick and mortar stores. The problem instead comes in the future, when a new generation raised on monitors grows up and has to decide where to spend it's money.

I know that many book stores were fearful when books first started to become available for purchase on-line. But so far they don't seem to have been hurt because there are enough of us raised on paper that still prefer holding a book to staring at a screen. I don't see why comics would be different.

But, what if it is? Let's just, for a second, say that Marvel does make new comics available on-line at the same time they can be purchased in stores, and something similar to what's happened with music happens with comics. Suddenly people no longer want to buy the "hard" product and instead switch to the digital version. Marvel is charging around $60 per year for the ability to read the comic books. UNLIMITED ability to read any and all of them for a year. That dollar amount does not go up if a person reads 20 issues versus 5 issues. But, with the paper product, they get paid based on issues sold. If 20 comics are purchased they benefit more than if 5 are purchased. It doesn't matter who is buying them - the retail store owners or people who subscribe to paper issues directly via Marvel. The more individual issues they sell the more money they make. With the online service it doesn't matter if all the comics are award winners or total crap - the person pays the same flat fee either way. Now Marvel doesn't have any incentive to make good comics! And, it would seem that Marvel would make less money from digital comic books than they did when they were selling paper versions, so they might even consider ending that venture and just focus on making movies and then licensing movie products. Sure, this is a worst-case scenario, but not entirely impossible.

Will the Internet Change the World?
Will it change the comic book industry?
And if so, will it be for the better?

1 comment:

ManoDogs said...

Great post, Lisa! I agree with most of your observations, but when I started to post a comment, it was so long that I just made it into a post on my blog.

I really like hearing about the industry from a shopowner's perspective. I worked in comics shops for years, but that was back in the early-mid 1990s and everything has changed so much since then (and all those cats are out of business now) that it's really not the same.