The distribution system that provided us with books, magazines, newspapers and comics started falling apart some 60 years ago. The term “newsstand” is no more relevant today than the term “buggy whip,” newspapers are folding so fast it’s affecting fish sales, and magazines are mostly sold at the bookstore chains that are going out of business faster than a speeding bullet. So it’s no surprise that I think the tablet computer is the greatest thing to happen to the publishing industry since Guttenberg learned how to spell.
The problem with comic books is that, while they look better and read better on tablets, for the past 20 years or so we’ve repositioned comic books into collectibles, with a half-dozen collectible covers and multiple printings and all sorts of folderol. Do people buy comics for the stories any more?
Well, yes we do, but more and more in the form of trade paperbacks, omnibus editions, and electronic downloads. The average sale of a traditional 32-page pamphlet comic book, even those featuring most major characters, is embarrassing. Sales have been growing lately, but a publisher wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if he or she had to justify all that expense and lousy cash flow strictly by pamphlet sales.
History has shown us comic book readers like to keep their comics around. I don’t know why; the idea that you’ll want to refer to them in the future is enticing but impractical. Nonetheless, we usually keep our comics around for a while.
This is why I think last week the comic book medium quietly entered a critical new phase. ComiXology, the leading distributor of electronic comics, has entered into agreements to allow you do keep your downloads on your computers and sundry storage media. You will no longer be dependent upon access to decent Wi-Fi to get the comics you paid for, you will no longer live in fear that the electronic distribution service might go out of business and obliviate your collection.
In other words, you get to keep your comics. You pay for it, you keep it.
Initially, only a handful of publishers are allowing ComiXology to sell their comics DRM-free. That’s “digital rights management,” for those of you who are merely semi-nerds. The initial participating publishers are Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Zenoscope Entertainment, Thrillbent, Top Shelf and MonkeyBrain. These are not outfits that publish out of their garages.
All of these outfits already have dabbled in DRM-free distribution, but in their brief existence ComiXology has sold upwards of a quarter-billion digital comics. That’s one powerful distribution service. So big, in fact, that Amazon bought the company last April.
Will Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Archie and the rest join in? I’m dubious about Marvel and DC because their parent companies, Disney and Warner Bros (and maybe soon Rupert Murdoch) react to bootlegging the way slugs react to salt. They conflate electronic distribution with bootlegging. Of course, iTunes and the rest sell a hell of a lot of DRM-free stuff and it’s actually easier to bootleg it for free than it is to enter all that information. But people pay for millions of digital downloads every day. Why should comics be any different?
Of course, that tablet will change just like every other electronic toy. Smartphones are getting bigger, “laptop” computers are getting lighter and thinner, and it won’t be long before there’s another game-changer device that will be better and cooler. I’m thinking direct chip implants to the brain. So the question is, even if comics sales thrive on tablets and computers, will they adapt to whatever’s next?
I sure hope so.