Digital Comics – Where Are We Headed?

21May10

Last Friday, I linked to Brian Hibbs’ Tilting at Windmills discussing digital comics and their effects on the market and where things might be headed.

If you haven’t read it already, I recommend that you do so.  Most of what I say will be an addendum to Brian’s comments, as he manages to express a lot of the opinions I already have regarding the situation.

One of the big hurdles that digital comics are going to have to clear is the issue of pricing.  Sorry to break the news to you, but there is no way that the comic companies are going to start publishing digital books the day of release of the physical version for a significantly cheaper price than the physical version.  Lots of people seem to have the idea that 99 cents a book is a lovely price to pay, basing this off of…well, nothing, really.  Possibly it is the basic idea that iTunes put in everyone’s heads that songs are 99 cents, so now we have the idea that a digital object of entertainment should be 99 cents.  The problem with this is that 99 cents makes sense for music.  Even before iTunes, a CD cost around, say, $13.  If a disc had 10-15 tracks on it, 99 cents per song was basically the same price.  Do the folks calling for 99 cent comics realize that if that pricing model was applied to music, that iTunes would be charging somewhere closer to 29 cents a song?  Does anyone out there think for a second that 29 cents was even remotely considered by the music industry as a possible price?  If you do, I’d be interested in knowing exactly what drugs you are on and where I can get some.

99 cents per comic the day of release would have catastrophic effects on the market for physical books.  I’m confident the people in charge of the comic publishers understand this fact.  Wizards of the Coast figured it out many years ago when they put together Magic: the Gathering Online.  For those who aren’t familiar, MTGO is a client that acts as a representation of playing Magic: the Gathering online.  You buy digital booster packs, collect digital cards, and a client allows you to play the game online with other players.  Wizards made the pricing exactly the same as buying the packs in physical form.  To buy a booster from your local store, the MSRP is $3.99.  On MTGO, the price is $3.99.  To price the online version cheaper than the physical game would have destroyed the physical game.  The people running these multi-billion dollar companies have a far better grasp of the market and our behavior as consumers than most of us could ever hope to have.  If Wizards could figure out that full retail was the only price that possible to charge on the digital object while still maintaining the physical game, my gut tells me the people running DC and Marvel have the same understanding.

So why the heck would anyone buy a digital comic on the day of release at the same price as the physical comic book on the day of release?  Accessibility.  One issue that keeps cropping up in the comic industry is people finding a venue in which to buy them in the first place.  A fair amount of the population isn’t even aware that comic book stores still exist!  In many locales, the nearest store is a 30 minute or more drive out of their way.  To be able to read the comics digitally the day of release would be well worth the full price for them, saving them a great deal of gas and time.  If you have a wonderful local comic store already taking care of you, yes, there is no desire to switch to digital at that price.  I’m pretty sure that is the way it needs to be in order for comics to survive.  You may want your comics cheaper but beware, you get what you pay for in your entertainment.

My biggest fear in regards to digital comics come from looking at what has happened to the market for manga.  Scanlations have had a huge impact on that market, crushing the sales of many manga properties and forcing the biggest property in manga, Naruto, to adjust its release schedule in an attempt to be more current.  There’s a large group of younger readers out there who appear to have little to no interest in maintaining a collection of physical objects beyond their phones, and also have no qualms about the copyright issues involved in piracy of the books they want to read.  As they grow up, will their attitudes in these regards change?  I tend to think not, but I also tend to think that this group is a relatively small amount of the overall population.

That last point is why I think the best approach is in continuing to work to make inroads to expand the audience reading comics at all levels.  While those of us who are fans and who are really into the art form are acutely aware of them on a day to day basis in our lives, the reality is that there’s a lot more people who don’t even know comic books still exist, much less how good many of them are in the modern era.  We will help ourselves by continuing to expose those people to the books they never knew they couldn’t live without every day.

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