David Precht / Posted 11.29.2011
Digital downloads and the future of the comic book industry
Downloading began as a way for "the kids" to "pirate" mp3s. Primarily poor students, these downloaders branched out, incorporating movies, books, magazines, and even comic books to their "piracy." Their piracy gradually became more sophisticated, evolving from the twee Napster to hacker-esque BitTorrents. But this "piracy" wasn't ever really about people stealing things; it was about a new generation, getting around the confines that were placed around media.
Downloaders are able to spread new music, movies, and comic books faster than the industries themselves ever could. They download and ingest and spread the word when something is good. Why? Because, well, not everything is accessible everywhere in the world. Because that Japanese zombie movie that was said to be "bloodier and more awesome than all other zombie movies combined" could be viewed by a horror fan in Brazil and then shared with a good friend in Italy. Because you can’t buy that new Ultimate Spiderman when you’re living in Seoul.
With no other options for foreign consumers, prices that continue to rise, and, (for many) the desire to NOT have to keep box after box full of old issues - downloading numbers will continue to rise.
It doesn’t make it okay to steal – because a lot of downloading is stealing. But the fact of the matter is, since Napster’s inception, free downloads are now the status quo. And there’s no going back.
Had the entertainment industry embraced downloading right away, nipped it in the bud so to speak, consumers would have been more willing to pay a little bit for downloading the media of their choice. Pirating is rampant because a.) the media is not available online or b.) if it s online its price is not low enough to make it worthwhile. iTunes has made massive strides in making music downloads more affordable and convenient. Now it’s time for other industry leaders to follow suit. Namely, comic books.
Kids these days want everything digital
A lot of comic readers download.
Demonoid.me, a popular torrent site, shows that the brand new issue of Marvel's Ultimates #3 has been downloaded 2,655 times in 3 days, and a torrent collecting DC Comics' "New 52" Books (the publisher recently rebooted their whole line, beginning with 52 core books, all starting with issue #1) for month 3 has seen 1,059 downloads. That’s a lot of pirating, right?
Well, sure. With no other options for foreign consumers, prices that continue to rise, and, (for many) the desire to NOT have to keep box after box full of old issues - downloading numbers will continue to rise.
So, how should publishers deal with this? Embrace it.
The pros of pirating
Webcomic and fledgling creators have realized that the best way to deal with the "piracy problem" is to accept it. Jim Zubkavich not only accepted it, he ran with it. In a CBR article, Robot 6 broke the news that Zubkavich posted his webcomic Makeshift Miracle on torrent sites, asking people to download, share, and seed it as much as possible. The purpose? "Once they've read chapter 1, they can come back here to continue the story with chapter 2."
BoingBoing recently ran an article about Kyle Baker and Liz Glass's story, Letitia Lerner, Superman's Babysitter that didn't see the light of day in the US after being "spiked by DC Comics publisher and president Paul Levitz". Fortunately, the book was released in Europe, scanned, put on torrent sites, and shared like crazy. And because of those torrenters, Baker won two Eisner Awards for the work without them ever being published legally in the US.
Digital downloads and the comic industry
Over the last year, the big two (Marvel and DC) have announced new digital downloads of their books. First starting with their catalogue, and now pushing toward a "day-and-date" release where books will be available to download online at the same time as they are in stores.
The problem? A ten year old issue of Ultimate Spider-Man #1 is available on Marvel's Android comic app for $0.99 but a brand new issue of Wolverine and the X-Men #2 is $3.99 on the same app. DC Comics has its digital archive available for free on their Android app and brand new copies of Aquaman #3 for $2.99 as well. $3.99 is as expensive as owning a physical copy of the book.
A digital sale is better than no sale; "pirates" are going to torrent files, that can't be prevented, but any sale is a better than nothing.
It doesn't feel as though the comics industry has fully embraced the possibility of selling the book digitally. It feels like they're dissuading, discouraging people, hoping their price points will work to maintain their relationship with small comic book shops instead of serving their readership. A sort of "digital's just a fad," support-your-comic-shop mentality that doesn't make any sense in the current market. DC has also started to offer digital copies of their books for download when you purchase a physical copy, which is…well, stupid.
Currently, a lot of publishers (DC and Marvel included) have begun to set up agreements with comiXology, which allows publishers to sell their books optimized for devices like tablets and smartphones. With a broader partnership with say, iTunes, or an expansion of comiXology, and a more direct line of sales, numbers will increase. Increase, that is, if they can find a price point that makes sense.
A super solution
A digital sale is better than no sale; "pirates" are going to torrent files, that can't be prevented, but any sale is a better than nothing. At comic conventions over the last three years, the consensus is that digital comics should be $0.99 per download with a possible "subscription discount" for those interested in keeping with a book for the long term. That's it.
No longer should publishers focus on the unilateral sales figures coming from comic shops and complain about their falling sales figures. The comic book industry (as well as other media) allow millions of dollars to slip through their fingers when they insist on selling their wares through traditional means and at traditional prices. Sell it online and sell it cheap – 40,000 downloads at $.99 a pop is a lot more profit than 40,000 free downloads.
Embrace the future. Embrace the digital age like the music industry did with iTunes before it’s too late. Make the media accessible, embrace BitTorrenting and other new methods of download and delivery, create a realistic price point, and hitch it to a reliable delivery system. It's all part of being part of a digital world.