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The Southgate, Michigan News-Herald has a story about a local comic book shop owner, Dennis Barger, who has formed a nationwide “Comic Book Retailers Alliance” to advocate for print comic book shops. His rhetoric should sound familiar to anyone who’s watched e-books “kill” print bookstores.

Barger said, despite what some people in the industry think, social media and other marketing isn’t what sells books for the most part.

“The employees at local comic shops pushing these books is the difference in being in the top 200 and the bottom 300 in sales for those books,” he said.

“If you cut out the local shops, Marvel, DC and Image to some extent, (they still) are going to be able to market their books; and Dark Horse, IDW and Boom!, they’re not going to be able to get across the wheel to the other side.”

Barger complains that ComicsPro, another comic book shop advocacy group, is going the wrong direction in trying to adapt to digital comic sales.

What retailers want addressed, Barger said, is the issue of print and digital versions being released on the same day. The preference would be to bolster sales by releasing the print comic book version first, he said.

Right. Because windowing sure worked for print publishers and bookstores.

Let’s get just a little bit real here. People who want digital comics want digital comics. You can’t read a print comic on your smartphone or tablet, or download it wherever you are. They’re not going to stop wanting digital comics if you make digital comics harder for them to get. But they’re still going to want to read that comic just as soon as it comes out.

Print comics are ridiculously easy to scan into digital form. You don’t even need to OCR them and worry about typos as with prose books. You just scan them into JPEGs, zip or rar them up, and you’re done: you have a cbz or cbr file that can be read by about a zillion standardized comic book reader apps.

How long is it going to take a “windowed” comic to show up on the Pirate Bay or whatever else the cool kids are using now? A lot of the people who really want that digital comic immediately will happily read it for free if they can’t buy it. And while some of them will virtuously pay for it later when they can, many won’t care to or will just forget about it. So windowing digital comics won’t sell appreciably more print comics…but it will sell fewer comics overall.

If comic book shops are going to survive, they’re going to need to figure out how to give customers what they want. Seems to me that Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson had the right idea when he spoke to ComicsPRO in February about the importance of growing the market and reaching out to new readers, showing them that comics are more than just DC and Marvel:

If we want to reach out to new readers, to different readers, we need to look at what we’re pitching them.

More than that, we need to look at who our customer base is – not just who is coming into the stores, but who ISN’T – and ask what we can do to make our marketplace more appealing to them.

ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience.

THAT is who we want coming into comic book stores, and it is new creativity that is going to pave their way to your door.

Personally, I haven’t bought many comic books, print or digital, because they just cost too much. Three or four bucks, several times a week, for a couple of dozen pages that don’t tell any more story than I’d find in one chapter of a novel? When I could spend six to eight bucks for an entire paperback book/backlist e-book instead? A comic book habit could be almost as costly as a cigarette habit (though, to be fair, at least comic books wouldn’t give me lung cancer).

And digital comics still sell for at least the exact same price as their paper equivalents, and sometimes more. PC Magazine quotes Rom Richards, director of business development at Image, to explain why:

"One of the big myths about digital comics is that there are no production costs," said Richards. "When a book is finished, we then have to take the printer version of the comic, and re-output per the digital format specs. As you know, print requires very high resolution printing, and while the iPad Retina display calls for high resolution, it’s not print quality, so we need to re-output it."

Sounds an awful lot like the whole, “Printing and shipping costs are a very tiny part of the overall price; we’re mostly paying for royalties and editing” argument you’d get from print book publishers about why e-books should cost more, doesn’t it? Then the following paragraph gets at what might just be the real reason:

Image Comics, like Marvel and DC, has a dedicated staff that converts comics from print to digital. In the case of Image Comics specifically, the books need to support various formats including PDF, ePub, CBR/CBZ, and Comixology’s format, which requires file maintenance, tracking, and uploading to various digital comics marketplaces. And there’s another reason why digital comics cost the same as print comics: publishers don’t want to undercut themselves, and the store keepers on whom they rely for their real-world distribution.

And why would they cost more? I gather that for print comics that cost $3.50 in paper, Apple refused to okay a price that didn’t end in .99, and Diamond, the distributor, refused to allow digital comics to be sold more cheaply than the print edition. So a $3.50 comic ended up costing $3.99 in the digital store.

Digital comics, it seems, are at the place right now where e-books were before Amazon came along. The publishers are insisting on holding the line at price parity. (On new titles, anyway; ComiXology regularly runs sales on collections of backlist comics.)

Of course, they’re selling better now than e-books were at that point, just because the e-book and smartphone revolution led to the wide proliferation of color devices capable of doing more justice to comic books. People are more likely to buy digital comics since they already have devices that can read them, bypassing the chicken-or-the-egg issue that kept both e-readers and e-books from selling well before Amazon came out with its Kindle and aggressive price discounts. But that’s not to say they couldn’t do better.

Now that Amazon has ComiXology, might it start some more aggressive issue-by-issue discounting? Shave a buck or so off the price while still paying publishers the wholesale rate? Given that ComiXology uses the same 50-50 revenue split with the comic creators as Amazon did with the publishers when it implemented its $9.99 e-books, that might not be so far-fetched. In eliminating Apple’s in-app purchases and Google’s payment processing, Amazon cut out a 30% vig from both sides of the equation, leaving it with more room to drop prices while still paying the publishers the same amount.

Assuming its contracts with the comic book distributors allow it to do so, anyway. No one who publishes print and digital content simultaneously can have failed to take some important lessons from the whole “Battle of $9.99” debacle. Maybe comic book publishers already have price control written into those contracts? I suppose we’ll just have to see.

And that brings us back to the whole windowing issue. Barger might want publishers to hold back digital comics for a while, but I find it hard to believe that could ever happen. One of those important lessons comic book publishers would have taken from the agency pricing affair is that windowing books just doesn’t work, or else the big six print publishers would have kept doing it instead of fomenting an illegal conspiracy to force higher prices on Amazon. Academic studies and even those publishers acknowledged that windowing would only lead to boosting piracy.

It might be better for Barger if he turned his attention toward getting more customers into the store rather than chasing after the ones he’s already lost to digital. That being said, it may be a losing battle. We don’t have too many music stores around anymore, after all.

 
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