Sunday, July 03, 2011

Why Comics Are Not Dominating Tablets

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of two things: comic books and the transition from dead tree publishing to digital. Even in my post on why I was not a big fan of the iPad, I mentioned that one area it could potentially dominate is the digital transition of comics, something that Kindles and iPhones simply cannot really capture. In the months since, ComiXology has released several versions of their digital comics app, including the "Big Two" of DC and Marvel. I have happily purchased many a comic since this way, and read them on my iPhone (and yes, it does make me yearn for the tablet size). But yet, maddeningly, the offerings consisted of a microscopic sampling of the titles published by both. Why?

This month's Wired magazine answers it very well. In essence, comic book publishing is a razor-thin symbiotic affair, with the slightest threat to the retail stores having a disastrous effect that becomes a maelstrom that pulls down the whole industry that no superheroic efforts could pull back. An even slight dip in revenues for stores from digital sales would cause a rash of closings: those stores' guaranteed wholesale buys are what the comics business relies on, not the occasional in-app purchase of readers like me.  I grew up in comic book stores, though I have not set foot in one in years, and I knew how tough their business was, so this is not that long of shot to me. But, as the article points out, "The February issue of Green Lantern sold a mere 70,000 or so copies—but the franchise has also spawned a $150 million movie." So the industry has a very vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But how to evolve?

Here's my idea. Both Marvel and DC are owned by supercompanies (Warner Brothers and Disney, respectively). Both have the economic clout to get a tablet made for substantially less; in the case of Disney, one of their largest stockholders happens to be the CEO of Apple. According to estimates, the cost to make the iPad is actually $260 for a device that sells for $500. Ok, let's say with a bulk commitment, DC and Marvel can get that cost to about $225. They supply them to the comic book stores to sell, on spec, with exclusive apps to get access to the full catalog, to the consumer, for $350. For each purchase made by a customer who buys from the app, the comic store is paid a commission, equivalent to their normal profit between their physical wholesale and cover price, for at least 5 years. Now, the comic store owner gets a $125 bump for each tablet they sell, and they maintain their revenue stream from the consumer, even if that consumer buys digitally.

Special editions, graphic novels, limited runs, and even selected hot titles will all be issued with a windowing system, much like the movie business does with Netflix now (though clearly not the 28 days they impose there); this encourages dedicated collectors to come in to the store and buy the actual thing, while letting more casual subscribers (like me) pay the price of our laziness. Local artists can be geotargeted to the tablet purchasers. Hell, let the wireless carriers further subsidize the tablet with wireless connectivity, if you want, putting even more money in the pockets of the store owners. And don't just think iPads: while Apple dominates this market now, there are lots of manufacturers aching to take a bite out of Cupertino (hello, HP TouchPad?), and Amazon and Barnes & Noble have already proven that there is definitely a market for a content-driven tablet, regardless of who manufactures it.

The list goes on...the point is, there are solutions, if the industry is willing to make bold moves. As Wired points out, "But the $4 stapled pamphlet? Sooner or later it’s doomed, a vestigial holdover from the days when comic books were sold on spinning metal racks to kids. There’s not much it can do that a digital equivalent can’t do better." It's going to happen. It's just a question if the industry wants to pilot a solution, instead of bemoaning the problem.

One ironic twist to this: I absolutely marvel that Wired continues to put out such a quality product. Every month, there is at least one article that makes me stop and think. But how do I, the paper-hating, papyrus-burning bastard consume these great articles? Yep, in the thick, glossy paper form. Now, if only Conde Nast would also get a clue on subsidizing a tablet...

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