by Wayne Markley
While no one can tell the future, and I am probably worse than most when it comes to seeing what is coming down the road, I wanted to take some time this column and look at some possible directions in the future of comics. Of course, all of these are just my thoughts and I have very little in terms of facts to back up my predictions, but that has never stopped me from babbling on before and it will not this time. My main focus is going to be on digital comics and the effect of downloading (digital downloads of comics, not the pirating of comics). I am interested in this because over the last few years book and magazine publishing has shifted from the traditional paper format to eBooks and has dramatically shifted the way books are sold.
The first thing I want to discuss is pricing of comics. I have mentioned this many times in the past. I think publishers are pricing themselves out of the market. Recently, Marvel has started offering digital version of their book along with the hard copy of your favorite book. I applaud this idea of a digital copy even though I think it has hazards (see below). But in doing so, Marvel has raised the prices of all the books with the digital download a dollar making your basic Marvel superhero book $3.99. I see this as a sly way of raising their price with a perceived added value (the digital copy), but I have a hard time seeing why you would want the digital copy if you already bought the hard copy. I know a number of people who do download the digital version as well as read the hard copy. (If you remove the sticker in the back of the book, is it no longer mint since the sticker has been removed and thus of lesser value?) I would like to praise Bongo Comics who, in the newest issue of Simpsons Comics (#192), offer the reader a free digital download of Simpsons #100. This is a great way to offer the reader added value as they get a different issue than the one they bought and they get to sample what the Simpsons comics are all about. Plus, and this is most important, they did not raise the price.
Speaking of digital comics, I find this to be a very perplexing issue. The numbers are varied out there, but based on sales figures from Comixology (according to Digital Spy), they are doing very well. They reportedly made 19 million dollars in 2011 (out of 25 million in total digital sales) and they claim they are on pace to do 70 million in 2012. These are very healthy numbers but there is no breakdown as to how much is from which publisher, how many come from digital codes from hard copies of the comics, and how many are stand-alone downloads. If these are downloads from already purchased hard copies (which, since the digital download is built into the price of the hard copy, it should not impact this total.), then it has little effect on the current status of the market. But according to Comixology, of the 19 million dollars they made in 2011, 5 million dollars of those sales came in the month of December alone. If this does not include downloads from hard copies of the comics, then there is a large audience for this form of comic books. It is true that digital comics can, and do, look great. There are some negatives in terms of sizing and fitting certain panels on your reading device, such as splash pages. But these sales do not help your local comic store which, at this point, is still the backbone of the comic industry. If these are unique buyers buying their comics only digitally and are never going to go to a brick and mortar store, then this is a frightening trend as it is in no way helping expand the direct comic market. If these buyers are downloading a title or two and then going to the local store to buy more, or the earlier material collected in a graphic novel, then this is a good thing. I cannot find any statistics showing how many people buy their comics only as downloads and how many buy from an online retailer and in their local store.
ICV2 did point out a few interesting things about Comixology that I think should be noted. Comixology was founded in 2009 and by 2011, they had over 50 million comics downloaded from their site. But of that 50 million downloads, 10% (5 million) were from December of 2011 alone. Comixology frequently has 99 cent special downloads and free downloads in an attempt to get people to try new titles or older titles that are not moving. But this greatly skews the numbers since these free downloads count in the total downloads (50 million) but not in the dollars. Also, Marvel uses Comixology as their exclusive download distributor, and if you are downloading your comics from the “free” digital download in the monthly comics, it would drive up the number of downloads but again do nothing in terms of the actually money that is being made from downloads. In comparison, in 2009 the estimated comic book sales for the year were a little over 1.1 billion dollars. This is according to ICV2 (I suspect the numbers for 2010 and 2011 were lower). So I think it is save to guess that digital downloads make up at least 10% of comics being read at this point, and I suspect it is much higher. In fact, Ted Adams, the president of IDW, said in an interview with ICV2 that about 20% of their sales were from digital downloads. Viz has said similar things about their manga sales, but Viz also says the sales of the print copies are also up which they attribute to digital downloads (with digital copies they are more current with the Japanese releases which cuts into pirating). I have been told, but I have not seen this in print, that at TwoMorrows (Back Issue, Alter Ego, etc.), the percentage of downloads is even higher than 20%, but they are more aggressive about pushing downloaded versions of their magazines.
An argument I often hear from people is that digital comics bring new people to the world of comic books that have never read them in the past, and this may be true. But I see more people coming into our retail store and saying that they are going to get the download and to stop pulling the hard copy for them. Often they point out that if they wait long enough, they can get the books on sale for 99 cents (Once again pointing to my argument that the prices are too high). We do have one customer who has started buying more titles with the free digital downloads as he feels that the digital download is enough of an added value that it is worth while to spend the extra dollar. While in the book market, eBooks have quickly become the dominant selling format, outselling similar hardcovers and paperbacks rapidly approaching the same tipping point. Comics have a way to go for that to happen. When the day does come when downloads out sell hard copies, I think the industry is in for a major jolt like when it had to adjust to readers waiting and buying the collections vs. the single comics. If comics make the shift to digital as books and magazines have done, will comic book stores go the way of Borders?
I do not think so, but I do think comic stores have to become far more lean and aggressive about getting new customers in and competing with this new competition. I also think the publishers have a built in reason to push the digital versions as they are cheaper to make. If at some point they all go digital, then you cut out a large part of the cost of a comic, the paper and printing. I do think there is a group of old fuddies like me who like the paper in their hands and looking at the images from left to right, or right to left depending on the comic. I would not be totally surprised to someday see comics become like vinyl records, where there is a small, but loyal group that still buys them and trades and collects comics, but they are a very, very, small niche of a much bigger market. I hope I do not live to see that day.
As with all of my columns, these are my thought and do not reflect the opinions of attitudes of Westfield Comics or their employees (In fact, I know from numerous discussions with many of my co-workers that they disagree with me). I welcome feedback at MFBWAY@AOL.COM.