The Future of Comic Stores in the Digital Era

Photo: "The Comic Book Store" (partial) by
Cera Hensley /OfadJust another book in the wall: When the digital revolution finally comes round, will there be any stores left at all?

Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics and founder of Free Comic Book Day, shares his insights into comicbooks, new media and the prospect of a world without print.

The future of comicbooks, and comicbook stores, has been an issue of growing concern for fans, creators, and retailers, in this ever-increasingly digital world. With comics available electronically through through a growing list of mediums -- from computers, to cell phones, to PSPs -- it appears that the upheavals that are reshaping the face of publishing and the roll of book stores, are telegraphing issues that troubling insiders in the world of comicbooks. This issue has been compounded with the release of the Ipad which now offers several different applications to download comics from, and provides an aesthetic experience that some argue effectively replicates reading a traditional comicbook.

As the future of the industry looks to have significant changes looming on the horizon, the question that many are asking is what where does the comicbook store fit into this new digital reality? Some have argued that comic stores, like independent bookstores, will be unable to survive in the face of print’s decline; others have argued that there are opportunities to access new readers and that anything that brings more people into comicbooks, will inevitably bring more people into comicbook stores.

There are multitude of concerns surrounding this question and these were reflected at San Diego Con this year which included several panels on digital comics. The topics examined at the con ranged from analysis of the artistic freedom provided by new technology, the growing concern of digital piracy, and the various new platforms that are allowing comicbook creators and publishers to try to reach new audiences. One of these panels was hosted by retailer Joe Field, owner and operator of Flying Color’s Comics.

Field has been a respected of the comicbook community for years. He is known on a first name basis by both creators and publishes, and has always been known as a source of wisdom for ambitious entrepreneurs who are considering opening their own stores. Field, who is also the founder of Free Comic Book Day, is one of those recurring figures in the industry who stand at the nexus point between the fans, the creators, and the publishes. I e-mailed Mr. Field to discuss his thoughts on the future of the comic store in the face of what some have called, “The Digital Age of Comics.”

The joy of comics is sometimes the joy of cataloging

In your perspective, what are the drawbacks and benefits of digital comics on the medium and the industry? Are you worried about digital comics? Do you think they are the future of the medium or just an expansion of it?

There was a time when I was "on the ledge" about digital comics. My fear was that publishers would drop everything in the rush to move to digital and that would leave me as a print comics retailer out in the cold. I feared that my career as a retailer had a hard and fast end-date in sight. That was very much a knee-jerk reaction to hearing some of the things the creative community said at the announcement of digital comics, especially when the iPad was introduced.

Having talked with many professionals over the last several months, though, having heard some of the stats on just how few digital comics are actually being sold, my perspective has evolved. Digital comics may turn out to be a great sampling mechanism for feeding readers into the print medium and into my store (and other comics specialty outlets, as well). No one knows how long it will take for digital comics to mature as a business, but it does look like it'll be a few years, at least.

That said, there is still a huge difference between printed comics and digital comics. In fact, I'd argue they are different media. It's just that currently digital comics tend to be print comics adapted to the digital format.

I believe the digital market should be and will be an additive market rather than something that replaces print comics. The reason is at this point, there is no financial sense to divert attention away from the sales of print comics, since the comics specialty market is a profitable one for many publishers and retailers. In one sense, dollars made by publishers in the comics specialty market are helping to amortize the costs of those publishers getting into digital comics. It is in no one's interests to merely move dollars from print comics to digital comics, especially on the publishing side.

Mike Eriksson outside Flying Colors

Have you adapted your business model in any way as a result of recent changes in the market? Do you think that brick and mortar stores will exists in their present status, or at all, in 10 to 15 years? If they are around, what do you envision they will be like?

Good retailers adapt and change every day to address the needs and wants of our customers. My business looks very differently than it did 10-15 years ago, so I suspect it will look different again in the coming years. Other than moving toward the implementation of POS (point-of-sale) technology here to give us better and more reliable sales and trend information, I haven't reacted to the news of digital comics in any remarkable ways... other than to try keeping our standard of customer service as high as it can be.

I do think there will be pressure on most comicbook specialty retailers to do everything they can to make their stores hubs of activities that serve our communities in ways that the digital experience can't. For some retailers, that may mean more store signings and other events -- and I seriously doubt any artists will be asked to sign digital copies of their work!

I am betting every day with my time and money that Flying Colors will be here for at least another 10 years.

Have you experienced a decline or increase in business as a result of digital comics or the pirating of comics on online torrents?

We've experienced some changes in sales due to a weak economy over the last couple of years. Unemployment in my county is still over 11% and that's just not good for business. I have heard from some who are getting their comics via free torrents online -- meaning that they are stealing from the very creators they are reading in their pirated digital comics. Yes, I said "stealing."

Ceiling Fan: Flying Colors, like all comicbook stores, has always been a kind of 'third place'

In your experience as a retailer, do you think fans will be loyal to paper, or are they willing to go digital if they were offered a viable platform? Are the demographics similar or are the people reading digital comics the type who would never go into the comic store and buy the actual book?

My prognostication is that digital comics will evolve into a more separate medium, something between printed comics and animation. I do believe younger readers who are growing up in much more digital world will likely gravitate to digital comics. Having said that, there is nothing quite like the experience of reading a comicbook -- and that is an experience that cannot be duplicated in a digital setting.

As for demographics, there is a curiosity among comic readers to see what all is out there. I know on my iPhone, I've downloaded several digital comic apps. I also know, based on anecdotes from customers who were involved, that a Big Company that recently did a very involved consumer research project found that comic fans love the in-store experience and socializing they get whenever they visit their favorite shop. These consumers were told of special deals and incentives they could get for being in a big club of digital comic fans -- and they still didn't want to give up their local shop experience. Can I tell you right now -- I LOVE these people?

For your regular customers, would you classify them more as collectors or readers? Do you think the collecting and speculation side of comics will prevent a complete digital takeover or are people no longer looking at comics as investments?

A decent percentage of the "collecting" part of our business went away with the maturity of eBay. Sure, many of us still hold on to what we buy, but I'm pretty sure that most of us do it because we love what we buy, rather than hope those comics will turn into money at some future date. I don't see much in the way of speculation anymore. Flying Colors has always been first in line to tell our shoppers to buy what they like -- and we never give "investment" advice -- other than to say comics are a great investment of time for the entertainment received!

Joe and daughter Jenny Field, and FCBD cake

One of the items discussed at a panel at comic con, was that the industry needs to break away from its traditional format of single issues released once a month. Do you agree with that? How important are single issues to your business or are readers shifting to trades?

Let's look at this another way: Digital comics are sold as single issues. Anywhere from 99 cents to $2.99 per issue (along with the occasional freebie). It's highly ironic that in the rush to have comic shops become another kind of alternative bookstore market -- where everything we sell is bound and has a definable spine -- that it's really the periodical comics that remain our best shot at long-term viability and profitability. While Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart (ugh!) try to sell great quantities of graphic novels, comics specialty retailers really have one category that is exclusive to us -- that only we know how to sell and stock -- and that is the periodical. Digital single issues make for great sampling, too -- hopefully to lead the reader to a comic specialty store for the rest of the story, whether in periodical issues or collected trade paperbacks.

Single issue are VERY important to the long-term health of the specialty market. And just as important, publishers need to make sure they are creating periodicals that have their own solid value, separate from the trade paperbacks and digital comics. There may be a different answer to that value from each publisher, but no one in this business can afford to make fragments of a story available at $4 per printed copy and leave it at that, hoping that it'll all be made up for on the back end in the collected editions. Everyone working in comics needs to wake up to the fact that we need to build value in periodical comics for our regular comicbook buyers. That is the key to a long-term bright future for everyone in the marketing chain of print comics.

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