Comic Con Explores the Digital Future of Comics

Were the people downloading comics loyal fans who had forsaken their local stores for the allure of cheaper titles and ease of access? Or were they new readers who would never have stepped into a comic book store, but decided to download something directly to their smartphone or tablet?

Industry insiders and comic book publishers hosted multiple panels at this year’s Comic Con to discuss the future of the medium and the way digital comics will affect how titles are sold, distributed, and created. While topics of this sort have been mainstays of major conventions in recent years, this year’s gathering was definitely typified by a strong sense of confidence and a cohesive vision for what is to come that has been noticeably lacking in prior discussions. While previous panels have often speculated over what the industry would look like in the upcoming decades, much of the enthusiasm these events attempted to engender was often diminished by lingering doubts that were only compounded by the wait-and-see answers that, while not satisfying, were to be expected when an industry is in flux.

Concerns over whether comic book readers would flock to iPads and forgo the direct market stores that have been the backbone of the industry for decades were definitely questions that many retailers – who already operate in a risky business environment – were unable to answer. How would this effect fans who preferred buying and collecting paper comics? Were publishers slowly abandoning paper and brick-and-mortar businesses in favor of cheaper and more streamlined means of digital distribution? What about readers who have been raised to believe that digital content should be free and who rather get pirated versions of their favorite titles from torrents then pay to download them from a publisher’s app? These concerns were only heightened when one looked to the publishing and music industries and saw how the digital revolution had sent traditionally entrenched market giants into turmoil.

While this anxiety will no doubt remain in many corners of the comic book world, this year there was a genuine sense that a functioning and holistic business model was finally emerging. While some of this newfound clarity came more from the unification of multiple disparate ideas that have been floating around the industry ever since the iPad and other tablets at last offered a functioning and convenient way of reading digital comic books, an important component of this new confidence came from answering the crucial question that has been central to all discussions on the subject: who are the readers?

This question has been the primary issue for those who have been speculating on how comics must adapt and change to new market realities. Were the people downloading comics from publisher apps and websites like comiXology loyal Wednesday fans who had forsaken their local stores for the allure of cheaper titles and ease of access? Or were they new readers who would never have stepped into a comic book store or wandered into the graphic novel and manga section of Barnes and Noble, but decided to download something directly to their smartphone or tablet? As noted by business writer Rob Salkowitz, who chaired the panel Are Digital Comics Expanding the Market? many wondered if digital content represented a zero sum scenario in which existing readers simply switched media, but no new fans were generated.

Fortunately for comic book retailers, it seems that digital means of distribution are bringing in new readers as opposed to siphoning away existing ones. According to the panel, which included the founders of comiXology – the largest digital comics platform – and the publishers of Dark Horse and IDW, there was growth in the sales of both digital content and direct market products. While digital content experienced a boom of approximately 450 percent according to the panel, paper comics and graphic novels also saw respectable bumps. While parallel sales increases do not necessarily address alternative causal factors, both publishers expressed confidence that the figures are definitely the result of new people discovering, or rediscovering, comic books.

The fact that IDW and Dark Horse both publish titles based on previously established characters and concepts, such as Transformers and Star Wars, illustrates how their digital marketing strategies might work and lend credence to their conclusions that they are attracting new readers. While both Star Wars and Transformers have massive consumer bases, not all of those fans read the comic books. As suggested during the panel, apps and download-only content can help channel potential readers who might otherwise have never known that there was an Aliens versus Predator comic book, or that G.I. Joe was an ongoing comic book series.

Finding and sustaining new readership is naturally an integral part of the industry’s developing business model. The phrase “opening lines of distribution” came up several times during another panel hosted by iVerse Media – another digital comics distribution platform – that featured several industry people and creators discussing new ways of attracting readers. iVerse, which hosts among other things a massive online catalogue of Archie Comics, has been working on providing libraries with access to digital comics that can be downloaded for free by members. According to the company’s website, “iVerse understands the need for libraries to have a dependable ebook and ecomics solution that does not have restrictive ebook lending policies.”

Additionally the panel, called New Frontiers in Digital Media, discussed the benefit of getting comics into more schools as well. By taking advantage of the growing ubiquity of comic book related media and the increasing degree of cultural acceptance, and by bringing digital comics into schools as well as libraries, the industry can create what one panel member called a “captive audience” who can discover a love of the medium that they might not have had before. These new readers will hopefully then cause a subsequent increase in demand for comics and their associated products.

Creators looking for new or more direct ways to reach consumers will benefit from the new strategy according to members of the panel. One participant, Mark Waid, who has long been an advocate of the potential for digital comics, discussed his new project, Thrillbent, a website where he and co-creator John Rogers are providing weekly installments of their comics to readers for free. The goal was to generate interest and excitement in their work and potentially provide a new marketing formula for creators to access readers. According to Waid, digital piracy is not only not a concern, but a boon to his product as it had to potential to drive new readers to his website.

Other creators discussed modifications of the model Waid and Rogers are currently exploring. Red Circle Comics, an imprint of Archie Comics, has created a subscription-based series, The New Crusaders, which will allow readers to pay 99 cents a week in order to access all of the series’ content and the new issues. Similar in concept to Neil Stephenson and Greg Bear’s online project, The Mongoliad, Red Circle is hoping to create a more direct revenue stream then Thrillbent and other free services, while still providing content at a low enough price to not dissuade people.

For new creators the panel also examined the growth and impact of crowd-source funding sites, like Kickstarter, which have allowed both established writers and artists and those trying to break into the industry to achieve both startup capital and potential fanbases for new projects. These sites have definitely eased the fears of commentators who believed that while established people, like Waid, will have no problem exploring new digital platforms and generating interest in their products, new creators would be unable to attract attention. The crowd-sourcing model represent a democratization in generating media that is already helping creators bypass traditional methods of getting published.

All of these innovations in distribution and marketing should also translate into increased sales for comic book stores. Even if a fan prefers to read their comics via a tablet or smartphone, an increase in readership will also likely mean an increase in sales of peripheral comic related products like toys, statues, and t-shirts. Furthermore, fans of Thrillbent or other digital comics, like Warren Ellis’ FreakAngels, might be drawn into comic book shops in order to seek out other works by these creators that are currently unavailable in a digital form. Other readers may prefer digital comics but will buy special edition hard covers or graphic novels of particularly enjoyable stories that they would want for their bookshelves.

In addition to these means of potentially driving customers in their local comic book stores, publishers and distributors are looking for more focused ways to nurture and support the direct market. Both comiXology and Diamond Comics are working on programs that will allow retailers to benefit from the sales of digital titles. ComiXology currently offers retailers the ability to sale comics directly from their websites, using the comiXology platform. Each retailer who signs up for the program, called the Digital Storefront, will receive a portion of every digital comic sold from their site. This will allow readers looking to download titles to still remain loyal to their local stores.

There are also programs, such as the Diamond Comics Initiative, which will allow consumers who purchase a print comic to download the digital version of that book for 99 cents more. According the Initiaive’s announcement , when a person buys a print comic and pays the additional fee they will be given a unique code that would give them access to the e-version, which can be downloaded on any device with the iVerse app.

Both programs, which began last year, constitute a model in which brick-and-mortar stores and their online counterparts can actually work together in order to drive readership in a mutually beneficial fashion, as opposed to battling for the same consumer base. While similar programs in the publishing world– such as the short-lived Google Books reseller program – have not necessarily saved book stores, this move represents a serious attempt by publishers and distributors to give direct market stores more ways to grow their businesses. While in ten years comic book stores may end of up going the way of your local record store, at the very least these marketing strategies will give them a fighting chance instead of hastening their demise as so many feared.

Naturally, nothing is ever certain in business and commerce, particularly at times market forces are realigning in the face of technological advances and changing demographics. Still, there is definitely a clarity of vision in the world of comics that will hopefully ease the fears of those who wondered what the future would bring and potentially provide a platform for those thinking of entering the industry. While panels and commentaries from previous comic book conventions have attempted to define how the industry will endure, this year there is definitely a sense that the balance between uncertainty and confidence has shifted. Industry insiders and creators can speak with more certainty now that key questions have been answered, and the business model identifying how digital comics will function from creation to marketing to distribution, and how this will affect retailers, is now being clearly articulated.

Naturally there will be lingering doubts, uncertainty, creative destruction, and the inherent risks associated with any commercial venture, but there is also a direction and a focus that has been desperately needed. With this important threshold passed, it's going to be exciting to see what next year’s Comic Con has to say about the future of the medium and the way that the digital content will continue to change and drive the direction the industry.

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