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The Digital Marketplace

Tuesday 8th May 2007 by scherem

It seems that the idea of abandoning the traditional format of comics has been an issue on many people\\\’s minds as of late. Why I\\\’\\\’m not to sure. Maybe is was Dan Slott\\\’s comment about comic piracy, or maybe its the changing face of technology with cheaper laptops and monitors leading to the idea that we can read them anywhere we want, not just on the crapper or in our beds. Brian Bendis, the (debatable) mastermind behind the Marvel universe has claimed that the floppy comic will be on the path to extinction in 10 year, replaced with digital copies and/or original graphic novels. Marvel has toyed with the idea of digital comics, be it through their DVD collections, flash animations or the dot comic project. The debate of publishers shifting from print to pure digital has been manly left to the realm of looking towards the future. That was until recently, when Dan Vado, publisher of Slave Labor Graphics/Amaze Ink made a major announcement at Wondercon 2007 that, with the exception of a few proven sellers and license issue, SLG would be selling only trade and digital comics.

“If you’ve ever looked at any of the torrent sites, or anything like that, you can go on on a daily basis and it’s like, ‘Oh look, there’s 12 people who are downloading Milk & Cheese #1 right now,’ and what am I getting for that? Nothing, … So if we can figure out a way to monetize that, even at a low level, making 25 cents or 30 cents, those are people who aren’t going to buy the comic anyways. … [I Want to] get in front of that trend before the trend got in front of us.”
quoted from newsarama article

Vado has essentially stated that, things have to change if the small guy is to stay alive. Marvel, DC and Dark Horse(I\\\’m leaving Image off this, as they are a totally different beast) aren\\\’t feeling this pressure yet, as they have about 89% of the market share, while Slave Labour Graphics has about .16% . With such a small percentage, its clear that SLG and other publishers of their size are being supported by only a Galactus sized handful of direct market stores. Breaking into the stores that don\\\’t already carry SLG is a near impossible task, as there is no strong demand for the independent single issue, and those costumers who don\\\’t want a mainstream book often face an uphill battle of even getting their orders filled or listened too by their retailer. And then there are the costumers that walk in the store and see only spandex heroes. and don\\\’t realize there is more out there. Vado breaks the economics of the situation down further:

“One of the reasons why they’re making this move is to cut down the costs associated with distribution. He said when they sell through their distributors, they only get $1.10 back from a book that sells for $2.95 — the rest goes to retailers and the distributors. From that $1.10, they have to pay the printer, for storage and for other costs. If a book sells less than 3,000 copies, it doesn’t make any money, and they barely recover the costs of printing.”
quoted from newsarama article

3,000 copies to break even with the old model. To put that in perspective, Marvel\\\’s lowest selling book in March was Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four (4,600 copies, ranked 216) and the highest non-liscenced independent selling book was Aspen Entertainment Fathom (13,800 rank 130) and that was mainly based on the fact it had Michael Turner\\\’s art. The highest selling SLG book,was Wonderland #3 selling 3,600 copies ranked 232 and retailing at the high price of 3.50, likely due to the fact that the book is a lisenced property. Many of the indepdent publishers sales are less then the reorder on the mainstream books (Brave and the Bold #1 reorder for March was 4,400).

SLG is not alone in feeling this pinch. It is a well published fact that, the only reason Fantagraphics is still in business right now is due to their reprinting the complete Peanuts. The critcially acclaimed Top Shelf Comix\\\’s has had at least two emergency sales to keep them afloat. Currently they are still in business because of the Alan Moore books they have the rights too (From Hell and Lost Girls).

In order to sell their digital books, SLG has created an online market place, eyemelt.com . Eyemelt is open to anyone who wishes to sell their comics online, but is currently home only too SLG titles. The titles on the site are reasonablly priced at 69 to 89 cents an issue, and are available in both PDF and CBZ formats. CBZ is the format of choice for many of the online comic piracy sites. While still in its infancy, the fact that Vado has elected to offer CBZ format reminds me of the start of the online music sales. MP3 was/is the defacto format used for piracy of music, and has been somewhat legitimized by the selling of MP3 players and tracks through virtual storefronts, like iTunes. While I\\\’m doubtful of Eyemelt being a success, as they will face the same problems the major publishers are having with online comics, plus the lack of name recognition, I do hope this works, as this could be the start of something big.

What would it take for me to seriously consider digital comics? Next to getting seriously burned by not-so-local store (I drive 75 minutes to pick up my books, they have a lot of loyalty with me), it would have to be the creation of some kind of iTunes application for comics. A comic book viewer that manages my virtual collection and allows me to also manage a virtual pull list. Titles would have to be cheaper then cover, maybe $1.25 and if you pull the book for more then three months it drops to $0.75 or some discount for the volume you buy. Of course the biggest problem would be that, like itunes, the major publishers would try and strong arm DRM or other things that would ruin the experience. Diamond probably wouldn\\\’t go without a fight too. This would also mean the death of many retailers as sales would be driven by the shrinking back issues market.

In reality the question that will keep me buying the traditional books would be “What am I going to do with 4000+ back issues?”