With 78% combined market share, Marvel and DC are for all intents and purposes, the comic book industry. How can anyone compete with this dual juggernaut?
The answer is to do just that – compete.
Compete often and head-to-head.
Small publishers are more nimble and have a lot less to lose by failing fast. The time has never been better, and smaller comic book publishers have two major advantages: dramatically less overhead and more manageable backlists.
These four basic initiatives can enable any small publishers to compete on a surprisingly level playing field with the big guys.
- Format Flexibility
Digital comics are unique in the eBook world. Unlike the reflowable text of a typical novel, digital comics are image-based and heavily dependant upon page layout and design for narrative cohesion. The artwork is an integral part of the creative vision, and design and layout are sacred cows which most creators are not willing to sacrifice to the limited capabilities of most e-readers.
Text can be converted to tagged XML metadata files, which in turn can then easily be converted to any number of eBook formats, from Mobi to ePub. Metadata can be tagged to maximize web search capabilities; digital files for typical books can built in such a way as to facilitate easy and efficient ‘chunking’ and repurposing.
With a digital comic book, files tend to be scanned as full pages, or strips of 3 or 4 panels, in PDF format, mimicking the layout of the original printed page. The images aren’t reflowable like text, making them very difficult to scale from laptop to eReader to mobile phone. Readers typically have to zoom in and out, moving around the page, to make each panel large enough to easily read simple word balloons.
Basically, the reading experience of a digital comic on any device smaller than a computer screen is generally a series of compromises requiring (and testing) the reader’s patience and commitment.
Creating a standard for visual comic metadata like ePub for more flowable files can help ensure that comics become, and remain, an important part of the mainstream digital book distribution pipeline. How we establish that metadata is going to be critical for the future. We need to look hard at ways to build standard taxonomy templates for comics, and tag components in such a way that they can be drilled down to the smallest details.
For example, making sure each panel is tagged separately with an identifier that places it in linear context to the narrative. This lets each panel be treated individually, like a word in a text file, and thus allows it to reflow depending upon the size of the screen, or be pulled out and blown up by multiple types of reader apps. Tagging each word balloon and the text in it separately allows the ability to have text read aloud by different voices assigned to different characters.
The planning we put into how our digital files’ metadata is built and tagged will directly impact our ability to compete in the future. Comics publishers have to look beyond the current basic needs and future-proof their digital content in order to effectively adapt as devices change and advance. Like text-based books, comics need to be deconstructed to their core components. We have to stop thinking of static pages and panels, and work together with other creators and publishers to develop an accepted core digital taxonomy. This is not a simple task, but it is an important one.
Marvel and DC are not going to be motivated to do this themselves. Think of the amount of backlist they would have to convert. What has traditionally been their greatest strength, in this case is a burden. Converting to digital means everyone starts from scratch.
It will take Marvel and DC much longer to convert their titles to a more robust and functional format, giving smaller publishers and self-publishers a head start on an even playing field in establishing a more sophisticated digital comic standard.
In order to compete against Marvel and DC’s huge market share and brand advantage, it is critical to maximize your search capabilities across the internet.
Unlike the comic shop or bookstore, where Marvel and DC have a huge distribution advantage and an overwhelming amount of shelf space, the web is one big virtual bookshelf. Learn basic search metrics and ensure you are taking advantage of every opportunity to direct consumers to your product and sites.
It may seem banal and somewhat tacky, but if you include “digital comic book” in your subtitle you will get more hits when people search for digital comic books. Without proper search tactics, getting found amongst the hundreds of thousands of titles on Amazon or on Apple’s iBookstore is going to be challenging at best.
With Google Book Search, even the internal text of your books can trigger a search hit. You can make the entire text of your content searchable, even behind a pay wall, much like medical journals do. Ever look up a medical symptom and find the perfect match, only to click on it to find you can read only a paragraph and have to pay to get the full text?
Now someone searching randomly for Zombies can see a link to the page of your Zombie Apocalypse comic that uncovers the secret division of The Department of Homeland Security responsible for zombie hunting. When Google Editions launches, they will be able download a copy right then and there to their computer.
Search is the new Diamond Comics Distributors. It is the gateway to get your books into the reader’s hands, or onto their computers. Every time you publish a post or upload a file, stop and think about how you can improve its searchabilty.
A search strategy works internally as well. If your book is not just a straight PDF, but contains separate text and image files, proper tagging of panels and text in your metadata can make navigating large backlists in your own archives much easier, too. Storylines and continuity can be searched across your entire line; chunking and repurposing content becomes much easier to manage. World bibles and continuity becomes much easier when you can search your own digital content easily and efficiently.
In Part II, we’ll look at the other two key initiatives that will enable smaller publishers to compete with Marvel and DC: Format Flexibility and Innovation.
Jim Fallone is the Director of Publishing Coordination at Andrews McMeel Universal, working on digital workflow and eBook strategies. With nearly 30 years in the industry, Jim has experienced every aspect of book publishing from acquisition to remainder, and over the years has been involved in some of its great successes and its biggest failures, including the introduction of new retail product categories like direct-to-purchase video and books-on-tape, New York Times bestselling publishing programs, and sales phenomenon such as Pokémon.