Digital Comics: Level the Playing Field, Part II

Jim FalloneBy Jim Fallone, Dir. of Publishing Coordination, Andrews McMeel

With 78% combined market share, Marvel and DC are for all intents and purposes, the comic book world.  How can anyone compete with this dual juggernaut?

The answer is to do just that – compete.

In Part I of “Level the Playing Field”, we covered Metadata and Search. The other two basic initiatives that can enable any small publisher to compete on a surprisingly level playing field with the big guys are Format Flexibility and Innovation.

Format Flexibility

Comics will never be the primary content for any single platform. You can’t rely on platforms from different industries to design their devices with your interests in mind. Just because the iPad has a bigger screen and it is in color doesn’t mean it’s the device all comics will now be read on.

3% of US consumers read eBooks on their desktop computers today; 2% read on laptops; and fewer than 1% read on dedicated eReaders, mobile phones, or netbooks, respectively.

When it comes to future demand, 19% of US consumers say they’re interested in reading eBooks on their desktop PCs, 14% say they’re interested in reading on eReaders, 11% voice interest in reading on netbooks, and 5% say they’re interested in reading on their mobile phones.

Forrester Report: The Battle For The eBook Consumer

The fact is, most digital books and comics are still read on still read on desktop PCs.

This is what consumers are used to, and that level of functionality is what they will ultimately expect from any digital reading device. The future will be about any-time access to the web and to content, and consumers will expect to be able to read their comics on their PC or Mac, netbook or tablet, mobile phone, HDTV and their preferred console game system.

Not all of these platforms are optimal for a standard page layout, though.

That is why thinking about your metadata is so important. A lot of people read comics digitally, but not enough on any single device to make digital distribution viable unless you’re able to make your content available on multiple platforms.

IDW Digital Comics

IDW Publishing has decided that they have an opportunity to compete with Marvel and DC by aggressively making their content available on multiple digital platforms, including the iPhone, iPad and Sony PSP. This gives them a great opportunity to build their brand with each platform’s audience and ensure their content isn’t limited to any single device.

“We see our digital comics continually bringing new readers on-board. All these formats and distribution models allow us to reach casual or hardcore comic readers in whatever way they prefer. This, in the end, brings more people to comics and helps the industry as a whole.”

Jeff Webber, Director of ePublishing, IDW

You have to design your books with the understanding that they may be read page-by-page or panel-by-panel, so your narrative has to work well within each iteration. New language will need to evolve to take advantage of different platforms.

Innovation

The best way to compete with Marvel and DC is by being innovative.

The “Big Two” are dominant in the print world, but they’re also burdened by the weight of their respective (and convoluted) histories. They are both large, public companies with multiple layers of corporate management, plus sister companies with overlapping and/or competing interests. Because of their success and dominant positions, change is an understandably slow and costly process.

They have made commitments to certain business models, and hired teams of employees to manage their digital transition who are going to be reluctant to suddenly make obsolete the strategies they were hired to execute. They are going to be understandably slow to spend capital on new innovations unless they see an immediate return on investment. In other words, they are more likely to want to wait and watch the rest of the industry innovate.

That means the burden of innovation is on us.

Breaking barriers and reinventing comics as a primarily digital art form is the only way to get beyond Marvel and DC’s stranglehold on the market.

Pure text novels, when read on a web-enabled digital device like the iPad, will always seem less satisfying and more archaic than a website or blog specifically designed to be read on a computer screen, with buttons, links and pop-ups. Novels demand the reader’s full attention. Any device that can also open a website, make a phone call, play a game and watch a movie will subtly and constantly fight the novel for attention.

But comics have always attempted to break away from the limitations of the print format; perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many comics make such good movies. Comics are highly visual, marrying text, image and page layout into a unique storytelling medium. Unlike a novel, where the action takes place in your head, comics are intended to be watched as much as read, and the narrative is revealed to the reader episodically, not unlike a television show or movie. It is no coincidence that most films are storyboarded in panels like a comic.

No other print medium is better suited to take advantage of the screen.

How we read a digital comic should not be restricted to artificial page-turning animations, either. Stories do not have to be told in the same format as a printed comic. Comics embrace serialization; have narratives based on large-scale shared worlds, where a community of authors can and do interpret, reinterpret and contribute original stories involving the same characters; and they have a rabid and passionate fan base eager to contribute their own content, too.

Comics were arguably built for the social web.

To compete, smaller publishers need to begin to experiment with innovation of form. No longer bogged down in the swamps of print production and distribution, comics aren’t limited to distribution via 32-page chunks of story. Instead of monthly issues bought at the local comics shop, they can now be distributed directly to audiences in as little as a panel a day.

In fact, it’s possible for comics to even be distributed in real-time, with audiences reading a panel as it is drawn.

Once created, storylines can continue on indefinitely and new readers can join in at any time and catch up from the beginning because nothing is ever out of print or only available as expensive collector’s items.

Digital comics are now being delivered bundled with forums, comments, commentary and merchandise to dedicated communities of fans. Web sites like Penny Arcade blend all of these aspects together, creating narrative links from strips to blog posts to industry news and reviews; so blended, in fact, that sometimes a strip’s punch line is only truly funny if you have read the blog post first.

Penny Arcade

A Cyclical Argument With A Literal Strawman

Involving the readers directly with the content is now possible. Storylines can be interactive, incorporating voting on key plot points; multiple storylines can be created by offering divergent paths for different readers depending on choices or profiles or even randomly just to mess with them. New comic shorthands and language are constantly evolving; near real-time references to the outside world are now feasible, and at times, expected. You can even key off a subscriber’s profile and incorporate them into the actual story.

The tools now available offer almost limitless options.

Instead of multiple pages of panels read left-to-right, a comic can be a single page PDF one panel wide and hundreds of panels long scrolled down on your phone. It can be a slide show watched on a TV screen.  Stories can be told from three different character points of view that you can toggle back and forth from. None of this is easily or cost-effectively possible with novels or video. Only comics seem to have this level of flexibility.

Distribution is also wide open to innovative reinvention.

With such a loose and barely functional print distribution pipeline, there are few sacred cows to stand in the way of experimentation. So far, there is no clear dominant distribution model for digital comics. Amazon and the iBookstore are geared for selling content for dedicated digital devices, but the speed of device evolution means that it is just a matter of time until every device will be fully internet-capable, each one a window onto the world wide web.

When this happens, you will have to think about whether you are delivering a digital replica of a comic book for $1.99, or if you have a better chance at making money from a completely new model.

Some creator-owned sites have built large audiences on their own by providing free content and generating revenue from marketing to that audience, selling merchandise and ad space. If you give away your content in small chunks, revealing only a few panels a day, you can then combine the same content into complete stories for sale digitally later on.

As a small publisher, or an individual trying to break into the business, traditional print distribution and print-on-demand requires capital outlay and a certain amount of risk. For the relatively small and scalable cost of bandwidth, and a little sweat equity, it only takes a relatively few hardcore fans of your work to generate sustainable revenue.

If you can find just 200 people willing to spend $10 a month on your content, that’s $24,000 a year. IF you sold only 200 copies/month Diamond would have dropped you. If a small publisher with a stable traditional print comic business can convert just a percentage of its readers to digital, they may actually end up making more money than they do in print.

Serialization creates new price models and value associations.

Comics no longer have to be bound to the traditional pamphlet form for distribution. Your comic can be sold on an eStore for $0.29/page in serialized form. That seems reasonable and almost free, but a traditional 32-page comic sold this way actually ends up retailing at $9.28. With an ongoing storyline and no artificial end-points, this increased cost is imperceptible to the consumer.

The fact of the matter is the time has never been better to compete with the big guys; everyone has equal distribution opportunities. Digital retailers want your content, digital consumers want your content, there are no minimum orders, no competing for retailer’s dollars against this month’s big Batman and X-Men titles.

As noted in Part I, a good SEO/SEM strategy means your titles to be found just as easily as Marvel or DC’s. You can create products that use the digital medium fully to its advantage; experiment, take chances, and create comics in ways that weren’t possible even two years ago.

You can finally free comics from the confines of the printed page and help evolve the art form.

Now is the time, because Marvel and DC are committed to their respective paths, too invested in the status quo. Their properties are more valuable to them as potential movies and they won’t risk testing their valuable brands on anything too new and unproven. It is not in their interest to innovate. They have set their course and it will take a long time for them to turn their ships around.

Right now is the time to compete; often and head-to-head.

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.

4 thoughts on “Digital Comics: Level the Playing Field, Part II

  1. Pingback: Level the Playing Field with E-Formats « Grrlbibliophile's Blog

  2. Pallas

    “That is why thinking about your metadata is so important. A lot of people read comics digitally, but not enough on any single device to make digital distribution viable unless you’re able to make your content available on multiple platforms.

    I agree in principle about the metadata issue, but I also think that its always going to be an awkward work around for longform comics.

    In print, the basic unit of story telling is either the page or two page spread. Unless the reader is using a large screen ebook reader, any translation to a smartphone is going to be some degree of awkward.

    “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.

    Marvel and Dc’s greatest strength is the fact that they have goodwill from a large body of comic fans who prefer to read about the characters they grew up with. I don’t think the backlist really has anything to do with that.

    Another way of putting this is, I think comic readers grade the quality of Marvel/DC books on a 20% curve over indie books.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Digital Possibilities for Indies « The Digital Comics Review

  4. Ed West

    I don’t understand the adversarial approach. Independent print comics have had years to prove themselves. Web Comics are doing whatever they want. It would be nice to hear about how comics can be “reinvented.” The reason Marvel and DC have a stranglehold on the market is because people buy their work. Digital comics producers are missing out on learning how to market their work and they are missing out on understanding the storytelling process. Putting amateur work on the web does not magically make it professional. Too many web comics are unreadable even though they are free.

    So it’s not just a matter of putting your work out there. It has to be compelling. It has to be worth the time. One way to do this is to put out professional quality work where word of mouth tells others: “This web comic is great!” Instead, everyone does whatever they want and are puzzled when very little happens.

    Marvel and DC practically own the print comics market because they are delivering what people are willing to buy and they have years of marketing and storytelling experience. If Digital Comics are going to go anywhere, the producers need to know at least as much to capture and retain readers.

    Reply

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