Before I go any further discussing it, let’s tack on one more reason why going to a download-supporting sales model is a good move for comics companies: the electronic transfer of .cbr files is vastly more environmentally friendly than the continued printing of single issues (“floppies”). I’m not suggesting that .cbr files immediately replace floppies on a permanent, one hundred percent basis; however, I think that the gradual shift from floppies to digital is already underway, and it is healthier for comics companies to accommodate it and profit from it rather than fight it on the basis of supporting an outmoded method of sale which has only resulted in a gradually decreasing audience.
So, what should this model look like? Well, let’s make a few bullet points, first, about what people like about digital comics right now.
They are free. Now, obviously, a for-profit business can’t offer all of its product for free, but this tells me that the individual price of a downloadable comic (whether a definite, tagged price or a price derived from average use of a purchased e-collection) has to be low. Very low.
They should be .cbz or .cbr files with high-quality images. Some will argue that comics companies should pursue a more protectable format. This is stupid because there is ultimately no such thing; copy protections are more easily broken every day, and besides, the success of .cbr and .cbz files is not something that arose out of a vacuum; people tinkered with zipped collections of jpegs and PDF image collections before finally settling on .cbr and .cbz for their online comics reading.
This is a perfect example of the market determining its preference for delivery, and it is stupid to fuck with the market – especially when .cbr and .cbz files can so easily be encoded with ad pages and when the interface doesn’t easily lend itself to skipping the ads sight unseen. (Hell, some comics scanners already include the ad pages.)
They want to download the issues and possess them themselves. Or, more simply, Marvel’s “storing house” plan is, for the moment, a bad one. Maybe down the line consumers may become more receptive to the idea of “stored ownership,” of owning the right to consume an artistic work stored elsewhere. But right now it’s probably not great shakes.
They aren’t interested in locked material. No consumer ever is, and DRM-laced creative product only enhances the public desire for an unlocked, pirated version. This is why music companies are finally giving in and releasing unlocked mp3s.
They prefer individual issues. Although in a digital world there’s no need for arbitrary issue individualization (if I want one megafile of, say, Preacher, I can have one rather than individual issues), readers still prefer that the serial format continue to be recognized as such and distributed in such a manner. This is worth knowing because some people have suggested removing the monthly serial format altogether as part of the digital move, and I think this point argues otherwise.
Now, if we consider these points, what potential business models exist for online comics vending? (Marvel and DC will both, no doubt, try to have their own online store, regardless of the fact that this is stupid and we already know, thanks to the music industry, that it won’t work, so let’s ignore company-specific strategies and look at broader concepts.
The “dip a toe in” model. This is the most timid strategy I came up with beyond “do nothing and hope it works.”
Pick a low-selling title in which you have critical faith. Let’s say Blue Beetle.
Put the entire thing online in the following manner: Webcomic-style page layout (“one page per day/one page per click”). Your online version of the comic is black-and-white, rather than full colour, and it publishes one to three months behind the actual issue on the stands.
This is the most timid model because at heart, it uses the internet not as a delivery system but as a marketing tool; revenues will still primarily be derived from hard-copy sales of the comic (in floppies or trades), relying on fans to want to read the story “the moment it’s available” rather than in three months’ time, relying on fans to want to spend money to read the comic in full color, et cetera. In short, it’s a stopgap solution at best, designed to placate the internet-hungry crowd by doing as little as possible while still being able to honestly point at it and say “hey, internet!”
And it’s still better than doing nothing.
The “iTunes.” .cbr files available for download on a pay-per-issue basis. Simple. Straightforward. Easy to understand. Downloads of this sort should be relatively up-to-date; initially maybe a month behind printing schedule, tops. (The beauty of an online delivery system is that when the time is right, switching to simultaneous digital delivery is essentially instantaneous.)
The benefit of the system is simple: it’s a familiar model that already has some success. The downside is that its cost to the consumer ramps up very quickly (AKA “who the hell actually spends ten thousand dollars to fill up their iPod” syndrome) and it’s really a very poor model for profiting most highly off the enormous back catalogue possessed by most major publishers. Finally, it becomes difficult to balance pricing – companies tend to become enamoured of a single tier price (“99 cents an issue, cheap!”) regardless of whether that price is, you know, any good or not. (And digital comics should be way cheaper than 99 cents per issue.)
The “eMusic.” .cbr files available for download from a central site via a subscription model: ten dollars a month gets you, oh, let’s say thirty downloads. These are full-color, high quality downloads. Ads are permissible so long as they aren’t perniciously overexposed. Again, you may start out delivering digital issues on a delayed-action basis then shift forward as the market alters.
Many companies aren’t fans of this strategy because they always look at the model in terms of lost potential revenue. “Fifteen dollars for thirty downloads, that’s thirty-three cents an issue! If comic fans were buying those thirty issues in the store, they’d be spending over a hundred dollars on our books! A hundred is more profit than fifteen, even when you account for additional cost of production!”
The reason this argument is crap is because New Avengers sells one hundred thousand copies per month and Thunderbolts sells thirty thousand copies per month. Many of those New Avengers readers, reading a Marvel comic regularly as they are wont to do, are presumably at least willing to read an issue of Thunderbolts – they are not, however, willing to spend the three dollars plus to buy the copy of Thunderbolts. Thus, the revenue loss is essentially neutralized, with one key difference; under the eMusic scenario, the consumer may, after trying out an issue or two of Thunderbolts, go buy the trade paperback.
Since the vast majority of consumers under this model are the sort who would only purchase one or two books per month, what the remaining downloads per month amount to is nothing less than free advertising. Needless to say, this is the model I support, as should all right-thinking individuals.