Fifteen years ago I began self publishing comics with LA-based Mike Meyer as Twist And Shout Comics. We actually made money and it got me to my first San Diego Comic Con where I met Mike for the first time. Fifteen years later, he’s a digital animation programmer and has a keen interest in the future of digital comics. Naturally I sent him to the digital comics panels at San Diego with a mission to inform! Take it away Mike!
Digital distribution has taken over so much of the entertainment industry, it’s just been a matter of time before comics got added to the many entertainment choices available for sale online. Two Comic-Con panels held Thursday discussed the competing digital options that will be available soon, and how they might affect the comics market overall.
The first session, held at noon, was a discussion of Longbox, a new digital comics platform. Developed by Rantz Hosley with the help of Quicksilver Software, Longbox provides an online store and digital comics reader. Comics fans can download a free client program, then search for, buy, and view comics. Hosley led a discussion demoing the software and discussing how readers and publishers would use the platform.
Longbox is scheduled for an initial launch in September or October, and will initially be available on the PC and the Mac. Follow-up releases over the next 1-2 years will extend the platform to game consoles, handheld gaming devices, mobile devices, and e-book readers. The product has evolved over the past 3 years
Longbox combines a lot of the features consumers are used to on platforms like iTunes and XBox Live. The storefront combines featured content, a newsfeed from Comic Book Resources, and a list of new titles added for the current week. A user can set up an account with subaccounts for their kids, and limit the type of content their kids can see, as well as set up a budget for them. There will be some free content available, and titles will have 5-8 pages of preview available. Users can keep a wish list. Content will be rated by the publishers. Gift cards will be available, and they are planning to use a point system, though Hosley was very insistent that the point system would be easier to understand than the XBox Live ratio of points to dollars.
The viewer itself is very slick and attractive . It includes several different modes for full page display, and a versatile interface for zooming in on panels. Page transitions are nicely animated, and comics can be presented with annotations, music, video, or links to other issues. Commands in the viewer can be controlled by keystrokes or by the mouse alone, and the Mac version of the software will include some support for touchpad gesture input.
Hosley has addressed a lot of the concerns that people have about proprietary platforms such as this. For example, he specified that you will be able to buy a comic once, and use it on all the devices which support the Longbox reader, and that the security scheme they use on the files will be bypassed should the company go out of business. Comics will sell for $.99, with subscriptions available at a discount, e.g. 12 issues for $10.
Hosley spent some time addressing the controversy over what digital distribution means for comic shop owners. His marketing strategy is to reach a mass market audience (people who watch TV shows and go to movies), not a comics audience. Hosely reiterated several times that if you are trying to reach some subset of the current comics audience, you are doomed, splitting up the current shrinking audience is not going to work. They beleive this will grow interest in the medium outside of the current market. With that in mind, a large amount of their operating budget is going towards as-yet-unannounced mass market marketing partnerships.
Longbox is still in the process of negotiating deals with comics publishers, but is anticipating to launch with more than 7 publishers. The publishers announced on Thursday were Dabel Brothers, NBM, Archaia, Shadowline/Silverline, Top Cow, and BOOM!. Publishers are being vetted closely via a review board. While the process appears that it will be fairly transparent, they were very upfront in saying that they would not be working with self-publishers, and would cherry-pick indie publishers for at least the first year of operation.
This strategy will be disappointing for proponents of comic diversity (and smaller publishers) no doubt, but with the targeting of the product to mass market consumers, having name brand publishers and popular titles will be key to getting consumer acceptance and making Longbox a recognizable brand.
The second session, held later in the afternoon, was called ‘Digital Comics NOW!’, and was led by Chip Mosher of BOOM! Participants included Michael Murphy of iVerse, Rantz Hosley of Longbox, Chris Folino of Catastropic Comics, and David Steinberger from ComiXology.
Each of these people represented competing models for approaching digital comics, and some are simultaneously trying multiple approaches. One of the things discussed was that they have hard numbers showing that offering a comic digitally can help the paper comic sales, with some series actually seeing sales increases on issues 2-4 after issue 1 was offered digitally. Some of these digital offerings have moved as many copies digitally as on paper. There is growing evidence that digital will expand the market. One example was that the offering of Hexed on Google’s Android Market saw 25,000 downloads in less than 48 hours, which is a number that would delight any paper publisher. IDW found that their Star Trek series sold as much on iPhone as they did through Diamond.
One thing pointed out was that there is substantial demand for digital comics, and you can see it by looking at BitTorrent sites. Most popular titles are bootlegged and see over 500,000 downloads per issue, with Top 3 titles exceeding 3 million downloads. While not all of these people will be converted into paying customers, they are also enduring a fair amount of inconvenience in order to read comics online, so a solution which makes comics easy to find with good quality and a reasonable cost will be successful. iTunes has proven this model to work in music, which is even easier to pirate.
Chris Folino believes that motion comics provide something people can’t get elsewhere, and will be key to attracting a new audience. While a motion comic can take a while to prepare, the use of high-quality voiceovers, sophisticated editing tools, and sound design can reach people who wouldn’t seek out a paper comic or even read one online.
On the question of whether digital will cannibalize the direct market, all of the panel members felt that the answer was no. Hosley reiterated that the direct market is already compressed, and you can’t get new people into comic stores easily, but that all of these people are carrying mobile devices. Folino pointed out that the distribution terms through the iTunes App Store are substantially better than the terms for working through Diamond. A publisher only gets 35% of the list price of a comic sold through Diamond, and most of that goes to printing each physical copy. For an iPhone comic, the publisher gets 70% of the list price, and it costs no more to sell 100,000 copies than it does 100 copies. Mosher pointed out that Diamond’s North American Sales grew from $310 million in 2003 to $436 in 2008, some of which can be attributed to price increases. This market has some strength, and can be further grown, in his opinion, and the outside market even more so.
ComiXology’s approach is to actually make it easy for consumers to buy physical copies of the comics people are reading on their phones — their comic reader can use GPS to give consumers directions to the nearest comic shop.
All of the panel members encouraged publishers and creators to avoid exclusive deals, and to hedge their bets until the market settled.
Some announcements were also made at this panel: Farscape TPBs will be available on iVerse for $3.99. BOOM has more announcements soon, Catastrophic is offering an Irredeemable motion comic, and Comixology is offering Irredeemable #1 for .99. The ComiXology iPhone app, called Comics, was released on the App Store on Wednesday, and is available for .99. This app includes access to several free titles, and the ability to purchase new titles as they are offered.
Mike Meyer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org