There's been talk in comics circles for the last couple of years that the current paper distribution system is unsustainable. The Direct Market which historically saved comics is now killing it, effectively locking comics away from new readers. Things have escalated in the last year though and sales figures have dropped substantially in the last couple of months. We're already looking at a situation where the major publishers (DC and Marvel) will have to cut back their lines, unable to support some of the lower selling titles. Digital distribution is increasingly being looked at as the future of the medium.
Historically there have been three main issues to address when looking at digital distribution of comics.
- The distribution method
- The display/reading method
- Price point
I recently tested out Comixology on a netbook (via their website) and on an Android phone via their app and they are well on their way to solving issues one and two. The third will likely remain a thorny problem for some time still.
ComiXology have distribution deals in place with most of the comics publishers including DC, Marvel and Image. Unfortunately the Marvel stuff is only available on Apple platforms currently and Dark Horse has very little material available through them yet. I'm hoping this is just a contracts issue and can be addressed over time.
Like all of these digital systems you end up locked in to their distribution method and it's a pain to have to maintain multiple sites and subscriptions in order to get all the comics you want. ComiXology are clearly aware of that and actively working to expand their range of books.Currently they boast around 5,000 comics in their archives.
Display and Reading
One of the problems digital comics have to address is the difference in dimensions a computer screen compared to a comic book. When you throw in smart phone screens as well this can become a major challenge. ComiXology offers the best solution to this that I've experienced so far. Their "guided view" system which automatically takes you from panel to panel is a very naturalistic way to read a comic and much less distracting than having to pan and scroll about a magnified page.
By only having to display one panel (or sometimes a portion of a panel) at a time, they've made it workable on any size of screen and every bit as immersive as a comic book page is.
Which leaves us with the always touchy subject of price. There are several different price points offered. "Day and Date" books (ones released on digital the same time they appear in the direct market" are priced the same as the physical comic books. This will likely be a stumbling block for many purchasers. It might be a psychological barrier as much as anything else, but it just doesn't feel right to pay the same price for digital as for paper. There are other factors going on here though, not least the publisher's being worried about damaging their existing sales outlets.
Back catalog material (of which there is quite a lot) is more reasonably priced. Generally issues are either $0.99 or $1.99. For me I suspect $0.99 would be the sweet spot. Take the cost below a dollar and it's a spur of the moment purchase with minimal thought on my part. The two dollar books do make me pause (though I wouldn't call them poor value).
Some of the publishers have been smart enough to offer first issues for free and I wish they would make that a standard policy, because I think it's a great way to get people into trying new material. One of the interesting things about a digial store like this is it's actually much more tempting to try new material, because it's just so easy to do, particularly if there's a freebie.
The Future of Comics
Not in its current form no. It will only appeal to a niche audience right now. But it's a glimpse of what's coming and I do think that ComiXology have placed themselves well to capture the market as it starts to emerge. The guided view and the easy of purchase are strong advantages. All they need now is more comics and a larger customer base so they can make their prices even more competitive.
- comiXology gets Android app (teleread.com)