As it had been at the comics retailer meeting, ComicsPRO, a few weeks earlier, the digital evolution was a hot topic of discussion at the Diamond Retailer Summit held April 14–16 in Chicago in conjunction with the C2E2 comics convention, but the doom and gloom obstructionism of many past meetings has largely given way to acceptance. Retailer after retailer approached by PW reiterated variations on the refrain, “It's already here.” “Digital is here to stay—why face the future with fear?” said Mike Malve of the Atomic Comics chain in Phoenix, Ariz.
About 400 retailers attended the summit, held by distribution giant Diamond Comics Distributors, to hear publishers talk about their latest plans and to hobnob in general on industry issues. With comics publishing focused on periodicals, trade books, and well-designed deluxe print collectibles, digital distribution has not been a priority for most publishers, but the iPad has hastened the addition of a digital strategy to many business plans. At the conference, the discussion turned to concrete ways to work with digital sales and promotion, and there are signs that digital comics are increasing the audience for comics, not cannibalizing the print world.
IDW president Ted Adams led off the day of meetings with a keynote speech in which he discussed his company's comprehensive digital strategy. The poster child for digital distribution thus far is IDW's Star Trek: Countdown four-issue miniseries, which tied in with last year's Star Trek movie and was released simultaneously for iPhone and in print form in comics shops. According to Adams, while the digital version (99¢ an issue) sold more units than the print version, the print comic was still IDW's bestselling periodical of the year, and, unlike most miniseries, “Sales for issue four were as strong as issue three, something you never see.” While IDW has launched its own stores for iPhone and iPad and works closely with digital distributor iVerse, digital sales are still a small part of its business, only about 1% of revenue, according to Adams.
Elsewhere, retailers were cautiously optimistic about finding ways to work with digital distribution to increase sales and market comics to a new audience. “We're a destination store, and we use the Internet to get new people into the store,” said Tate Ottati of Tate's Comics in Lauderhill, Fla. “We already use Facebook heavily to promote our events,” and the Facebook page has almost 3,000 fans.
Katie Merritt of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Mich., echoed the general sentiments: “Our store is located under a music store, and we've already seen what can go wrong. Fighting digital delivery didn't do the music industry any good.” Merritt observed, as many have, that books retain interest as physical objects where music doesn't, but also pointed to the resurgence of vinyl album sales as collectibles to show that physical objects still have appeal. Green Brain is looking at ways to stay engaged with customers by adding such things as an art gallery. The store is also helping organize a series of Kids Reading Comics Days around the region.
However, a few retailers were still hesitant about how their business could adapt in a new landscape. “We're in the business of selling paper products as beautiful art objects,” said Eric Kirsammer of Chicago Comics and Quimby's Bookstore, both pillars of the art comics and indie book scene in Chicago. However, Kirsammer acknowledged that the Internet remains an important way to raise awareness about print comics.
Some digital distributors are working with retailers to find new ways to do just that. ComiXology is a developer, of iPhone/iPad comics apps, that gained fame when the Marvel Comics app it developed was featured for the iPad's debut. ComiXology's David Steinberger has been in the digital comics space for several years, but has been careful to include retailers in his business plan, with a series of digital-ordering services for them including pull lists—a service in real comics shops that automatically reserves new comics for participating customers; he sees many signs that digital sampling leads to physical sales.
Steinberger told PW that stores that use the digital-ordering service—retailers pay $39.99 to be included in the system—have seen a 20% increase in retailer revenue from customers connecting through the site. “And we surveyed our digital customers and found that a significant portion of them were new buyers,” he said, pointing out one sign of many that left retailers feeling hopeful that brick and mortar stores can survive the digital revolution.