While the subject of a $2.99 vs. $3.99 price point for periodicals has taken over the comics news cycle, what some direct market retailers are referring to as “The Digital Apocalypse” isn’t going anywhere. The recent ICv2 Comics and Digital Conference and New York Comic-Con provided a seeming watershed as the reality of digital distribution as the only area of the comics market that’s currently experiencing any substantial growth began to sink in. Digital comics revenue quadrupled year over year from $500,000-$1 million in 2009 to $6-8 million in 2010. Meanwhile, sales of periodicals are up only 1%. While change seems to be on everyone's mind, less clear is how publishers and distributors (not to mention retailers) are going to leverage that trend into workable long range strategies to expand the market.
At New York Comic Con and in other statements, industry figures have been giving hints of their new strategies Digital’s true impact on the comics market probably won’t be properly assessed until the close of 2011. At NYCC’s The Digital Age of Comics panel, David Steinberger, CEO and co-founder of Comixology, pointed out that the remainder of 2010 will be focused on developing better digital reader hardware and applications. 2011, on the other hand, will mark the first full year of iPad sales and will also include sales figures from competitors in the tablet space, like Android and Blackberry. And more bundling is expected: for instance the upcoming Notion Ink ADAM tabletwill come with LongBox, a digital comics store application, installed. Clearly, the infrastructure for digital comics distribution is still emerging and, at this stage, how significantly it will affect the growth of the comics market overall remains an unknown.
While many other NYCC panels were also markedly focused on digital, discussions remained largely speculative and inconclusive as to which directions the industry will take as it moves towards an inevitable digital future. Some of the more interesting ideas thrown around included Mark Waid of Boom Studios speculating that all periodical releases will eventually go completely digital and Dark Horse's Aaron Colter’s musings that an open source solution which allows digital comics file sharing is the best way for publishers to gain new readers. (Both Waid and Colter characterized their statements as personal opinions that in no way reflect the strategies of either Boom or Dark Horse).
Disney also announced a significant digital comics presence—they are already offering a complete digital book service for kids called Disney Digital Books and will soon be offering an ambitious slate of digital comics. Unlike many publishers they will be “bundling” their titles— for $8.99 you can get the entire run of the Epic Mickey tie-in comic, for instance.
Also worth noting was Diamond Comics Distributor’s nascent strategy to ensure that retailers and the direct market aren’t left behind in the industry’s push towards digital. At the ICv2 Conference, Dave Bowen, Diamond’s Director of Digital Distribution, said that Diamond is entertaining the idea of partnering with comic book stores to sell e-readers.
Whether or not Diamond’s digital plot will succeed in keeping the core group of periodical comic book buyers in the actual comic bookstores the direct market favors is venturing into the kind of territory some industry insiders have taken to calling “The New Wild West”—where every piece of the digital market is now up for grabs and redefinition. However, David Gabriel, Senior Vice President of Marvel Comics, asserted at NYCC’s Digital Distribution Panel that the current core base of weekly comic book buyers (who number approximately 300,000) aren’t likely to make the move from print to digital. Chris Rosa, manager of LA’s Meltdown Comics agrees. He says, “Collectors will not stop buying physical comics because the key word for them is collect. How valuable that is for people is underestimated.”
In the absence of clear business strategies, much of the conversation around digital is now focused on increased user functionality and the
enhanced reading experience digital comics could provide for the medium. On an ICv2 Conference panel, Rantz Hoseley, Eisner Award winning comics creator and CEO of LongBox, Inc., used PowerPoint to demonstrate how a digital comics platform can be used to move beyond linear narratives. The Comixology and Graphic.ly comics apps providers both had a strong exhibitor presence on the NYCC convention floor. Comixology was close to the DC booth and held an iPad giveaway contest where the winner was announced at the DC Digital Panel on Sunday. Both app providers also appeared to be getting brisk convention-goer traffic with attendees stopping by in a steady stream to check out demos of application functionalities like guided page views and slick panel zooms.
Whether or not bells and whistles like enhanced apps will attract new readers or convert old school fans to digital comics remains to be seen. But with compelling digital success stories like Marvel’s Ultimate Thor #1 selling more copies digitally than it did at one of its busiest retailers, New York City’s Midtown Comics in April, along with the ever-increasing need to fight digital piracy and scanlation sites, one thing’s for sure: The Digital Age of Comics has arrived. And who’ll be ahead of the game and who’ll be catching up when the market figures out the winners and losers is still anybody’s guess.