Slave Labor Graphics Publishing is trading in single issue print comics for single issue digital downloads—the first comics publisher to go digital with their entrie periodical line. Always a company willing to try new markets, San Jose-based SLG first tried their hand at digital downloads in 2007 with the Eyemelt website, that has since been folded into SLG’s website store. SLG will now serialize their stories digitally before releasing the print editions as graphic novels.
The root of this change really goes back to 2008, when the Hot Topic chain stopped carrying comics, says SLG publisher Dan Vado. SLG comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac were frequently more popular outside the comics shop market, also known as the direct market, than in it. Low direct market initial orders on comics like The Royal Historian of Oz, which was forced to publish its last issue digitally-only, convinced SLG owner Dan Vado, it was time to make the switch to digital as a primary initial publishing format for periodicals. And when an issue of a new series gets 500 copies ordered (the cancelled print orders for Royal Historian of Oz), but a digital download of a 20 year old comic sells 200 copies (the download of Griffin #2, a comic Vado wrote for DC in 1991), you can’t really argue with the decision to shift gears.
“We’ve taken it as far as it can go,” says Vado of his direct market sales. “We have to find a place to sell these books. To get our stuff in front of people who will want to read it.” In an interview with comics news and culture site, The Beat, he noted that while his print sales have been going down, his digital sales have risen every month. This move reflects that reality.
To Vado, the best way to connect with the readers he lost with Hot Topic is the digital platform. It also simplifies his marketing. In the DM, a publisher must first market to store owners for the sell-in, months before the product hits the shelves. Then, when the comics ship, a publisher must market to the consumers for the sell-through. Digital downloads will allow SLG to focus their marketing efforts on the consumers and reduce their B2B marketing to the graphic novel releases.
One of the more unusual aspects of SLG’s digital program is their willingness to adopt a variety of file formats for their comics. Most digital comics are offered in proprietary formats owned by the various comic apps, like ComiXology, Graphicly, and iVerse. SLG offers their product through these providers, but also offers 3 formats on their own: PDF, EPUB, and CBZ.
“You want the most convenient way for people to consume,” explains Vado of his format selection.
PDF is the oldest and most common format, dating back to the early 1990s and coming from the Adobe software company. “The ‘P’ stands for portable,” Vado offers, and he is correct: you can read a .PDF file on any device with an Adobe Reader or Acrobat program. Almost all devices have Adobe Reader available. Of the formats SLG offers directly, this is the most popular and is sold off their own website.
EPUB is the standard open source format for eBooks. In a few short months, this has become SLG’s second best selling format. The basic idea with EPUB is that, like a PDF, it can be read by anyone with an eBook reader or eBook reader software. The caveat is, Vado recommends you only buy an EPUB comic for the device it was specifically formatted for. In this case, the iPad-formatted comics are available in the iTunes/iBooks store and the Nook-formatted comics are available in the books section of BN.com
SLG is not currently offering comics for the Kindle platform, as Vado doesn’t think it’s a good device for reading comics. “I wouldn’t want someone buying our books on Kindle,” explains Vado. “I would feel like I was stealing.” Vado went on to say he’ll likely re-assess his position on Kindle when the color tablet models are released.
CBZ is the format popularized by illegal torrenting of comics and is likely the most popular comics-specific document format used by readers. “They already have a reader they like. Who am I to argue?” sighs Vado. This is the pragmatist side of his brain making a business decision, as Vado has at least as much distaste for torrenting as any other publisher.
It’s worth noting that the main differences between the formats offered by SLG directly and the various comics apps are DRM and navigation. While iTunes and BN.com handle DRM on their own, the PDFs and CBZs from the SLG store are DRM-free and don’t fall into the licensing-based purchasing agreements frequently criticized by consumers buying from comics apps. Conversely, SLG doesn’t program any navigation into their digital comics formats--like Comixology's guided view technology--and publishes them as pages that the reader can zoom in on, if desired. Vado’s philosophy is that the iPad and the Nook are close enough to the size of a comic book, you don’t necessarily need to have automated navigation between panels. If you prefer that format or are reading on a cell phone, he’s happy to let the comic apps provide that service as a value-added product.
Vado refers to the pricing of digital comics as having a “downward pressure.” As such, he plans on offering first issues for free and subsequent issues for $0.99. You may remember that when Eyemelt originally launch, downloads were $0.69. Alas, Apple mandates all prices end in .99 ($0.99, $1.99, etc).
While selling single issues in only a digital format and then printing graphic novels is still a relatively novel idea, and SLG is the only publisher to switch their entire line over, it should be noted that collecting digital comics into print editions is one of the most common revenue streams for freely viewed Web comics and that model has worked out well for a number of cartoonists. Notably, Phil Foglio has had great success taking his Girl Genius comic to the web and selling trade paperbacks of the story arcs, winning multiple Hugo Awards along the way. SLG is adopting an e-book model that ends up being halfway between traditional print comics and traditional Web comics.
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and former adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. He also writes the Division & Rush webcomic. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Publishers Weekly.]