While apps for mobile devices have gotten the most attention as the way to download single issues of comics series, other methods are available. Since April 2010, Marvel has made a selection of their periodical comics available as e-books for libraries. In mid-September, Moonstone Books is poised to become the second comics publisher to take this step, with IDW soon to follow. And Tokyopop already has a number of their manga graphic novels available, as well.

All these publishers have partnered with OverDrive, a Cleveland, OH-based company that supplies eBooks, audiobooks, music and movies to 11,000 libraries worldwide. Functionally, the process mirrors normal single issue sales. OverDrive acts as the distributor and each individual library chooses which, if any, comics they'll purchase and how many copies. When an issue is purchased, it appears on the library’s website as an eBook available for checkout. Only one person can checkout an e-book at a time, and the download has an auto-expiration date.

Here's an example of the Marvel content available for digital checkout at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Marvel’s initial batch of releases consists mostly of material targeted at younger readers, including 263 issues of Marvel Adventures, First Class and Marvel Illustrated (Marvel’s version of Classics Illustrated, adapting books like Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick). Essentially, younger readers material.

Tokyopop has over 200 titles available and has one-upped Marvel in the “trying something new” category. On August 16, their Hetalia: Axis Powers, Volume 1 graphic novel was released to libraries as a digital download through OverDrive. The print edition doesn’t hit bookstores until September 21.

David Burleigh, OverDrive’s Director of Marketing, says that the best selling comics in this new digital format for libraries have been Iron Man Adventures and Tokyopop’s Dramacon Vol. 1. With Marvel hitting younger readers with their Marvel Adventures line and Dramacon being rated for age 13+, the service thus far appeals mostly to the Children’s and Young Adult sections.

Moonstone, which normally offers a more nostalgia based line, is aiming for a slightly differently audience, with plans to roll out Captain Action, Zeroids, Buckaroo Banzai, Kolchak, Rotten, Domino Lady, Phantom Detective, Vampire, PA and Bed Time Stories as their initial wave. This is a more nostalgia-based selection, including two pulp magazine adaptations, a movie license, a television license and two toy licenses from the 1960s.

The issue of the length of the window between print and digital editions can be a touchy one. While, in theory, downloading a comic as an eBook shouldn’t be any different from going to your local library and reading this week’s issue of Time, how close a digital edition of a comic’s release is to the print version’s shipping date has long been a hot button topic for traditional comics retailers.

Tokyopop’s going all the way with their Hetalia experiment, while Marvel and Moonstone are hanging back and waiting for data before establishing a firm policy.

“We're ready to update these titles on a continual basis,” says Marvel Manager of Sales Communications Arune Singh. “We're just waiting to hear back from OverDrive on the success of the program and we'll go from there.”

Marvel isn’t planning on real time updates in the near future, says Singh. “As these are evergreen stories, and not tied into events or promotions going on within the regular Marvel U or our Direct Market, there isn't much concern right now at rushing out current all ages titles in any given time frame.”

Moonstone is still debating the topic internally. While they would ideally like to be updating their OverDrive offering each month, Moonstone hasn't decided on whether to have a window for the release of new material to OverDrive or how long it should be. Senior Marketing Executive Ed Catto says “It is of paramount importance to us that we use this to drive new readers into comics, and not drive comic shop buyers out of comic shops.”

With some 11,000 libraries being supplied digital material from OverDrive, this market offers a significant chance to get comics in front of new readers. According to the July 2010 sales estimates at ICV2, the Marvel Adventures version of Spider-Man sells 6,347 copies; Marvel Adventures Super Heroes sells 4,564. For a small publisher like Moonstone, the chance for more exposure is even greater.

Single issue downloads provide an excellent way for libraries to build a larger comic readership. Everyone involved thus far feels the program is in its early stages, but Catto sums up the sentiment, saying “Ideally, we'd see libraries with a robust catalog of comics that would be either a starting point for new comic readers, or a low-cost trial for existing readers looking to try a new title. In both cases, we'd then hope to convert readers to the physical collected TPB's/Graphic Novels or to actual comics in comic shops nationwide.”

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and 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 for the Chicago Tribune Media Group. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]