Todd Allen has been keeping tabs on digital comics since the mid-aughts, first as a graduate student, then as a journalist, and now as the author of a groundbreaking new edition of The Economics of Digital Comics. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Allen, who is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, has released a fully revised and updated edition of his book, first published in 2005. The book tracks the latest developments in the fast-moving industry following Amazon’s purchase of comiXology, and features a comprehensive breakdown of the real financial opportunities and costs of publishing, selling, and promoting comics online. While common wisdom says that digital comics are a huge part of the future of the industry, Allen has begun looking at how this actually works—and his analysis has a lot to say about the entire world of e-books.
PW: You offer a stark indictment of the state of the direct market under Diamond, the print comics distributor with a virtual monopoly on selling comics periodicals. Has the rise of digital changed that landscape in any noticeable way?
TA: Diamond is a single point of failure, pure and simple. There's no replacement if something were to happen with it, and the truly independent titles have had a hard time [getting exposure] under Diamond.
PW: How can online distributors make it easier for new content to find an audience?
TA: That's the big question. All indications are that comiXology is looking to integrate discovery in a manner similar to how Audible titles show up in the main Amazon site. That should be sometime in 2015. And I can't imagine Amazon isn't looking for breakout independent creators like they've found with prose on the Kindle. You hate to put too many eggs in one basket, but a lot of hope for the little guys is banking on Amazon opening things up to a wider audience.
PW: Who is the audience for your book?
TA: There are multiple audiences: professionals who need to get a better grip on how the market works, now that digital has entered into the picture. If the royalty checks start reflecting different discount rates on the comics, this might clear a few things up. Also professionals and aspiring pros who are trying to decide if they want to try their hand at digital, since it provides an alternative to print publishing that some creators have found success with. Academics in media and business studies. And then fans who just want a better understanding of how the business works.
PW: The book features a wealth of detail on actual costs and finances, which are almost never disclosed or discussed. How did you collect all that data?
TA: It's just a matter of tracking things down. It takes a little time, so most people don't bother. For comics numbers, ICv2 and ComicChron cover the direct market [i.e. comic stores] well. There's usually an annual leak of BookScan numbers for the bookstores. For printing costs, I went and got some quotes. If you really want to dig, you can estimate library sales by seeing what's listed for a title at WorldCat.
PW: Online ad revenue seems to play a big part in the economics of webcomics as well as other “free” online content. But digital ad effectiveness is at an all-time low. Can webcomics survive the collapse of this model if it were to happen?
TA: That depends on the individual comic and their revenue mix. Most of the webcomics were built on merchandise, with advertising being a relatively recent development, so I wouldn't think it would be a deal breaker for most of them. That wouldn't exactly help story-oriented strips that don't merchandise as easily.
PW also asked Allen to name the trends he’s watching for 2015. Here are a few.
- How does Amazon’s integration of comiXology proceed?
- What happens with iVerse now that they have DC and still offer Apple in-app purchases, which comiXology discontinued shortly after acquisition?
- Whether Marvel decides to bring digital comic sales in-house or open it up to more platforms than just Amazon/Comixology for the monthlies.
- Whether the industry can agree on a standard digital comics format.
- Will DRM go away?
- Will Patreon continue to grow like Kickstarter did?
Rob Salkowitz is an author and consultant specializing in the business implications of digital technology. He is cofounder and director of strategy and content at MediaPlant, a Seattle-based communications firm, and he teaches digital media at the University of Washington Graduate School of Communications. His books include Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012) and Young World Rising (Wiley, 2010).