If you were around Internet developers in the mid-‘90s, you’d have heard about the “crack dealer” business model: give the content away and get them hooked. There’s a simple fact about online content that a lot of people in the traditional print world like to deny, namely, people like to have a physical artifact. The Darwin Awards, which started out as a series of e-mails in the 1980s, jumped to book format in 2000. Radiohead famously released their album as a download and still had a physical hit when the CD was came out. Web comics sell printed collected editions and lots of t-shirts.

Comic book (print) publishers haven’t really embraced this concept. Actually, they’ve been resisting it tooth and nail, obsessing over revenues lost to bit torrent networks and the largest digital comic initiative from a print publisher, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited, is all about what the rest of us would call “back issues.”

And then there’s Boom! Studios. In January, Boom! embraced this time-tested business model and decided to put their North Wind series online on the same day that it debuted in comics shops. Appearing on the MySpace.com Comic Books page, this caused quite a stir and got some positive results.

Chip Mosher, Boom!’s Director of Sales and Marketing cites several of the usual suspects when asked about why he opted to go digital: the success of Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius as a Web comic; the mainstream success of the quasi-comic, Diary of a Wimpy Kid; and the large sales bumps Crossgen Comics reaped from their “Comics on the Web” initiative, the first really comprehensive print-to-web comic book project. In addition, North Wind writer David DiGilio had been blogging for TV Guide, giving him online exposure.

If you step back and look at things from the narrow lens of the comic book world, DiGilio is an unknown. Sure, he had his own TV series in the short-lived Traveler, but not one so popular as to make his name instantly recognizable to the comic shop owners who do the ordering in the direct market. As an attempt to connect DiGilio with his audience, the MySpace promotion makes good sense. It also made sense to place the digital editions on MySpace, given its large traffic and an ability to reach a large audience.

When the comic went online, a firestorm hit. Some retailers were furious people a comic that just went on sale was available for free. Some retailers, a bit more understandably, were furious nobody had told them it was going to be online. Some retailers sold out immediately and were quite pleased.

“Issue #1 immediately sold out and we went to reprint. So that was a good sign,” Mosher explained. “But what I think really is important to note is the increase in orders between issue #3 and #4. Comic book retailers send in orders for issue #4 of a new comic series only after issue #1 goes on sale. So North Wind #1, #2 and #3 were all ordered before the MySpace promotion was announced. We have usually seen an average dip of 10% between issues #3 and #4 for any of our series. With North Wind, we saw nearly a 20% increase in orders between issue #3 and #4. An increase like this has never happened in Boom!’s history. So, bottom line, we are talking about a 30% increase over what we normally see.”

That’s very significant, and not entirely unexpected, given the history of digital promotions. At this point, I’d like to pause and give a reality check. North Wind did not place in the top 300 books for Diamond, the major comic book distributor, for either the month of January or February. Other Boom! titles did appear. What we’re talking about here is a clever promotion bailing out a low-selling title. We’re not talking a 30% bump in a bestseller, so much as we’re talking proof of concept here. We’re also continuing a hot topic conversation of four months over a comic, that if sales estimates are to be believed, had fewer than 2500 initial orders. Welcome to the wide world of viral marketing.

As to what actually happened online, that’s not entirely clear. Mosher isn’t volunteering any download numbers, preferring to say “I am confident in saying that North Wind is probably one of the widest read independent comic books out right now and that it is the most well known independent comic book out today.” I’d personally put Sin City at most well known, but a link from Boing Boing and just being on MySpace would probably combine to put it above everything underneath current top indie comics: s Angel, Project: SuperPowers and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And its entirely possible North Wind is over the 100K download mark and winning the “King of the Mountain” game for pure eyeballs.

Now you might be asking yourself “how is this free comic different from bit torrents?” A wise question, and one I asked Mosher.

“By putting North Wind on MySpace Comic Books we get to control the content and how it is positioned in the marketplace,” Mosher replied. Bootlegging will happen either way. What’s funny is that even with making the North Wind available on MySpace Comic Books as inline images and a CBZ, the bootleggers still scanned in a copy of each issue as they hit the stands.”

“Frankly, the only really different thing we are doing with North Wind is beating the bootleggers at their own game,” Mosher continued. “Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Google can find every comic that comes out every week within hours of that comic hitting the store shelves. The genie is out of the bottle and no matter how hard Marvel and DC go after some of the more high-profile bootleg sites, the bootleggers just go off into another direction. It’s still there. It’s still as bad as ever. And even then, sales have gone up industry wide even as bootlegging has dramatically increased.”

Mosher has a good grasp of the situation. I’d personally say that the biggest difference is marketing, not positioning. You can tell people where the comic is, market it to traffic drivers and opinion leaders like Boing Boing, and not merely hope that readers pick it out of a long list of available titles on a torrent site. Yes, some publishers are cringing that I just said that, but guess what? If you’re a new title, a small publisher, or an unknown creator, your biggest problem is getting anyone to look at your work.

The flaw in this model is the disconnect between sample and purchase. While Mosher takes it as a point of pride that this promotion was designed to herd people into comic shops, that means the reader has to identify that there is such a thing as a comics specialty store, locate one and actually make the trip. This presupposes there is a local shop and that it stocks the comic, not a given in the case of North Wind. The model should work better with a graphic novel that can be ordered at any online bookstore, but now the comic shop owners are cringing, just like the publishers cringed with the last paragraph. Ah, the foibles of a shifting market.

The nagging question is what happens when an ongoing series puts their current issues online, how does it affect sales over the long haul, and how does it affect the collected edition? That’s for another experiment to answer.

And just so you don’t think MySpace got away without any benefit, although they didn’t charge Boom! for serializing North Wind, they’ve gotten a ton of content out of this. DC is now sending previews over, particularly from the Minx imprint and Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada moved his “Cup O’ Joe” column, re-titled “MyCup O’ Joe.” Publicity begets publicity, it seems.