Our Digital Comics Strategy is an Evolutionary Dead-end
Why the current digital comics paradigm is no good for comics companies, retailers, or consumers.
Hi, my name is Christopher Butcher, and I’m the manager of The Beguiling Books & Art in Toronto, Canada. We’ll be celebrating our 25th year in business in 2012, and I personally am in the midst of my 17th year working in comic stores. I started out buying my comics from the corner store—Transformers and G.I. Joe before discovering comic book stores, X-Men, Vertigo, and eventually the wide world of art comix afterwards. Comic book stores opened my eyes to the wide variety of material available in comics, and because of that I’d always thought that the point of them, really, was to carry a diversity of material… and, when budget allows, the widest possible diversity of material.
When I started working in stores Diamond did not have a monopoly on the comics market, we ordered new comic books from a bunch of distributors for a bunch of years… Andromeda, Multibook, Grosner, then Capital, Diamond, and Heroes World. While all of those distributors (save Diamond) and many more have subsequently gone the way of the dodo, in my day-to-day at The Beguiling we deal with dozens of distributors in a given month. Comics, books, art, and more. Most retailers are also dealing with toy distributors, t-shirt distributors, supplies distributors, and all kinds of niche and specialty product distributors.
(Can I drop in a shout-out to Last Gasp here? They’re phenomenal at stocking a wider variety of art and alt-culture books. Investigate opening an account with Last Gasp post-haste. )
Anyway, the point of all of this (other than to introduce myself) is to say that as comic retailers, we have options and we have responsibilities. More responsibilities than we often want, not as many options as we’d like, but we’ve got some elbow room and it’s our job to use it. We’ve all suffered under a series of poor distribution decisions that have made things difficult for us, but if we’re willing to put the leg work in we can have the kind of store we want, carry the products we want, and have the kind of industry we want, and on something resembling a level playing field as well.
The problems come in when we are excluded from certain areas of what should be our business, by forces beyond our direct control… and that’s my biggest issue with the current crop of digital comics and distributors of same.
Currently, there is only one digital comics purveyor that has an ‘open’ affiliate program for comics retailers to participate financially in the sale of digital comics, Comixology. I will go on record as saying that the terms are horrible for retailer participation in Comixology’s program in almost every way; in terms of the percentage of the sale we make, in the information that we need to give up to Comixology, in providing that company with access to our customers, and most aggravatingly of all that we receive no information about the customers who are buying from us through Comixology. Compared to an affiliates program like Amazon’s the terms are kind of awful; compared to even a consignment agreement in a brick-and-mortar establishment it is gross.
And that’s even if you can participate—the program is only currently open to American retailers. While I as a Canadian retailer can sell all manner of physical comic books, I am completely excluded from selling digital versions of the same… and to reiterate, none amongst their competition doesn’t seem to have an accessible affiliate program at all.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a level playing field. Excluded economically, through bad terms and bad finances; excluded regionally; excluded completely; digital comics don’t have much (if anything) to offer brick and mortar retailers. Just recently, when brick and mortar book retailers Books a Million and Barnes and Noble were excluded from DC’s digital offerings, they boycotted the publisher by removing from store shelves every single book that was digitally exclusive with another publisher. I don’t mention this to incite comic retailers to do the same, I mention it merely to point out that this is Serious Business, and something every retailer should be aware of.
Here’s the most important part though: The whole system is utterly broken anyhow, and we should be demanding not only better access to digital comics sales, but better sales methods for digital comics.
Let me break this down for you as simply as possible: No one who is “buying” digital comics is actually buying digital comics. What they are doing is renting them for an indeterminate period of time, and they’re renting them in an extremely inconvenient format. If you buy a comic book from a comic book retailer, you own it; you can read in whenever you want, however you want, for as long as you physically possess it. If you want to ‘purchase’ a digital comic, you’re merely gaining access to that content on a specific device and in a way that can’t generally be transferred between devices, that may or may not be available without a live internet connection, and your permission to read that comic book might be revoked at any time, with no recourse.
It’s a closed system, it’s full of hoops you have to jump through, and ultimately the content provider is in charge of what the consumer has purchased: the consumer is cut entirely out of the loop. Digital downloads, at least in this instance, aren’t ownership, they’re rental, and that’s not our business model.
We as comic book retailers should be pushing for a new system, and a forefront-inclusion in that new system: A standard-format digital comic that can be read on every device and on any format, a download that exists independently of the store that sold it, and that can be sold by us (rather than just marketing someone else who’s selling it, and being paid a pittance to do so).
There are dozens of arguments against a ubiquitous, copyright-free, non-locked file format, most having to do with the spectre of digital piracy, but it’s my contention that locking down this content so tightly, and so expensively, with “DRM” or “Digital Restrictions Management” ultimately drives more consumers to piracy than not. Even Apple’s iTunes eventually caved and let you download music that you could freely copy and share amongst any device you owned; and while an app store is an attractive option for content providers, it is a needlessly restrictive, censorious, and anti-equality system. A closed system is never a fair system, and as independent business owners it’s not in any of our best interests to support such a system.
In the end what I’m saying is that if a digital comics distributor comes along offering consumers actual purchases, and is willing to work with the Direct Maket—which has direct access to hundreds of thousands of comic fans—and that person offers to treat me fairly and with respect? That’s someone I will happily work with, and an enterprise I will recommend supporting. But I don’t see anything resembling that in the current marketplace and that’s a damned shame and a missed opportunity.
– Christopher Butcher
This article was written in October 2011, and ran in the fall issue of C&G Monthly Magazine
Edit: I’ve been contacted by a representative of Comixology, to let me know that the reporting of Comixology to retailers about sales has been significantly improved. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to this info at the time, and I am interested to read the new contract terms.