Emanata: The Future of Digital Comics and the Past of Digital Music

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Here’s a thought exercise. Imagine a world–let’s call it Earth-45–where pop singles have had a decades-long tradition of only being in print for a day. After a store ran out of the new Beatles or Madonna single, it was gone, and until recently the only way to hear old songs was to scour used record stores. At some point about twenty years ago, the idea of the album finally started to catch on; LP collections of singles stay in print for a while, although most old songs are still impossible to find without lots of luck and money.

Now imagine that it’s 2010 on Earth-45, and everyone’s listening to new and old music on computers and MP3 players, getting songs from blogs and torrents and so on. But they’re all files that fans have ripped themselves, from vinyl. The music industry is freaking out, stomping on music blogs and file-sharing services–but there’s no such thing as an iTunes Store, no eMusic, no Rhapsody. The big record labels refuse to sell their weekly single releases in any form except vinyl. (Well, one of the major labels offers in-browser streams of a bunch of randomly selected songs from the past for ten bucks a month, but not the new stuff, and certainly nothing downloadable.) Sales keep dwindling, so they’ve resorted to schemes to make their singles more collectible, like pressing one copy in 100 on colored vinyl that stores can mark up, but that doesn’t seem to be working too well.

Guess what? Substitute “comic books” for “pop music,” and that’s exactly what’s going on in our world. You can buy a new issue of Brightest Day or Siege in the same format the comics industry has been selling for 70 years, but you can’t buy them for any price in any digital format, even though that’s the way a lot of fans prefer to read them. It’s as if Marvel and DC had carefully studied every mistake the music business has made in the past 15 years, and resolved to make them all over again, but worse.

The big digital-comics news right now is that HTMLcomics.com was shut down a few weeks back by the FBI and a group of publishers. For those of you who didn’t get to experience that site, it had been making upwards of six million comics pages available for viewing–in-print stuff, out-of-print stuff, the works. (It’s worth reading Colleen Doran’s note about her interactions with the guy who ran it, who seems to have had some odd ideas about what publishers would think of his project.)

HTMLcomics was the most blatant digitized-print-comics site around, but it was a single prominent whisker in a massive game of Whack-a-Mole. All those scans didn’t come from one guy’s print collection; it’s not much of a secret that basically all new comics are out there in the ether in digital form within a day or two of hitting the stands, and it’s not terribly hard to dig up a lot of older comics, too, if you have access to advanced technology like, say, Google.

There is enormous demand, from a significant part of the mainstream-comics-reading audience, for new comics to be available in digital form at the same time as they’re available in physical form. The demand is so great that it’s been met by an unauthorized supply from unpaid scanners, bloggers and torrenters. Even so, comics publishers still aren’t selling their wares in the form in which that audience has made it clear they want them. And every week that goes by without new comics available for publisher-authorized sale in digital form, the unauthorized supply chain digs in a little deeper. Publishers are operating in the marketplace as they would like it to have remained from a few decades ago, not the marketplace as it is.

The counter-argument here is that selling new comics in digital form, a la carte, on their day of release could siphon business away from brick-and-mortar comic book stores. But the direct market in its current form is predicated on the idea of scarcity: buy that comic book before it sells out, and it might be worth something! Don’t buy it, and it might be gone! That’s been a dubious proposition for a long time, and in an age of frictionless digital reproduction, scarcity of mass-produced media is all but meaningless. How many people currently reading New Avengers via torrents would rather pay a dollar to get an official copy Wednesday morning? (Some of them; not all of them.) How many people currently paying four dollars for a physical copy of New Avengers would rather pay a dollar to get a legit .cbz file that they can’t read in the bathtub or seal in plastic to sell someday? (Some of them; not all of them.) Nobody knows how the numbers work out; nobody knew how the numbers were going to work out for selling digital music, either, which was part of why the music industry spent years hemorrhaging income and customers.

I’m not suggesting that the consortium that shut down HTMLcomics wasn’t entirely within their rights, as much as I would love to have access to an online “library” where I could read old issues of Sugar & Spike and Master of Kung Fu and Career Girl Romances that have been out of print for decades. But it’s clear that a generation of (mostly new) comics readers wants to follow serial comics, new and old, on screens rather than on paper, in DRM-free formats, and has little or no interest in buying “collectible” print comic books. For publishers to ignore those customers’ proven preferences is leaving money on the table at best, slow self-strangulation at worst.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.

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