It’s Time for a Digital Comics Business Model

I think the e-reader evolution has just reached a tipping point.  In fact it’s may just be my personal tipping point, since the release of the new Kindle 2 has generated a significant amount of gadget lust in me.  Every night at bedtime, I am faced with the 3 or 4 reading choices living on my night stand.  The idea of having an entire collection of books, magazines, blogs, and personal documents at my disposal holds a great deal of appeal.  By all accounts, the screen size of the Kindle and it’s main competitor, the Sony 505, are plenty big for your average novel or plain text document.  At $300 – $400, that still makes them a pretty steep gadget investment.  The really drool-inducing gadget in this up-and-coming technology is the unfortunately named FLEPia from Fujitsu, which not only supports full color, but a screen size comparable to a full sheet of paper and freedom from any proprietary file formats or subscription services.  It, however, will likely weigh in at a whopping $900 when it is finally released.  All in all, it still looks like the best way to enjoy comics books in the digital age. 

I want one.  Badly.

As noted in my participation in the “little known fact about me” meme, I haven’t purchased a single issue comic book in about 20 years.  I love comics, but if a particular storyline is not available as a collected volume or graphic novel, then I don’t buy it.  I’m not a collector, and I still contend that the whole comic-book-as-investment concept is just an illusion, perpetuated by the marketing machines of the publishing industry.  I especially get annoyed at having to follow a particular storyline through many different individual titles.  Serialized storytelling should not feel like a expensive scavenger hunt, but that’s a rant for another day.

Much like browsing a large retail bookstore, I will peruse the comics titles that interest me in a digital format.  If I like them, I will almost certainly buy them in collected print form.  Many of the gems on my bookshelf originated this way, such as Superman: Birthright, Superman: Secret Identity, and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel(hmmm, I believe a theme is emerging here).  Having read these titles digitally first actually made me more likely to purchase them in print.  The difficulty here is trying to curl up with a laptop at bedtime or use it to read in the car.  It’s just no fun (it’s heavy, it’s hot, it’s slow, and I usually have to plug it in).  Only slightly less cumbersome is the tablet PC that I use for work.  At least with the tablet, I can read a comic in portrait mode and not scroll up and down in landscape mode.

And thus we return to e-readers.  As much as I would like a Kindle or a Sony, they can’t read comics.  Technically, I guess you could say that they can, but who wants to read comics in black and white on a six inch screen?  Now the full-sized color Fujitsu on the other hand, well that would be something to see.  Thinking about carrying a collection of comics in full color with me wherever I went makes me feel all tingly inside.

Would I fork over $900 for a digital comic book reader?  Heck no.  That’s why cell phone companies sell you phones for steeply discounted prices, but then commit you to a subscription plan for service.  The same could apply here.  It’s not an original idea, but the comic book industry needs to be proactive in developing a plan for the delivery of digital comics.  I am long past buying individual comics for a few dollars each, even if there was a subscription option.  On the other hand, I would gladly pay $20 for an annual subscription to an especially beloved title.  Better yet, let DC or Marvel make their entire catalogs available for a much higher annual fee.  What would make the deal even sweeter would be if these companies would use their deep pockets to subsidize the cost of the e-readers as an investment in future subscriptions.  (Before someone scoffs at the term “deep pockets,” I contend that Warner Brothers and Marvel could easily afford this by limiting some of the crap that makes in onto film and using those funds here instead).

I think the music industry has shown how trying to control the rights and usage of digital content actually harms the net profit of the industry, but I’m not going to open the DRM can of worms here.  Suffice it to say that i think there is profit to be made by making digital content widely available without restriction.  Sites like Hulu and Netflix have made significant strides in that direction already. 

What we do know is that digital content from comic books is already being distributed and will continue to be distributed online.  What the industry needs to recognize is that now is the time to define how it will participate in the distribution of digital content and help control the direction of the future.  If not, it will become trapped in a reactionary cycle of tantrums and litigation, much like the music industry.

I still want an e-reader.

-kingfish

5 thoughts on “It’s Time for a Digital Comics Business Model

  1. Snippety Gibbet

    I have been drooling/coveting Kindles myself. Realistically, I think that I have been sucked in by the hype as I really only read 5-10 books a year anyway. Spending major moolah for a digital reader for me is just pure consumerism. I think a better investment for me would be to simply buy audio books from Audible.com and listen on my iPod.

  2. javajeb

    The appeal of the kindle is remotely there for me. I’m a luddite at heart, however. And most of the titles I read aren’t generally available in non-dead tree editions. The heft, the tangible feel of fingers on paper, be it cheap pulp fiction or higher, can’t be beat.

  3. Matt

    I have to agree with javajeb here. There’s nothing like the feel of a book.

    Although, the Kindle is pretty gee-whiz cool. It reminds me of the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) from Star Trek.

  4. Jordan Whiley

    I think your e-reader is very cool for a few reasons:

    1. Given that e-books are tiny files (compared to video/audio files), the sheer capacity of one of these things is like having a small library at your fingertips. Used in combination with Bit Torrent, the potential benefits for rural school districts (or small private schools like mine) are enormous.

    2. The reduced environmental impact of switching to digital is significant. As it is now, Kingfish’s Wired magazines get re-used twice, possibly more (I don’t know what the guy I give them to does with them). But with digital, you not only reduce the resources consumed in terms of timber (and the poisons released as a result of the paper-making process), you also reduce the raw materials consumed to build, furnish, and control the climate of a large library.

    3. The Star Trek thingy, like Matt said.

    Make the reader have a little heft, like a book, and give it a soft leather cover, like a book, and you’ve got a pretty great device.

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