By Dave Castelnuovo/Bolt Creative
[The two Brians -- Woods and Hibbs -- recently initiated a dialogue on digital comics, the creator and the retailer and the conflicting goals contained therein. The discussion has raged on for over a week. Here's Dave Castelnuovo, co-creator of the iPhone game Pocket God with some thoughts. Castelnuovo is a self-described comics fan, but if you're wondering why a mobile game developer has skin in the digital comics game, read this piece on the POCKET GOD comic. The digital version has sold over
150,000 500,000 units while the print version struggles to sell 1000 copies in the DM. The opinions below are not necessarily those of the editors.]
Just like the Arab Spring that changed much of the Middle East, It seems like Arkham Spring is upon us and will soon change the comics industry. Tensions are finally coming to a head as the comic industry continues to transition to the digital era. Creators are starting to speak out more about their potential opportunities in digital and are questioning why the industry is holding onto old practices that are preventing their comic from being accepted by more people. A good example of this comes from writer and illustrator Brian Wood in his blog post “The Digital Question Mark”. In it I think he presents a solid case as to why this dance between publishers and retailers is screwing up opportunities to give his book the best possible chance of success. It doesn’t matter whether the industry will eventually get to cheaper digital content in the next couple years, his book will be canceled unless readers buy it today. He has a good plan for making this happen but politics are getting in the way.
Then I read a piece on Savage Critic from Brian Hibbs that acts as a response of sorts. I’ve gone to his comic shop, Comix Experience, countless times (as I live in San Francisco) and have heard nothing but nice things about him — that he’s the type of guy to really listen to an argument and is not afraid to be swayed if that argument makes sense. Hopefully I can do a good job of convincing him because to me his arguments feel like the old guard protecting the old ways of doing things by using fear of the unknown to prevent meaningful change.
Brian Hibbs compares the possible future of a digital comics industry to the music industry. He states that digital can’t provide the type of handholding and customer service that a good comic shop can and that the industry should continue to sell digital comics at a $2.99 price point. To put it plainly, I think that these arguments are flawed.
Future Digital Comics Industry ≠ Digital Music Industry
Brian H compared the comics industry to the music industry and attempted to spread fear by saying that consumers in the old music industry used to consume albums at a time but now only consume singles. The idea being that the digital shift made it so each consumer buys less music today than they did yesterday. This is like comparing apples to automobiles.
In fact, the comic industry’s move to digital has the potential to have the reverse effect with readers. First of all, comics are story based and most comics are serialized over many issues (many over 100s of issues). No one is going to read a single issue and drop the series unless they don’t care about it or they can’t afford to keep up with it. Fans are going to want to keep up with the story and if they really enjoy it, go back to issue 1 and catch up. Although publishers need to make more of their catalog available, a fan of X-Men has the ability to start off with the Chris Claremont era (1975-1991) and read every X-Men issue up to the present including events, spin-offs, limited runs, etc. And they can buy those issues without leaving their home. There is a huge potential for the new digital consumer to read a ton more comics than the old retail consumer.
“What comic should I buy?”
Now, I do agree that one area where digital is currently lacking is around helping readers discover new comics that they will enjoy. The truth is that most comic apps are a mess in terms of discovering content. Readers pretty much need to know what they are looking for as there are usually only limited suggestions via the featured section and an alphabetical list of comics that one can theoretically browse. But my eyes go crazy whenever I go down that rabbit hole. A new reader might be interested in Spider Man, but do they start with Amazing, Ultimate, or Point One? The list goes on. It’s even worse with X-Men.
But just because this aspect of comic apps sucks now doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and improved in a way where digital becomes the best way to initiate new readers to the medium. I think that, first of all, there needs to be more information for each series in order to educate readers. For example, if a reader is interested in Spider-Man, it should be made easy for them to access info on the different series that are available and the focus of each series. That way they can decide what they might be interested in and be presented with some suggestions on where to start. Also, why not just give them easy access to the Marvel Universe Wiki so they can read about the histories of the characters they come across? This could potentially spawn interest in picking up some back issues and spin-offs. For more hardcore readers, I know I could use a digital family tree of the different events and series and how they intersect over time. I stopped reading Marvel comics around House of M but I would love to get back into it if only I could pick up where I left off and read Spider-Man, Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil, etc. in order. But with all the renumbering and re-titling it’s almost impossible to without a week of research. A solid continuity tree with easy buttons to buy/read each issue (without having to navigate back to the dreaded alphabetical list) would give us completists a valuable tool and help us spend more of our money.
I also think that comics apps can be much more social and that this would increase discovery like nothing the industry has seen before. The term “social” has been bandied about quite a bit and seems kind of tired but it has less to do with how Facebook works and more about how Xbox LIVE has changed the game industry. Every reader should have a profile in their favorite comic app that allows them to list information about themselves and be able to publish lists of the comics that they have read. Readers could even make dedicated lists of their favorites books – top 10 Marvel comics, top 10 Batman graphic novels, top 10 indie books, and so on. They should be able to share this with their friends or publish these lists to the community. There should be achievements and ranks that readers can earn by reading a ton of books of a particular character or publisher. Creators themselves should also have profiles so that they can highlight their own work and the work of others that they enjoy. If I am reading Sandman, for instance, I should be able to check out Neil Gaiman’s profile, see what books he’s written, and see what comics he’s currently reading.
The Price is (not) Right
I really think the price point is what is keeping the comics industry from doubling or tripling in revenue. $2.99 and even $1.99 per issue is just too high for most people to easily buy into a long series. I recently started catching up on Bone in the app store and it’s going to cost me over $100 to read the whole thing. While I can afford it, I can’t imagine a kid is going to invest that much money into something when they can play Angry Birds for days on end for a single $0.99 purchase.
Price is the biggest obstacle to getting a new customer to take a chance on a comic that might look interesting but that they aren’t quite sure about. Price is the biggest obstacle to getting a new fan to get even more immersed in comics because they don’t have the $100 to read the entire Bone run or to catch up on previous runs of their favorite characters. Price is the biggest obstacle that prevents someone from reading the entire New 52 if they are really intrigued by DC’s new universe. They would have to spend $150 a month to read the entire thing. Even the collected edition is $100 in print; this is just too expensive for someone to keep up with regularly and prevents the average reader from becoming immersed in comics.
Wasn’t everyone just talking about how comics are expensive at $2.99 and simply unsustainable at $3.99? It’s funny how now all of a sudden everyone’s comfortable with these prices and they think the market can support it. I know the argument is more about price parity between digital and print than it is about lowering the price of comics. In an ideal world it would be great to sell $0.99 single issues through retail channels and have a way for everyone to profit but the fact remains that selling a printed book through retail doesn’t give the industry the price leverage it needs to make comics more accessible to a bigger market. So what do we do? Do we artificially inflate the price of digital books in order to artificially sustain the retail market or do we try and grow the market in a way that wasn’t possible until now? By putting pressure on publishers to artificially keep price parity we end up making it more difficult for smaller creators to take risks and innovate.
Indie creators have a really tough time in this day and age. Not only do they need to sell their work to the end consumer, but they have to sell it to a publisher in order to get the money to produce it, give Diamond a cut (just because), and then they have to convince retailers to carry it. This is a very inefficient system that kills a lot of comics that might have the ability to sell well but instead die because a retailer spent too much of their budget stocking up on Marvel and DC’s latest event or, worse yet, they don’t have the vision that something different might succeed (we ran into this when trying to get the Pocket God comic into stores). The best thing for content is if we can find a way for a creator to get in touch directly with the consumer with no middle man. You see this in the app store with games. Sure there is a lot of crap, but there are also a lot of creative games being made, games that would have never been made in the old console industry dominated by publishers and retail. And quite honestly, if I made a crap piece of content, I would at least want a chance to sell it to the end consumer rather than having a retailer tell me they aren’t going to stock it.
Personally, I’ve been sitting on the sidelines watching this transition take place. I actually appreciate the fact that the big publishers have been taking their time with their move to digital and that in the end they are doing what they can to make the transition to digital as comfortable as possible for retailers. I don’t think anyone wants to see the comic shop go the way of the video rental shop or the music store and from my perspective I see them going above and beyond to prevent that from happening. However I’m disturbed that retailers would exert their influence to prevent a publisher (or creator) from doing what it needs to in order to grow their business. Pocket God has had a lot of success at $0.99 – we have a digital comic based on a game that is getting sales that rival top selling Marvel and DC print comics. And while I don’t think this price point is correct for everyone, I do think that many titles would get more visibility and have a higher chance at success if they experimented with it.
In the end, I think that anything that limits the ability of a publisher or creator to sell their story is bad for this industry. And ignoring the potential of the digital comics market may be doing just that.
[Dave Castelnuovo is a consultant and entrepreneur who founded Bolt Creative in 2001 as a Flash development company and game studio. The San Francisco-based business branched out into iPhone games in 2008 and launched a comic series in 2010. Castelnuovo is co-creator of the iPhone application Pocket God.]