You can’t bag and board an e-reader…
Comics are quite an interesting subsection of printed entertainment. What is really fascinating about them, however, is when compared to purely text based novels and other written literature, graphic novels and comics add much more complexity to the digital discussion.
Ever since comics became available in digital format the reactions have been wide-ranging: some embrace, whilst others decry and shun, and a rainbow lies between. People are buying digital though, and although the rate of growth is declining, it is still rising. Take 2013’s widely known stats of $90 million up from $20 million on 2012 for example, although much less than the $870 from $635 of print, the rate of growth is comparable, and when the cost of publication and distribution is taken into account, the figures would look even more attractive.
So, what’s so interesting to me? Well, book discussions, for the most part, come down to the basic pros and cons of traditional ink versus electronic. It’s pretty black and white, but the tendrils of comic-book culture extend far and beyond these basic points of contention.
Digital books learned early enough that the price of an eBook shouldn’t be the same as a print version, not by a great measure, and readers appreciate this. The fact that a lot of comics are still priced the same seems unreasonable to some. And whilst others are happy to pay full whack, making massive savings on manufacture and distribution and not passing on even a portion of the savings onto your fans still seems counterintuitive at first.
But let’s take it out of context for a moment, because homogenization of price is something that gamers had to deal with long before book aficionados, as digital distribution in this arena has been around for well over a decade now. In the beginning companies introduced direct to drive services, and then digital distribution services like Steam arrived on the scene and there was no looking back. Originally gamers were less than pleased about the idea of paying full price for something with no box/manual/CD/map/trinket, especially when you consider the amount of cost reduced by avoiding bricks-and-mortar. However they soon got over it, and continue to accept the requirement to pay full price, because what you are paying for is the game, not the medium. It’s important to realize that the more money in the hands of the developer, the better the games they can make. Win-win. (Well, win-loose-win because the middleman dies a death, but that is a whole different discussion.)
So, maybe comics will never drop in price, and small studios can afford to grow. eBooks prices may even begin to come up, however, it is very market driven and 2.99 is still a very popular sale point.
This is tricky. Books scale well across devices as long as formats are catered for, but a comic’s success is much more device-specific. Only larger and possibly unwieldy tablets/readers are going to offer a full comic experience of any legibility, and black-and-white eReaders are totally out of the equation for anything but black and white manga. So this is something that has a major bearing on the transition.
There are some newer, more clever features that let you view panel by panel, but these kinds of things can be device-specific, which only bolsters the variety of popularity of eComics. But then there comes the risk of upgrading to a device that doesn’t handle the format or work in the same, so there are pros and cons here too. Like how games push computer hardware, maybe comics are what will push readers adding animations and puzzle features to mystery comics, but no matter what, this will still remain very subjective. I know that I personally like to have the full view of a comic book page, rather than a panel by panel option, which confines me to larger devices for readability. This isn’t ideal, but as someone with a collection dating back to the 70s, and digital comics, I’m happy to embrace the revolution.
This is a major factor for some, as eComics just aren’t, and collecting is synonymous with comics. More so than with books, as book collectors tend to collect rarer books, comic collectors don’t just do that. Instead, they collect scores of their favourite series and spinoffs and anything new, too. They don’t have to be valuable or rare, that’s the beauty of it, as regardless they’re going to get bagged and carded if the collector is serious. Might this fact prevent a wholesale uptake of eComics, for a while at least? Who can say for certain, and who’s to say it should or shouldn’t, as these things can co-exist in the grey. Can’t they?
Every comic is a tangible handheld piece of artwork with a story, and in the same way that eArt couldn’t replace hanging a painting on your wall, a box of lovingly cellophane-wrapped comics will never vanish from the attic either.
This is much the same for some people with books: they like to have their favourites on the shelf but are increasingly supplementing their favourite and most beloved authors work with digital content as you can consume more for less and with added convenience. So this will probably be the same in comics, although perhaps to a lesser degree. After all you can only fill so many boxes before you have to start considering switching to virtual space over physical.
Cultural external factors:
With the likes of Humble Bundle doing several comic bundles, and many special edition games offering digital material, getting your hands on digital comics is becoming more affordable, whilst new and existing companies are getting their work read by an audience they may have never reached before. This is something that benefits everyone and will help to grow the medium in the digital space.
Thanks to the recent mainstream popularity of super hero movies, people are discovering comics, and are happy to buy digital versions online. Whilst the rest of us can still go to (and lets they hope that they never actually vanish), the hallowed comic book shop, where you can leaf through comics, grab posters, figures and other bits of merchandise, whilst drinking in the atmosphere, you can’t compete with the discoverability and customer convenience offered with digital, as one doesn’t even have to leave the comfort of the couch. This is golden for indie comic book makers with no budget for distribution and large studios alike, and it puts the power in the hands of the reader.
Finally, perhaps age may turn out to be a factor, although this is conjecture on my part, as younger comic fans grow up with dwindling comic stores and without quite the same nostalgic attachment to your dad’s old 1970s Marvel comics, things might begin to change at a pace. What is change for us older comic book collectors will be the norm for the younger generations, but that’s the same with all creative outlets and mediums. Digital versus print is a mind-set we need to get out of, if nothing else then for eco and economic reasons, as when it boils down to it, it’s the content that is important, not the format.
Stuart Royce - Developer at Vearsa
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