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I was on a panel at WonderCon in February, talking about the convergence between comics, movies, TV and videogames. It was a good panel, fun and conversational. And towards the end, I made the following statement:

It is inevitable that printed comics, as a viable commodity consumer item, will die out as people move to reading comics on-screen. Physical comics will instead evolve to become high-quality expensive deluxe art objects, purchased only by enthusiasts and collectors.

Now, I didn’t think that was a particularly controversial statement. It’s an opinion I’ve held for some time, and the recent success of similar experiments in music — such as Radiohead’s IN RAINBOWS and Nine Inch Nails’ GHOSTS — has only reinforced it.

But it certainly raised a few eyebrows in that panel room, from both attendees and my fellow panelists. Is it because I’m some sort of genius visionary prophet and nobody else has ever had this thought? An appealing notion, but I don’t buy it. In fact, I think it’s because most of us involved with comics, either as professionals or fans, are too close to the subject to see it. I also believe there’s an element of wilfully ignoring the reality of what’s happening in media, because frankly it’s quite scary.

But it is happening. And it can’t be stopped.

Almost four years ago, I wrote an entry about Internet comics piracy. At the time, it wasn’t a widely-known problem. Many comics publishers and retailers had no idea piracy even existed. Even those who did know about it were mostly unaware of the scale on which it was occurring.

A lot’s changed since then. Now, everyone knows you can download a torrent of the weekly comics within 24 hours of their release. But it’s not just new releases that are available — complete archives of entire forty-year runs, obscure indie books, the big mainstream releases, deluxe hardback editions, you name it. If it’s out there in published form, it’s out there on the Internet.

Is the sky falling? Are we doomed to the same fate as newspapers, trapped in a downward sales spiral that can only be offset by posting our content for free and supporting it with advertising?

I don’t think so. For one thing, anecdotal evidence from a wide variety of creators and publishers says that a certain number of people who download pirated comics will like it enough to then buy a hardcopy version. No-one’s done a good, scientific study of this behaviour, so it’s hard to present as irrefutable. But when you get readers’ letters that proudly state how they bought a book after downloading a few issues, it’s equally hard to deny.

The question is whether those readers offset the number of people who forego buying hardcopies altogether, and instead just read the pirated versions. This is impossible to gauge, but my feeling based on many conversations with downloaders is that if the books weren’t available online, they simply wouldn’t read them at all. This is common folk wisdom among people who support the idea of digital comics, so obviously the opinion is biased. But again, anecdotal evidence and conversations with downloaders supports the idea.

So what now? Well, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed. We still don’t have an “iTunes for comics” — which was what I suggested in that entry four years ago, and has subsequently also been suggested by just about everyone who contemplates the issue.

It’s a no-brainer; you can’t stop piracy. The music and movie industries have already learnt that lesson. But what you can do is make legitimate digital versions available, in a cheap and convenient format, for people to buy.

If you don’t believe that people will pay for content they want when there are free pirated versions up for grabs, you probably haven’t heard that iTunes is now the #1 retailer of all music in the US. All music, not just digital downloads.

Even traditional prose books are rapidly heading the same way. Amazon has already sold almost a quarter of a million Kindles in less than a year, and e-books are a rapidly growing segment of the market.

But music is music, regardless of what device you play it on. We watch movies on a screen anyway. And books are just words, so their physical presentation isn’t as important. Surely comics are different? We rely on images, which need to be viewed in the sort of high resolution that makes a Kindle-like device for comics cost-prohibitive with current technology. Who wants to read off their computer screen for hours?

This last point is a common argument in the digital comics debate. “Nobody likes reading on a screen for long periods!”, goes the refrain. But what these people actually mean is that they don’t like it.

Screen sizes, and resolution, have grown rapidly in the past few years. It’s almost impossible to buy an off-the-shelf desktop computer these days with a monitor smaller than 17″ and resolution less than 1280×800. Many are much higher, and even 13″ laptops routinely equal or better that resolution. Backlights have improved. And frankly, as time marches on we’ve all just gotten more used to it. Reading on a computer, even for older generations, is not the onerous task it once was.

As for younger generations, there are children growing up right now who have never known a world without computers; indeed, they have never known a world without the Internet as an omnipresent resource (Those of you who were born before 1990, just think about that for a moment). This new generation reads everything on-screen, for hours at a time.

Simply put: if you think people don’t want to read comics on-screen, you’re not paying attention. The very success of comics piracy is all the proof you should need.

So if we accept the inevitability of comics moving to a digital format (and I don’t really think anyone sensible can deny it), what happens then?

Well, for one thing, printing physical comics will become ever-more inefficient, to the point it also becomes unprofitable. This is already starting to happen, albeit on a small scale. Hang around any comics forum for a while and you will inevitably come across someone asking, “Why do comics cost so much? I remember when they were just a dime!”

Of course, that was thirty years ago. But it’s true that comics have increased in price well above inflation. Why? For a multitude of reasons. We use better paper and better ink than our predecessors did. We pay the talent a lot more than our predecessors did, and employ more people in the process of making and distributing a single comic. And we don’t sell as many as our predecessors did.

It’s an ugly truth, but it’s also basic economics. As readership continues to fall, the price is only going to rise, until we reach the point where The Question must be asked; do we keep raising prices in the hope readers will continue to absorb the inflated cost? Or do we just get out while we’re ahead and stop producing the books?

(It’s true that graphic novel sales are booming right now, thanks in part to the manga juggernaut. But issue sales are already on a long-term downward trend. And how long will GN sales keep increasing? Once again, the shadow of the Kindle’s unexpected success looms large.)

Are we facing the end of physical comics? That depends. Regular monthly issues? Definitely. Collections and regular graphic novels? Almost certainly, albeit I expect that to take a lot longer.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be demand for hardcopy versions, and an opportunity to make money. It’ll just be very different.

Avid collectors and enthusiasts, of any medium, will always desire a physical object. It just seems hardwired into the human condition — hardcore fans want something they can own and cherish.

We see this in music, with continued (albeit declining) sales of CDs despite easy and often cheaper alternatives online. We see it in movies, where people pay two or three times as much as a cinema ticket to buy a special edition DVD. In novels, when people buy hardbacks. And why do people buy box sets of TV shows when they could just record the broadcasts for free? It’s not just the convenience of watching whenever we like. Anyone with a PVR already has that ability. But people want the object.

And the smart publishers and packagers know that a few tasty extras that are only available with the hard copy — lavish CD inserts, expensive dust jackets, DVD extra features, even free merchandise with the purchase — make that format even more desirable.

That’s what will happen in comics. You want to read a new graphic novel? You can download it for a few dollars, like everyone else. But if you’re a big fan, an enthusiast, then perhaps we can also interest you in this hardcover, cloth-bound, oversized, glossy-paged deluxe edition for your coffee table. A snip at forty bucks.

This market already exists. Publishers are already producing deluxe hardback editions in limited quantities, and they’re selling. But another comparison is the niche coffee-table book market; photography and fashion books, National Geographic editions, large-format design folios, and so on. As the mass mainstream acceptance of comics as a valid art form continues, this market will also grow.

The digital waters are already being tested. SLG, through their Eyemelt service, sells downloadable PDFs of their comics (and DRM-free, to boot). Wowio offers free books to read online, subsidised with ads (Wowio originally started as solely a comics site, but they’ve since expanded into normal books too). And Pullbox Online is currently the closest thing to a comics iTunes store, albeit only for a select band of indie publishers and then only select titles from those publishers.

The real challenge, the thing that will make a digital market viable, is getting ‘the majors’ on board — i.e., Marvel and DC. That’s going to take someone with plenty of chutzpah and deep, deep pockets. And it will be a technical challenge, too, because the likelihood of those publishers selling digital comics without DRM is somewhere between zip and zilch.

But it will happen, and it must happen, in order to prevent comics sliding into the same depressing spiral as the music industry. We must learn from their mistakes (which are legion) and embrace the digital marketplace before it kills us.

Let’s see where we are in another four years.

 

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