Thursday, January 6, 2011

Myth Conception: Digital Messiah!

Pocket God will not save us, kids

I hear a lot of talk about the inevitable rise of the Digital Messiah.  "It's taking over!  You can't stop it, you fossilized Luddite, the digital beast is the future!"  I really didn't mind this stuff when it first started heavy rotation....what...three years ago?  I didn't mind it then, because I was looking for a comics messiah (still am, incidentally) and the ideas weren't spread with a such a smug air.

But after listening to this noise for several years and noticing that the digital revolution has absolutely no traction in the real world, and no interest from real people, I'm ready to call digital comics what they are - ethanol.

Like ethanol, digital comics are an inferior product that nobody really wants.  Publicly, all the right people are touting the "advantages".  At this point, saying anything against digital comics is likely to earn you the wrath of the punditsphere.  If you don't recognize the inalienable right of digital to own the future, you're an anti-technology dinosaur nerd who just isn't evolved enough to grow past the printed page.  You're a flat earth troll in a post-Copernicus world, desperately clawing at the past and selfishly denying a digital future filled with four-color gum drops and sparkly unicorns.

The demonstrable truth is that digital comics are not the future, and will not save the medium.  The demonstrable truth is that nobody wants the damn things, or at least there's no evidence that significant numbers are willing to pay for them.  I don't know how to break this to y'all, but if the industry is to survive, we need somebody to actually pay for the comics they enjoy.

I remember ethanol.  I remember the smug satisfaction of its advocates demanding that our future be driven by corn gas.  To be fair, it wasn't a bad idea.  The principle - that we need a domestic and sustainable fuel to replace oil, was delicious.  The problem was that the product sucked, and nobody actually wanted the stuff.  In the end it turned out to be harmful to grocery prices, as way too much of that potentially useful corn got shifted away from food and into gas tanks.

None of that stopped the endless public clamoring for ethanol.  Mindlessly yammering about a hip concept is a good way to get elected, and an excellent method for showing folks within earshot what a progressive person you are.  And that's all digital comics are - narrative corn gas with some social cache, but no real traction in reality, and no discernible future traction, either.  Nobody wants them.

I know, I know, this all sounds like the mad ravings of a contrarian looking to stir the pot.  And I am a mad contrarian looking to stir the pot.  But if you examine some of the digital rhetoric, it isn't hard to see the cracks.  Let's start with a really vague and simple one.

Myth:  Digital comics are the future!

Truth:  Do you know anybody, even one person, and by person I mean person that currently spends money on comics, eager to switch to digital?  Let me answer that one for you - you don't.  Maybe if you live in Casper, Wyoming, and the nearest comic shop is several parsecs away, you're anticipating more mainstream comics going day and date.  It's far more likely that you've simply discovered DCB Service and are getting your books delivered to you dirt cheap.

It's easy to find a talking head in an interview, column, or blog to decree that five years from now, we won't remember what all that paper fuss was about.  It's exceptionally difficult to find a flesh human being actually thinking about making the switch from print to digital. 

Myth:  Oh, Ryan, you old dinosaur, you just don't understand.  The kids today don't share your fascination with paper, and grew up on computers.  Kids love digital comics!

Truth:  Oh, invisible devil's advocate, you just don't understand.  The kids today don't give a shit about comics in any format.  Most of them lack the attention span and discipline to read or write full words.  Reading comics is more work then reading full text, because you have interpret the images in conjunction with the available text, and you have to do a great deal of high order thinking between the gutters to connect panels in a meaningful way.  

I wish it weren't the case, but kids are simply not interested in comics.  They like games. They like movies. They like music, somewhat.  A handful of them may even enjoy some web comics...if they're available for free.  There is no data to suggest that significant numbers of people are interested in paying for digital comics.

Listen, digital comics are not new.  They've been around for years.  All kinds of cool and influential people have been telling us for years that they are the future.  So where's the model?  Where's the success story?  Where is the million selling digital comic book?

There isn't one.  It's possible, (highly unlikely, but possible) to get massive hits on a digital comic, if it's available for nothing.  But in all this time, in all the world, has there never been a talented creator telling a good story on the web?  Has everybody sucked? 

If there was an audience for digital comics, we would have already seen multiple hit books by now.  If the world was really bursting at the seems for the product, it's out there.  It's available in great reams, and surely in a world populated with endless forums and global word-of-mouth via social networking, we would have seen not one but many "lightning in a bottle" digital sensations.  Nobody wants them.  Don't take my word for it, just look at the best seller list.  There isn't one.  Nobody wants to buy digital comics.

Myth:  That's not true!  I just read that Pocket God sold more than 3 million copies!

Truth:  Don't talk to me about Pocket God.  That's a game.  There's a great deal of evidence to support the fact that kids are interested in spending money on games for their computers, phones, IPads.  There is zero evidence that kids are willing to part with cash to read digital comics.  Next!

Myth:   OK, what about that ICV2 research that says that the digital market increased ten fold in the past year while print comics took a dip?

Truth:   That's a point that deserves attention.  Digital comics did increase year over year.  It went from an estimated $500,000 in 2009 to $6M-$8M estimated in 2010.  Whatever.  Print comics did $310M in a down year, and that's 40 times the messiah.  

But that's not all.  What we're not factoring in yet is the $370M in trade sales directly generated by collecting the print comics.  A couple of those were OGNs, but that is almost entirely generated by monthly pamphlet print comics.  So now we're at $8M for the messiah vs. $680M for print comics. And that puts print comics as crushing the holy digital by 85 times the dollars.  Does that sound like the future?  

But that's not all.  How much of that digital pie is also generated by material made possible by previously printed material?  I'm sure some of that figure is purely digital books, but most of that money is comics available digitally that wouldn't be unless there was a profitable printed comic before it to subsidize it. I don't have the data to look at, but surely that's most of it.  

Myth:    Yeah, but Marvel went on record as saying that they were able to announce a price reduction on some books for 2011 because of their digital sales!

Truth:    Don't even get me started on that price reduction that Marvel lied about.  To bring it back on point, Marvel's digital sales are just gravy from their already profitable and printed comics.  They aren't really selling digital comics, they're selling reprints of popular print comics.  

If Marvel thought for one second they could make a nickel selling new digital material, they would do it in a heartbeat.  You'll notice they don't do that.  They have offered some new digital exclusive material available if you own a subscription.  But nobody is buying Marvel's DCU for that stuff.  They're going there for the archives.

Marvel doesn't produce new digital exclusive comics because again, nobody wants them, and they know that it won't be profitable.  The only market for digital comics are pundits trying to prove that they're cutting edge.  That's your market.  Real people don't buy them, and there's no evidence to suggest that they're changing their mind about that.  Digital comics are ethanol.

What I'm Not Saying
I'm not saying that I hate digital comics and that they have no place.  I'm not a Luddite or a purist, and I don't take offense at the fact that some comics are not printed on some form of wood pulp.  

Digital comics are an inferior product, not a useless one.  If you have no access to print books, digital will do in a pinch.  If I were an aspiring comic book creator, I can think of no better pitch than a web comic that demonstrates good storytelling ability.  I think that digital comics can be a profitable supplement to an already profitable print book.

There's nothing wrong with digital comic books, but their only advantage over print books is their remarkable ability to not take up physical space.  As a reading experience, which would seem sort of key in a reading material, they are inherently inferior.  There's nothing wrong with digital comic books, other than the fact that nobody is interested in buying them.  If offered at a dollar or less, I think that the digital segment could function as an excellent taste-testing feeder system to print.  Fine.

But on this planet, digital comics are not a future messiah.  Sorry! You can spout your ethanol chanting all you want, but I'm done listening or caring until someone can show me data that supports the concept.  Good luck with that.  If we want to save comics, we need to continue fostering ideas about how to drive civilian traffic toward the print books, books that actually have a paying audience. 

- Ryan



Killyrcomics said...

With all due respect, I don't disagree with your facts because they are indisputable. However, I disagree that digital comics are "inferior". As a consumer of both, digital has numerous advantages over print. They look better, they are more convenient, and, in some cases, they are even cheaper. Oh yeah, and I can read them in a dark room. Sweet! Have you seen the crap thar marvel and DC print their monthly comics on? Digital is not the messiah, by any means, but, if done right, it could be something pretty great.

Chronic Insomnia said...

Thanks for chiming in! I actually think this particular argument of mine is disputable on a number of points. And while I still consider digital to be an inferior product, if you don't...then obviously for you they aren't. Case closed!

I'm not entirely pleased with this piece, but I believe in the core assertions, and it's a decent first salvo.

To me, reading a digital comic feels exceptionally clunky compared to holding the book in my hands. I have SO much more control over what I'm scanning with a print book, and I can do it with infinitely more speed and grace. Reading a digital comic for me is like eating pudding with chopsticks. I can do it...but give me a spoon, please!

I just think it's time to stop assuming that there is some mysterious and enormous bank of people busting at the seams to buy digital comics. Digital comics are not a secret at this point. They are out there, the apps are out there, the readers and devices are all out there. If there was a market for it, surely we would have seen some fiscal evidence of it by now...

Anonymous said...

There isn't a device out there yet to read comic books on. The only thing out there are devices HACKED to be readers for comic books. Not even the iPad, which is the best device for reading comic books isn't really that close to the size needed and it's too damn clunky, it wasn't made for comic book reading at all. There is NO device made for comic book reading out there. Nothing specifically made for reading comic books, once that is out there, sales for digital comic books will sore compared to now.

killyrcomics said...

I would much rather read comics on my Ipad than a montly single issue. Reading on an Ipad, in my mind, is most similar to reading a nice sturdy hardcover. The color and printing quality is the closest you can get to the artist's intent, and it is sturdy as well. I don't know what is clunky about reading on the ipad. Tapping or flicking my finger is just as easy as turning a page on a floppy, if not easier. I guess I have to rotate it when I come to a double page spread, and, at that point, the text can be a little small, but at that point I can always zoom in if necessary. The screen could honestly be a little bigger, but for stuff that I feel deserves that treatment I can always pick up a nice oversized hardcover.

Stephen said...

Hey Ryan, a very insightful piece here. I suppose I am biased on the subject because I have vision issues that make screen reading a chore at times with my laptop - nevermind any kind of e-reader device, and also because I agree with your feelings about the "grace" of holding a physical comicbook in my hot little clawed talons.

However, I am still not totally convinced that the marketplace (ie the consumer) will resist the larger scale move towards digicomics since more and more I am seeing the people around me switch over to smart phones and pad-based devices on a scale that has me thinking of where cell phone acceptance was at 6 or 7 years ago. If this is true, wouldn't it hold that even our age group, our comic reading demographic would eventually find it more convenient to do more things on a reader device than they are now? I once could not see myself owning a cellphone, now I marvel at how I got along without one. Funny how that happens.

Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the thought that digital comics look better on an iPad or e-reader I disagree. Killyrcomics, you said that a iPad gives quality that is closest to the artists intent but this is true only in the sense of the colorist (since books are now colored digitally). Comics are still drawn on bristol board type paper which means that paper is actually closer to the artist origional working medium than a digital version. More vibrant colors? probably but a digital version doesn't make the pencils and line work any better than the printed version.
I'm a big fan of top cow, ever since I found the late great Michael Turner's Witchblade I've loved those guys. To me their books always look better on paper than digital because of the style of artist that Marc Silvestri brings in around him. There's a "scratchy" feel to their work that looks better on paper rather than a digital copy. I'm also a collector so I'm biased in this but what's the point in collecting digital books, I like comics because I can open up my books, get all nostalgic and read them. That, in my opinion, can't happen with digital comics.
This is a similar problem in the games industry as well. In an attempt to cut manufacturing costs, piracy, and gamestop making millions off of selling used games, companies want to make games digitally downloadable rather than on a disk. I like owning a physical product, I can pass it on to friends, not worry about a whole game taking up space on my hard drive.
The same is true for me with comics, to let a friend read a digital comic I'd have to lend him an iPad (because you know if digital comics ever do become popular you're not going to be able to share that file among friends) or share an account. For me digital comics are like communism, a great idea but it always looks better on paper than when it's actually attempted.
With that said, Ryan I hope there's some sort of happy sunshine article on the way because all this doom and gloom really sucks.


Anonymous said...

I hate to burst your bubble on digital NOT being better than printed, but it actually is. Sure the comic is drawn on paper to begin with, but it still needs to be scanned in before it can be printed. That means that the digital scan is better than the printed form, since it's been scanned and then printed to paper. What we get with the printed page cannot be better than the digital version, since it comes from the digital version. They don't send the original copies of the paper off to the printers, it's a very high res scan, which we would get if digital comics were fully instated.

I do however agree that it eliminates the desire to collect comic books. On the other hand I know plenty of people who look around their collections and wonder what the heck they are doing. They have tons of money invested in long boxes, boards and bags for each comic book. They have space set aside for storing and keeping their mostly worthless comic books. In the olden days it was a good idea to save your comic books because someday they might be worth something, that's because hardly anyone did that, comic books were throw away articles of media. Now everyone saves their comic books, so the chance of them being worth anything are very slim.

As to sharing comic books, we don't know for sure, but I would assume that the sharing of the digital comic books will be a lot like the way Nook and or Kindle does it, with limited sharing for up to two weeks. That's plenty of time for someone to read the books in a few days. Also right now the iPad is one of the only things that works well for reading the books and I agree that a $500 device is not a good idea to borrow to someone. But someday soon, we are going to see devices that are specifically for reading comic books that are a lot cheaper. Probably in the vicinity of $100 to $150, which is not much more than some of the omnibuses we currently hold in our collections.

Let's also mention that the cost of digital media and storage devices is going to go down constantly, but the cost of paper and printing will always go up. The days of $4 comic books are going to go away and become $5 each, which the cost of my hard drives are going down daily. I can buy a 16GB flash drive, with no moving parts, for about $25 and that was at least $80 no less than two years ago. In two years that size will be much less. In two years comic books will probably be $5 each.


Anonymous said...

If everyone that reads comic books collects them and stores them correctly, the value of said comic books is going to be nil so why collect except for personal use. I am speaking only of the new comic books that are coming out now. The only thing that denotes value anymore is the limited amount of prints that are made.

Right now getting digital comic books and reading them is a pain in the ass. It's not universal yet, there isn't a reader out for them, just devices that sort of work for them and their isn't a consistent place to get all your comic book titles each week. When that happens there is no way to argue against any numbers for or against digital comic books. To be honest, that digital comics gained any ground in one year with really no push is astonishing. From $500,000 to $6-$8 million is insane. That would be like selling MP3's twenty years ago without the iPod or anything devoted to playing them on. Once we get the iPod for digital comic books in place and a place were we can get nearly all the comic books we want, then you can spout on high about digital comic books not working. As far as being a dinosaur in wanting to collect the books, I am there with ya man, I have tons of long boxes and I've spent a lions share on bags and boards over the years, so I know where you are coming from.

When the infrastructure is in place for this whole thing to take off then we can really find out what the next step will be. People who want to buy printed comic books are dying of old age, so unless we get new buyers of printed comic books in the very near future we are going to have very little in the way of comic books in the future. Same can be said about CD's which are dying on the vein but with iTunes the music industry is back stronger than ever. Sure that iTunes basically killed the CD market, but sales of music increased beyond what was selling in the form of CD.

I agree about the gloom and doom of this whole discussion. It's sad really, to be speaking about the dying of an institution. I wanna cry thinking about my kids not being able to read comic books because all the old folks who buy comics are now dead. Without new readers, I think all this talk is really just talk.

Yeah we really should come up with a new and brighter more enjoyable topic next time.