Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Digital Comics Done Right

Recently, Marvel announced a deal with iTunes that would allow them to distribute Marvel comics to iPhone and iPod Touch. I can certainly understand the appeal, and why Marvel would want to enter that market: anything that Apple releases these days is bound to become a hot item.

Marvel is not the first publisher to distribute comics through the iPhone, but the fact that the biggest American comic publishing company is using this method of distribution is a pretty big deal, especially since they have their own digital service and are opting to utilize iTunes as well.

Many feel that this is the next step in the evolution of comic distribution, but to me it feels that it is not properly planned, and that customers are the ones that could end up paying the price. Hit the jump for some more thoughts about the deal, and the future of digital comics.

The Available Apps

Marvel's recent announcement of their decision to start distributing comics through the iTunes store revealed the fact that you could buy their comics through FOUR different applications: Comixology, iVerse, Panelfly, and Scrollmotion. Additionally, other companies have already started making headway in releasing digital comics in their own way, such as with Longbox.

The only problem is that none of these share a common file type, or even a common player (to my knowledge at least, stop me if I am wrong), so what you buy for one phone (the iPhone, for example) won't work if you decide to change it for another one. Even if you don't change phones, what you download in one app won't work with another one. If you can't see why this is not very good, maybe you can ask the people that bought HD DVD players, UMD movies for the PSP, or Zip Drives.

I know there's bound to be these kind of problems with any new and emerging technology, but I like to think we have learned enough from the music and movie industry to not make the same mistakes. Take a look at what Marvel's Executive Vice President of Digital Media, Ira Rubenstein, said in an interview about the brand new deal:

"We want to give the consumers the choice to decide what's best for them. Each software has a world of difference, and each company has a different approach. By going with multiple companies, we're letting the consumer decide."

Despite what I am sure are good intentions, someone is going to end up getting the raw end of the deal. Some of these companies are going to crash and burn, close down shop and stop updating their players, making them obsolete as the iPhone keeps updating their OS.

Don't believe me? Some comics already available on the iTunes store won't play unless you have the 3.0 update of their OS, which you have to pay $9.99 to get. Theoretically (again, stop me if I am wrong) the opposite can also happen if these comics apps are not compatible with new updates on the iPhone.

What will happen with the content that has already been paid for? Would readers be able to read their content on other players? Probably not. And so that content could become useless.

A Simplified System

The way to do digital comics the right way is to develop a system and a unified file type for every company to use so as to avoid the trappings I mentioned above. For example, you can play an mp3 file in your computer, your portable player, and as many compatible devices as there exist out there with rare exceptions. This is what the digital comic book initiative should aim for - not a system where it is every man for himself. The comic industry has the advantage of being a relatively small one, at least in comparison to the music, movie or gaming industry, so a consensus should be easier to achieve.

Who seems to be making headway into what I think is the right direction is the Longbox program, which seems to be an iTunes-like program for all three main operating systems (Windows, Mac, and Linux) that seems to have the right idea behind it. The Longbox program is going to have it's own proprietary format, as well as be able to play other types of files, theoretically giving it more malleability and adaptability than the iPhone apps will ever have. Sadly, we still don't have a street date, as the program (as far as I know) is still in Beta testing and trying to work out deals with publishing companies.

The other good aspect of Longbox is that it is going to be aimed at computer users, rather than mobile devices. In my humble opinion, the fact that publishing companies are trying to go after the mobile device market before we have a reliable system in place for regular ol' computers is a case of "trying to run before you can walk".

The argument I have heard is that iPhones are the "hot" thing in the market right now, and a great place to reach a bigger audience, but the number of people that have iPhones pales in comparison with the number that owns computers. Making the images fit and make them scrollable into a tiny three inch screen is a huge challenge that must be tackled on a issue-by-issue basis, making the process incredibly slow, a problem that is not as challenging in a regular computer, where the screen is exponentially bigger.

Quick side note: It's all good and nice to try to fit comics into that tiny screen, and it will work for some comics, maybe a good portion of them, but it will never replace looking at the actual page all at once. Take for example Watchmen, which at first sounds like very do-able, in terms of translating the panels which are all neatly arraigned in square grids, but then the beauty of the "Fearful Symmetry" chapter would be completely lost on the reader. And that is without mentioning complex and detailed splash pages, like the recent work of J.H. Williams III on Detective Comics or a lot of George Perez' artwork, to name a few other examples.

At the same time, I understand why companies are going the mobile device route first. It's a relatively smaller market, allows for more experimentation before moving to bigger fish.

The Piracy "Problem"

I think the main reason that the comic industry hasn't gone ahead with an iTunes-like service for personal computers is that they are afraid of the comics being shared on torrent sites and the like, the same thing that happens to the music and movie industry.

That's why, until now, Marvel's digital comic initiative didn't have the option to download comics - only stream-like material that could be viewed with an Internet connection through Marvel's website in their proprietary Flash viewer.

In this day and age, making something downloadable means that it will end up being shared by people.  But here is the kicker (and I doubt many of you will be shocked by this): comics are already shared like that. Every week, a group of people buys and scans pretty much every comic published out there and they are shared by users all around the world.

Another side note: the scanners don't get paid by anyone, and somehow do a better job of scanning and putting comics online, usually with a higher quality of image and in a more timely fashion, than Marvel's own digital service.

The New Numbers

The problem therein lies in the fact that more and more recent studies show that, for example, people that download music end up spending more money on legally purchased music than people that don't download music from file-sharing sites.

This article, for example, notes that sales on the music industry are not going down because of people downloading, but because they are spending that money on games and DVDs instead. This other article indicates that people that download music through filesharing are more likely to purchase digital content legally. And this more recent article shows that people that illegally download content spend more money on legally purchased music than people that don't. Simply put, fear of piracy is a moot point if it's already done on mass, looks better and has more versatility, quantity, timeliness and readability than your paid offering and all for free. 

Of note, research hasn't been done on how this relates to comic sales, which I suspect has more to do with the relatively small size of the industry and complete lack of a proper online model, so it is hard to say how an easier way to illegally download comics would affect the industry at large, especially with how easy it already is.

In my humble opinion, comic fans are a reliable and fanatic bunch driven by a collector mentality and I don't think the majority of us would give up their comic buying habits in favor of illegally downloading because we know all too well the bitterness of having titles canceled because of low sales. The way that I see it is that, even if it is through illegal means, digitally downloadable comics could also bring in a larger audience, something this ailing industry desperately needs.


Those are my thoughts on the way digital comics should move ahead in the future, a unified front that should allow readers to choose their platform without having to buy separate files, and without worrying about piracy. Current piracy options include a renamed WinRAR (like a Zip file) filled with high resolution scans of the comic that can be read using a free image viewing program.

Stealing a page from the music industry, they should simply go with the same format and program, much like Winamp and Windows Media Player were originally used for pirated mp3s and are still used for digital downloads and legitimate digital files.

Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments section or let us know what your thoughts on the whole digital movement for comics should entail.

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Christine said...

Great post Matt! I agree that something needs to be done here. We need a good format that can be downloaded legally. What bothers me about the iTunes option is that, as with so many other things on the iTunes store, it's only available in North America. Where I live, I have to give two months notice to put something on my pull list, and two months notice to drop something. Sure, I get the actual item just one day late, but I can guarantee that I would be all over comics on iTunes. If I could buy them, that is. Listen up Marvel! I want to give you more of my money! I don't know what the publishing schedule is for the iTunes option, but I think a good middle ground would be to release things digitally the week after releasing them in stores.

One thing that the publishers might be worried about is pissing off the retailers, but we're talking about material that is already available online - illegaly - and the fact that comics on the screen is very different from comics on paper. I think that's one of the things the comic industry really has going for it compared to the movie and music industries. A song sounds the same, whether you bought the CD or downloaded it, and the same thing goes for the movies on TV. A printed comic book, however, presents the reader with a different experience than reading it on the screen. The "real deal" will always be people's first choice. The digital format, on the other hand, gives people more freedom to browse and can provide a bridge for people who are new to the medium and may feel hesitant about going into a comic book store.

In closing, while it's not in any way ideal - and has an interface that looks like a 90s nightmare - I have to give two thumbs up to the new Marvel Digital reader for at least getting rid of the pixelation problem when zooming in or out. The images look smooth now. Baby steps...

Bill said...

Fights over formats are just going to happen with technology stuff, and no one is going to concede. PDFs have been widely accepted as standard for scanned text for years, and the Kindle doesn't even natively support them.

Digital content sellers hope to win the format wars, then either get patent revenue when other business are forced to adopt their format, or trap users on their platform since other platforms won't support their proprietary format. It's horrible for the consumers, but agreeing on standards beforehand is bad for businesses.

As for piracy, I think it does a fair amount of good for the industry. It exposes people to things they'd never pay for sight unseen. It maybe keeps people up to date on titles when they can't afford them, so that when they have money down the line, they don't feel like they've missed the boat. And for the moment, it is the only source for a genuinely user-friendly digital comic experience. Certainly some people abuse it, but I bet it drives trade sales more than Marvel and DC would like to admit.

Frank said...

Excellent post. I will admit to being one of those people that now spends more money every week on comics after downloading and trying out titles over BitTorrent. I've started buying Fables, Ex Machina, Mighty Avengers, Unwritten and many others after being able to sample the titles. You're also right about the quality, the torrent scanners are very good and read much better than any of the Flash readers Marvel has used.

If Marvel and other companies would embrace putting select issues out there in either PDF or CBZ formats for people to try I think it would boost print sales.

Kirk Warren said...

@Bill - PDFs were only acceptable because they were the only real method in the past with dial up and it just took hold. Adobe Reader and other PDF viewers are slow and clunky compared to a simple image reader like CDisply or ACDSee or even built in Windows Image Viewer.

In terms of text, yes, it's okay, but for a comic or other graphical product, it's terrible. I have several PDFs from Marvel and other companies of comics and they do not measure up to even the worst scanned images I've seen online. There's not even a comparison really.

Monch said...

Matt, great article and points. I agree that Comic Book companies should'nt be too afraid to create digital material, as you pointed out, there already are groups of people doing this

I read my comics digitaly since in my country is very hard to get comics. And I agree with your point about people who download spend more in licence materials: if I really like the comic I will buy it in Amazon as a TPB.

People who don't download might like at a comic book in a store, skim though it (Byrne it?) and end up not spending any money on this,

Besides, thanks to the fact I can keep up with the favorite comics heroes I can push my friends and co workers to go see movies based on them, telling them back stories, why this character is cool, etc.

So in the end, it's better to increase the fan base digitaly it will pay out more, at least from my POV. (plus if the comic is crappy, you won't be disappointed to have wasted $3.99 or so and will spend it in better ones)

Nick Marino said...

wonderful conclusion. if i could buy hi-res new issues that work with the viewing programs i already have on my computers, i would do it. those programs are lightweight and the controls are easy to customize. you make a great point in saying that comic companies should just take advantage of the current infrastructure to sell their books. pirating is ALWAYS going to be an issue, regardless of the program or file type getting used. why not just make the best of what's there? (especially considering that users have already done the hard work for you in terms of showing you what they want from the program.) i'm impressed with the solution presented here and i hope that publishers take note.

Bill said...


Oh I know, I was using the Kindle as an example. They generally do what PDFs do best (text), but chose not to use PDFs so that they could invent their own format. So when people buy books in the Kindle format, they can only be read on a Kindle. Then, even if some other company makes a much better e-book reader, they'll probably get a kindle, since they won't have to re-buy all those books.

Same deal with digital comics readers. Cbr/z is a nice, open format, but if you buy cbr's from one company, you could easily migrate them over to another company's app/store/whatever. So using a proprietary format is, again, a way to get the user stuck with the first company they went with.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Christine: Good point on the international option. I forgot the whole debacle with Spider-Woman not being available outside of the U.S./Canada. On the other hand, I think you hit the nail in the head when you mentioned the retailers, who in reality are Marvel's customers, not us the readers. I figure Marvel does not want to piss them off too much by releasing material so soon after the street date.

@Bill: Ohh, money for patents. That would explain a lot. Thanks for that info! It seems obvious in retrospect, but it's one of those things that you don't realize until someone brings it up.

fodigg said...

I want a subscription model for temporary access. The digital equivalent of reading off the rack so I can decide which trades I want to purchase.

Give me a flat fee, grant me access to X titles (but don't let me download, I don't really care if I have to be online to read) for a limited time, and I'm set.

Maybe give me a coupon for trades as incentive to seek out and buy from a local shop instead of Amazon or Borders.

This is money I'm not currently spending. And I never buy anything without reading it ahead of time anyway, as Borders will let me crack it open and read it on the spot.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Fodigg: The problem with the coupon model is that it will never match the discounts you can get at Amazon. And Borders/Barnes & Noble give out free coupons too, sometimes 30% to 40% off. Maybe give a similar discount if you purchase it the first week it is out, before it appears in other mass bookstores? And in any case, it would have to be bought directly from Marvel, because it would be very difficult to set up a voucher-like system for every comic book shop around the country/world.

Anonymous said...

With DC and Marvel, I think it's safe to say that the majority of profits don't actually come from the books themselves, but rather from the licensing, movie rights, etc. While it wouldn't make the retailers happy, it almost makes sense to give the digital books away and make the publishing revenue off of ad placement. There will always be people to buy the paper books, but for me, it's way too expensive to keep up with more than a few books a month now.

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