Digital Disruption in Print Comics

It’s interesting to note how technology affects the business different kinds of art.   When the Kindle came into the market around 2007, I don’t think many people realized how radically it would change the distribution and pricing of prose books.  It’s was and still is causing massive problems for the Big Four, who aren’t doing a good job time adapting to it. These problems adopting the new technology by the Big Four has allowed self-published authors and small publishing houses like Castalia House to get readers that the Big Four never would have actually gotten, either due to an ideological resistance to publishing those types of stories or an inability to convince the upper management to take those kinds of risks.

For comic books, the effect of digital comics on the regular publishers like Marvel, DC, Image, etc. has actually had the opposite effect.  Despite the doomsaying from people in comics saying print comics would die with the introduction of digital comics, the digital comics appear to have basically been additive(1).  This is rather interesting, as publishing is (according to Vox Day), a negative sum game. The fact that digital comics have been additive merits an investigation.

Why hasn’t there been the disruption in the comic book industry due to digital publishing like there was in prose publishing?

It’s not like there isn’t a Kindle like device with the iPad and Android tablets hanging around.  There’s also a big digital distribution service in Comixology that’s backed by Amazon and has pretty much all the major American publishers and even a few French and Japanese publishers.  By all accounts, this situation is ripe for a disruption on a level with the prose book industry.  So why the disruption come like it probably should have?

In order to find out why there hasn’t been the disruption that should have happened, it’s worth examining why Amazon’s Kindle device was so successful.  This analysis is subject to hindsight bias, but examining the differences should show us why the disruption hasn’t occurred.

So what were the factors that allowed the Kindle to become so successful? I think it boils down to these reasons:

  1. It came from a trusted company.

In this case, it was Amazon. Amazon had built up goodwill and trust from their time of selling books and other items.

  1. Had a large list of titles that people wanted.

Since you want to have as many people as possible buy your ereader, having a broad range of titles is very important. With its self-publishing program, the number of books has increased even more.

  1. Easy to use

The Kindle is very easy to use, which means more people will use it.  The more complicated the device, the less people will use it.

4. Had a reading experience that is for all intents and purposes identical to reading a regular prose books

Most of the other ereaders on the market used normal computers screens for their ereaders. This is a problem, as most people’s eyes are already strained from looking at computers. The Kindle used Epaper, which basically replicates the experience of reading on paper perfectly.

5. Has the right price

Digital versions are typically much cheaper than the print versions. Apple figured out the price point of music should be about $0.99. The right price will probably not be $0.99, but comics do need to find their equivalent of the $0.99 price point.

*****

   So what are the differences? The comics industry has 1, 2, and 3. 5 is pretty well known as a problem, because most comics (from Marvel and DC) are par with their print prices.  However, number 4 is one that while sometimes mentioned, hasn’t really been examined in any kind of depth.

I think that having a reading experience that essentially reads like reading a print comic is the key missing ingredient for a disruption of the magnitude seen in prose publishing.   There are other factors that are important here, like the fact that comics are a niche medium in the U.S.  However, pretty much all these other factors are actually discussed at length, while the fact that there is no device that has an identical reading experience to print comics is basically not discussed at all.  In fact, I barely see anyone discuss it in the comicsphere even though it’s one of the key ingredients that made the Kindle such a runaway success.

There are quite a few factors that would make it difficult for the comic book version of the Kindle to become successful in the United States.

The first is the technological problem.  There’s been some clamor for color epaper, but the technology has been slow to develop.  For a while, the colors have been washed out.  Additionally, when the page was turned, it produced a ghostly afterimage that made the ereader look like it was possessed by Satan.  There has been an advance by Eink Holdings Inc. which seems to solve the problem of having a broad color spectrum.  However, it’s only available in signs.(2,3)  Additionally, the pixels per inch (ppi) is only 150 with that technology. Any hypothetical ereader would have to have 300 ppi at the bare minimum so that images would replicate the look of the print comics. I suspect the actual ppi necessary  to make it work is probably 600.

The second is the size problem.  Comics are a visual medium, which means any hypothetical ereader that wants to capture an almost identical reading experience will need to have a screen that is much bigger than the current Kindle screen.  I read a comment suggesting  an A4 sized screen ( 8.3 x 11.7 in) would be an good size, although I suspect that 8.5 x 12 in. or 8.5 x 11.5 in. would be the ideal size.  This would capture the widest range of comics possible while also allowing for things like cookbooks and textbooks to be read on this brand new Kindle.

The final reason is a money problem. Comics in America have made leaps and bounds in respectability and profitability. Consider that in 1948 there were actual comic book burnings organized and no one would be caught dead saying that comics could be a respectable art form. Now, not only can you get money off comics, but they’re actually respectable.  These are good things, but the brutal reality is that the actual total comics market is pretty small.  In 2015, the comics industry passed $1 billion (4). For comparison, prose publishing is $28 billion(5), and video games are about $23.5 billion(6).  In order for someone like Amazon to invest the money in making an ereader that actually would be able to show comics at the correct dimensions, it the buying market would have to be much much bigger.

I do think the digital revolution will come for print comics, but it’s going to be a lot slower than many people think.

Sources

  1. Has been mentioned many times by John Jackson Miller when discussing digital sales
  2. http://www.eink.com/press_releases/e_ink_announces_advanced_color_epaper_05-24-2016.html
  3. https://www.slashgear.com/e-inks-color-epaper-up-close-24441401/
  4. http://blog.comichron.com/2016/07/comics-and-graphic-novel-sales-top-1.html
  5. http://publishers.org/news/us-publishing-industry%E2%80%99s-annual-survey-reveals-28-billion-revenue-2014
  6. http://www.theesa.com/article/u-s-video-game-industry-generates-23-5-billion-in-revenue-for-2015/

 

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