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Comics publishers are looking into digital distribution to combat falling print sales. But can they find a way to make it pay?

quick facts

  • Print sales of top-selling comics from US publishers Marvel and DC Comics fell below 100,000 per edition for the first time in March.
  • Almost 6,000 Marvel comic book titles are available via Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited site.
  • Comic publishers are battling declining print sales at a time when so much scanned material is available online.
  • Comic publishers are experimenting with a variety of models for making money online, from subscription services to downloads andmerchandising.

When even major comics publishers like Marvel and DC Comics are battling a decline in print sales, digital distribution is seen by many as comic publishing’s saviour. But with no standard format, a variety of distribution and monetisation models, and opinions firmly divided on the creative opportunities digital platforms provide, the sector is struggling to find its online feet.

The comics format is a unique art form and literary medium that originated in the US in the late 1800s and has grown into a multi-billion-pound global market. In the US alone, sales of graphic novels hit $375m (£246.4m) in 2007 while sales of periodical comics were $330m (£216.8m) — a combined market value of $705m (£463.2m) for the US and Canada — according to US pop culture research company ICv2.

At first glance the advance of the comics business towards embracing digital technology is slow but steady compared to other sectors. For example, Marvel first dipped its toe in the water in 2006 when it made some titles available on CD-ROM. A year later it set up online comics distribution service Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited (Marvel DCU), which allows subscribers to download comics six months after they first appear in print. Last October, the company started releasing digitalexclusive comics through the service, which now offers 6,000 Marvel titles. In February 2009 it confirmed plans to introduce motion comics, in addition to the animated products based on its comic titles which it already sells through iTunes (see box below).

“The opportunity in digital distribution is to enable a new generation of comic book fans to discover this content,” says Ira Rubinstein, executive VP of the global digital media group at Marvel. “The challenge is making sure the consumer has a good experience. Our digital comics reader enables a panel flow so the user can follow the story without having to zoom around the page.”

Although unwilling to disclose details of Marvel DCU’s subscriber numbers or revenues, Rubinstein insists take-up has been good and churn rates are low. Others in the comics business, however, aren’t convinced Marvel’s subscription-based approach is the best blueprint. “Marvel is doing well because of its content, not because the digital technology it’s using or the Digital

Comics Unlimited service itself is especially impressive,” says Tim Demeter, editor-in-chief of digital comics distributor Clickwheel.net. Owned by UK games business turned comics publisher Rebellion, Clickwheel has developed a mixed revenue strategy. As well as an iTunes-style purchasing model to make Rebellion’s sci-fi comics 2000AD and Judge Dredd available for PCs and mobile within a week of print release, it derives revenue from limited advertising and subscription.

“When you pay for a comic on the Marvel service you don’t own it but rent it for a limited period — a fundamental weakness in its subscription model,” says Demeter. “There’s also a question mark over its strategy of holding back titles until six months after print release.”

Publishers are battling to protect print sales. According to ICv2, sales of top-selling comics from US publishers Marvel and DC fell below 100,000 per edition for the first time in March after cover prices were raised by $1 earlier in the year to cover rising production and distribution costs. While delaying digital versions of titles may protect print sales, arguably it only compounds the problem of torrenting, where hardcore comics fans upload scans of book pages to file-sharing sites.

“Sales of comics are falling because rising print and distribution costs are increasing the cover price for what was, previously, always seen as cheap entertainment,” says James McKelvie, a British cartoonist and illustrator whose credits include Phonogram, a six-issue comic created for publisher Image Comics.

Despite this, a significant and still growing number of comics, both digital versions of printed copies and digitalonly content, are now available. UK online comics portal The Web Comic List, for example, currently monitors 13,400 digital titles. One of these, Ctrl+Alt+Del, created by Tim Buckley, boasts 38m page views and 1.8m monthly unique visitors, according to online comics media ad sales service Blind Ferret Media.

Strip mining

Comic creators and publishers are exploring a variety of approaches to monetising content. Perhaps the most obvious step for an independent comic creator is to set up their own website to host their creation. American writer/illustrator Rich Stevens did just this, creating his comic strip Diesel Sweeties in 2000 initially online but subsequently picked up for newspaper syndication. His site, dieselsweeties.com offers free content. Others are experimenting with encouraging readers to show their appreciation by making a donation using PayPal, or offering access to premium content through subscription.

“Most of us doing web comics professionally use a free content model,” says Stevens. “I live mostly off the merchandise, with a little advertising and commissioned work mixed in. My living is primarily from T-shirts, but I’ve done everything from robot socks and plush toys to digital portraits and books. It’s never enough to get wealthy, but it provides a stable living.”

The challenge with this cottage industry approach is visibility, says Northern Irish comics artist PJ Holden, co-founder of digital comicscompany Infurious. “Monetising a website is difficult even for the largest newspaper groups let alone an individual,” he says. “To do it effectively you need a massive online audience. If you’re a small player or new, you won’t have this.”

A number of online comics aggregation services have been developed in Canada and the US to meet this need, such as online comics-themed ad networks Project Wonderful and Blind Ferret Media. Such aggregators offer comics creators an opportunity to build their profile andaudience, while giving advertisers the chance to associate their brands with popular comics content. Their promise is yet to be fully realised in the UK, though, and advertiser interest here remains mixed at best.

“In our experience, comics are seen by advertisers as a niche within general entertainment and as such attract only limited interest from mainstream brands,” says Austin Kay, MD of W00t!media, which has established an online comics ad network called Speechbubble in partnership with The Web Comic List. As a result, advertising around digital comics tends to be dominated by web-based games rather than mainstream brands.

Breaking the frame

Uncertainty about how best to drive subscription and ad revenue around comics online is prompting many to look at mobile, although this platform isn’t without challenges of its own (see box below). The online-versus-mobile debate looks set to become obsolete, however, with the launch later this summer of LongBox, a device-independent platform for secure distribution of digital comics. Existing distribution models tend to be either publisher-specific or micro-scale, says Rantz Hoseley, CEO and founder of LongBox, which aims to be the first cross-publisher, crossgenre, cross-platform digital distribution system.

From launch, LongBox will be available on Macs, PCs, handheld devices and games consoles, with mobile to follow. Content will come from a wide range of sources. Although Hoseley won’t divulge which publishers and artists will be involved, he says he has had detailed discussions with most. Users will pay per download “at a price within iTunes’ range” for a digital comic file which they will then be able to use across all these platforms.

“The clear challenge after two generations of people having grown up expecting free content from the web regardless of production costs and IP value is making money out of digital content,” says Hoseley. “But if you control the platform or the hardware device, there’s a fundamental perceived value in that.”

Advertising also features in the LongBox model, although users will be free to choose from advertisersupported and non-advertiser-supported content. Advertisers, meanwhile, will be able to sponsor titles, in effect covering the price of a download to make that comic available to a user for free. When a sponsored file is opened, the user will then see that sponsor’s ad.

Consolidation and standardisation of approach are also critical, says Clickwheel’s Demeter, who awaits with interest the impact of LongBox’s launch. “For the time being, ours is a market in which much is being done by a lot of different people. Digital offers a great opportunity to attract a new generation of readers, bring through a new generation of comics creators, and develop a new revenue model as we move closer towards a standard approach and format. But with the average comic reader being aged around 30 and, by comparison with younger consumers, more resistant to technology, we have to make sure we get this right.

fitting frames into smaller screens

Comic publishers see mobile as a great platform for distribution, particularly as the spread of smartphones promises a way around existing limitations.

“The opportunity is the billion or so mobile phones in use,” says Ira Rubinstein, executive VP, global digital media group at Marvel. “The challenges are there’s no standard — each phone is different — and creating a compelling experience on the small screen.”

Northern Irish comics artist PJ Holden acknowledges the creative challenges of producing compelling content for a smaller screen but insists the evolution of smartphones is widening mobile’s creative potential. “Creatively, a smartphone like the iPhone is great. You can do so much extra stuff with it: swipe left and right to read, for example, and up and down to access deeper levels of content such as black and whites or original pencil drawings,” he says.

Traditional comic retailing involves dealing with numerous gatekeepers, so if one store doesn’t like your product another probably will. Mobile comic retailing is the opposite, as Holden found to his cost last year when he developed Murderdrome!, a digital-exclusive comic for the iPhone. Apple vetoed its sale through the App Store because it deemed the content too violent.

The upside of dealing with Apple, however, is the speed with which micropayments are collected and distributed.

Another mobile route to market for comics creators and publishers is a mobile content aggregator. Comics feature across mobile technology applications and entertainment company Rok Entertainment Group’s mobile content services, for example, including WeRok, a Wi-Fi-powered mobile internet portal it launched in April. Rok has also developed Rokcomics, an online and mobile comics publisher aggregation site, and an iPhone reader enabling users to read Rokcomics content on their iPhone or iPod.

“Comics and animation are one of five key content genres for us,” says Rok marketing director Bruce Renny. Rokcomics hosts a variety of content from longer form to short strips, although shorter content works better for the mobile audience. “Comics aren’t singled out by advertisers as a specific mobile genre,” Renny admits. “But this will come as the number of people consuming comics via mobile grows.”


Published 21 May, 2009 by NMA Staff

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