Getting Some Wired Crossed

Just about everyone's read the Wired column making the rounds the past few days (if not, go Marvel and Image websites, as well as in the form of free previews on sites like Newsarama. But clearly there needs to be a significant effort by both Marvel and DC to create a pay per download model ala iTunes (and if one has success with any sort of digital comics model, the other will undoubtedly follow). The most important point Mark McClusky makes in the column is this:

Most piracy doesn't spring from the desire to get free content. It comes from a desire to get it in a specific way.
Arguing digital vs. print is as inane as arguing single vs. trade. The idea should be to make one's product as easy to consume as possible and each format offers advantages to different customers. McClusky is discouraged by DC and Marvel's "no comment" but I doubt very seriously that no effort is being made by either to develop a profitable system of providing digital content. In fact, Tom Spurgeon points out that:
while there's certainly a case to be made that some sort of policy should be further along by now at the majors, I think the issue has some layers ... many books are sold as repositories of plot-line revelations rather than a specific entertainment experience -- I know the numbers are against me, but when I had a brother downloading chunks of DC's line for free I lost all desire to pick up the books in paper form.

Besides, if they can get someone to upload these things for free, and don't perceive a profit out there for pay-per-downloads this would cost them, I'm not sure why they don't just let people do that and reap the benefits of greater licensing awareness. In the end, I don't think these are insurmountable problems by any stretch, but I can understand taking a big longer to make sure.
The role of singles as repositories of plot-line revelations is the one area where digital distribution could theoretically hurt sales of singles, but theoretically those losses would be more than made up for with the download fee. Besides, there's growing sentiment that those interested solely in what happens next aren't buying comics anyway (more on that in the next few days). It may be possible to convert some of those into paying customers if a convenient and affordable option was available.

Where I have real trouble with the column, though, is in its tendency to take anecdotal evidence and personal experience and attempt to apply them to the industry as a whole. First, there are really two arguments being conflated into one in the article, namely digital distribution and internet distribution. McClusky mentions a DVD set of The Complete New Yorker in making a case for such a comic product, ignoring the fact the there's likely somewhat limited crossover between the market for a complete run of comics and a complete run of The New Yorker. Using that single anecdote (without providing anything beyond thousands of sales), McClusky goes on to conclude that a product like the Complete Batman would cause mass hysteria. I'm assuming the hyperbole is intentional because Marvel has already licensed their X-Men and Fantastic Four comics to GIT Corp, who released them as 40 Years of the X-Men Collector's Edition DVD and 44 Years of the Fantastic Four Collector's Edition DVD, both of which do fairly brisk sales on Amazon (for software anyway) but fall well short of causing mass hysteria. But that's because this isn't really the format that appeals to the market he theorizes about throughout the column. Instead, the iTunes model would seem preferable to those who would rather read their comics in a digital format (which preference is usually a result of the convenience of acquiring and consuming product digitally).

My biggest issue with the column, however, is its brief mention of the impact of such a system on retailers:
Geeks like the physical object - the collectible. But they also like just reading the stories, on paper or onscreen. Collectors would still pay a premium for the book itself - supporting independent comics retailers - and a whole world of casual fans could buy the latest issue of Superman - or even the very first appearance of Spider-Man - on iTunes.
Basically this is his way of patting retailers on the head and saying, "don't worry your geeks won't leave you." Well, thanks but that's both untrue and shortsighted, not to mention condescending. It's untrue in that some customers will spend less money at the comic shop if they can get hold of the same material legally online. Trade collections have already convert many who saw themselves as collectors in readers who simply prefer the stories either in the format or the accessibility that trades and graphic novels provide. Digital distribution would likely amplify that trend. It's shortsighted, though, because it assumes that the only thing that comic shops are good for is providing geeks with collectibles. Such an approach leads to a shrinking market, one which would quickly implode upon itself. Thankfully, the idea is also shortsighted in its assumption that the only thing the books themselves are useful for is as collectibles.

Comic shops need to emphasize their role as entertainment retailers (and have begun to do so). McClusky, however, clings to the concept that the book can only have value as a collectible rather than providing another means of accessing the same entertainment. The real argument he should have made here was that digital distribution can expose comics to a broader group than comic shops and can function much like bookstores to expand the market. It often theorized that downloadable music increases CD sales and it would seem the would be true of comics.

Then there's the fact that there is a reason that e-books haven't put bookstores out of business. It comes back to convenience and portability in particular. iPods are so popular because they made previously PC bound entertainment in the form of MP3's portable without a loss of quality. Until someone develops a reader that can do the same for books (and by extension comics), the printed book itself will always have the advantage of portability to go along with preference.

As I said initially, McClusky is right in his thesis, comic publishers do need to develop a digital distribution system. But I think its pretty clear from the logic of his own argument that its not a slam dunk and rushing into a poorly developed system could set a company back several years in building a digital presence.

2 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

McClusky clearly didn't do any real research.

Anyway, Spider-Man is on CD and Avengers is also slated for the DVD treatment.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Sam Hobart said...

It's an opinion piece, so I wasn't completely put off by the approach and I think he has some good points, but outside of Spurgeon I hadn't seen anyone do anything besides point at the article rather than actually discussing the argument.

9:17 PM  

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