Questions I have about digital

I really like the general level of commentary over at the Beat, and there's some very interesting stuff being said in the latest thread about Brian Wood's new missive (which is, in itself a valuable read), but if one thing absolutely slays me about the Beat it is how fast stories scroll off the front page, and the commentary scroll with them. There's no notification system there, so we're kind of stuck with a day, or maybe two, of conversation before it scrolls off away into the ether.  

This page is a little more forgiving in that regard, so let me try to put some thoughts here, and see if it sparks any kind of substantive conversation.

Right, so, first off, a little "old business" first -- first off, Heidi is clearly wrong that the DM has not grown. Here's your chart to establish that. Chris Hero points out that that units on periodicals has shrunk, and that is true, but that's pretty directly a result of dollars shifting from one format (periodicals) to another (books), but each and every person anywhere who says "print is dead" or "goodbye to physical objects" or any of that other stuff is clearly not arguing with actual real facts.

In fact, even in the music industry, an art form which I would argue EVERYone knows and loves and consumes, and which digital has had an immensely long penetration (relatively speaking, natch), PHYSICAL CDS STILL OUTSELL DIGITAL DOWNLOADS today! So, yeah, print isn't going anywhere for some time to come.

So, here is question one: is "digital", in your opinion, equally portable and interchangeable between various media? Do people consume those media in the same ways? There appears to be an advantage to the consumer to be able to store every song you own on a device the size of a deck of cards -- does that same advantage naturally and inexorably extend to other media? I'm willing to be convinced either way, but I think that each individual media will have it's own strengths and weaknesses in individual formats and devices, and I very much think that "well, that's how it works for music" will NOT play out the same for other media.

One thing about music that few seem willing to discuss is that the music industry went from (in the modern era, at least) selling collections of songs, to selling singles, as a most visible driver of sales. What THIS means is that the music companies & music creators went from an "average ticket" of $15 (for the album) to an average ticket of (let's say) $2 for the two 99 cent singles that are most popular. Totally pulling a random selection that I happened to listen on my way home on the bus today, Prince's AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY (great album, BTW!), this album has just 9 songs on it. 7 of the 9 songs sell for $0.99, the other 2 for $1.29, it is on iTunes as a package for $9.51, but I'd be willing to guess that they mostly sell a lot of copies of "Raspberry Beret" for $1.29, and far fewer copies of the full album. Is that good for Prince? Is that good for Paisley Park (the producing studio) or Warner Brother's (the record company) or, frankly, even for iTunes? Is that good for the consumer? I guess if you only like what you like, and you JUST want to hear "Raspberry Beret", then awesome for you, you've just saved $8.22 if you're pricing the digital thang, or maybe you've saved $13.66 compared to "list price" of the CD/Vinyl, but does your desire trump the need of the Talent to actually, y'know, make money off all the music they produce, not just the thing that's most zeitgeisty?

Don't get me wrong, that $15 versus $2 also created a lot of corruption and evil around it ("By the way, which one's Pink?"), but most of the musicians I know today tell me that can not survive on the sales of music alone.

There's also the Spinach argument. I mean RasBeret is probably the most hit-driven of the songs on ATWIAD, but I think I might argue that "Temptation" or "Tambourine" are actually ultimately better songs with something more to say? See, because I actually think that most of the music that I ended up liking the best, at the end of the day, wasn't the poppest hits, but were the deeper tracks that probably no one really even hears any more.

COULD an artist produce THE WALL or TOMMY, or, fuck, even PET SOUNDS today? Or is everyone jonesing for that one three minute hit that they can sell 3 million copies of, individually? Is that good for culture?

It appears to be inescapable that the shift of the market to the TP has sparked some consumers to change their buying habits in the world of comics -- we even have a phrase for it, "waiting for the trade" and we can see how it has not only changed HOW comics stories are made, but WHAT comics the audience is willing to buy and how they do so; why is anyone questioning that the move towards digital will also change buying habits to SOME degree? But, can't we recognize that the truth of things is that most characters/creators/concepts can't actually make a living doing what they do as things stand today, and that cutting off even a small percentage of potential customers through switching primary mechanisms-to-buy will make those works UNPROFITIBLE.

The concern of the comics retailer isn't that there IS digital -- fuck, I'm totally all for a mechanism to drive a potentially wide segment of customers to the medium of comics itself. How can that NOT help me? But, rather, that enough customers will "change channels" (of purchase), so as to make segments of work unprofitible to carry. I've been pretty straight with you -- most periodicals are but marginally profitible; most books are largely unprofitible. That we have stellar, break out, oh-my-god-it's-like-printing-money successes like WALKING DEAD or BONE or SANDMAN doesn't mean that this is the way all books can follow. Quite the opposite in fact!

So what this means is that even losing a TINY portion of the readership through Channel Migration could potentially have dire effects. Seriously, if I lost just 10% of my customers, I'm done. And what we also know is that when physical stores close, most of that readership for comics UTTERLY VANISHES. The gist of this is that losing 10% of sales to migration could mean that the other 80% of that stores' sales are COMPLETELY LOST.

To put this in a more specific way, in the last 90 days we've lost/are losing THREE comic stores in SF (out of what were at a dozen); I've spoken to at least half of the remaining stores, and while we've all picked up a couple of customers, there are logically 3-500 comic readers who have not seemed to showed up in any of the remaining nine stores. They disappeared, into the wind.

Why do you assume that current print readership WOULD switch to digital? Dude, I can assure you that 60% or more of the exciting print audience will NOT switch to digital if they stop making print comics tomorrow. Most of those cats have 10-40 years invested in their mechanism, and the mechanism of delivery is AT LEAST AS IMPORTANT to that audience as the content itself.

I remember, god, do I remember, the strident voices that used to scream "Yeah, motherfucker, let's get comics into book stores, and the whole game changes!!!!", and so I really cringe at the concept that the existence, the very fucking existence of a tablet computer changes shit. IT DIDN'T WHEN WE WENT INTO THE BOOKSTORES.

At the end of the day, the issue is, has been, and always will be content, dumbass. Do you seriously think that a readership that has rejected the print comics is going to magically swarm back to digital version, even if they are a third cheaper? Because I don't think the problem is actually the price -- I think it is the content. Most mainstream comics are ineffably shitty. And I totally get you have nostalgic love of a, b, or c, and that keeps you buying ineffably shitty comics, but the general public isn't going to do that.

The majority of what is sold in comic stores is not going to sell to a wider audience, even if you literally tied people to chairs and MADE them read it. Seriously, charge $1.99 for most of the content we offer, charge 99 cents for it, you're not going to move the needle as much as so many people seem to think it will -- look, that same content is already available to everyone, everywhere via Amazon, and it's not selling better proportionate to its current reach. You really think digital is going to be the "magic bullet" here? That trick never works!

Because we HAVE been through this before.. multiple times. I mentioned the book market, because these are the SAME things that were being said back then -- "now we can truly expand and rise not tied down by the Direct Market!", and, huh, pretty much not. And, instead, we've gutted our own periodical delivery system trying to chase the sure fire book market. Like.... when EIGHTBALL was coming out as a once-or-twice-a-year periodical, we'd sell 150+ copies in the first 90-120 days. Now Dan Clowes only puts out GNs, and his last original package, WILSON, was a huge hit for me (#5 best selling book in 2010). But... I sold less than 70 copies of WILSON in the 20 months since it has been released. BOOKS DON'T SELL AS MANY COPIES AS PERIODICALS. We chased the wrong thing, for maybe the right reasons, but maybe not, and it left us, in my opinion, considerably weaker for it.

Digital is, at best, a mechanism. I totally laugh at Heidi's suggestion that because the "hot product" of the moment is a Tablet that this means all that much. The "hot product" of 2001 was an Audrey. No one talks about those any more. Maybe the tablet DOES have real staying power, I don't fucking know, but I think to construct a syllogistic argument that because it is hot today it's therefore culture changing... well, I don't buy that, and history would tend to argue against that. Consumer electronics change with the wind.

Or let's talk about distribution. Many commentators say things like "Yay, we can break the Diamond stranglehold on the market!" to which I ask, do you really want Apple to take over that monopoly position? Really? Because I really think the concept of Amazon and Apple being the two gatekeepers of entertainment to be pretty insanely terrifying.

I really really wonder about the motivation about some of the loudest pro-digital commentators -- because some of the things they scream for (like day and date) are really not attractive or necessary for the huge massive untapped "civilian" audience out there that digital could reach. Johnny I-have-never-read-a-comic-before isn't especially likely to start reading SPIDER-MAN cold at #674 and decide that he absolutely has to start reading the comic monthly from there on out. I sell comics to Johnny and others like him EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR, and I can tell you 98% of the Johnnies out there want a complete story in a book, and, more than that, they want a specific recommendation for a specific great Spider-Man story.

(Yes, you CAN get Johnny to read periodicals, but it takes epic efforts like New52, and, guess what folks? That's a once-a-decade at most tool)

See, what I actually think is that the majority (like the OVERWHELMING majority) of the pro day-and-date voices are people who are trying to fulfill their own desires, instead of what's best for comics. And, right on, you do get to express those desires, but the people making actual decisions in this business need to take a longer view.

I personally believe there has to be price parity between ALL FORMATS because otherwise you're cutting the legs out from underneath one or another. Let's not even make this "digital" versus "print", it's just as true for "periodical" versus "collection", and I suspect will be as true when we can project comics directly onto our corneas in the future.

I think it is moronic, literally moronic, to ever sell a copy of WATCHMEN for less than it's $19.99 price. Why? Because it sells fab at that price, and it's not going to sell better, in any kind of a sustained fashion, by cutting its price in half, that's not how pricing works. I also think that by having that $9.99 Kindle version, there's some amount of pressure that that is the "real" value of the work.

I can (just barely) see the wisdom of offering HELLBOY v1 (an $18 book) for a measly $5 IF it were being used as a gateway to selling the ENTIRE SERIES of HELLBOY. But... it's not. Fuck, type "hellboy" into the search box over there, and the v1 "bundle" ISN'T EVEN LISTED ON THE FRONT PAGE.

What's the sense of that?

I mean, if it was "Hey, we priced our books at half price, and we sold TWICE AS MANY as print, without impacting print sales negatively!" then I could see the wonder and joy in dropping prices down radically, but I see digital comics pricing as doing certain things "because that's how it is done", rather than "does this make sense as a part of an entire HOLISTIC pricing strategy?"


Anyway, no sensible retailer is "against" digital -- they're against dumb and anti-competitive moves that appear likely to cause channel migration by their lonesome. Go ahead and do day and date, I'll put my real world comic book store up against any existing digital portal any day of the week -- physical stores are more conducive to browsing, to discovering something new, to having someone help guide you through the experience, and so on.... but once we start getting away from price parity, I think we have some pretty significant problems.

I'm of the opinion that you should be paying for content, not format, because if you were actually paying for content on it's own, your consumption price would dramatically increase on digital alone, not decrease. It is the very existence of print that even allow any content provider to even consider reducing the price in the first place.

The notion that any content on the internet should be inherently cheaper than the "physical" item is very skewed, and while I TOTALLY respect the consumer WANTING a lower price (because I, too, would be VERY happy if print comics went back to $1.99, thanks), let's not set up an economic system which will preclude the comics being created in the first place because no one at all (including the creators) can make any money doing them.

Anyway, I've been typing for like 3 hours now, time for me to shut up and actually get some work done, I think. Chime in, if you dare.