Sporadic Sequential
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Dear Comic Book Publishers: A List of My Digital Demands

I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but when are comic publishers going to get their act together and allow their books to be easily purchased for digital download on a site like Amazon.com?

Yes, individual publishers have made small moves toward digitizing their comics. Marvel has their online digital comics reader (which is currently offering a 10% discount on the annual subscription through 12/1, making the total cost $53.89), but you're locked into using their clumsy online reader. Plus, it's based on a subscription model (either monthly or annually) with no option of just buying an individual comic you're interested in checking out. Other publishers such as SLG offer comics for download in PDF format, which, at least in my experience, isn't an optimal comics reader. (SLG's digital offerings are also slim, with only six series listed on their site. I was unable to connect directly to Eyemelt to see if there were more comics available there.)

While it's great that publishers are making incremental moves to provide their works in other formats, I don't think digital comics will ever really take off until they're as easy and hassle-free to purchase as an MP3 from a site like Amazon.com. Others have probably already made these very same suggestions before, but here are the points I would like to see in a digital comics offering:

1. All publishers must agree on the same digital format. I don't want to have to sign up with individual subscription plans with different formats, and I don't want to have to use different readers for comics from different publishers. Preferably all companies could come around to using the .cbr format, which is a simple but convenient way to read comics. Using viewers such as CDisplay, readers can easily page through the comic and determine how to size the display options. (I know it's ironic that this format grew out of illegal scans, but it's still the best option for viewing comics that I've seen so far, so publishers would be smart to adopt it.)

2. Publishers must allow other sites to sell their digital comics.
I know publishers want to lock down their content and keep it on their site, but it's simply not convenient from the customer's perspective to visit other sites to purchase or view comics.

3. Get over the DRM worries. Look, people are going to copy your comics and distribute them illegally no matter what you do. It's not fair, but what are you going to do at this point? By attempting to insert content protection into your digital files, you're just going to frustrate users who would legitimately purchase your comics but don't want to deal with the potential DRM headaches.

4. Allow the flexibility to purchase individual issues or complete collections. Someone may just want to sample a particular issue that they've heard so much about online, while others will want to get the whole story. Make sure that both options are available and convenient.

5. Come up with a pricing model that makes sense. Whatever pricing structure publishers come up with, the prices have to reflect a substantial discount over the physical comics. Since individual comics are reaching the $3-$4 price point, publishers could probably get away with charging 99 cents per issue. (It'd be great if they could price the individual comics even cheaper, say 25 or 50 cents, but the 99 cents price would nicely align with what's become the standard price for a single MP3.) The "album" collections should not only be cheaper than the physical books but also cheaper than buying the individual CBR issues.

6. Release the digital comics at the same time as the hardcopy comics. I know this will piss off some retailers, but I think a big part of the traffic for individual digital comics would come from casual superhero fans who are really only interested in checking out a particular issue because they've read so much about it online. Obviously, that "impulse" interest is going to diminish as the buzz fades, so publishers would maximize their digital sales by synchronizing the digital and paper comic release schedules. Digital collections could come out when the physical collections are published or even later.

I never really got into buying MP3s until Amazon's MP3 store launched, so obviously that's the model I'm following here. I know a lot of people like the iTunes shop, but I didn't like the idea of having my music restricted by DRM protections. With Amazon's DRM-free MP3s, I can easily transfer my MP3s to my MP3 player or burn the files to CD. I'd like similar flexibility with digital comics. I don't want to be locked into a proprietary format, and I want to be able to easily buy an individual issue or complete collection from the same site where I buy my dead-tree TPB and HC comics.

As an example of how I think this would ideally work, consider one of my recent MP3 purchases from Amazon. My wife and I were lucky enough to be invited to a Coldplay concert at the last minute by some friends who had extra tickets. I knew who Coldpay was, but I couldn't name any of their actual songs. At the concert, I recognized several of the songs that I'd heard before but never realized were by Coldplay. When I got home, I looked up Coldplay on Amazon to find some of the songs I particularly liked. In the end, I decided to buy an entire digital album.

If I'd had to wait to buy the CD in the store the following day, or even wait a couple days to receive the CD after ordering it online, I probably never would have followed through with the purchase. I'm sure something would have come up that distracted me or I would have just forgotten about it. But because I could log in and download the music immediately after the concert, I bought the entire album. I think a similar dynamic would come into play with digital comics. I know a couple weeks ago I was morbidly curious about Kevin Smith's new Batman comic because it was getting so roundly panned everywhere. I've also been interested in the latest Spider-Man comic since the sample art I've seen by Marcos Martin is simply stunning. These are two examples of individual comics that I have a fleeting interest in -- nothing strong enough to actively track down, but something I might download if I could do it easily and immediately. (I also wouldn't want to bother with the hassle of storing any more physical floppy comics. I have enough long boxes of comics that I have to figure out how to get rid of someday.)

Yes, I'm being completely selfish in my demands, but I'm just trying to be honest about what I want as a consumer. Comic book publishers have an opportunity to make some money off me, but it will only happen under very specific circumstances. (Of course, publishers are free to ignore my preferences, but perhaps someday we'll be able to meet halfway.)

So how about you? What would you like to see in a digital comics delivery system? Would you read digital comics if they were as easy to buy as MP3s?

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