This past weekend at HeroesCon saw the announcement (but not the launch) of Longbox, a digital distribution system for comics that formula dictates I must compare to iTunes. It’s going to be like iTunes.
I’m excited about this. I’m an out-and-proud comics nerd, but my credentials are dented by one small but crucial detail; I rarely buy comics. After twenty years amassing thousands of the damn things, I was forced by financial necessity to go cold turkey some years back. When I found myself sufficiently solvent to go back to reading comics, I realised that the addiction had passed. I’d broken the habit. I no longer bought indiscriminately.
At one point I was spending around £20 a week on comics that gave me all of a couple of hours’ of entertainment, even while ranting on about the rising cost of cinema tickets. Comics are terrible, terrible value for money. God knows how anyone who both reads comics and smokes cigarettes can afford money for beer. So money was definitely a key factor in dropping the habit, but not the only one.
Comics are also inconvenient - you can only buy them from specialist shops, via a monopoly distributor. For too many people, comics are a weekly appointment they feel obligated to keep. Comics also produce clutter. They accrue in every available nook and cranny like tribbles or wet gremlins. No-one can own both an extensive comic collection and a nice house.
Oh, plus, they’re shit. That’s a generalisation, of course, but 90% of anything is shit, except comics, where the number rises to about 97%. That’s because comics are a Cinderella medium that rarely benefits from best efforts or high standards, and because the major publishers often hold their own audience in contempt, and anyway the audience mostly deserves the shit they get shovelled; it’s not like they’re exercising critical judgement.
I’ve been hoping someone will come along with something like Longbox for a while now, becasue it solves most of the medium’s problems. Digital distribution brings the price point down to within the realms of ‘value’. It bypasses the comic shop distribution monopoly and the need to go to a specialist store. It completely eliminates the need for actual physical longboxes, and that’s no small deal - I’m quite certain that the clutter factor is a major reason why many people give up comics as they get older, even as they keep playing video games and watching sci-fi - it has nothing to do with ‘outgrowing’ it. I’m at the point in my life where I no longer want to live like a student. I no longer have shelves full of CDs or DVDs - everything is tidied away or digitised - so spending money on clutter goes against the grain, and disposing of comics seems like a hassle. Better to just not buy them in the first place.
Longbox might even help with the ‘quality’ problem. That’s not to say that digital distribution will get rid of bad comics; but it should increase the number of good ones, because independent creators will be able to increase their reach while simultaneously reducing their costs. That should change the landscape of the industry significantly.
Digital distribution also benefits the big publishers, who have real problems launching new titles, and instead are forced to stretch their known brands ever thinner. By the time critical buzz has grown on a title like Captain Britain And MI:13, the only way I could sample it is to buy a twenty dollar trade paperback. Frankly, even four dollars seems too big a punt to risk on something I may not like. And this is why that book got cancelled, despite strong reviews and good word-of-mouth. Yet if I can buy an issue for a dollar - or the first six issues for, say, four dollars - I’m much more likely to suck it and see. (Note: sucking on digital comics is dangerous and should not be tried without proper supervision.)
Marvel and DC have come up with some really inane solutions to the challenge of comics’ dwindling marketplace - apparently ending Spider-Man’s marriage was going to save the whole industry - but digital distribution has always been the sensible option that they were too big and too creaky to properly pursue, which is why it takes a fresh-faced third party like Longbox to get the revolution started.
I haven’t forgotten that Marvel has its own digital comics offering. It isn’t good. It only allows you to buy the right to access the comics on the site, and what’s on the site is not up-to-date. The ‘newest comics’ section currently boasts Son of Hulk #2 (first published just under a year ago) Annihilation: Nova #2 (from 2006) and Psi-Force #7 (from 1986). It’s a pathetic offering, because it’s completely dissociated from the publisher’s current output. If I wanted to find out what the fuss about Captain America #600 was all about, the most recent issue I’d be able to read is from two years ago. This is not an alternative distribution channel. This is a supplement for the ever-decreasing number of people with the will and the time to go to a comic shop.
If Marvel or DC is worried that putting their current comics online will increase the risks of piracy, someone needs to tell them that this particular horse-faced space-god has already bolted. Music, movies, books and TV are all digital now, and the digital releases go on sale the same day as the store releases. The time when a publisher might have claimed they were being innovative by adopting a synchronous digital distribution strategy has long passed. Now it’s merely ‘the least they should be doing’ - and still they’re not doing it. I’d try to second guess the reasons for their laggardly approach, but I can’t get into the mindset. It’s like trying to see through the eyes of a dodo.
It is better, though, for comics as a whole that Marvel be part of a shared system - like iTunes! - rather than a proprietary one, so in that sense I should be glad that Marvel’s efforts have been dismal. On the other hand, it suggests that they might not sign up to be part of Longbox, and that’s a shame. Where Longbox might once have seemed bold, now it seems necessary, and Marvel and DC - and Dark Horse, Image, Oni, IDW, Devil’s Due and the rest - need to recognise this necessity for their own good, as well as for the good of Longbox. Currently the only publishers signed up for the service are Boom Studios (Irredeemable, Farscape, Warhammer 40,000) and Top Cow (Super-Boob Lady, Gothic-Boob Lady, Unfinished J Michael Straczynski Project), and Longbox needs more and stronger publishers if it’s going to be a viable concern.
Longbox also needs a sensible pricing strategy. The suggested price point is $0.99 per issue, and that’s reasonable. People talk about how cheap comics used to be on the newsstand - Action Comics was 10c in 1938, and Amazing Fantasy #15 was 12c in 1962. Adjusted for inflation, those comics ought to be $1.50 and $1.00 today, so 99c and down for a comic with low overheads seems like the right ballpark.
There’s also talk of subscription and bulk models, and that’s far more interesting to me, because a regular subscription would presumably reduce the price point further, and encourage users to sample more comics. The digital model also makes free samples more plausible - a huge, huge promotional benefit. In fact, a savvy big publisher would make the first issue of every new ongoing series available free online.
What does digital distrubution mean for comic retailers? It need not be the end for them. I think stores relying on weekly single issue sales could be in trouble, but comic book shops could do well, because digital comics will not entirely replace the desire to own a physical book, and I’m sure digital comics will actually drive people to want to buy collections of their favourite reads. I’ve long argued that digital comics with a voucher for the trade could be a successful strategy. Apparently the guys at Longbox have been listening in on my loud and boorish pub conversations, as that seems to be part of the plan.
But if the Longbox model takes off - and I hope it does, and that others follow suit (because the industry does not need another distribution monopoly) - it will mean the end for a lot of retailers. And, sad as it is for the people who’ll have to find other jobs, that’s as it should be. There won’t be any bailouts for redundant businesses in the comic industry.
What’s more important is that Longbox could be good for the medium as a whole, dragging comics away from the fringe to a place where everyone can access them, without prohibitive costs or geekish mess. If the mainstay publishers don’t want to embrace that, then it’s probably time to say goodbye to the mainstay publishers.