Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Digital Wars

Would you buy a digital edition of a comic for a 7" tablet? What if that was the only format open, would that change your mind?

When Amazon introduced its Kindle Fire color eBook reader, they also announced an exclusive deal with DC comics to distribute some of their content. Barnes and Noble threw a fit and pulled all DC products from their shelves. Books A Million did the same.

So where does that leave the comic book reader?

First, competition is good. I want to see digital content carried by as many sources as possible. That keeps the vendors honest (at least relatively). Digital books are already overpriced. I want to see digital books sold for paperback prices or lower. Instead we have a two-tiered system where the digital book is priced a little below the hardcover price until the paperback comes out then the price is dropped. For the same product. The consumer is being charged a premium for not waiting. At least with hardcover/paperback you felt that you were getting a more durable product with larger fonts when you bought hardcover.

The second issue is the reader itself. We have a 7" color Nook at home. It is pretty small for reading a comic book. I have used a 10" tablet to read comics before and that is still smaller than I would like. Even with the smart interface that Marvel's digital web site uses, everything is too small on anything less than a full-size laptop. So, DC is not doing the reader any favors by locking them into the Kindle Fire. To be fair, after some confusion, Amazon clarified that the exclusive DC content can also be viewed on its Kindle app on tablets.

This is a multiple-front issue. On one hand we have the book stores fighting it out with Amazon over the ability to distribute content. B&N and Books a Million are worried about the death of Borders and are willing to give Amazon exclusive distribution of DC's print medium in order to make a point. I'm sure that Amazon offered DC a good deal but was it still as good after two major chains cut them off? Yes, you can still order the books from Amazon or even from B&N as long as it is delivered directly to your home but not everyone goes to Amazon to buy graphic novels.

At the same time, you have DC and Marvel. In the 1960s they were everywhere. Every corner drugstore and supermarket had a comic stand. Now they are pretty much limited to specialty stores. In fact, a good bit of their marketing now comes from publishing stories in arcs that can be repackaged as graphic novels and sold in bookstores.

Also, for a long time comic books were the only place you could go for your super hero fix. Now we have super hero movies and TV shows coming out constantly. To say nothing of video games which let you be a super hero.

So comic books are being squeezed. It probably sounded like a good deal to DC to have Amazon pushing some of their inventory. I doubt if it even occurred to them that there would be issues with other book sellers.

Probably over the next decade we will see a major shift in comic books away from the printed format and onto the digital one. First we have to see a clear winner emerge. The IPad has a huge lead but Android and Microsoft could still catch up. Remember, three years ago Android phones were just being introduced. Now they dominate the market. But, Microsoft is at its best when it enters a mature market instead of trying to create one. It will take a few more years before things settle down.

Once they do settle down to a predictable standard, I expect comics to be formatted for that first, traditional comic books second, and graphic novels third.

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