The news that Charles Schulz’s Peanuts series is being made available as an iTunes app serves as a timely reminder that when it comes to pioneering new digital publishing methods, the comic book industry is in many ways leading the way. Over the past couple of years, as traditional book publishers have grappled with the problems of digital consumption, many comic book publishers have found great success by simply diving in and offering consumers what they want.
In the case of the Peanuts app, this means digitizing all 17,000+ daily and Sunday comic strips and making them available at various price points via the app. Those who want specific themed collections are catered for, as are the completists who are after every strip. This illustrates one of the key points: availability. We’re often told that digital pirates are trying to get items for free, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that many people turn to piracy only because the content they want isn’t available. That doesn’t mean they’re morally right to pirate, but it does show that the simple act of making content available is a major step towards encouraging a rich and flourishing digital marketplace.
Archie Comics, meanwhile, recently announced that it would start publishing its content via Facebook. Using the Graphicly app, the company is offering a free sample of each issue along with the option to go ahead and purchase the full item. This is another example of a publisher using a popular platform (Facebook) to offer its product to a large community of consumers (in this case, the 120,000+ fans of Archie Comics already signed up to their Facebook page) in a way that makes purchases easy. Again, ease of access is vital, and it’s likely that many Archie Comics fans will prefer to spend a small sum in order to access content conveniently rather than seeking out illegitimate sources.
So if you want people to buy your content, the first thing you have to do is make your content available. You also have to provide some added value. Marvel Comics has launched a scheme whereby people who purchase physical (paper) comics are given a code that allows them to get a digital version at no extra cost. Some publishers have experimented with this idea, but for the most part this is a concept that many consumers have been calling for but which most publishers are resisting. Want the physical book? That’ll be $10. Want the same book in a convenient digital format? That’ll be another $10. That’s not an example of a publisher adapting to a new market, it’s an example of a publisher trying to force consumers to de-evolve to an earlier business model. But despite lauching its scheme a while ago, Marvel looks to be in good health. Perhaps their idea actually worked?
It was announced recently that crowdfunding site Kickstarter has become one of the world’s largest comic book publishers. That’s not a coincidence. Kickstarter allows comic book creators to raise money from donors in order to finance production runs, with writers such as Rich Burlew running successful campaigns. Granted, this model doesn’t seem to work as well for prose authors, but it still shows that there room for innovative models to take root. It also shows, perhaps, that the comic book industry has it a little easy since its target market could be said to be more receptive to disruptive technologies and systems than the broader novel-buying public. Are comics ‘different’ to other forms of publishing, or is the industry showing the way forward for others?
None of this means that the comic book industry is without its problems. Comics books still get pirated, sales are generally down, anti-piracy methods are being defeated and some sources are even alleging that scans are coming from high-up sources. Movies such as The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are raising the profile of comic books and it’s unlikely that all those fans are going to be willing to pay for their products. The question is: has piracy become somethign that can never be stamped out entirely and must instead be minimised but, to some extent, always tolerated? If some piracy is acceptable (and perhaps, from a promotional standpoint, even desirable), how much is the right amount? But again we can turn to Marvel for an answer: the company is diversifying like crazy. Those summer blockbuster movies? A great example of how to capitalise upon prior successes.
I’m not saying that the publishing industry should copy everything that the comic book industry is doing. That would miss the point. What I’m saying is that the comic book industry has shown itself to be willing to experiment and innovate. In many cases, comic book companies are succeeding by doing two key things: they’re making their content available digitally at a realistic price, and they’re diversifying in order to capitalise upon existing successes (rather than just trying to maintain those successes in some kind of time bubble). Innovation and disruption go hand in hand, and if you’re scared of disruption, you’re scared of innovation. Are expensive, DRM-locked, geo-locked, restricted releases of ebooks really going to save the publishing industry?