Digital Comic Sales: Competing Views on Convenience and Ownership

When I have some time away from coursework, graduate assistant work, or thesis work, one of my favorite things to do is read comics. Not only do I love the comics medium, but I also enjoy reading about new developments and issues in the comics industry.

One important development in comics today is digital comic sales. ComiXology, the leading seller of digital comics, was the third highest-grossing app for the iPad in 2012. Image Comics, publisher of bestselling series The Walking Dead and Saga, reported 12 percent of its overall revenue in 2012 came from digital sales. The company expects a 3 percent increase in 2013 (chart from Wired, data courtesy of Image Comics).

imagecharts

At its annual Image Expo in July 2013, Image announced it would begin selling all its comics via its website in PDF, CBR, CBZ, and EPUB formats in addition to its print comics. Buyers can download these comics directly to their hard drives free of any digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. While DRM restrictions can help protect a company from online piracy, they may inhibit users’ experience.

In an interview with Wired, Image publisher Eric Stephenson made a case for removing DRM restrictions as a piracy prevention measure. “My stance on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment,” Stephenson said. “There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being greatly pirated, while things that are successful have a higher piracy rate. If you put out a good comic book, even if somebody does download it illegally, if they enjoy it then the likelihood of them purchasing the book is pretty high. Obviously we don’t want everybody giving a copy to a hundred friends, but this argument has been around since home taping was supposedly killing music back in the ’70s, and that didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s happening now.”

ComiXology’s business model is more akin to buying a subscription to content on a website. On comiXology, users create an account with the site and pay for the comics they want to read. They can access these comics on any device by using a web browser or the free ComiXology mobile app. The requirement of reading the comics in-app is a form of DRM.

In a panel at this year’s Comic-Con International called “Digital and Print: Friends or Foes?” ComiXology co-founder and CTO John D. Roberts defended the company’s business model by asserting the benefits of the company’s cloud storage system outweighed customers’ disdain for DRM.

“I have always thought that people may not like DRM, but if you gave them a really convenient product, that kind of outweighed what DRM was. In our cloud-based system, you can download a comic right here, but if you have a PDF file sitting on your computer, you then have to get into iTunes, you have to copy it to your device — it’s not exactly the most user friendly experience…,” Roberts said.

Roberts makes a very compelling point. I strongly prefer print over digital for my comic reading, but at the times I have bought digital comics, I used ComiXology. I found it much more convenient to download an iPad app than copy a PDF and, more importantly, cloud storage keeps me from filling up more hard drive space on my laptop and tablet. Space is a hot commodity, and in the age where more and more media are sold digitally, the ability to spare some room is always welcome.

However, DRM restrictions are the major reason I could not fully embrace digital over print (other than just having a preference for reading print, of course). In the ComiXology model, I do not own the comics. With direct downloads, I do. I would always have reservations about paying the same price (or only saving a little) for a ComiXology purchase as a print edition or download of which I have full ownership.

Particularly disconcerting is the idea that if ComiXology went under, users’ access to their purchases might go down with the ship. This very thing happened this past spring to users of JManga, a site for buying Japanese comics with a similar model to ComiXology. The site shut down in May 2013, so users could no longer read the comics they had bought. While the likelihood of ComiXology suffering the same fate is extremely slight, because of the company’s success at the forefront of digital comic sales, the possibility of losing content I have paid for makes it a tough sell.

A growing number of creators, including influential writer Warren Ellis, seems to support the viability of DRM-free downloads. Ellis, along with artist Jason Howard, launched Image’s new online store with their webcomic “Scatterlands.” A high-profile creator willing to release material exclusively through the site from day one is quite an endorsement.

Scatterlands-1

ComiXology can be a great place to find new comics. It is very easy to use and accessible to people new to comics, as well as those new to digital platforms. It features sales every week on a wide variety of comics that give readers a low barrier of entry to discovering new stories. Issues never go out of print online, and there are stories I probably never would have read if they were not on ComiXology, as their collected editions are expensive or hard to find. But for digital sales to further grow in the long run, customers may need more protection for their purchases.

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