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).

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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.

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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.

Introduction: Strategic Communications in Today’s Media Landscape

As you can tell from my blog title, my name is Kevin Duvall. I am working on a Master’s in Journalism at West Virginia University, focusing on strategic communications. I also work as a graduate assistant at the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, where I help sharpen young minds, or at least grade their papers. I’m a West Virginia native from the Charleston area and, at 26, I’m the old man of my graduate cohort.

The purpose of this blog is to examine the ongoing development of new business practices that utilize social media. In any market today, social media are instrumental in both selling products and services in the short run and strengthening one’s brand in the long run.

Social networking sites and user-generated online content have become widely used and popular enough that they are no longer merely a novelty or entertainment form; they are a significant part of daily communication for millions worldwide. The impact social media have had on brands is substantial; clever, innovative social media campaigns can bring new fans, while more conventional use, especially using social media pages as company news feeds, can make a brand seem behind in the times.

These ideas cover a broad spectrum of topics, but in particular, I will focus on three things:

1) How companies use social media to reach out to their audiences: most, if not all companies, big or small, need two-way communication to attract customers. New communication tools can work swimmingly for building a brand, but they can be difficult. Social media make it easier for audiences to connect with companies, but those connections are not always favorable for the image the company wants to promote. Companies must find a balance between letting people do what they want and maintaining some degree of control over the content of messages

In early 2013, CNN Money highlighted nine “Social Media Superstars” that used social media most effectively in communicating with customers. While these companies used a variety of social networking sites and campaign tactics, all of them encouraged participation from audiences and communicated directly with participants. The brands that best use social media are those that do not use social networking sites to simply send information to the masses, but to actively engage their customers. Those are the ones I want to cover.

2) How people use new media to create new business models: in the current media world of two-way communication, there is a more direct link between producer and consumer than in any traditional form of mass production. In recent years, people have come up with fascinating new ways to fund and sell their projects without the need of an intermediary, such as a publisher. This increased ability for “grassroots” production has allowed some great ideas to come to fruition, while challenging longstanding ideas about what was needed to market.

Concepts like crowdfunding and pay-what-you-want digital sales have expanded in recent years, and they will likely continue to grow. With the growth of new business models, however, comes new issues. Are these business models sustainable? Can they grow beyond relatively small initiatives? Should they? I always look forward to reading about the people and companies that cause debate for these questions.

3) What companies’ social media use and new business models mean for mass communications as a whole: in less than a decade, social media have had a profound impact on traditional media. Two years after Facebook launched, “You” were the TIME Magazine Person of the Year. Twitter has been the premier breaking news feed for so long that people are not surprised by that notion anymore. What do these ideas say about audience behavior? Do people really want to engage with brands, or do they want brands out of the picture as much as possible? Will they pay what they want when they do not have to pay at all? Can markets survive if the answers to these questions are negative?

After graduation, my goal is to work for an advertising, PR or IMC firm, or a company strategic communications department (if some of my professors cannot convince me to go further into academia). By exploring the issues I’ve discussed in this post, I will be up-to-date with the latest developments in the influence of social media on branding and able to analyze these developments with proper depth. I’m excited to learn about all the new ways creators use the Internet to realize their goals, and to apply the knowledge and enthusiasm I gain to my own creative endeavors.