As we’ve been promising, here’s the rundown of the Kurtz/Roberts/Guigar discussion of digital comics with respect to print and what’s coming next. As with other sessions of this sort, I typed as quickly and accurately as I could, but the following should not be taken as a canonical transcription of what was said. Give it a week or so, somebody’ll have audio and/or video posted.
The session started out with Scott Kurtz setting the stage about the last-minute shift in personnel.
Kurtz: Honestly, there was no reason to have this debate, except to watch me and Ted [Rall] be assholes to each other. John [Roberts, CTO and co-founder of ComiXology] has stepped in for Ted, but not to be Ted. So why don’t you give us a little background on ComiXology, John?
Roberts: [Along with his partners, he] founded ComiXology about four years ago, and it was originally to keep track of your pull list; you could check off what comics you wanted each week and then take that with you to the store. Then retailers saw what was going on and wanted access, so we built out to the retailers, you can look up shops and figure out where you want to buy. Then we got into digital delivery about 14 months ago, and built a digital store app which is now used by Marvel, DC, Image, BOOM, we have the largest selection of publishers. You can read the comics you purchase on your iPhone, iPad, or on the website.
Kurtz: I was reading all these stunning numbers out of [the] ICv2 [retailing conference, which took place immediately prior to NYCC], numbers like how Japan has $600m a year of digital downloads. The whole idea of having a debate about digital being a viable business model just seems — okay, I would give anything to be a syndicated cartoonist in the 1960s and 70s. It would be awesome.
But that’s gone. Yes, we can say the living I make as an independent webcartoonist is nothing compared to if I had a time machine and could be a syndicated cartoonist circa 1977. So I was talking to Brad, what are the new realities about this model? Are they responsible for the sagging sales in print, are they responsible for killing print, for killing newspapers? Are we destroying this industry that inspired us? I think that’s where the whole crux of the debate comes from — fear.
Guigar: I don’t know if I’d want to be a syndicated cartoonist in the 70s. Ten years ago, I never would have had the practice to get to that point without being able to put my stuff on the web and get that development. So, question one, and it might be unfair: Why do you think the print comics model is faltering right now?
Roberts: I could get in trouble for this, but I think print comics are too expensive. I don’t have the time or inclination to buy things that I don’t know are already a hit. If I look at a four dollar comic, that price point’s a big hindrance. You’re getting less story, paying more money, it just seems like for a lot of people, disposable income is going to other things.
Kurtz: For the money you’d spend on a Halo comic at a comic shop, you’d be busy for a night; but playing Halo:Reach could keep you busy for months.
Guigar: Is it more expensive to print that it was?
Kurtz: I see the price increase as a result, there are very few people buying comics through the direct market.
Comment from the floor: I own a comics store in Massachusetts, and the consensus of the ICv2 conference is that the future is the web. That’s bad because I sell stuff. I was shocked when [ComiXology CEO & co-founder] David Steinberger said, Half the population of the US lives nowhere near a comic book store.
Kurtz: Let me give a few more theories. I have had at times an adversarial relationship with retailers. If I want to format a book a way that my readers want, but doesn’t fit on the shelves that 90% of the retailers have, they want me to reformat. If I debut a brand new book at a convention, retailers get mad because all my readers get it at the con, so who’s going to buy it from them?
There’s this feeling in the industry that we’ve gotta be Go, comics, gotta support the retailers, and my question was “Why?” Why am I supporting their business instead of mine? I can barely manage my own business, and I’ve now got to also consider my impact on somebody else? I’m just one creator, but what about a whole company like Marvel or BOOM? If that support for the retailers shifts…. [to Roberts] Okay, how many publishers want to go day & date with digital publishing [where print comics and digital downloads are available the same day]?
Roberts: There are some, but with the bigger companies there’s some reluctance.
Kurtz: The fear being, if you can spend $1.99 from home, from the toilet, why drive to a store that probably doesn’t exist in your area, to spend $4.00?
Comment from the floor: For the ladies!
Question from the floor: In terms of distribution and cost issues, how much of a factor is it that the formatting and production quality of comics has changed? We don’t get comics on newsprint anymore, there’s lots of colors, glossy paper….
Roberts: I’ll be honest, production and distribution is the least part of the cost. The highest is writer, editor, artist. There’s a lot of this “A&E” cost involved. There’s was a breakdown a while back and the cost of a single comic is like $20,000, mostly because of the people that are writing, drawing, editing. Those are why you’re spending most of your money; you can save by not physically producing, but it’s not the major cost.
Kurtz: Brad and I had an idea to print, for this show, an insert for the bags. The con people said sure, then they said Give us a 100,000 copies, and I’m Buhhhh? The idea was to print on cheap paper, find one of those plants that isn’t printing newspapers because the newspapers are dying, but it’s expensive to print on newsprint because nobody’s using it now. So printing on the better paper might actually be cheaper.
There is definitely a finite number of people reading comics right now. I think that’s why the prices are gong up, there’s just not enough people to spread it around on. You’ve got to make up that $20,000 cost, spread around a few thousand people instead of a half million? The retailer I know right now, what’s destroying his business is pull lists. Stuff gets ordered and goes in the boxes, not on the shelves where it can be sold, and the guy doesn’t come in. Next month, more stuff in the box. Next month, guy comes in finally, he’s like I can only buy half of what I asked you to pull. Now there’s three month old comics that can’t go on the shelf because they’re old and anybody that wants it already has it.
It also used to be that comics were in many more accessible places. If you want to get comics in front of your kids, it’s hard because nobody wants to take their kids into those stores. Not all of them, but some of those stores? Not taking your kid with you. Do you have any data on age for downloads?
Roberts: We have some data, yes. We require an age in there because of COPA. But these data are important to advertisers; I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but the number of house ads in comics has soared. There’s these enormous costs to offset, so if they could sell ads in there that meant something…. I mean, I’m buying a DC comic, I know there’s a Batman book coming out, tell me about the latest video game or something and bring in some money at the same time.
Guigar: So here’s the boogieman in the room that we need to address: Is print doomed, and if it is, what does that mean for comics? We’re all here because we have a passion for comics, and I think that’s where a lot of the fear comes from, that this thing we love is changing in ways we don’t recognize.
Roberts: I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a resurgence in vinyl records. There are new specialty stores where you can buy new releases of vinyl. It’s a very special, niche kind of thing, and it’s thriving. Comics is already a niche kind of thing, but I don’t think print will ever entirely go away. I don’t think digital is going to kill print, I think the print market is doing that on its own.
There is this convergence where digital is the new newsstand, you can go there to find new things you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can get the first issue, decide if you like it, then find a store to buy the print comic. We see people buying one or two issues digitally, then going into the store and buying the whole run in trade or issues.
Guigar: That dovetails with something I said this morning, where I see this going is that perhaps the monthlies are converted to digital, and we see maybe a resurgence for the trade paperbacks.
Kurtz: Here’s another idea: How can you have a movie like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 make so much money, and not have an explosion in the sale of Iron Man comic books? They’re acting like they can’t make those comics. Reading Marvel, DC, the stuff that excites me, it’s out of continuity! It’s because it’s not issue 800, and it’s not locked into this ridiculous continuity. None of it matters, and it’s not good writing! It’s not like you can’t tell these stories again, from a different POV and with different writers. Now JARVIS is a computer, Tony Stark is talking to him in his helmet and that’s cooler than Jarvis being a butler, but you can’t do that in the comics because, Well, that’s not continuity.
Comment from the floor: When I started buying digital, I found the impulse buy made its way back into comics. Same thing happened when I got a Kindle.
Roberts: One of the things we think the future of comics is, is the impulse buy. If I see The Brave & The Bold cartoon come up, and I can go to the iPad and download a Batman comic right then and there, that’s a sale.
This might be unrelated, but one of the things that Marvel and DC do that drives me crazy, they have to do that freakin’ recap. I know Superman came from another planet, and he was raised by two old people in … Iowa?
Answer from the floor: Kansas!
Kurtz: That’s why you need the recap. [laughter]
Question from the floor: This is not the only medium suffering from the digital age. There’s newspapers, there’s books, but more traditional art forms like painting or photography, you aren’t going to hang a screen on your wall. Comics are a medium that have always straddled this divide between the words, which are going digital and the pictures, which maybe are more physical. Do you really see a move to only digital or only print?
Kurtz: Ultimately what’s going to happen is whatever the kids want to do. You talk to audiophiles and they hate MP3s, but there’s study after study saying that kids don’t give a shit. Oh, well the fidelity isn’t as good as with analog and you can hear all these flaws and … Yeah, whatever Grandpa and they go back to playing the song on their phone. You and I look at a painting and we can tell the difference between that and digital. But if you talk to kids and they don’t give a shit and they’re selling a lot of digital paintings, that’s where it’s going.
Guigar: Originally this session was supposed to be between print and web. My conceit has always been not print vs web, but corporate vs independent. Print has always been about generating business through a corporate structure, where webcomics is independent. Now the question is, what’s going to replace webcomics? Do [iPod-style] app comics replace webcomics, and does that mean a return to the corporate side from the independent side?
Roberts: Actually, we announced today something we call self-authoring tools. This basically takes the responsibility for getting the work done and putting it in the hands of the creators, and we become more like Apple, acting as the curator instead of the publisher. You submit it, you do all the work, you get a bigger rev[enue]-share. Now I have to bring it up: motion comics. In motion comics, I see a move by the big publishers to reassert their dominance, because you have to have the resources to do it. It requires skilled people that cost money, and that kind of opens the divide. If people like motion comics, it pulls us back from independent creators.
Guigar: But self-authoring, doesn’t that still move away from independence, where you [ComiXology] are the corporate structure, and I have to submit to you, and you have to accept it for it to be seen? I have to depend on you for the paycheck.
Roberts: I think for the most part, 90% of the people will not be able to do it themselves. On the one hand, there’s you, there’s Penny Arcade, there are people that have built an empire on what you create. But most people would rather just give us the stuff and give up whatever the percentage is, and not have to do that [production] work. You can release your own app, you can build your own interface in Flash, but it’s not many people going to do that.
Comment from the floor: It’s the same thing going on with videogames. Stores are scared because of what’s coming out of digital distribution.
Kurtz: One of the side effects of working physically in the Penny Arcade offices is I’m learning a lot about the videogame industry. Most of the publishers there are willing to go day & date with digital release, they don’t care about the stores for the game, but if they harm those stores, there’s no way to get the hardware to you. You can release the game by digital download, but you can’t download an XBox.
Guigar: Maybe all those comic stores need to sell iPads. [to Roberts] What’s your biggest fear for the future, with respect to ComiXology?
Roberts: One of those EMPs goes off and we go back to the Stone Age and everything I’ve worked on my entire life ceases to exist.
Question from the floor: If the expensive day to day print market goes belly up, where do those super talented artists go?
Roberts: There’s a parallel to movies right now. A lot of these movies aren’t making the money they should because the upfront costs are so high. And we get these bidding wars between Marvel and DC to get exclusive artists by promising these ridiculous page rates. I think we’ll see more ads, and some of these artists taking pay cuts.
Question from the floor: Apple started the personal computing model, but then it went to more open systems and they fell away for a long time. Now Apple has the app model, but Android is coming and that could move away from the closed hardware again. The next technology shift is coming, so where are we in five years?
Roberts: If five years? I hope to be on a beach somewhere, retired and counting all my money. [laughter] They announced recently that the adoption rate for the iPad is the fastest ever seen — faster than DVD players. The tech moves so quickly, in a year we could all be using Blackberry tablets.
Kurtz: What we’re concerned about today is not the technology, the platform, the fidelity. We care about getting these stories in this medium we love. There’s a little bit of nostalgia in that, the delivery method is always going to change, but if the content is top notch, the method doesn’t matter. What’s hanging us up right now is the stories aren’t as good as they used to be, and we’re feeding 300,000 people the stories we think they want.
It drives me crazy to know that 20 years ago, Alan Moore could write a story about a Green Lantern trying to recruit a new member on a planet that had only darkness and no concept of color, and that’s way better than all this massive crossover crap we’ve got now. I swear to God, if Alan Moore were writing more Green Lantern stories, they’d be selling a ton of them and shitting money.