Let me put it plainly. The basic model of getting new independent comics into shops is dead.
Oh, it'll do fine for Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and maybe one or two others. But everyone else? Everyone out there working on a new project for publication right now? The old model no longer applies.
The good news is that this isn't bad news.
I'd been wondering when comics would go digital since around 2002. That's when 8BT officially became my job. I started going to conventions and the difference between webcomic money and small press money was so obscene it made me feel bad. Seriously. I was making more money by giving away my comic online than everyone I ever saw who self-published their comics or who went through smaller independent publishers and Diamond. It's a basic question of overhead. If you print, you have to pay to print the comics; to ship the comics; to store the comics; to ship the comics again to Diamond, or the retailer, or the customer. And that cover price? I know the customer feels like $2.99 is a bit much for one issue (nevermind the $3.99 that will become the standard price later this year), but that's got to go toward paying the printer, the shipping, the storage, the shipping again, Diamond, and the retailer. What pittance is left over is then split between the creative team and the publisher. That's a lot of ways to slice $3 especially since the retailer alone keeps $1.50. And mind you, this is if you get a sale. Print comics customers are not merely inclined to not buy things they don't already buy, they actively fight it. Good luck out there!
Let's compare that to the cost of distributing a webcomic. You pay about $20/year for a domain name and then a monthly fee for bandwidth, the cost of which will range from negligible to obscene. If you don't have much traffic, then chances are you can afford to swallow bandwidth costs through your own disposable income. That alone is a huge advantage over producing a print run that barely sells (no matter how small the print run) -- you're still out all those printing, shipping, and storage costs that don't exist for a webcomic. If your traffic starts to increase, then yeah, your bandwidth costs will go up. But it'll always be a cost you can make disappear by selling sketches, original pages, and/or advertising space. Any revenue beyond covering those costs (plus art supplies where needed) goes straight to the creative team. No retailer. No Diamond. No publisher. And this doesn't even get into the revenue you can generate through merchandising or print collections once you have an established pre-order-hungry audience. It's just insane.
Basically: there was no reason to go into print. The only difference is that it's now official Diamond policy to laugh at you for trying.
One might look at the above and ask, "Brian, if you love webcomics so much, then why did you go into print with Atomic Robo?" Mostly, I think it was the need for 1. legitimization followed by a little bit of 2. ignorance and 3. arrogance. In more detail:
1. 8-bit is basically a work of piracy and it has no future beyond exactly what it is: some free online comics. Having sunk my entire adult life into producing it, I felt that whatever came next needed an external source of legitimization to be taken seriously as an intellectual property with any kind of future. Not because web based properties are not on their own legitimate (look no further than Penny Arcade, PvP, Applegeeks, and on and on), but it tends to take individual online titles longer to establish that legitimacy than it does a print title. The assumption is that if a work is published, then a certain baseline level of quality and marketability has been vouched for, so the property in question is a safer investment from external sources. A webcomic needs to prove it has that, and it can only do so if given enough time (again, look at how long it took PA, PvP, AG, etc. to find traction outside the internet: years). It's the difference between looking for something to read at Barnes and Noble and fanfiction.net. I already put in/wasted my years of webcomic time, I couldn't afford to start all over at thirty.
2. Though I knew webcomics require far less overhead to produce, I failed to anticipate just how great the gulf really is between the online and print markets.
3. I figured more 8-bit readers would pay a trivial amount for a physical product of new content from an author whose work they enjoyed. Individual issue sales for Atomic Robo are high for a book of its position in the print market, but not so high to require significant sales from 8BT-readers to explain them. Even if we assume most of those sales are from 8-bit readers, and realistically they aren't, that inflated number would still only represent less than one percent of the 8BT-reading audience. Then again, someone's buying the trade like crazy, maybe it's them?
But, hey, this is business. The death of one model is the birth of a new one. Quoting myself from Oct '07:
The music industry fought to keep distribution the same after mp3s hit and in doing so they gave iTunes the opportunity to make billions. The numbers are smaller in the comics industry, but Diamond brings in $500 million every year. Even a piece of that is nothing to sneeze at should a small team of software developers swoop in and do for comics what Diamond could have done five years ago. In their fight to keep their jobs, Diamond and the mail order shops are going to let someone else make the millions of dollars any one of them could have made by thinking ahead."
Look at that, I predicted iVerse (with more info over here). I believe ComiXology is working toward including a similar service with their app, but don't quote me on that. If we don't see even more services in this direction as 2009 goes on, that's just stupid.
I'm not saying iVerse is the future, or that their model will be a success for them or someone else. It's just too early to make those kinds of calls. But it is an elegant and attractive alternative for indie publishers who are suddenly tasked by Diamond to increase their sales by a factor of two overnight.
If you're a new creator, why should you seek to be listed with iVerse or a similar digital distribution network? They charge for your product when you could just as easily put up a website and release the same content for free and to a larger potential audience.
Well, remember my concerns about building legitimacy? You can do it much faster in print than you can online because there's no minimum assured level of professionalism or quality in webcomics as a whole. An iVerse-like model is an interesting compromise between the advantages of both print and digital distribution -- you can have the built-in legitimacy of the print network and the greatly reduced overhead of the digital network. Whether or not a given creator or team should seek to join an iVerse-like model or to strike out on their own is ultimately up to them. Both offer distinct advantages and disadvantages, you just gotta go with the one that best fits your project. The important thing is that Diamond is not the only game in town.
The future of comics may well depend on linking "comics" and "portability". Portable mp3 players and the services that provide them content are such a huge success because of the inherent universality of music: you can listen to it without being occupied by it. I mean, are you mp3 player people are really listening to your music as anything other than background noise even 50% of the time? You can half-listen to a song in traffic without feeling cheated by the experience, but half-reading a comic on your drive to work is a great way to kill yourself.
So, y'know. There are hurdles for anything that's "like iTunes, but comics." But we'll find ways around and over those hurdles. What's important now is to attach the ideas of convenience and accessibility to comics; to make it feel as natural to read a comic on a portable screen as it is today to listen to music on a very tiny hard drive. The iPhone is a great way to plant those seeds, so it will only make sense for comics to become an integrated part of next generation phones and other portable, personal devices with big fancy screens.
It's a weird time to be in the comics industry, but I think it will be a better industry for the changes that will come as a result of Diamond's new policy. New business models will emerge and be explored. More content will be more available in more ways than has ever been possible. This is how an industry thrives.