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25 January 2009 @ 01:05 pm
Diamond Age  
If you follow print comics at all, then you probably already know about Diamond's Big News. The short version is that they're increasing the minimum amount a title must earn in order for Diamond to continue carrying it. This makes good economic sense for Diamond, but it's unquestionably going to destroy independent comics publishing as we know it. The first third of this article goes into a little more depth on the issue, but basically when the monopolistic distribution system makes it mathematically impossible for the majority of independent publishers (and all yet-to-be-founded independent publishers) to be distributed, that's it. Game over.

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.

Benito Cerenobenitocereno on January 25th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
You are a smart guy, Brian Clevinger. And one who can be counted on to Talk Seriously About Comics.

It's difficult, as you say, to accurately predict the future of comics, but I will tell you: as an analog creator, I've got Fear of an iPod Planet.
Atomic Roboatomic_robo on January 25th, 2009 10:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, any sort of iScreen is NOT the ideal form a comic page should take, and any concerted effort to move comics toward fitting those screens would be a huge step backward. We're talking Winsor McCay to Marmaduke. But I try to look at it as an evolution. This is what those screens and devices are like now. But in five years? Ten years? We'll surely have the fidelity and page real estate to pull off portable digital comics.

But, really, the internet is made for creators like you, Benito. I guarantee, you put Bully Pulpit online, just a couple pages per update a couple updates per week, and by the time it's all out there you'd have an audience eager to pre-order you enough cash to do your own print run. Think how much of that cover price you'd keep without Diamond, Image, and the retailers taking their cuts. You'd make stupid bank that could go toward more Hector, etc., etc.

Full disclosure: that last paragraph is just my fantasy for seeing more Bully Pulpits and Hectors regardless of your goals or interest in juggling the logistics involved in shipping all those books yourself :B
The Arch-Emilynhyrvana on January 25th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
Just some thoughts...
What about the tactile sensation of holding a comic (or a book even for discussion's sake) over holding an iPhone or other electronic content viewer? Plus, the internet and all these amazing electronic network databases work fine now, but what happens if they were to fall down and stop working? Even now sometimes electronic archiving isn't completely reliable.
The guy who reads the online comic could be hosed, while I can reach for my issue of Atomic Robo and read it over and over again, and my children's children will be able to read it as well.

Atomic Roboatomic_robo on January 25th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, someone definitely ought to step in and take over distributing actual indie books. It's just that no one's stepped forward to do that yet, so I didn't talk about it.

At least, I hope they do. I'd hate to see so many titles and companies just disappear from shelves through no fault of their own.
Dave Van Domelen: Beebadvandom on January 25th, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
The problem with a new distributor is that no one could afford to give stores the sort of discounts they rely on to stay afloat. Diamond works volume, and shops need steep discounts to counteract the losses they take on titles that don't sell.

Now, I could see an indy distributor trying something like monthly comics, to get the best shipping volume breaks. And full returnability might be required to get shops to take a chance on them, but could let the distributor get away with lower discount rates (i.e. paying 70% of cover price instead of 50% might be attractive if you get refunds on anything that doesn't sell).

Far more likely to work, though, is a purely digital distribution network. CBR format books or some other no-DRM model (i.e. Baen.com's style), with a periodical style close to paper comics (i.e. change too much and you lose more of your audience) with perhaps a cost of $1 an issue or even subscription plans like a lot of webcomics use. But avoid DRM at ALL COSTS. Pirates will break anything you can make anyway, and you piss off readers if they can't just dump a copy of their comics to whatever machine they want to read them on (i.e. download on desktop, transfer to laptop to read on the bus).
Dave Van Domelen: gogglesdvandom on January 25th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I'd never read 8BT and had no idea you were its creator when I started reading Atomic Robo. :) So at least some of your readership comes from outside.
Atomic Roboatomic_robo on January 25th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
That's because half our budget is dedicated to getting good reviews (p.s. check's in the mail)
Chaddjediwonderboy on January 25th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC)
"That's because half our budget is dedicated to getting good reviews (p.s. check's in the mail)"

Atomic Robo is the best comic book I have ever read, in my entire life.
Chaddjediwonderboy on January 25th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
This has been all over the internet lately. I've been reading a lot on it. I agree with a lot of what you're talking about here. I think that comic artists and authors, who are able to invigorate their talents with some marketing savvy, will do well. Those who may not be able to, will not.

I know there are a lot of places around the web that creators can go to, in an effort to self publish and promote. I've often wondered what places promote the idea of a "creator co-op", that would allow writers and artists to gather their resources together, and use each other to create and market their books and comics.

For comic BOOKS I still can't see a viable home on internet only places; I think there still needs to be an easier way for independent creators to get their books into the hands of readers. Though with webcomics, mobile phone apps (I think) could become the way to go.

For someone like yourself, who has successfully forayed the success of a webomic, and used that as a launching board to create a (very enjoyable) comic book, it proves that working from one medium to another is a great way to create an audience, and use that core group to help generate greater interest in other projects.

EDIT: I do want to say that while I had read 8bit before, it took me a while to make the connection between the two, having picked up Atomic Robo independet of your webcomic.

Edited at 2009-01-25 09:45 pm (UTC)
Atomic Roboatomic_robo on January 25th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
For comic BOOKS I still can't see a viable home on internet only places; I think there still needs to be an easier way for independent creators to get their books into the hands of readers.
Absolutely. Digital comics should be part of a publisher's strategy. It's just great that it is an option now that many publishers will lose the only other one they had.
Chaddjediwonderboy on January 25th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)
Agree. For those creators who have the NEED to just create, it's great the avenues the web offers.

I know that the major comic companies offer lots of extras on the web for their books, and I think that it's a good model to follow; independent creators being able to have a web presence, to drive readers from the book online to look at and order extras (tee shirts, sketches, page and art auctions), and then have the web help drive people who are "just browsing" to buy the book.

I hope that in the next few years, we see print on demand get cheaper and cheaper, getting to the point where it becomes a "click and print" operation. While it is like that with sites like lulu, the cost is still pretty high for a creator to create any sort of viable profit margin.
wounded_melody on January 26th, 2009 09:57 am (UTC)
Ah, I've pretty much given up on being a writer. About 15 years ago, it was still near impossible for independent studios to start up; a friend invested a ton of money in publishing his work and only ever got out issue 1 :/
all your mitz are belong to usmechamitzy on January 26th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
wise words!