Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Our Wednesdays are numbered." - The Digital Future of Comics and Comic Book Stores

*****Note: The link to the article discussed below is no longer active. The author explained on his twitter feed that the piece has been temporarily removed from Wired.

Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, has written an excellent article for Wired on the potential impact of the iPad on the future of comics and of retailers. As someone who used to manage a comic store and whose brother-in-law is the owner of Waterfront Comics is Suisun, CA, this is a subject that is close to me. As Wolk notes in his article, the comic store has been crucial to the success of the medium over the years, citing the publisher's attempts to maintain the relevance of retailers in the face of changing demographics. He writes: 

Local stores—and their devotees—drive not just the industry’s steadiest profits but its development of new material. If more than the tiniest fraction of that fragile market gets cannibalized by digital sales, then those stores will start folding. If that happens, the majority of print readers who don’t have fancy tablets will have nothing to buy on Wednesdays anymore. And if digital sales alone aren’t enough to cover writers’ and artists’ fees and publication costs and underpin a marketing apparatus, the entire structure will blow up like Krypton."   

Not Even the Daily Planet is Immune. (Image respectfully
borrowed from Superman 706 which can be purchased here.)
Wolk does conclude however that this relationship is not sustainable, ending his piece with, "Our Wednesdays are numbered.". As traditional print readers decline and digital alternatives become more appealing to the new generations of readers, the comic book industry as it currently exists is no longer feasible in the long-term. 

Wolk noted on his twitter feed that the article was, "slightly overtaken-by-events." The events he is most likely referring to is DC's recent announcement that starting with its forthcoming relaunch digital comics will now be released day-to-date, i.e., at the same time as their paper iterations. Previously, in order to maintain the relationship Wolk discusses in the article, digital comics were typically released after the print version in order to maintain an incentive forreaders to keep going into stores. DC's new move is definitely a step away from this mindset.

This news comes at a time when distributors are likewise trying new ways to adapt to the digital market. comiXology, for example, has created a program where people can purchase digital comics from their local comic book stores through comiXologiy's platform (Check out the blog post I wrote about this for popmatters). This announcement was followed by the news that Diamond Comics - the hegemon of comic book distribution - has started a similar program where comic stores will be given digital codes that they can sell to customers who will then use the codes to download the books onto their computer or mobile device. 

Comic book retailers seem unsure as to the future of their beloved stores; the feelings seeming to range from the extremes of enthusiastic optimism, to head-in-the-sand-denial, all the way to doom and gloom. One owner I spoke with stated that they believe that digital comics and print comics are not necessarily in conflict since the readers of both are uniquely different. He argued that there are enough readers to go around and that Wednesday comic readers, the digital down loaders, and those that buy graphic novels from bookstores, will ultimately strengthen the industry as a whole. I hope he is right, but looking at the way the digital revolution has decimated bookstores and record stores its hard not to be pessimistic. What do you think? 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kindle Singles: Potential Savior of Long Form Journalism?

On April 20, 2011, Jon Krakauer,  author of the wildly popular Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, released “Three Cups of Deceit,” a damning expose of writer Greg Mortensen and the alleged abuses that took place at his charity. The next month Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein released “The Wall Street Money Machine”, a 46 page treatise that examined a crucial but relatively unexplored aspect of the recent financial crisis. Shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden, noted polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay examining the terrorist leader called “The Enemy.”
These works were not released in the pages of noted periodicals like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, nor were they published for online magazines like Slate or Salon. Instead they were released directly to readers via Amazon’s program Kindle Singles. The platform, whose tagline is “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length,” was started at the beginning of 2011 with the goal of providing a forum for a variety of long-form journalism, essays, and similar types of work.
The opening list of of titles (included in Amazon’s press release here) included works by Evan Ratcliff, Brendan I. Koerner, and Sebastian Rotella. In addition to the essays and articles of journalists, there was also a weight loss manual by a Yale Professor Ian Ayres and a short story by acclaimed author Jodi Picoult, included in the list of nine titles. The prices range between one and five dollars and average about forty pages. Since the launch of Kindle Singles in January 2011, it has come to include the works of William T. Bullman, Susan Orlean, David Baldacci, Tim Gunn, and as mentioned, Krakauer and Hitchens.
Long-form journalism has long held a crucial place in the history of American letters. Literary journalists, or New Journalists, like Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolf - to name but a few - have been considered some of the greatest writers of the past century; their works are mandatory reading in Journalism and English departments across the country. The pages of The New Yorker and numerous other literary and news magazines and journals were once replete with these types of long essays ranging from satire, personal narratives, and interviews. Yet over the past decades there was a decline in this type of writing. Although numerous publications and periodicals still were home to the long in-depth works that typified long-form journalism in its various iterations, the decline of traditional media helped relegate the formerly entrenched and secure style to a more peripheral position.
The Internet, along with changes in reading habits, were the primary causes of the decline of long-form journalism from the mainstream of American culture. Magazines and traditional newspapers have been on the decline for years, and while there are some notable exceptions, this has had drastic impact on journalism and journalists. However, even as the digital upheaval slowly eroded the former institutions in which long-form journalism thrived, it also provided new avenues for this style to reach readers. Apparently, as has often been noted, just as the Internet can taketh away it can also giveth, as various websites and platforms began providing interested readers with easy access to longer works.
Wired reports, “long-form journalism has seen a surprising revival in recent years, with services like Instapaper and Read it Later allowing you to push longer articles off to mobile devices – like the iPad – to read later. Disproving the typical thinking that web users want their information in small, easy chunks, sites like – which curates more in-depth stories – are flourishing.” Kindle Singles is one such attempt to bring an old tradition to readers via a new avenue.
While the works currently being offered from Amazon are not limited to nonfiction, its potential to provide a new platform for journalists is what immediately grabbed the attention of reporters and news organizations. Wired noted that, “This model, curated for quality but with pick-n-mix sales, may be the real future of magazines.” The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan wrote, “For readers used to greasing many more palms than Amazon’s just to get their word fix, the introduction of Kindle Singles should come as exciting news. It also should delight readers who cherish the twisted and spellbinding journalism of the 1960s and 1970s...” 
The Kindle Owner’s Blog offered this glowing review, “Amazon has managed to resurrect an area of writing that the Internet had almost done away with. Literary segments on the Internet have been shortened to meet the demand of efficiency, but Amazon realized that some people still enjoy reading and exploring a topic further than through the limited scope of a top ten list. Long-form journalism has benefited from a second chance and the production of enough quality work will ensure the continued prevalence of the mid-range literary genre for years to come.”
Some publishers are even getting on board with Kindle Singles. Boutique publishing house, The Atavist, which focuses on nonfiction and long-form works, offers readers access to some of their titles on Amazon’s online store, including "Before the Swarm," a profile of photographer Mark Moffet by Nicholas Griffin. Another publisher, ProPublica, which is a non-profit news organization with an emphasis on investigative journalism with a social conscience are also offering some of their catalogue on Kindle Singles including the aforementioned "Wall Street Money Machine" and Sebastion Rotella’s "Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story." ProPublica wrote in their statement announcing the deal with Amazon:

“We also think Amazon is on to an important insight here: In the old world of print publishing, narratives longer than about 10,000 words (a long magazine piece) and shorter than about 30,000 words (a relatively short book) were difficult to publish at all. This is another one of those “rules” that digital technology seems to be repealing, and, as frequent publishers of compelling long-form content, we think that’s a step forward.”

Not all the reviews and articles for Kindle Singles have been raves however. In the piece, “Can Kindle Singles Revolutionize Reading,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Husna Haq expressed interest in the new platform but reminded enthusiasts that, “the only way that Kindle Singles can achieve such a goal as lofty as saving long-form journalism – much less revolutionizing reading – is if readers embrace the new product. Right now, that’s still a big if.” Others noted that by edging out the publishers, writers who are not as well-known as Hitchens or Krakuer may have difficulty finding an audience without the publicity that has traditionally been the purview of the large publishing houses. One writer concluded, “Everybody wins in this new model except the book publishers who are cut out of the game.”
These arguments, while valid, do however hit the wall of the status quo where traditional print media has in the eyes of many experts been circling the drain for the past decade. Kindle Singles may not be a catch-all solution, but it is still a preferable option for writers who currently are facing an even bleaker outlook in the world of declining readership and revenues. As many of the commentators noted, with people used to receiving their information via the internet for a low cost it has became harder and harder for writers to publish work that was longer than an article but shorter than a book.
In addition to providing this much needed platform, it also has the potential to change the marketing and consumption of this type of writing. Kindle Singles allows readers to browse and purchase specific titles by subject, author, or any other discriminating factor that is relevant to them. Rather than paying for a subscription to a magazine, or buying a magazine that may only have a few sections one is interested in reading, a reader can follow Amazon’s pay-by-the-article approach. Additionally, many writers stand to gain from the favorable share of the proceeds which is generally split 70 - 30 in the author’s favor. It is not a perfect solution and it might be difficult for writers to promote their works without the help of publishers, but then again, the alternatives are not necessarily promising and getting your work published and read has never been an easy goal even in the best of times.