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*****Note: The link to the article discussed below is no longer active.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? 

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