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Print vs. Digital: What Will The Future Of The Comics Market Look Like?

A recent interview with DC execs shed some light on the current comics market and got us thinking about what the future might look like.

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The issue of digital comics and "digital first" books is something that is still considered a rather contentious subject for many. Are digital comics considered supplemental to the weekly releases available in print, or are they considered competition for comic shop owners? This is definitely a subject that was present on the minds of DC's VP of Sales Bob Wayne and the SVP of Marketing John Cunningham when they, along with other DC execs, made the decision to make DC comics available digitally the same day as the print releases. So what does this mean for comic shops now and in the future?

Since DC's announcement that many of their comics would be made available for the Kindle as well as other digital platforms, the time in which many titles are made available for download has been pushed back -- meaning that sometimes the digital comics are made available for download on Wednesdays before many comic shops on the East Coast are even open for business. In a recent interview DC's SVP John Cunningham discussed that the digital numbers are being "closely monitored" by DC and that the company always viewed their digital sales as an "additive" and not a replacement to the sale of print comics.

Obviously, we're monitoring on a daily basis, weekly basis and a monthly basis what our digital sales are in concurrence with print sales. That's been the method of operation since we went day-and-date digital. And a lot of our attitude to that was grounded by the fact that we only saw digital as an additive business in terms of our overall sales. I might even go so far to say that it's an additive element that helps support and keep print going because you're marketing these properties in a more holistic way.

As far as the timing issue, I think the question is still very much out there. We're not of the opinion that it's going to provide that much of a statistical advantage because there's still no consistency as to when, where and how these titles go up digitally. And we're watching things on a very close, day-to-day basis to see if we have to make any adjustments, but I think we went into this fairly comfortable in the notion that this would prove to be additive just as well as day-and-date was.

This begs the question, what will the future of digital and print look like, and will the two markets become more competitive? If the times that comics are being made available for digital purchase continues to be pushed back earlier and earlier, then what will the incentive be for the average buyer to go to the comic shop each week and spend money on a print issue? Why leave the house when you can just download your favorite comics before your local shop even opens, from the comfort of your couch?

One particular excerpt from the interview with DC's SVP John Cunningham struck us as particularly interesting when he goes so far as saying that the sale of digital comics supports the print market:

…And a lot of our attitude to that was grounded by the fact that we only saw digital as an additive business in terms of our overall sales. I might even go so far to say that it's an additive element that helps support and keep print going because you're marketing these properties in a more holistic way…

While the digital market may have been viewed as an additive initially, is it possible that the digital market could have grown (and may eventually grow) to be a larger, competing market to the sale of print? After all, digital comics cost virtually nothing to make. By selling the comics digitally and charging the same price as the print copy, the publisher gets to take a bigger cut since the cost of publishing and shipping the comics is virtually removed. Since the digital comics cost less to make and distribute than print comics, the notion that the sale of digital comics supports the print market can easily be viewed as a threat to the print market in general.

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Although we can't make a perfect and direct comparison between the comics market and the movie rental market, we can take compare the two on a surface level. We can get a closer look at the digital versus physical argument by looking at a company like Blockbuster Video which, according to a report by Fast Company, in 1994 was valued at $8.4 billion and was the largest movie rental chain in the country. Since then, however, the company has experienced a steady decline with stores closing all throughout the country, going so far as to file for Chapter 11 back in 2010, dropping in value exponentially from $8.4 billion in 1994, to a mere $24 million in 2010. Much of Blockbuster's losses can be attributed to the launch and rise of streaming company Netflix, forcing Blockbuster to also look for a "digital strategy." However, local comic shops aren't Blockbuster Video stores and aside from comics, they give us plenty of things a Blockbuster can't. Many comic shops aren't part of a huge company, they are local "mom and pop" stores that are owned and operated by members of the community. So while a company like Blockbuster has experienced a steady decline, some local, family video rentals continue to thrive across the country perhaps due to the fact that they continue to deliver a more personal experience, much like the experience many of us get when we visit and buy from local comic stores. Take, for example, First Run Video in Battleboro, Vermont which has continued to thrive in spite of the move by many to digital and streaming. According to First Run Video's general manager, his shop provides elements you just can't get from Netflix streaming:

We find a lot of people have become disenfranchised with Netflix... streaming isn't what it used to be…We're here to satisfy the customer the best we can, whereas with the Redbox, you can't go to the machine and say ‘this disc doesn't work.' You're not going to get an answer. The machine's not going to talk back to you…While the Internet and streaming can hurt us, it can also help us by opening the doors to a larger audience of consumers to purchase our product.

The same can be said for the comics market. One of the interesting points in the interview with SVP of Marketing John Cunningham was that the sale of digital first comics like Smallville Season 11 did relatively well in both digitally and in print, ranking in both lists, and in that sense, the digital books may have aided the sale of the print volume.

So what does the future of the comics market look like? Will competition between digital and print markets grow exponentially and how long will that take? There is no real way to determine how the market will change and no way to guess how consumers will want to buy products. And while buying digital may seem more convenient for some, it takes away from the collectibility and the experience of holding a comic in your hand and being able to physically turn the pages. What do you think the market will look like in the future? How do you purchase your comics?

Source: CBR, Fast Company and Reformer