Thursday I Won’t Care About You #13: Let’s Get Digital

A war has been raging globally – a war that will affect the way we live our lives and interact with the world. I guess you could call it a secret war, because this is a comic book news site and we’re all nerds but that would greatly over-dramatize the conflict, which, of course, has been going on since the day someone decided that VHS would be a better format than beta-max.

I’m talking about the format war.

We’ve seen different iterations of this battle over the last two generations or so: Vinyl vs 8-tracks, 8-tracks vs cassettes, Beta-max vs VHS, cassettes vs CDs, VHS vs DVD (was laserdisc ever really a competitor?) CD vs mp3, DVD vs blu-ray vs HD-DVD…for the most part, each and every time the superior format comes out victorious but I think a lot of us aren’t realizing that the format war has reached it’s zenith, right now consumers are being given a choice between analog and digital formats.

There’s that newservice that some analysts are saying is going to kill physical musical purchases. The rise of the e-reader is being cited by some as part of the reason Borders is meeting it’s demise. I was always against digital books, citing the fact that reading wouldn’t be the same without the feel of paper, without that smell, the intoxicating smell of dust and ink and wear….but you know what’s a lot better than those things? The sheer convenience of being able to carry around hundreds of books and over being able to quickly download new ones. If I didn’t have pennies to my name, when I woke up on Tuesday I could’ve had the new Grant Morrison book delivered to my Kindle instantly.

Even the DVD/blu-ray industry might’ve just suffered a fatal blow with the looming implementation of Netflix’s craptacular new payment plan. I think most Netflix users will have the same moment I did: They’ll look at the last DVD they got, realize they should’ve returned it weeks ago and then decide that having to pick between streaming content or analog content isn’t really that big of a deal. A majority of users will pick streaming and the film companies who’ve resisted letting certain content go VOD will either have to relent.

Hell, I imagine if it was feasible to transmit the large amounts of data most video-games are made up of Microsoft and Sony would’ve already initiated some sort of download system for new releases.

Since this is a comic site and since discussion of the subject has been in the periphery of all comic conversation the last few months I might as well say it: But what about comics? DC’s got the new day and date strategy coming up but everything I’ve heard about their digital store is that, it’s, well, a mess on ice. Hell, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that days after Warren Ellis posted this criticizing both DC and Marvel for their digital strategies, DC began offering Planetary, the completely series, as it’s first digital trade.

Seriously, go on Amazon and check out the price differentials: The digital omnibus is $24.99. The two Absolute Planetary volumes will run you $280. Even all the individual trades would run you about $60.

Or maybe it is a coincidence despite the fact that Ellis and his web-comic, FreakAngels, have shown it’s that a digital to print strategy can work, an idea which almost seems to be an anathema to everything Marvel and DC, and well, the comic publishing industry as a whole, seem to be about.

Let’s talk about this like rational comic book fans with fixed incomes. I’d say most of you do not buy the trade for books you own in single issue (and if you do…seriously? Why would you want to pay for something twice?) As story-telling artifacts, the single issue comic book is comically inefficient. 3.99 (if not more) for something you’ll probably only read once or twice and could get at a much cheaper (per issue) rate if you just waited a few months.

The idea of readers waiting for the trade has been something that’s hurt the industries business…but has it hurt business as much as holding on to the idea that comics need to be printed and shipped every month? Imagine the amount of money that would be saved if Marvel and/or DC adopted the FreakAngels strategy: Publish digitally weekly. Go to print for the trade. Even Greg Rucka‘s getting in on the fun!

Of course there’s a certain amount of fear which goes along with such a strategy, namely that people would read it and not pay for the trade, but think about it, if people are willing to pay for FreakAngels and eventually Lady Sabre and the Pirates of Ineffable Aether, they will pay for Batman and they will pay for Superman. Other precautions could of course be taken to keep profits – some sort of subscription fee – or not keeping the comics live digitally that long (a month, tops)

Some of you would say I’m jumping the gun, proposing a shift in comics publishing from paper to digital, especially when most companies can’t even get their back issues out into manageable digital collections, much less their monthly releases, but is what I’m saying really that preposterous? We already know that it works. We already know that profits on monthly books aren’t that great – I’m not an expert at the numbers but do the monthly sales on most books even cover their print and shipping costs? Almost all the profit seems to come from collected editions. Why not just bypass the monthly issues if all they’re really serving to do is advertise the collected editions?

Digital music players are ubiquitous, e-readers are becoming ridiculously cheap with tablet PCs catching up, and no one really buys DVDs anymore. Isn’t it going to be a little ridiculous, five years from now, when all your books, movies, and music are solely digital and you’re still going to the comic shop every week to pick up your books?

I’m Jay Galette and I’d rather live like a member of the Legion of Super-heroes than Anthro, the first boy.

Yes that’s really the way I chose to make that comparison.

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