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Comics have a bit of a problem. While we are currently amidst an explosion of comic book movies, there hasn’t been a corresponding explosion in physical sales for the comics industry. Don’t get me wrong, comic books have seen a steady increase in sales for the past couple years, but few of those sales have translated to lasting new readers for the medium. Outside of the trade market, the only place where we are seeing a marked growth is in the digital industry. The problem really comes down to the way comics are sold more than anything. This is why new service by Scribd, which offers a subscription service for comics, may be what is needed to save the comic industry.
For those who don’t know Scribd, recently unveiled a new Netflix-like service where for $8.99 a month you get access to over ten thousand comics. These comics aren’t the newest titles and it’s a little unclear when new comics will be added to the library, which kind of drives home the Netflix vibe of a mix of old and new comics. Unlike Marvels “Unlimited” service you will be able to find comics from a variety of publishers including Valiant, Archie and even Marvel, which is surprising. All in all it seems like a much needed change for a somewhat stagnant industry.
The comic book industry been a bit strange in its approach to attracting new readers. In order to “get into” comics there are a few hoops you’ve got to jump through. First, you have to go to a specialty store that specifically sells comics and other “nerdy” stuff. Second, hope you have a friendly staff, because otherwise you’ll have to find a comic by yourself amongst a huge wall of comics. Third, read what is more and more these days a single part of a larger story, wait up to a month for the next slice of that story and then, finally, pay about five bucks for this experience.
And some people wonder why our industry seems so impenetrable to newcomers.
While that price of just under five dollars might not seem like too much on its own, with the proliferation of subscription services it is becoming untenable. Compare it to Netflix, where I could pay $7.50 for a whole wealth of shows. Music has similar subscription service with little to absolutely no price. Hell, even video games are wandering into the bundle value service program and for fifteen bucks I can play over 100 games.
There are two main reasons why comics need to get into the subscription service game.
It’s All In The Timing
Comics come out at weird intervals. They aren’t like tv shows which come out weekly for a season. Some comics come out weekly, some bi-weekly and some monthly. Others which are intended to have a regular monthly schedule instead suffer from extensive and irregular delays. Most comics don’t have a release schedule printed directly in the comic so you have to be fairly knowledgeable to keep up. I can’t even imagine how many new readers have bought issue one of a comic only to never buy another one because they didn’t know when the next issue came out. Or even worse, went to pick up X-men or another movie titled comic only to discover that they were two stories into a five issue arc and that their local store doesn’t have the previous two issues. Subscription services make it very easy to go back and look at what happened before the current “episode” of a longer story. Our huge backlog should be comics greatest strength, not its greatest weakness. We could have comic catalogues reaching back one hundred years on a subscription digital program. Something that physical stores simply can’t match.
Let the Buyer Beware No More
Subscription services remove the threat of buyers remorse. Now some people might disagree with this and trust me, I understand. No one regrets those twenty-two straight hours I spend watching Doctor Who because I could. But for the most part it does help alleviate buyers remorse. If I go out and buy a disk set of some television show, because its the new hot thing, and I don’t like it, then I’m out of that money unless I can sell that physical disk back. But if I use a service like Netflix, even if i watch a show and don’t like it, I never regret owning Netflix. Because there is always something on. Comics aren’t that expensive, but relative to other mediums, it is getting more expensive. I don’t want to be the old man complaining about gas but for something like five dollars, I expect to get hours of enjoyment, not minutes.
There are many downsides to digital comics and while debate over the relative quality of digital comics regarding color saturation, panel size and general feel are best left for another article, I want to focus on a particular loss for comics that the industry isn’t presently willing to sacrifice. The one big issue is the physical ‘thing’ and your ownership of that ‘thing’. Under a subscription service you don’t own the comic, and that’s a big deal for a large number of people. When you use Netflix or Spotify you don’t own the show, but we have been acclimatized to not owning those shows and that music by television and radio, respectively. Comics are different because, until now, we’ve always owned the physical product. Video games are going through this growing pain as well. Some people turn up their noses at PSNow specifically because the idea of not owning the “thing” bothers them. Not knowing that you own a product and that you can do what you want with it can be a deal breaker for a number of people. But there is a whole generation to whom possession of an item is no longer a variable that matters. The experience of the thing is all that matters and there are a lot of newcomers to comics who only care about the experience and could care less about the physical comic itself, or ownership of it.
The industry has been slow to make this change because the “thing” is incredibly important right now for most comics consumers. 52 variant covers, holographic covers, mother f***ing scratch-and-sniff comics, would all be absolutely useless after the conversion to digital and especially in a subscription service. A lot of people can’t even imagine a ComicCon without sealed comics and writers signing comic books. The fact is that saying goodbye to comics-as-collectibles and all of the memorabilia which accompanies that proposition might be the sacrifice for reaching a wider audience.
Comics made the transition from being sold at news stands to being released in specialty shops after some really worthwhile comics were found. But I’m not sure this relationship is destined to last. Which is not to say that I want these specialty shops to close. Far from it, I love these shops, and despite some bad experiences I’ve had in them, they are part of the lifeblood of the comics community and the comics industry. Its even worth noting that its possible that as digital becomes more prevalent physical comics will become more valuable. After all, less supply will make them rarer, which should increase demand. It’s basic economics. What local comic book stores need to return to is what they originally were, specialty shops, for a specialty audience. Not the only means of conveyance to the general population. My point is that throughout the history of the medium, comics have evolved alongside distribution. In order to make it in the digital world, it is not enough to simply move to the new medium to digital, but to figure out the best means of distribution for that new medium. There is a reason we don’t buy comics at news stands anymore.
I for one, cannot wait to see what creative solution comics come up with.