Diamond hastens the paradigm shift

The news that Diamond, the sole distributor for print comics to comics stores, has raised its minimums has prompted some serious examination of the whole comic marketing system, and there’s no doubt that webcomics and other electronic media are suddenly looking better and better. Sean Kleefeld’s post about rethinking your comics habits seems eerily prescient, even though it was only written two weeks ago.

Kleefeld has more to say after the fact, of course, and he points out that Dwight MacPherson has been taking a nuts-and-bolts look at a lot of alternate distribution options, including Wowio and IndyPlanet, a print-on-demand site, webcomics, and a handful of other sites, including e-books and Eagle One Media, which runs an online store where readers can purchase PDFs of comics from a variety of publishers for as little as 99 cents. Along the way, MacPherson asks creators and publishers to rethink what they want.

Kleefeld also links to Brian Clevinger, who explains why the shift to webcomics has been inevitable for some time now: Print comics expensive, webcomics cheap. He’s not the first to make that argument; here’s an older post from a superhero guy making that point and noting that digital also allows more freedom from the constraints of format.

In fact, digital comics are one of the factors making that whole comics culture of Previews and pull lists and dark little stores in out-of-the-way places increasingly irrelevant. Try explaining the Diamond system to a civilian: You have to go to a special store, and you pre-order the comics from a catalogue—yes, you are supposed to pay for the catalogue—and then you get them two months later, but of course they might change from the catalogue description in the meantime, and—hey, where are you going?

It’s not surprising that the system is collapsing; what’s surprising is that it ever worked to begin with. It worked in part because it catered to a very narrow but very dedicated group of fans and because before the internet was invented, there were no alternatives.

Over the past ten years, comics have moved from narrow-and-deep to wide-and-shallow. The audience is shifting from hardcore fans of a particular genre to people who don’t define themselves as comics readers but might pick up, say, Fun Home or American Born Chinese because it looks interesting and is (here’s the key) right there in front of them at the bookstore. No catalogues, no blind ordering, no implicit judgment from the guy behind the counter that you failed a test you didn’t even realize you were taking.

Here’s a print example: A few years ago, NBM Publishing started producing graphic-novel versions of the Nancy Drew mysteries. They did not place them in comics stores, they put them in bookstores and Scholastic Book Fairs, right next to the Nancy Drew print novels, and the Nancy Drew fans snapped them up. Rather than trying to get a bigger piece of a small pie, the NBM folks went to a different part of the bakery.

The potential for webcomics to do that is huge. The internet is already full of people who read xkcd and nothing else, because they happened to see one of the comics accompanying a blog post about something else they were interested in. I think the take-away lesson for webcomics folks is that they shouldn’t just be promoting their webcomics on other webcomics sites; they should be reaching out to any site that may have an affinity with their comic, whether with ads, links or even an embedded comic. Add to that the ability for webcomics to be in more than one place at once (MacPherson’s point: You could be at your own site, an aggregator like Kidjutsu, cell phones, e-books…) and the future may be looking a little less dim.

Of course, people still have to eat. For big-time comickers like Phil and Kaija Foglio, a free webcomic leads to sales of the print edition; others make their money from ads, t-shirts, or download fees. MacPherson seems to like the idea of lots of small income streams. Lots of people won’t make any money at all off their first comic, but it may lead to paying gigs down the road. The model is still evolving, but if pamphlet comics are on their way to becoming a dead branch on the evolutionary tree, then digital media, despite some rough edges, is looking more and more like a healthy, if somewhat unruly, hedgerow.


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