iFanboy: DIgital Comics And Your Local Shop – A Bookseller’s Perspective

This is an interesting article from iFanboy which has a different perspective on digital comics.

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It was immensely interesting to me to read Jimski’s article about hitting a personal tipping point for digital comics. Interesting because it mirrors a tipping point for the whole industry – a “moment of critical mass, the boiling point, the threshold.” (Thanks, Mr. Gladwell!) In early 2012, I feel like we’re finally passing that threshold. Color tablets are like the Nook Color and Amazon Kindle Fire are readily available and getting cheaper. Digital platforms like Comixology and Graphicly are making it easier to get most, if not yet all, of your comics in one place. Most publishers are doing day-and-date releases, and some discount titles after release. After years of “I think I can,” digital comics are poised to slip into “I knew I could.”

It’s particularly interesting to someone with a day job as a bookseller, because it’s a tipping point the book industry at large hit a few years ago.
Those key factors – platforms, unified formats, and universal releases – grew like crazy in the book world over the last half-decade. Though ebooks have arguably been around since the 70s, the world’s largest internet retailer launched the Kindle in 2007 and blew the market open. “Explosive” is an understatement when it comes to the growth of digital books over the last 5 years. Ebooks are still a small chunk of the book landscape, but they’re growing by leaps and bounds while print segments slow or shrink.

The runaway growth has made for a seismic shift in the world of bookselling. It’s not the only factor, of course. Amazon’s blow to traditional bookstores when it comes to print can’t be underestimated, and a tough economy hasn’t helped keep your neighborhood bookstore in business. Despite all this, nimble independent stores are able to survive and even thrive. It’s a fact worth considering when we look to comics. They’ve been hit by online megastores and a recession as well (and a total market that’s been shrinking for years), but they’re only on the edge of the massive shift that digital will bring.

The question is; will comic shops survive? And, frankly, should they? It’s on my mind not just as a fellow retailer (my job, like theirs, depends on getting and keeping customers), but as a fan. I’m one of those lucky folks with a local comic store that’s the Platonic Ideal of a comic shop, and the last thing I want to see is shuttered doors.

As the world goes digital, the local shop needs to cater to customers, not just keep up business as usual. It’s how those nimble independent bookstores have survived as colleagues and competitors closed down. Great local bookstores cater to their customers, hold events, bring in authors to sign and speak, host book clubs, and even diversify what they sell. They do what all good stores do – find their niche and fill it. The key for comic shops, I think, is following that lead. Boycotting publishers with little regard for what your customers are looking for? Maintaining that digital is a fad? Refusing to adapt to a constantly shifting market? Crummy service or actual disdain for customers? That’s not how to survive.

As Josh put it in episode 319 of the Pick of the Week Podcast, retailers need to appreciate the value of their own product. Not only the physical product, but the physical space – a “third place” for many consumers – has a real value. There’s ways to promote this (see: events, authors, clubs, diversification), and there’s ways to not (see: boycotts, heads in the sand). There’s more than enough at my shop to keep me around, even as I shift some of my purchasing to digital. Casablanca is deeply involved in our local community, hosts a killer convention every year, offers discounts to regulars, brings authors for signings, has a fun clean space, hires staff that knows their books and knows what to point me towards … the list goes on and on. THAT is value, and that ensures I won’t be using their store as a showroom for digital.

One great thing for bookstores that will be a tough hurdle for comic shops is that many call sell their customers ebooks directly. Formats like Google ebooks are sold at a number of independent bookstores. If I want to buy a digital copy of Zone One from my local bookstore I can; they’ll get their typical cut of the sale, and the publisher gets their chunk. As far as I know, there’s not a comic publisher out there that offers the same deal. There have been initiatives to push digital buyers into shops (Marvel’s $5 coupons, bundled hard and digital copies), but outside of the fairly limited ComiXology Digital Partners, there’s no option for your local shop to just sell you the comics you want digitally. The burden is on the retailer to give the customers what they want, and if they’ve got no possible way to do it their job gets a hell of a lot tougher. I don’t know about you, but paying a premium to own the same book digitally and physically doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Most of the time, I’d like one or the other.

It remains to be seen what value, if any, publishers will put in traditional retailers as conduits to digital sales.

The debate masks one important fact in both both the comics market and the traditional book world; this isn’t a zero-sum proposition. No one short of Zebediah Killgrave is going to force you to buy only print or only digital, and one need not exist only without the other. Personally, I buy some of my comics digitally and some in print, and some of my prose in each format. I haven’t hit the all-digital tipping point that Jim described, and I’m not sure I ever will. And I don’t have to. As long as I can, I’ll buy the stuff I want to write in, or share, or get dirty, or flip through like a maniac, or sell to a used book shop, in print. I’ll buy ones I want to cart around on a tablet, or listen to embedded extras, or exist only in one format, digitally.

One of the great things about this democratization of access is that the power is all in the customer’s hands. Wearing both my comic fan and bookselling hats, all I can suggest is that you use this great power responsibly. Buy the comics you want, how you want, where you want. The best comic shops will adapt and thrive, just as many of the best bookstores in the country are. The death of print, and of the local retailer, has been greatly exaggerated. I recommend that you encourage your shop to give you what you want (and not the other way around), and reward them when they do.


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