It’s not just regular book publishers who’re suffering from an increased demand for downloadable content; the comics industry is suffering too. I noticed some justifiably embittered tweets from UK comics writer Paul Cornell this Friday just gone:
Just saw download site with 2356 illegal downloads of Knight and Squire. You have no idea how angry that makes me. Bloody thieves. #
Just heard: average number of illegal [comics] downloads = *four times* legal sales. That’s why your favourite title got cancelled. No margin left. #
I’d be interested to know if the piracy of novels is happening on a similar scale to that – if anyone has a source of reliable stats and numbers, please pipe up! But I rather suspect comics is getting it far worse when considered as a percentage of total sales, and a number of possible reasons present themselves: the comics demographic is younger and more tech-savvy (and hence more used to the idea of there being a free version lurking somewhere in the pipework); scanning a comic is an easier and shorter process than OCRing a novel (and less susceptible to transcription issues); and comics (the print versions, at least) are ridiculously expensive, with limited availability of legit digital versions.
The latter issue is probably the big driver here; I don’t know much about comics industry pricing (and, again, would welcome input from anyone who does), but I sure know what stopped me from buying a few issues every month*. Whether the pricing is justified or not is an open question, but regardless of the reasons, it’s a lot of money for such a small (though beautifully-formed) nugget of art; however, I’m not sure that comics prices could be lowered radically enough to enable the big houses to carry on as they are. It’s a more plausible solution for the music industry (and is finally starting to be seen as such by people on the inside of the machine [via]), but comics aren’t so easily reproduced as infinite goods.
Perhaps I don’t have the allegiance to paper that I ought to because anybody who invests in The Absolute Sandman, all four volumes, is now carrying 40 pounds of paper and cardboard around with them. And they hurt and they complain, “Oh, I feel guilty.” And I look at it and go, you’re not getting anything that is quantitatively or qualitatively better than the experience you’d be getting on an iPad, where you can enlarge the pages, you can move it around, it’s following the eye, and you can flip the pages.
Everything about the web has been about leveling the playing field. Yeah, it’s why Scott [McCloud] was right in Reinventing Comics, and why it’s a terrible book. Because it’s a manifesto. It’s not a book. It’s a manifesto to something that doesn’t exist yet, and, furthermore, his solution is wrong, which is you can micro-monetize this stuff. But the basic gist of the manifesto is simply: The moment you’re on the web, you don’t have to publish the book, you don’t have to get the book into Barnes & Noble, you don’t have to pay for ink and paper and the office costs of somebody to promote it. And all of that is true. You are absolutely playing on a flat field with somebody who has millions of dollars of marketing behind them.
In other words, comics (and books, to a similar extent) are just hitting their iPods-and-Napster moment, where available technology is not only good enough to significantly enhance the reading experience over dead-tree, but also sufficiently ubiquitous to make controlling distribution very difficult. That level playing field isn’t here yet, but it’s coming… and the first phase is the erosion of the comparatively easy profits the publishing outfits were able to make beforehand, where a lack of knowledge (or perhaps just a resistance to trying new ideas?) means that those huge marketing budgets just don’t provide the leverage they used to.
Music is a little further ahead on this particular developmental curve, in that we can see new business models emerging at both the individual artist level and the record label level… though it’s interesting to note that organisational size seems to be inversely proportional to innovative agility and the willingness to embrace (or even just grudgingly accept) the fundamental change in the rules of engagement.
All of which isn’t to say that I’m sat here with a wry smirk and a hint of I-told-you-so in you eyes; I have many writer and artist friends (Cornell very much among them), and have no wish to see them unable to make a living from their art due to technological shifts. But all the best wishes in the world won’t change the observable fact that the economics of abundance are ripping their way into almost all of the arts… and economics isn’t noted as a phenomenon that cares about individuals. Perhaps even more so than prose fiction publishers, the comics industry needs to get to grips with digital content channels real fast if it wants to survive; you only need look at the current travails of Guy Hands and EMI to see what happens if you stand stoically on a slanting deck, stuffing wads of money and lawsuit paperwork into the hull breach while the band keeps playing “Nearer My God To Thee”.
[ * That said, I haven’t moved to downloading comics as an alternative to buying them, though I certainly have done with music; I rather suspect that if I’d been a comics freak from as early an age as I was a music freak, however, I’d be telling a different story. The underlying point: the people downloading your work don’t see it as stealing; they just see it as a way of getting more of the media they love for less financial outlay. And while there’s a logical case to be made that they are stealing, time and money spent chasing and enforcing that judgement is time and money that would be more effectively spent on looking for new ways to meet that demand. All King Canute got for his troubles were wet feet. ]