Comics and the Internet

Thirteen months ago, I was a guest speaker at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in Frankfurt, Germany. The topic I chose to speak on was "Comics and the Internet," an area in which I have a fair amount of experience after my years of operating milehighcomics.com. The overriding theme of my talk was that the Internet has the potential to cause great benefit for the comics industry, but also a significant amount of harm. With that thought in mind, I stated that figuring out how to magnify the benefits, while mitigating the harm of the Internet, would be the greatest challenge to comics publishing over the next ten years.

The primary benefit I see for comics publishing from the Internet is the ability of the various publishers to reach tens of millions of potential new consumers utilizing this great new tool. There has simply never been such an inexpensive method for reaching an incredibly huge mass audience. This realization has to be tempered, however, with the thought that the very low cost of communicating via the Internet has led to an incredible competition for people's eyeballs. There are now tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of websites that provide entertainment of some form on the Internet. Normal people only have a limited amount of time that they can spend on entertainment in any given week. That being the case, how can we convince them to purchase tangible comics after seeing some sort of stimulus for comics online? Frankly, answering this question is the key to the survival of comics as we know them today.

For those of you who are not aware of the current realities of comics publishing, unit sales have been dropping steadily for a decade. Even for the largest publishers, many new comics being published today fail to recover the cost of their creation. The prospect of ancillary benefits, such as sales of trade paperback reprints, are now the primary revenue stream that keep many titles from cancellation. Frankly, this is an untenable situation. Relentless cover price increases, combined with hoping that a title will be popular enough to reprint as a trade paperback, is a poor long term strategy for the industry. Eventually cover prices will rise so high that consumers will revolt, and that becomes the end of the game.

While I do subscribe to this pessimistic assessment, I also see the potential for redemption. At this year's Frankfurt Book Fair I had an eager young man travel from Paris to meet with me. He had just written his business school Master's thesis on the possibility of opening a nation-wide chain of comics stores in the USA. All his numbers looked quite good, until you realized that he had no idea of the difficulties and associated costs of trying to keep multiple comics shops operating in tandem. I explained the facts of life to him, and after some initial depressing discussions, we had a free association session about the future of the comics industry, which lasted over two hours. What came out of that wide-ranging discussion was a mutual recognition that there was a clear need for the publishers to provide their past titles online for fans to read, preferably for only a nominal charge. It seems logical that if fans could read several back issues of a title in order to acquaint themselves with the primary plot lines, they would then have a far greater positive disposition toward buying the next installment in printed form.

The one question this then begs is why the publishers don't dispense with paper entirely, and simply offer new issues online for a higher price than the back issues. Sadly, this may be the future. It all depends on how much the fans of today (and tomorrow) are wedded to holding a 32-page booklet in their hands. Or, more importantly, are there at least 30,000 fans per (four color) comics title who are willing to pay $3 a copy to keep that title publishing? With the exposure of the Internet, I believe that could easily be true. In fact, I could see sales numbers rising enough through an efficient utilization of the existing Direct Market retailing structure to such an extent as to possibly even justify lowering cover prices. But this all depends on a number of factors and trends over which none of us have any control. That's what makes being a comics retailer these days such an exciting and terrifying proposition. Given the wrong confluence of circumstances, the entire comics industry could implode within avery short period of time.

The positive side to this equation is that this may also be the dawning of an entirely new age for the world of comics. If the publishers reoriented their marketing with the thought that the 1,000+ active comics shops in America could be the brick-n-mortar representatives of their online publishing ventures, then a symbiosis could be created that would have staggering potential. Frankly, I have been amazed that the larger comics publishers have not come to the realization that they have all the tools available to them right now to completely turn around the comics industry. As near as I can see, all that is lacking is the vision, and the managerial will by those currently in power, to bring these wonderful potential new marketing programs to fruition. Where are the great leaders when we need them? I would hate to think that everything that we know and love about comics may vanish forever because those who could make the difference are too blind, or too wrapped up in making a quick buck, to save the comicsindustry. Only time will tell if those who have the capacity to save us will have the courage to lead us into a new era of comics publishing.

To be continued...

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221



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