When everyone’s favorite e-book company purchased everyone’s favorite e-comic book company, comics finally took the giant step forward we’ve been threatened with for years.
While comiXology and its competitors have tried their best to build a new revenue stream for the comics industry ever since digital comics first became viable four years ago, it’s been tough. Digital comics simply haven’t taken hold the way enthusiasts keep predicting, or at least with nothing close to the wild success we’ve seen in mainstream prose publishing where digital now accounts for roughly a third of all book sales. The reasons for this are many, including the fact that comics sales are still fueled by collectors like myself who enjoy owning physical things. But the biggest obstacles to overall category growth are still discoverability and consumer awareness. When I tell someone that I work in comics the most common reply is, “I didn’t know they still make those.” When people aren’t exposed to comics they don’t know they want comics, which means they won’t look for them or purchase them. Last week’s Amazon/comiXology team-up aims to turn this story around for good. Comics, a niche segment of an already niche publishing market, is on the verge of going mainstream again.
Most of the instant online reaction to the acquisition seems to come from two places: either “oh look, something tech was bought by something else tech, isn’t that techy?” or “oh geez, they’re going to take my comics away!” I’d like to instead explore what the purchase might mean from a book publishing perspective, and by “explore” I mean, “make wild unsubstantiated predictions.” So without further ado, behold my 100% guaranteed accurate predictions for the future of comiXology and the world:
Media watchers have gleefully predicted a total collapse of the brick-and-mortar bookselling industry for, oh, about twenty years or so by my count, yet I still have no trouble finding a store in which to buy the latest issue of The Paris Review, or the new Stephen King novel, or a fun picture book for my niece. Actually, I have a choice of stores in which to do these things: four independents and a Barnes & Noble within a mile walk of my apartment and another two dozen or so a subway ride away. “But what about the rural of us?” you rightly ask, and to you I say, “Same thing.” During my last trip to the farm country of the Hudson Valley I found three bookstores including another B&N and not including a record store that also sold books. While the cottage industry of publishing doomsayer Nostradami may be just as lucrative these days as retail bookselling, the latter is still alive and thriving. There are scores of good reasons for this that all add up to an essential truth: brick-and-mortar bookstores have significant competitive advantages over Amazon and other online retailers, many of which are too rarely leveraged in the increasingly desperate battle for book sales.
“Know thy audience,” could be the first rule (and only one that matters) in any class on the business of publishing. It usually means, “Understand who will be reading your book,” meaning the person who likes to read your kind of book. If it’s a hard science-fiction book, think of all your hard sci-fi-reading friends, create an ideal amalgamation of them all (with or without beards), and now make sure your book reads like those that person usually enjoys. This is great advice, if a little obvious, meant for a writer who has a publisher to take care of the business details. It’s about writing a book, not selling it. For those who self-publish, the maxim has to mean something else: “Understand how your ideal reader shops.”
All smart publishers ask themselves this question periodically, and it seems to be top-of-mind for DC Comics these days as they relaunch their entire line. The internet is abuzz with analysis (some say DC is alienating its core fan base, others think they are hurting brick-and-mortar stores with their digital strategy, others think it’s brilliant, others think Superman’s t-shirt makes him look silly.). None of it (as far as I’ve seen) comes from the perspective of that fundamental question, but the move and the reaction to it has become a great illustration of how important it is to ask, especially for self-publishers, who must ask it of themselves every day.
Thomas Paine reached 100,000 American colonists with his Common Sense, a number that would today mean 20,000,000 in terms of population reach. And it never would have existed without a print shop and movable type. A failed corset-maker like T. Paine certainly wouldn’t have had the means (and probably not the will) to reproduce them all by hand.
Print technology keeps getting better as it evolves, and by better I mean easier for more people to read more things. The tract lived on through ‘zines for a few centuries and now seems to have mostly transmuted into the insta-published blog. Books — that walled City of Troy of publishing — stayed exclusive for a while but digital printing battered through the gate and e-books plum brought down the wall. But wither the magazine? A young politico can post her treatises for the entire world to find (should they choose to look). A novelist can do the same, and largely within the same format he would have 20 years ago. But today’s crusading magazine moguls don’t seem to have anywhere to turn for help overcoming the obstacles.