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Print vs. Digital: What Will The Future Of The Comics Market Look Like?

A recent interview with DC execs shed some light on the current comics market and got us thinking about what the future might look like.

The issue of digital comics and "digital first" books is something that is still considered a rather contentious subject for many. Are digital comics considered supplemental to the weekly releases available in print, or are they considered competition for comic shop owners? This is definitely a subject that was present on the minds of DC's VP of Sales Bob Wayne and the SVP of Marketing John Cunningham when they, along with other DC execs, made the decision to make DC comics available digitally the same day as the print releases. So what does this mean for comic shops now and in the future?

Since DC's announcement that many of their comics would be made available for the Kindle as well as other digital platforms, the time in which many titles are made available for download has been pushed back -- meaning that sometimes the digital comics are made available for download on Wednesdays before many comic shops on the East Coast are even open for business. In a recent interview DC's SVP John Cunningham discussed that the digital numbers are being "closely monitored" by DC and that the company always viewed their digital sales as an "additive" and not a replacement to the sale of print comics.

Obviously, we're monitoring on a daily basis, weekly basis and a monthly basis what our digital sales are in concurrence with print sales. That's been the method of operation since we went day-and-date digital. And a lot of our attitude to that was grounded by the fact that we only saw digital as an additive business in terms of our overall sales. I might even go so far to say that it's an additive element that helps support and keep print going because you're marketing these properties in a more holistic way.

As far as the timing issue, I think the question is still very much out there. We're not of the opinion that it's going to provide that much of a statistical advantage because there's still no consistency as to when, where and how these titles go up digitally. And we're watching things on a very close, day-to-day basis to see if we have to make any adjustments, but I think we went into this fairly comfortable in the notion that this would prove to be additive just as well as day-and-date was.

This begs the question, what will the future of digital and print look like, and will the two markets become more competitive? If the times that comics are being made available for digital purchase continues to be pushed back earlier and earlier, then what will the incentive be for the average buyer to go to the comic shop each week and spend money on a print issue? Why leave the house when you can just download your favorite comics before your local shop even opens, from the comfort of your couch?

One particular excerpt from the interview with DC's SVP John Cunningham struck us as particularly interesting when he goes so far as saying that the sale of digital comics supports the print market:

…And a lot of our attitude to that was grounded by the fact that we only saw digital as an additive business in terms of our overall sales. I might even go so far to say that it's an additive element that helps support and keep print going because you're marketing these properties in a more holistic way…

While the digital market may have been viewed as an additive initially, is it possible that the digital market could have grown (and may eventually grow) to be a larger, competing market to the sale of print? After all, digital comics cost virtually nothing to make. By selling the comics digitally and charging the same price as the print copy, the publisher gets to take a bigger cut since the cost of publishing and shipping the comics is virtually removed. Since the digital comics cost less to make and distribute than print comics, the notion that the sale of digital comics supports the print market can easily be viewed as a threat to the print market in general.

Although we can't make a perfect and direct comparison between the comics market and the movie rental market, we can take compare the two on a surface level. We can get a closer look at the digital versus physical argument by looking at a company like Blockbuster Video which, according to a report by Fast Company, in 1994 was valued at $8.4 billion and was the largest movie rental chain in the country. Since then, however, the company has experienced a steady decline with stores closing all throughout the country, going so far as to file for Chapter 11 back in 2010, dropping in value exponentially from $8.4 billion in 1994, to a mere $24 million in 2010. Much of Blockbuster's losses can be attributed to the launch and rise of streaming company Netflix, forcing Blockbuster to also look for a "digital strategy." However, local comic shops aren't Blockbuster Video stores and aside from comics, they give us plenty of things a Blockbuster can't. Many comic shops aren't part of a huge company, they are local "mom and pop" stores that are owned and operated by members of the community. So while a company like Blockbuster has experienced a steady decline, some local, family video rentals continue to thrive across the country perhaps due to the fact that they continue to deliver a more personal experience, much like the experience many of us get when we visit and buy from local comic stores. Take, for example, First Run Video in Battleboro, Vermont which has continued to thrive in spite of the move by many to digital and streaming. According to First Run Video's general manager, his shop provides elements you just can't get from Netflix streaming:

We find a lot of people have become disenfranchised with Netflix... streaming isn't what it used to be…We're here to satisfy the customer the best we can, whereas with the Redbox, you can't go to the machine and say ‘this disc doesn't work.' You're not going to get an answer. The machine's not going to talk back to you…While the Internet and streaming can hurt us, it can also help us by opening the doors to a larger audience of consumers to purchase our product.

The same can be said for the comics market. One of the interesting points in the interview with SVP of Marketing John Cunningham was that the sale of digital first comics like Smallville Season 11 did relatively well in both digitally and in print, ranking in both lists, and in that sense, the digital books may have aided the sale of the print volume.

So what does the future of the comics market look like? Will competition between digital and print markets grow exponentially and how long will that take? There is no real way to determine how the market will change and no way to guess how consumers will want to buy products. And while buying digital may seem more convenient for some, it takes away from the collectibility and the experience of holding a comic in your hand and being able to physically turn the pages. What do you think the market will look like in the future? How do you purchase your comics?

Source: CBR, Fast Company and Reformer

77 Comments Refresh
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Posted by andyepeters

print smells better

Posted by ArtisticNeedham

I haven't fully read the article yet, so maybe you mentioned this but

I like digital because it saves trees and space, but I like print because all it requires is the cost of the comic/book and not additional money for the electronic devices. I mean how much does an iPad cost? Or whatever you have to buy for this? And isn't there monthly payments also? With print comics its just the cost of the comic, but I have so many piles I don't know what to do with them.

Posted by mattwing87

I prefer print. I like having a physical copy in my hands. It's so nostalgic in a way. I don't like reading comics on the computer but I do for old stuff. Print all the way!!

Posted by KnightRise

As much as I'm happy to support local comic shops, digital is just soooo convenient. I still prefer actual print, though. But digital has the advantage of saving me money; my dealer is kind of strict on puting books back once they've been peordered. With digital, I can read reviews and have no obligation to buy them. I made a compromise: I buy the New 52 series I've been following since issue 1 in print, and any Marvel Now! or series I pick up later I buy digitally.

Posted by sweetesttoaster

I switched to digital this past summer. I'm really glad that I did. I don't have to spend money on gas to get to a comic shop, don't have to pay tax, it saves a bunch of space, and it's instant. At first I did miss the feeling of a physical copy, but after a while, I got over it. A lot of the books actually look a lot better digitally anyway.

Posted by No_Name_

@ArtisticNeedham said:

I haven't fully read the article yet, so maybe you mentioned this but

I like digital because it saves trees and space, but I like print because all it requires is the cost of the comic/book and not additional money for the electronic devices. I mean how much does an iPad cost? Or whatever you have to buy for this? And isn't there monthly payments also? With print comics its just the cost of the comic, but I have so many piles I don't know what to do with them.

No, there are no monthly payments involved in buying and reading digitally. You pay per comic you buy, just like you would at the store. You can purchase and download comics on Comixology individually and read them on your computer. You can choose to read them on a Kindle or an iPad, but it's not entirely necessary.

Posted by mkenmore

Theres no satisfaction in downloading and reading a digital comic. One of my favorite things (apart from reading them obviously) is having a bunch of books just sitting in my shelf or on my floor, they give me a nice break from looking at a computer in university all day and allow me to just get engrossed in the story, maybe its different on a kindle, but I like flicking through all my comics by hand for some reason, hope it doesn't change.

plus, the smell.

Posted by darkrider

i want to read Print comics until i died after that i don't care because i am dead

Posted by ccraft

I think there will always be printed copies, I don't see it changing anytime soon.

Posted by FatihBATMAN

I like both! I started reading comics on the ipad, now i buy alot of print stuff, so in a way it has opened a new doornfor me, like stated in the article :)

Edited by Raw_Material

As a comic collector, I believe it's crucial to have printed comics still thrive and not be "disenfranchised" by the DC's and Marvel's Digital Comic advantages. As a collector, to have the comic, keep it in near mint condition, and admiring the collected issue, etc is what comic reading/collecting's all about. With digital reading, I think it helps to keep you ahead of the world of comics, but also takes away some of the purposes and cherishing parts of reading/owning comics. Digital comics is helping the world of comics thrive, in general, but also puts a lot of weight for our local comic shops to compete and keep updated amongst the rest of the comic industry.

Posted by velvetmeds

@mattwing87 said:

I prefer print. I like having a physical copy in my hands. It's so nostalgic in a way. I don't like reading comics on the computer but I do for old stuff. Print all the way!!

Same here. I like that some of my Marvel titles come with free code for digital copy because it's basically a backup that i can read if i feel like it when i am not at home. But otherwise, reading while having them in my hands is much better.

Same goes for regular books. No digital can compare to a beautiful Everyman's Library hardcover collection

I use my Android device for either having these things as backup/outside-reading or simply non-reading usage.

Posted by DazzHardy

I live in a small town in the UK. The nearest place to me that sells actual comics, and not the 3 years or so behind UK variations, is a Forbidden Planet 2 hours drive away. I also don't drive, so getting there was a chore. So, until I got an iPad, getting comics was expensive, even ordering them online. Comixology on my iPad let's me get comics relatively cheaply and when they actually come out, so it's been a god send. I still prefer print, and do get Trade's of the stuff I really like, but digital comics have meant I can get more comics much more easily, especially the smaller stuff, or the shorter runs.

Posted by FlyingGrayson22

I've only been a weekly comic book reader for a little over a year now, but I still love having physical copies. But what I like most are comic book stores. I like walking through all the racks of trades, and toys, and collectibles, and finding cool stuff. And I'm a little hypocritical, cuz I never go to blockbuster anymore, but I used to love walking through the store and finding cool movies that I might not have even known about. It's much better than browsing online.

Posted by MadeinBangladesh

Ill never ever buy a digital comic. Print FTW.

Posted by ghelba2

I love the Print version of comics and will always buy them 1st given the chance. I don't have to be the 1st to buy them either as long as my local shop continues my pull list that is all that I care about. I don't believe the digital comics will ever overtake print, just for the simple fact that people not only purchase the comics to read and enjoy but to also collect and perhaps sell at a later date if the value increases enough. I know myself I love the fact that I have a 1st appearance of Deadpool and other characters and know how much they are worth, it makes part of buying comics fun. I have bought some digital comics and will continue to do so in the future. The comics I do buy digital are Marvel Comics Unlimited(fantastic service btw) and older issues of some other comics that I might of missed or are too expensive to buy from a comic book shop or a dealer. I really think that the local comic book shops have nothing to worry about and there will always be a want and need of the print version

Posted by G_Money_Christmas

Print... Always print. I'm a collector. I love collecting things and I just can't look at the boxes of comics I have. I got some free digital comics and I hated it.

Posted by sam_cheesmore

one of the reasons i much prefer print is just owning the comics, not just reading them. idk.

Posted by kid Apollo

@andyepeters: sniff a lot of computers do you?

Posted by RedQueen

@mattwing87 said:

I prefer print. I like having a physical copy in my hands. It's so nostalgic in a way. I don't like reading comics on the computer but I do for old stuff. Print all the way!!

Posted by ALFMutant

I always read in digital, on a tablet it's easy and you can read when it's dark, I can bring my comics wherever I go. I don't have place for prints comics in my room anyway.

Posted by xialei

My first post! I'm a longtime comic book fan/reader. Print has its appeal and it's easy to share with friends. But I'm completely digital now. Comics look amazing on the iPad and as others have mentioned, I can carry hundreds/thoousands of issues with me on one device. Great for commutes on the subway, traveling or just breaks during the day. I will say though that while I don't miss print comics (I got over the nostalgia of it pretty quickly), I miss the social aspect of going to my local comic book store and getting a read from others as to what to get excited about this week. It's a great way to be turned on to new projects and works. And being in NYC, the fans here are vocal and friendly. This is something that can't be replicated in digital format.

Posted by jacksonvillewriter

Comic book stores were closing before digital was even an option. Coming from a town where the only comic book store closed in the late 90s, I see digital as a way of bringing the comic book store to the consumer no matter where they may live.

Personally, I buy digital comics because I like reading and storing all of my books on my Ipad. If the book is REALLY good or I really like the writer or artist, I'll go back and buy the print version or the trades.

Digital legitimizes what a lot of people were doing before the publishers made digital copies available for sale, which was pirating bootleg copies of every book put out every Wednesday.

The downside of digital is that it's missing the community aspect of going to the comic book store. Digital will never be able to replicate that. In order to grow their business in the face of digital, I think brick-and-mortar stores need to focusing on that advantage they have. At this point, there's no going back to a world without digital comics.

The Animal Man t-shirt said it best, EVOLVE or DIE.

Posted by Reignmaker

I buy only digital. As someone who is now married with little kids and other responsibilities, I'm not in a position where I can run off to the comics store whenever I want. So I buy only digital on my iPad. Even when I was younger though, I was never one of those collectors who stored all his issues, trying to retain their condition. I just read them for the art and the stories.

I'll agree that in the conversion to digital some of the baseball card-like collectability is lost, but that's never why I was a fan to begin with. Though I can understand that's an important aspect for others.

Posted by Renchamp

DC is special in that they actually let you own the comics you buy. Most other online retailers merely lease the comics to you. DC probably does this because they legitimately view digital as a supplement.

Posted by pspin

I started in digital but it was a pain in the ass, I am all print now. There is something about having the comic in your hands that makes it better.

Posted by Master_Thief
@pspin said:

I started in digital but it was a pain in the ass, I am all print now. There is something about having the comic in your hands that makes it better.

Posted by gotwillpower

Reading digitally (and I use a laptop) is a better experience because of Comixology's guided view. That said, I still buy print comics to support my local comic shop.

I think Marvel's decision to include digital copies with their print ones is brilliant. If they didn't, I probably would have gone all-digital by now.

@andyepeters said:

print smells better

I don't like it when comics smell.

Edited by Cavemold

from what i heard from major retailers that print is still the number one grossing market for comics

Posted by powerhouse1122

Save trees but waste more energy... Whats the difference? Anyway, Bob wayne is a cool name by the way xD coz of bob kane the creator of bruce wayne :D

Edited by GhettoBond

I purchase print, and if there's a digital combo option, that's what I opt for. Both have benefits and drawbacks.

The biggest drawback of digital for me is DRM. I know I'm in the minority here, but I do let friends and family borrow comics periodically. It really helps if someone is interested in comics, yet isn't willing to take the financial plunge. And even though I don't have kids now, I one day would like to hand these things down to someone.

My other concern is that nothing is forever. My prints aren't forever, but I've seen plenty of online media shops (Microsoft for example) sell content with DRM, and then kill the activation servers...essentially killing your digital collection. Comixology, DC, Marvel, Apple...they're all on safe grounds at this point, but I don't want to risk losing everything because of DRM mishaps.

Oddly enough, I only buy books on my Kindle. Yet I know, one day, Amazon can delete content if they wish. They've already done it to others, with reports of peoples entire accounts being locked for unknown reasons. Same with my music. I buy from iTunes all the time, but at least I don't have to worry about DRM there.

However, I do feel that eventually digital sales will trump print. Just like it eventually did with music, and will with books. I think print will exist for a very long time, but it'll become a collector's item, like vinyl records are today.

I actually think the reading experience on an iPad with a retina display is better than reading print. I'm just terrified of DRM. If there was a standardized file format without DRM, I'd NEVER buy print. For now, combo packs are good enough for me. If there's no combo pack option, I'll buy the print version.

Posted by RedOwl_1

No comic book stores here, so digital :I

Posted by webling

I read digitally mostly but I still get two comics in print so that I'm not abandoning my local comic shop. When I leave for college in a 1.5 years I'll probably go all digital though. I buy them through my LCS' Comixology shop as well so that they get a cut of what I'm buying too. The PC reader for Comixology has to buffer them every time and since I have really slow internet I prinstcreen them to my hard drive so I can read them in Comic Rack without having to wait. Plus I like it better for reading.

I wrote a blog when I transitioned to Digital back in January:

On the subject of an LCS getting the cut of a digital comic book sale, you have to do it on a Flash-enabled device because it is a web-app. Still it doesn't take much effort and some stores could really use that referral money so I encourage everyone to find a store to support and buy through. If there isn't one near you, Corey(from the podcast)'s is going to get a digital store soon.

Posted by Whiskeyjack

I prefer digital at this point. Between portability, price and storage it simply makes sense for me. Certainly there's something nice and tactile with a physical copy, but not enough to push my back to buying the dead trees editions.

Posted by mcgregorp

i buy dc digital exept batman and print with marvel execpt the one's that dont have the free digital download

Posted by ReadItNow

Great to see all the support for print! Finally the worry for print can end. I like print for my comics and digital ( on sites like comicvine) for news about comics!

Posted by Miss_Garrick

I remember, sadly, when my local Hollywood Video store shut down. I enjoyed going and seeing what was available. Netflix took the fun away. I hope the same doesn't happen to print comics! My comic store is within walking distance and has great stuff!

Posted by cdeoleo

Once they start making digital comics cheaper [passing on the savings to the customer] then I will go all digital. I have never felt comfortable in a comics store. I frequent Midtown Comics, Jim Hanley's Universe and Forbidden Planet as I live in NY. No one has ever actually helped me pick out books, ever even when I was visibly lost when I started reading.

Also many people who read comics are resistant to change. This resistance to change is par for the course with this community, I mean people are freaking out at rumors of an Oscar winner [Jaime Foxx] playing a character whose race is not central to the character but I digress.

The point is digital is more efficient on every level.

Posted by thecomicscove

Personally, I think there's room for both print and digital in the long term. It's certainly cool to have access to both. It basically comes down to the question of what's more important to you: the information (ie, the stories in the comics) or the artifact (in this case, the physical comic). In short: are you a reader, or a collector? Or both?

I'm feel I'm a hybrid of the two.

I'm a big fan of Marvel's free digital copy with their $3.99 or higher titles. I get a lot of them on my pull list, and then download the codes and read them on my Nexus 7. That way I've got the best of both worlds: the portability and virtual access of digital, and the collectibility and persistence of print. The print issues are bagged, boarded and stored for me if I ever want to read them later. :)

I'm also not willing to pay the same cost of a print comic that I would for a digital one. I know the publisher is making even more money off me (since digital costs less to put up and lease access to), AND I don't have the perpetual access I'd have if I'd gotten it print. It just doesn't seem worth it to me. If they lower prices or throw in some other benefits to digital in the future, I'd be willing to revisit this, but for now, digital kinda sucks for new issues.

One thing digital IS good for, however, is archival access. I can get a lot of back issues to read for much cheaper then they were originally made for, and likely worth today. I can read Amazing Fantasy #15 for $1.99 through the Marvel Comics app, which I'm pretty sure finding an issue at a comic shop would indeed be more expensive--which is fine, if you're a collector and want to buy it for a collection and/or investment. But if all I'm interested in is reading the stories for the sake of knowing the content, digital is great.

A carefully managed print collection, however, will always trump digital in terms of accessibility. Assuming you take care of it and catastrophe doesn't strike, you're guaranteed access to those stories. Because they're yours. You've bought them and keep them. Access to digital, I've found, is too tenuous to rely on it as a collection tool. That can always change in the future, but so far I've yet to see it.

Posted by DaltonMunnal

I refuse to ever pay for a digital product. I will pay for a digital service, such as Netflix or Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, but the day I can't buy a comic, or video game, or movie, or album, that I can hold in my hands is the day I never pay for any of the above again.

Posted by Captain_Awesome85

Any comic I want at any time and they all get brought with my iPad every where I go. This doesn't compare, print has gone the way of cassette tapes and I now have my comics in every bathroom I walk into.

Posted by bladewolf

I vastly prefer print. I occasionally buy digital just so I have something to read on my phone on long train rides, but even then I only buy discounted titles (i.e. I never pay more than 99 cents). Like many have said, I like holding something physical in my hands.

Posted by sirderpity

im an big green person but i honestly preffer print i like how comics are pretty much the one industry where the stores havent gone corprate and i really appresciate that i like how i can lend a comic to a freind and that type of deal im afraid that comic shops may go the way of the record store i would do digital if i lived in the country but even if you live 20 10-20 miles away from a shop its worth it and if not barnes and noble has a very okay selection that always come late or order online and if your like me and worried about the enviorment just bike to the store also a lot of companys (i know dc does and marvel doesnt) use reycled paper also sorry bout the spelling

Posted by xxxddd

I prefer print comics.

Posted by colonyofcells

Since trees are disappearing and land is scarce and needed to produce food, I would assume paper comics are on the way out.

Posted by CBninja

I buy nothing but digital. It's just easier and more simple for me. That doesn't mean I won't ever buy print. If they ever release the Court of Owls in a collectable addition I would buy that in a heartbeat.

Posted by mitchelmurphy

i dont even like thinking about this article. I say jack up the prices even higher on digital so it goes away.

Posted by FoxxFireArt

I'm astounded that I saw the X-MEN: SUPERNOVAS trade on Comixology costs almost as much as the print version. That trade came out in 2008. That was ridiculous. I would never pay print prices for digital since ownership is so tenuous. Also the cost of digital doesn't justify the prices. It only exists to avoid effecting comic stores.

I also wanted to get the SPIDER-MAN: SPIDER ISLAND trade. On Amazon, the hardback edition is avaliable now, but paperback wont be out until October 2013. That gap is inexcusable. As a consumer, I want the paperback version. If they can wait till October 2013 to profit from that, then I can wait to buy it. Or I'll lose interest and never buy it.

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

My only concern is how much DC monitors digital sales, as if they are watching for steady progress in sales to see if print may go the way of the dodo. For me, the experience of digital will never replace the actual satisfaction of having the comic or TP or HC in your hand and therefore I can only hope that in this future we have both to choose from. Whether that becomes the reality or not, who knows?

Posted by Catsnlynne

I like print comic books. I like going to the comic book store and seeing all the different titles to choose from and picking out my favorites and maybe trying some new ones. I like sitting down before bedtime and reading one of my new comic books.
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