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NYCC 2011: Crossing the Comics/Prose Divide

I’m back now from my trip to NYC, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

I went up for the day so I could attend NYCC (New York ComiCon) with the usual goal of connecting with publishers, talking to digital comics distributors, and generally networking with so we can match a name with a face.

This was my first comicon (also first SF Con), and I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had a list of booths to visit and a session to attend but I really didn’t know what was going to happen. Oy, the costumes. And the toys!

But I really went to NYCC for professional reasons. And if you’re wondering why I would go to a comics convention (considering that I cover digital publishing), then let me tell you that your puzzlement is exactly the reason why I went.

A little over a year ago I noticed that there was a remarkable lack of comics coverage in the mainstream publishing press.  I noticed that this applied to coverage of events both inside the comics industry as well as public facing (new titles launched). Now, there has always been some coverage, but it was just a bare dabbling in covering the highlights when comics publishers really should be given the same coverage as any other publisher.

Eventually I guessed that comics and the rest of publishing do not regard themselves as being part of the same industry. This viewpoint is so accepted that it’s not even a discussion point; it’s simply a truism that few even realize that they accept.

If you’re puzzled by my going to NYCC, then you have just proven me right. But that’s not the only point I want to make.

I was there to learn how digital comics get into the hands of the customers. Now, this is where you’d expect to find B&N, Kobo, Apple, and Amazon, but none of them were officially in attendance. None of the major ebookstores had a booth at NYCC (like they would have had at other publishing conventions) and that is a mistake. They’re missing out on a chance to connect with readers and content creators.

When it comes to the major ebookstores, this lack of engagement isn’t a viewpoint; it’s a blindspot that is costing Amazon, B&N, and Kobo customers, authors, and publishers.

Now, B&N did sponsor a conference session, and I will try to cover it in detail elsewhere. But that session was what finally convinced me to write this post. Out of the 50 or so people in the room, only a handful weren’t planning to self-pub. What’s even worse was that the room was packed beyond capacity and they were turning people away!

I suppose I shouldn’t criticize B&N for not having a booth; they at least had the sense to sponsor that session. But they did not have an official presence so it is still a partial fail.

And yes, all 3 ebookstores have some comics, but I’m not sure that Kobo or Amazon care if they sign any comics publishers. We already know that B&N is at least trying; the recent ruckus over the Kindle Fire exclusive made that clear.

And no, that Kindle Fire exclusive doesn’t mean Amazon cares about digital comics; they were just as likely  only interested in it for the headline value. If Amazon cared about digital comics then they would have put the same effort into recruiting at NYCC that they do at any other publishing convention.

I know I’m not the first to notice the comics vs publishing divide and I’m probably not the first to write about it.  But I cannot recall anyone ever jumping up and down, waving their arms, and screaming about how it needs to be fixed. That is what I hope I’ve accomplished in this post.

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fjtorres October 16, 2011 um 9:03 am

You are right that digital comics are a neglected market, both by the publishing media and the retailers. But there are good reasons for it. The two biggest are that mainstream american Comics is a dying business and that the technology to do digital comics right does not exist yet.
Mainstream comics volume has been steadily decling for 60+ years (there is a reason why the 40’s are comics' golden age) and we are at a point where a title is considered successful if it sustains sales of 25,000 per issue. Conversely, independent/self-published comics have been proliferating for decades and can be found all over the place but sales volumes barely crack 4-digits in most cases. Web-based self-publishing is common and occasionally more than mildly succesful.

In other words, comics publishing is treated as a separate business because it is.
Three separate businesses, in fact.

The indies are an art business; they’re all about creativity, self-expression, and personal vision. Barely if ever curated, with no effort at gatekeeping, this is the realm of Sturgeon’s Law on steroids. It is a retailer’s nightmare and even comics shops have trouble dealing with it.

Mainstream comics, conversely, are two separate businesses, usually under the same roof. One of these businesses is licensing, both in-bound and out-bound, which many creative types and fans often pretend doesn’t exist or wish would go away but is what pays the bills at the bigger publishers. It works both ways, publishing comics of licensed IPs (Star Trek, Star Wars, Halo, Gears of War, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, are all prominent examples of this, as are longer-term examples like Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Tarzan) as well as licensing out comics IPs to TV, movies, toys, video games, and foreign translations/publishing.
The other mainstream comics business is the traditional curated comics publishing, mostly of corporate-owned IP like the pulps of old but more recently also of creator owned IP, often through separate imprints.
The second-tier publishers (Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite, among others) tend to rely more on creator IP and in-bound licensing than DC and Marvel, both of which have deep revenue streams from licensing and on occasion find themselves publishing comics solely to maintain copyrights and trademarks.

Doesn’t sound much like traditional text publishing, does it?
And that is without getting into the details of workflow and distribution. (Just consider that in comics, the hallmark of professionalism and the most sought creator trait is meeting deadlines religiously.)

Over the past few decades, mainstream comics publishers have been steadily updating their processes and standards to take advantage of modern technology and they have experimented with various forms of digital content and distribution. Unlike the text publishers, comics publishers *want* to leave print behind but the technology to produce and distribute a sucessful succesor to the traditional print floppies and graphic novels just doesn’t exist yet.

Do *NOT* assume the industry will settle on today’s digital comics (which are merely pdf-style digital slideshows) as that eventual succesor. Epub3 might be the next step after that, breaking the reliance on custom apps for distribution and display, but not even that is their ultimate goal. The comics publishers are actually smarter and more ambitious than that; what they have in mind goes further in an entirely different direction. Animation. It’ll take a couple of decades before computer animation enables it, but anybody who has been paying attention to the moves of DC and Marvel (especially the former) can see that their dream is to replace monthly printed floppies with animated shorts. (Duh, right? Warner Bros, Disney?) 🙂

The indies?
Expect them to experiment with pretty much everything short of animation, and even that may not be out of reach in the next decade.

Of course, all this refers to traditional american comics.
Manga and anime is an entirely different universe.

Nate Hoffelder October 16, 2011 um 10:09 am

"PDF style"? No, current digital comics can do more than that. ComiXology, for example, offer directed viewing. Each comic is coded with a series of pan and zoom instructions.

And thanks for pointing out the divisions in the comics industry; I didn’t know that the differences were that distinct. But it doesn’t change my point that Amazon, B&N, and Kobo should be there interacting with this audience.

It also isn’t that important to me. On the other side of the prose/comics divide you’ll find any number of distinct divisions, including textbook, fiction/nonfiction, indie/majors, and others. Those distinctions matter less than the prose/comics divide itself.

fjtorres October 16, 2011 um 12:04 pm

I’ve seen the pan and zoom in action; that’s why I called it slideshow-like. 🙂

And what the pan and zoom does is float above a pdf-like replica of a printed floppy. There is no reflow or restructuring of the panels. And for good reason; much more than for text-based p-books, page layout is an essential element of the comic book experience, serving as a guide to the narative.

Pan and zoom is only needed as long as digital comics continue to mimic the printed edition,but once floppies go away so does that need. A comic designed as a pure digital product is likely going to look more like a motion comic than a Comixology slideshow. The good news is such a product can be crafted with epub3 but it’ll take a while.

Personally, I think your expectations are a bit ahead of the curve; digital comics are not ready for prime time. Comics themslves, even in print, are a niche and a subculture that is way smaller a business than its visibility would have you believe, which is why licensing is so critical to the survival of the big two. Consider DC’s recent "New 52" stunt. It was wildly successful, tallying up sales of 5 million copies…spread across 52 titles. The average is 100k but some titles went as high as 250k. And that was by bringing in new readers from outside the comics subculture.

Consider this: pretty much everybody knows who Superman is. But the Superman they know is the Superman of SMALLVILLE or of LOIS AND CLARK or from the movies, not the comic books. (Odds are anybody coming to the New 52 Superman titles from the live action is in for a hair-rasing shock.) Superman is a fairly big money maker for TIME-WARNER but that money doesn’t come from the comics.

There is money in comics but it is money you have to work hard to earn. And that is not what Amazon and (particularly) B&N are going after in digital content now; they are going after low-hanging fruit, high-volume broad-based markets. Comics is a market where there might be a couple million active buyers in the US, maximum, and it is a market where sales are spread across (something) a thousand ongoing titles and limited series, plus compilations and graphic novels. And the typical buyer might follow a dozen or two titles at most.

As you correctly pointed out, the time-limited exclusivity deal Amazon cooked up was all about the visibility, not about revenue. Digital comics is going to be significant…someday…
But but not today.
It’s definitely worth tracking: interesting things are coming there, but as a business there isn’t much to attract big players. There are bigger ($$$) fights to be fought first.

Nate Hoffelder October 16, 2011 um 10:25 pm

okay, that is PDF. But I don’t think digital comics are going to be anything else. Look at what has happened with ebooks. There’s all sorts of things we could do with them and yet the best looking ebooks try to emulate the formatting of a paper book. I see comics going down the same path. That would mean they will have some type pan/zoom control on top of a PDF.

I’m betting that digital comics will end up being based around a 10″ (or 9.7″), so those complex page layouts probably won’t go away. With current tech they’ll be readable on a 5″ or 7″ screen and yet still have the impact of the full page when viewed from a large screen.

That directed viewing will never go away so long as there are multiple screen sizes that need to be supported. It just works too well.

Mike Cane October 16, 2011 um 7:41 pm

Comic Reader was a breakthrough for comics. Alas, they seem to have removed their video:

Hell, even the dev’s site is gone. A shame. They had something.

fjtorres October 16, 2011 um 7:59 pm

There is such a thing as being ahead of your time.
(Nuvomedia comes to mind.)

Quasar October 18, 2011 um 6:01 am

I can’t say I agree with the notion that the tech for digital comics is not here yet. But then I’ve watched the illegal digital comics industry blossom for over a decade and the rise of affordable tablets will make it explode further.

The business model is more problematic though. Pricing parity with print certainly isn’t going to encourage many to switch or get folks who left the market to to pricing issues to return.

fjtorres October 18, 2011 um 8:05 am

Consider this: are ebooks just a slavish digital reprensentation of a print book? In other words, are ebooks p-books minus tree pulp?
Most people understand that ebooks are a different product built around reflow, user typographical controls, nested TOCs, interactivity and (moving forward) rich media where appropriate.

That is why I keep referring to today’s digital comics as pdf-like; they merely aspire to reproduce the print experience on a screen.

To me, true digital comics will be conceived and produced as a digital product from the ground and likely be more akin to web comics and motion comics than a traditional floppy. And the enabling technology in both portable displays and content generation and distribution just isn’t out there. I do see some potential in epub3 for producing a standard digital comic once we move past the print-minus mindset.

The other side of the equation is just as critical: the business model, as you point out isn’t there. Just reproducing current content digitally risks shifting buyers from floppies to digital and rupturing the already stressed economics of the print distribution channel. The result might be a collapsed print distribution system if reduced print sales kill off comics shops (the primary distribution channel) and a stillborn digital channel. Comics being a subculture product these days means that just because you "build it" there is no guarantee they will come, especally when relying on a third-party app for multifunction devices. (Remember ebooks on PDAs? That is what digital comics on Comixology reminds me of. A fair start but a dead end; I don’t see it scaling to mainstream use just yet.)

What I think is needed is, first, color eink (cheap!), or high-res LCD (cheap!). A 10in Fire might be a starting point but that is just a rumor at this time. Second, a standard native format that ensures transportability of the content. Comics reading has a collectible element that DRM’ed digicoms tied to a proprietary can’t reliably address, especially with price parity.

Current tech *is* somewhat suitable to back catalog archiving; nobody is going to rebuild entire comics runs to a pure digital product so that is not an option. But that is not something the publishers are actively pursuing at this time. Which might be a missed opportunity. Given the limited appeal of these archival editions, the piracy risk of publishing them as DRM-free PDFs is low and the easier accessibility might offset losses to piracy. And even piracy could be considered as a promotional tool if it brings new readers into the fold.

The dirty secret of modern american comics is that profitability relies overmuch on middle-aged males who caught the habit in the 70’s. 😉
The past couple of decades has been a constant struggle to draw in young readers with only limited success. Which is how a once mainstream publishing product with titles selling in the millions finds itself today a niche subculture (rightfully) bragging of 250K sellers.

Digital offers a new beginning but digital also requires a new product.
I strongly suspect that even guided-view slideshows will not bring in a significant stream of new readers. Going digital *successfully* needs more.

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