Friday, 10 August 2007

An "iTunes for comics"

I've heard a lot of people recently saying we need 'an iTunes for comics'. And I agree in a sense. We definitely need some sort of online delivery system for (what comics bloggers think of as) comics (there is of course the webcomics scene, many of whose larger lights have a much greater audience and income than anything in what we refer to as the 'mainstream'). But I suspect the iTunes metaphor is a poor one.

I'm not suggesting here that anyone believes that the elusive digital comics 'revolution', when it comes, will borrow iTunes' design and functionality wholesale - there will undoubtedly be at least surface differences, but the problem with metaphors is that people often allow them to constrain their thinking. If we keep talking about 'an iTunes for comics', even as shorthand, then we will end up with something that bears a very strong resemblance to iTunes' business model.

Now, before we go any further, I want to point out that I am in no way trying to disparage iTunes with this post - for all its faults it has some excellent music on it - but the iTunes business model is not one that would make sense for comics.

iTunes is essentially based around the model of selling singles, rather than albums - you can buy albums from the site, but it's not geared to do that. The singles are also priced relatively high for what you get, and are encumbered with some rather nasty DRM. The way the site works, in essence, is that you hear a song you like on the radio and want it, next time you're online you click and buy that song. It's very much geared to the casual listener, and has built its success mainly on having tied most of the major labels to exclusive deals.

An equivalent would be a site where you could go and buy a single issue of Batman or X-Men or whatever, for say $3, which would be viewed on a proprietary viewer, and I suspect that if we do have some industry-wide digital comics initiative (as opposed to a Marvel-only one or that kind of thing, which would on the face of it be more likely) (incidentally, I think that if we do ever get such an initiative it would probably be Diamond who would do it), then we will have something along those lines. But it won't work.

The reason is that comics are no longer, and haven't been for many years, an impulse buy. Nor were singles when iTunes started out, of course, but iTunes had the immense advantage that music pervades everyday life - it's impossible to go anywhere or do anything without being bombarded by music (and as a music lover this disgusts me, but it's true). Very few people really care about music (by 'really care' I mean own more than say 500 albums on physical media and/or 2000 tracks in digital form) but most people at least have a few favourite songs or artists.

In contrast, comics are basically nonexistent in popular culture unless you specifically seek them out. Note here that I am talking about comics, not comic characters. A film about Superman isn't a comic, and there has been very little evidence (other than the Batmania of 1989) that people will see one and want the other. Many people can go a year without seeing a comic.

So while it is imperative that our 'iComics' not exclude casual browsers and people from outside the comics fan community - in fact the single biggest reason for such a site would be to increase the overall number of comics readers - it cannot rely on impulse and casual browsers in the way an iTunes can. "If you build it they will come" works in films, but it's lousy economics. The site r sites should be as heavily publicised as possible, as user-friendly as possible,and be as welcoming as possible (I would suggest actually three different URLs with different front pages, something like with the main links being to say Carl Barks Donald Duck stuff and Tintin, with Batman and X-Men all over it, and with Maus and Jimmy Corrigan and some things that have been made into films like Ghost World on the front page).

What we need is an eMusic for comics.

For those of you who don't know the site, eMusic is a (legal, paid) music downloading site that caters more to those who, like myself, are seriously into music. They don't have any of the major label stuff that iTunes has, so you won't find Kate Nash or The Kaiser Chiefs on there (nor, alas, will you find The National Pep there), but you will find (to choose a few that I've downloaded from there recently at random) Candypants, Tom Waits, Guitar Slim, Sun Ra, The Negro Problem, Ornette Coleman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Big Star, Clifton Chenier, Joanna Newsom and The Minus Five.

Now, the way eMusic works is that you buy a subscription which allows you to download a number of tracks (in my case 90, but they have a few different packages) every month, for what works out as a few pence per track. The more you pay per month, the cheaper the tracks are per-track. They also have a 'try-before-you-buy' deal - if you sign up, you get 25 (or sometimes 50) free tracks before having to pay.

The thing about this model is that unlike iTunes, it positively encourages people to try new things. With iTunes, you have to pay for every new track you buy (unless you buy an album at the flat fee of $10). This makes a substantial number of people think "Well, I liked the three singles, but I'm not going to pay more for the other songs - they may be no good".

Now, in terms of mainstream pop music this makes good sense - it may even have a positive effect as filler tracks effectively disappear - but it's not so good if you're having difficulty drawing any audience in at all. Unless we can encourage people to try new things, the industry will die. And one of the main problems with comics is the relatively high price - people don't want to pay $3 for something that will take ten minutes to read.

The eMusic model solves all of these problems. If you subscribe for 90 downloads a month for £15 (or whatever it costs me, I can't remember exactly) and you download two good albums that you already knew you wanted, that's what you paid for that month - that's already good value for your money. But then you're left with 70 downloads, so you might as well download anything that catches your eye - it's effectively free. ("Yeah, I might as well go for the Captain Beefheart outtakes box set - why not? And I might as well get the new McCartney album, since it's there... Chewy Marble? Didn't one of them used to be in the Wondermints? I'll have to check them out... oh, the Young Fresh Fellows did a single about gorillas? Yeah, I'll try that...")

This kind of model would be great for the independents - it could move the habitual comics buyers out of their comfort zone ("Damn! Only 78 Batman titles came out this month! What will I do with these other two downloads? Might as well download a couple of things at random... hmm... Action Philosophers and... Love & Rockets.") , but it would be equally good for the big two - a lot of people drop marginal comics that they're enjoying but don't think are worth full price. Those tend to be the type of things that sell better in trades, but a small monthly cashflow for those titles could allow them to keep going long enough to find their audience.

The popularity of trades and manga show in their different ways that comics rely on 'bang for the buck' - people want a lot of comics for their money. The Big Two seem to understand that with the Essential/Showcase titles and (in Marvel's case) the DVD-Roms of complete runs of titles. An eMusic for comics would allow them to make money from marginal titles and back catalogue in a way that a business built primarily around single-issue (or even single-trade) sales wouldn't.

(On Sunday I'll start posting about Grant Morrison).


Ben said...

One side-benefit of this model might be a re-emphasis on economical storytelling. That is, the companies major and indie might be more inclined to offer up single issue and half issue stories to attract the curious, rather than eternal crisis storylines for dedicated fans. I'm not sure this would be the effect, but it's worth hoping.

Anonymous said...

"you can buy albums from the site, but it's not geared to do that."

How is it not geared to buy albums? It entirely depends on you whether you want to buy singles or albums. Go visit the iTunes front page. What do you see? New releases (albums), top albums, top songs, "single of the week"… Your choice. You can browse the catalog by Genre / Subgenre / Artist / Album, or do a search on a song or an album. Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president of iTunes, was recently quoted to say that "almost half of the songs sold on iTunes are albums, not individual tracks." And have you heard about the Complete My Album feature?

Nothing is preventing you from buying singles on eMusic, even if their subscribers may be more interested in downloading albums. eMusic's subscription model is based on individual tracks, not albums, and contrary to iTunes there is no "album price," all individual songs count the same.

In fact a lot of subscribers have trouble finding enough new music worth downloading every month, they end up downloading all sort of crap just to use their full allotment and thus get the most value, because their download allotment expires each month, whether or not they download anything.

From David Pakman's own admission, eMusic works off the health club model, infrequent users subsidize the music buffs who make the most of their allotment.

eMusic's CEO David Pakman told Forbes: "On average, customers don't use their full allotment of whatever they're paying for. It's the same thing with a gym or a health club. Do you go everyday? Some guys do, and they get the most value. For us, subscription business optimization is about making sure customers are never always maxing out their plans. That way, the customer feels they have some headroom and we're able to optimize the profitability of our business."

This business model depends on the average subscriber *not* downloading the full quota each month. That's what he calls "optimiz[ing] the profitability."

Anonymous said...

... using anonymous' logic above, if I go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, but don't *literally* consume all that I can possibly eat, I've been ripped off.

Anonymous said...

...and using anonymous' understanding of anonymous' logic, anonymous would eat a piece of celery at said buffet and say... "that's all I wanted anyway" and pay up.

The concept of "getting your money's worth" applies to both anonymouses (anonymi?) and either extreme is just silly. Although the less silly IS the anonymous who *does* eat all s/he can for a fixed price. Possibly bolemic, but less silly.

For the record, I buy only albums on iTunes. As if anyone cares.

Cliffy said...

The problem I encountered with eMusic is that you really have to keep up with the scene to get anything like your money's worth. That takes a lot of time and energy, and it leads to a lot of lost download slots. I think a comics version would have the same problem.

Of course, the other thing is that the reason eMusic can survive at all is that they don't have top sellers that would charge higher rights fees. Would a comics site without Batman or the X-Men be attractive to a wide audience? I don't know. There is a large population of comics readers that don't read the main-est of the mainstream. Is it large enough? Given the comics industry's paltry economies of scale, I know where I'd put my money.

Ooh, one other problem -- non-technohead as I am, I bet it's a lot harder to protect image files than sound files. And I think most publishers wouldnt' sign on without some form of DRM.

Baal said...

The problem with arguing against an iTunes model is that by the repeated mention of itunes and the connection throughout your essay, you further link the two for people. A more effective way of fighting against it is to present the alternative (and nomenclature) to drill that into people's heads rather than iComics.

Andrew Hickey said...

Baal - absolutely true, in so far as it goes, but the 'iTunes for comics' phrase is one that's been floating around for months, if not years, and so I thought it best to use the phrase in here...

Harvey Jerkwater said...

CrossGen had a pretty good setup for online comics that used a different model. You paid a flat fee per month, and in return you could read pretty much every comic they put out. The good part was the free run of the library; the bad part was that none of it was downloadable. You couldn't keep anything. Considering CrossGen's business plan of creating an interrelated line of books from scratch, it was a good idea.

Not that I recommend that approach for an "eComics" site, but it's worthy of mention. None of the majors have managed a site remotely as useful.

Slave Labor's "" site is a sort-of iTunes for comics. I purchased a run of Rex Libris in PDF format from 'em for not too much money.

How about this for a plan. Let's say Marvel does it like so...

--A flat fee allows a subscriber to read the last, say, three months of Marvel comics online. The fee can be tiered, so if you only wanted to read Spider-Man comics, you'd pay $2 a month, or all X-books and only X-books for $4, or you could read the whole shootin' match of Marvel comics for $7 a month.

--With each subscription comes the option of downloading. (DRM-free, because we're not savages.) Maybe a few downloads are included with subscription, maybe not. To download beyond the few included in the subscription would require a small extra fee per issue.

This would have the advantage of encouraging browsing and sampling of new wares, while also giving the publisher a bit more money for downloads.

For the consumer, it would be best if this site were run by a third party, as it would place minor publishers alongside Marvel and DC in the readers' eyes, and variety is good.

If all of this happened, I would let out a mighty cry of "giggety giggity giggety."

I would also look for pork in the treetops, for clearly, pigs will have flown.