Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Could Digital Comics Save the Midlist?

I was contemplating this morning the coming wave of digital comics. (And by digital comics I don't mean Webcomics—those that are born online—but rather digital editions of print comics.)

It's no secret that the past decade or so has not been kind to the midlist in the direct market. A system has evolved by which the major publishers are chasing the hits with splashy first month sales. As in other media (films, books, music) this serves to depress sales of midlist titles, making it very hard for a comic series to have a long life selling in the middle of the pack. And you almost never see a comic series have a nice regular upward growth in sales.

It occurs to me that a couple of different digital comics models could be a boon to midlist titles.

The first, the "iTunes model" that is nearly imminent with Longbox, could results in long tail effects being realized. This would especially be a boon to smaller publishers that aren't picked up by a majority of comics shops, as they would have a way to point their widely dispersed potential audience to an online location for purchase. Since marginal costs for distributing digital comics is close to zero and "shelf space" is virtual, such comics can potentially find their audience much more easily,

The second, a subscription model, would potentially be more helpful for midlist titles at major publishers. An analogue for this is cable television subscription channels such as HBO or Showtime. These networks are selling a package to viewers, not individual programs. This means that a critically acclaimed title adds to the overall package and is not viewed in terms of opportunity costs lost by not doing the next big crossover event. (In an interview I recently heard with the head of documentary programming for HBO, she said that in her 30 years with the network no one had ever even gone over ratings with her!)

I for one want a comic market that can support a title like Nexus and that can nurture the next Bone.

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