Looking Ahead Digitally

The start of a new year is upon us.  It’s a good time to look ahead of what 2010 might hold.  Vaneta Rogers over at Newsarama put together a nice article the gathered quotes from editors and publishers from around the industry looking at their outlooks on the new year.  I found this to be far more interesting then looking at the creative outlook for 2010.  Creatively it will just be more of the same mix of good and bad like 2009.  The publishers have far more interesting challenges ahead of them in the new year and the biggest challenge for them all is digital.

Going digital was brought up the most by the publishers and editors looking at the new year.  Now while the transition to digital is important I should say that there is no indication that digital will have any real impact on print for the foreseeable future.  Comics in general are a inexpensive medium and all the digital related comics at this stage are either inferior to print quality or not cost effective because of having to pay for expensive gadgets that may or may not work well.  I know many people like to site the mysterious Apple tablet that will potentially have full color and be the ideal way to read comics digitally.  The fact is Apple has not announced anything yet, although they might soon, and even if this thing ends up like giant Ipod like people hope it will still have the problem of being expensive.  There will also be numerous other issues like battery life, how cumbersome it is, how long it will take before it is bug free, and so on.  Print for comics is in no real danger, but it is a good time for the industry to prepare for the future.

Now I’m writing all this as someone who actually prefers comics in a digital format.  I don’t like collecting things as I just enjoy reading the stories in the simplest and most affordable way.  I realize this makes me a exception to the general rule of comics readers.  It does keep me looking ahead at digital alternatives.  It is pretty clear now there is not one thing that is going to work over another.  The best bet for comics is diversity in formats.  The simplest model at the moment is the web comics to eventual print model that things like Zuda and Warren Ellis’ Freak Angels have been using.  Then there are the portable devices.  Most of the early success of this type has been through Itunes Aps store, where comics can be read on a Iphone or Ipod.  Sony now has a similar comics service to the Itunes format for its PSP.  While in both cases it is limiting trying to read the comics on a small screen they are considerably cheaper then print ranging from $.99 to $1.99 per issue.  Then there are the old subscription format read through a web browser like Marvel’s Digital service on their own site.  Services like Clickwheel offer a mix of both the Itunes format and downloadable formats that can be read on a standard computer.  Longbox is the most promising of the mixed type where it hopes to be on as many platforms as possible from the Itunes type to things like the Xbox so where can read the comics on your TV.  Longbox is still a question mark as they were suppose to launch in the later part 2009 but still has yet to launch.

The biggest digital question mark of all are the E-readers like the Nook and Kindle.  They are the hottest trend for the holiday season but even at a  casual glance it’s easy to see they will have little impact on comics for now.  The current generation of E-readers are the black and white  E-ink readers.  While ideal for text the current E-readers are not as comics friendly for the simple fact that they lack color.  The problem with color screens is they gobble up battery life meaning they will not last as long as a E-ink device.  The new year will see a number of split screen devices coming out.  These will try to bridge the gap by having a screen for E-ink text and a separate screen for color like a Ipod.  The most promising of this type is the Entourage Edge.  It is set to launch in February retailing at $490.  While it sounds good even if it lives up to its potential it’s still too expensive for the general comics reader, not to mention there are very few comics available in the various E-reader formats at this point.  Thankfully the comics industry can take the wait and see approach with these as the main goal of the split screen devices right now is to create the ideal digital text book for students to be able to use for school work.  The only promising thing for comics right when it comes to E-reader are black and white books being converted for things like Amazon’s Kindle.  Those black and white devices will only get cheaper from here and it provides a great opening for manga and small press books that are already in black and white.

One big positive for digital is that both manga and small press books will stand to gain the most in the near future.  This is especially good news for small press book who are getting squeezed out of the increasingly more expensive print market.  All in all none of this will really have much impact on the popular books you find in comic shops mostly thanks to the various issues with color screen devices and the fact that color comics look pretty darn good in their traditional near magazine size format.  I’m looking forward to watching the digital formats develop from here with the hope they bring new readers with them.