So the iPad is finally here. The reviews have been positive even though no one is sure why exactly anyone will want to buy one of these things, but it is clear if you do buy one you will like it. Now I’m clearly in the naysayer camp when it comes to the iPad and comics. I do not believe it will save comics or be the game changer that many are hoping it will be. Nothing about the current release has changed my opinion on that but there are some very clear positives about the iPad and other tablet devices for comics and I’m going to focus on those. Or to put it simply, the iPad is not a game changer for comics but it is a enhancer.
Marvel has been getting quite a bit of positive press from the reviewers thanks to Marvel having their own App, which is basically a customized version of the Comixology App. For those wonder what comics look like on the iPad head over to BoingBoing where they have a review of the Marvel App with video of how it looks on the iPad. One thing most everyone agrees on is that the iPad is a ideal way to read digital comics. It is the closest any digital device can get to the print versions of comics. So from a perception standpoint this has been good for comics as many outside the traditional comics circle have noted this as one of the true positives of the iPad right now.
Comic shops need not worry though as Marvel and the industry in general have made it clear that their objective is to use the iPad and other digital devices as a way drive people to the print versions. The bottom line is that all comic companies stand to gain more if people buy the print version over the digital. There is also a very good reason why Marvel and others want to protect comic shops, and that is because the comic shops are guaranteed income for them. With a few exceptions the direct market books are non returnable, which means when a comic shop orders a book they are stuck with it no matter if they can not find a costumer to buy it or not. This is one of the key reasons why American style comics are still alive and well right now, and it’s also a key reason why many comics shops often barely scrape by as a business. So from a digital perspective it doesn’t make sense to kill the cash cow that is the direct market. It certainly makes sense to use digital to try to drive people to the comic shops, to which many of the comics Apps will have comic shop locators built into them. Of course this means people will not be able to get their weekly comics digitally. At best it will be the equivalent of waiting for the trade, which is not bad for the more casual readers but it will not save dedicated fans from the dreaded $3.99 price tags.
While the strategy is the safest to take, I do think the industry should take better advantage of this format. The easiest thing to do would be to put their lower selling books out in digital format the same day they are out in print. I can understand protecting top sellers like Blackest Night, but lesser known books could be given a boost in the digital format since at most it will only cost $1.99 for a issue. Perhaps books like the recently canceled Doctor Voodoo could find their audience with the cheaper price tag and the wider range of availability that digital gives. It would also provide a safer format to develop characters as the whole point Disney bought Marvel was to exploit their characters in other media. Warner now more then ever would like to do with the same with DC characters. Plus it would just be a nice thing to do for the dedicated comics fans, cut them a break after having to shell out so much for things like Siege and other high priced books.
As for comic shops themselves, I do not believe the iPad or digital in general will kill them. There are many reasons why they will survive from being the industry’s cash cow to the social aspect of having a place where comics fans can meet and hang out. Publishers should take this seriously and find ways for comics shops to be able to sell digital books as well. If one of the primary goals is to drive people to comic shops, then digital files should be something shops can sell in addition to print and other merchandise. It would not be very hard to do. It could be something as simple as providing a universal App that only comic store owners could sell through to their costumers. Stores could also have their own wi-fi networks that costumers connect their tablet or device to when in the store, where they could get their digital copy straight from the store while at the same time buying the print books they are interested in. It could also be something as simple as having memory sticks that the store can load up the purchases on and then the costumer could then use it to install the books on whatever device they want to read it in (granted that would not work on a iPad because of their restrictions, but other devices could use it). The bottom line is there is no reason for comic shops to be left out of the digital aspect of comics. At the very least the industry should do something like this as a thank you to the comic shops for being their guaranteed sales point for so many years.
One quick note worth mentioning, the iPad does not solve the piracy issue. If anything people will likely be reading more pirated comics then purchased comics on the iPad. There are already a number of apps for the iPhone and iPod that are specifically made to read scanned comics. Most of them are geared toward manga readers but the function is the same regardless of what is being read. I do not know if there are any of these apps optimized for the iPad just yet, but that is only a matter of time. This is another reason why publishers should push harder then they are into the world of digital because the only real way to combat piracy is to provide a better and easier experience then what people would get from reading the scanned comics. It doesn’t meant piracy will stop but there are many ways to convert a large portion of those people into paying costumers without suing them or making fruitless moral pronouncements.
There are still many question marks about where the iPad and other devices will take comics. While there are some negatives about it there are some very clear positives as well. In my opinion digital will grow and become something in addition to print, but it will not kill print or comic shops. I believe at some point print and digital will find a strange but happy marriage where the comic shops are able to benefit from both. One thing I do know for certain in all this, is that I’m going to enjoying watching it all play out because it’s already been a very interesting ride and it only looks like it will get even more interesting from here.