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Mark Millar is wrong about digital comics

by  in Comic News Comment

Here’s Mark Millar explaining why he doesn’t want his creator-owned comics to be released in digital the same day as print:

Digital comics are like TV rights to me in that they’re the tertiary phase of all this. These are for the most casual, mainstream readers or viewers and much cheaper than the primary or secondary waves. They’re a great way of pulling people in for the next product coming out in theatres or in comic stores, but absolutely not the bedrock of your business. The fact they’re not on paper doesn’t matter as these guys aren’t collectors as such and the lower price point is very attractive to them.

That was in November 2011, when same-day release of digital comics was still something of a novelty. Now it is so commonplace that, as Rich Johnston noted, Twitter was full of confused readers last week who couldn’t figure out why the first issue of Millar and Frank Quitely’s new series Jupiter’s Legacy wasn’t available digitally.

You can’t fault Millar for not being able to see the future. It’s pretty counterintuitive to think that sales in the direct market would go up in tandem with the rise of digital media, but that’s exactly what has happened. There’s zero evidence that digital sales are hurting comics shops.

What really bugs me about Millar’s comment, though, is that he seems to be giving the back of his hand to readers who get their comics digitally. Someone should tell him there’s a large audience out there that’s fully engaged, to the point where they are willing to pay full cover price for digital comics in order to get them the day the print editions come out. Those fans seem to me to be precisely “the bedrock of the business.”

I won’t pay $3.99 for a single-issue digital comic, but there is apparently a substantial audience out there who will. Publishers and digital distributors aren’t in the business of losing money, and they wouldn’t maintain that full cover price if people weren’t paying it. Someone who will pay top dollar to get a comic right away, rather than wait a couple of months for the price to drop? That’s an engaged fan.

Millar doesn’t seem to realize many people simply don’t live near a comics shop. Until the advent of digital, a lot of potential readers were locked out by simple geography. One could even argue that both the availability of digital comics and the popularity of comic book movies in recent years have given customers more incentives to seek out comics shops and to travel farther to get print copies. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that digital readers also buy print comics.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear the comics marketplace is growing and evolving, and it really doesn’t need Millar to save it. New comics shops open every week, and smart retailers are developing new ways to create community and keep their existing customers coming in. Day-and-date digital is here to stay; denying it doesn’t help matters any. What’s helpful is to adjust to the new market realities, and retailers seem to be doing just that. When Steve Bennett — himself a retailer — went to buy Jupiter’s Legacy and found it wasn’t available digitally, he wondered, “will this actually lead to added sales for the direct sales market or lost sales for digital downloads?”

At a Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo panel, Mark Waid commented that Millar was “setting his money on fire” by not making his comics immediately available digitally. That’s his prerogative, of course, but it seems a bit mean-spirited to lock out potential readers simply because they prefer to buy digitally. That’s not treating his core audience well — and readers who are willing to spend four bucks on a bucket of pixels are indeed part of his core audience.