Digital comics distributor comiXology announced this week that DC Comics, Image, BOOM!, Dynamite and a number of other publishers have signed on with their Digital Storefront Affiliate program.
The program allows retailers to add a comiXology-run store and comics reader to their websites. Without seeing the numbers, it's hard to see how good a deal this is for retailers in terms of how much they make on each book. However, it is a more elegant solution to the digital dilemma than Diamond's digital distribution plan, in which shoppers who are already in the store can buy a download code for a digital comic, and it points to one way that brick-and-mortar retailers can prosper in a changing market: By using their skills and knowledge to sell comics digitally to customers who would never darken the door of a physical comics store.
David Brothers neatly outlines the current digital dilemma in his latest think-piece on digital comics: Publishers (especially DC and Marvel) are deliberately doing a bad job with digital comics so as not to undercut retailers, regarding digital comics as both a threat to the traditional comics infrastructure and too insignificant to bother doing well.
Digital comics are something different. They aren't a threat. Will they eat away at some of the sales for comics shops? Sure! Some people go to comic shops and don't particularly enjoy the experience. That doesn't mean that you should hamstring them, just in case something might happen. No market stays the same for decades. Comics, and the people who buy them, should evolve over time.
Digital comics are a great solution for people who don't live near a comics store, who don't like their LCS, or who don't know what a "comics store" is but have heard about Batman or The Walking Dead, and want to check it out. Savvy retailers could really make this work in their favor. There is, as I pointed out a while ago, no Google for the iPad. Suppose you want to buy a Batman comic. Most people don't know who publishes what comic, and you can't just go to the Apple Store and search for it. But if you do what the rest of the world does and Google it, and if one of the top hits is a site where you can buy it digitally, and if, furthermore, when you go to that site it is well curated and presents the comics in such a way that you know pretty quickly which Batman comic you would like, then that retailer gets to make a sale that would never have been made otherwise. That customer would never have jumped through all the hoops necessary to buy the comic in a brick and mortar store or on the iPad.
This solution expands the market. It brings in new customers by bridging the divide between the web and digital comics. People have tried this in different ways—comiXology already has a web app, as does Graphic.ly, and DriveThruComics will sell you a PDF to view on your computer or iPad, no special comics reader needed. But these guys throw up a huge stack of comics every week. They are really just distributors. The retailer can sort through this for the user, set up sections for different cohorts (hard-core superhero or indy-only), and make recommendations based on previous purchases. In other words, they can do what retailers do now in stores, but by doing it on the web, they can serve a much larger audience. The bottom line is that this could grow the comics market, if smart retailers seize the opportunity. The Diamond program is designed to sell more things to existing customers; comiXology's is designed to bring in more customers.
Right now, it looks like DC and Marvel are trying to lock the customers into the store, by delaying the digital release of comics and pricing them too high once they are released. The comiXology program goes the opposite route, bringing in new customers by offering what retailers do best—recommend, suggest, curate—while eliminating the inconvenience of physical stores. It's not the only way, and it may have flaws of its own, but it does suggest a constructive direction for the direct market, a way it can survive in the digital age by playing to retailers' strengths, rather than trying to ignore their weaknesses. And if the direct market gets comfortable with digital, maybe they will start demanding day-and-date releases and lower prices—in other words, a digital marketplace that is designed to actually sell comics, not scare customers away.