As we finish off Year Five of digital comics (depending on how you count things), the distribution method is positioned to bring in a continually growing sector of new readers.
comiXology, the market leader, is ending 2012 as the third highest-grossing app of the year for the iPad. That's up from the 10th spot last year, which is even more remarkable when you consider virtually no other app made an appearance on both lists. I can't imagine that could be accomplished strictly with purchases from direct-market customers crossing over to digital. And when you take into account that direct-market sales have also been improving, that couldn't happen even if every reader in comics got a big raise this year and was buying both digital and print copies. Worst-case scenario, we're winning back lapsed readers. But mixed within those two groups (current and lapsed/returning readers) has to be a third, even if only a small percentage at this time. It seems too good to be true but it's becoming more and more likely that the elusive new reader is being reached.
As digital sales continue to grow ("getting close to 25 to 30% of print sales," for Robert Kirkman), several elements are in place, or just about in place, that could be creating a perfect storm to increase that new readers section of the pie.
Most significant of all is last month's move by DC Comics to release individual issues straight through Apple's iBookstore, as well as through Amazon and Barnes & Noble for their respective e-readers/tablets, Kindle and NOOK. While there have been some issues with the release times, the benefits of the reach these platforms offer is difficult to criticize. Marvel Comics followed earlier this month with 120 graphic novels going on sale in the Amazon Kindle Store. Select graphic novels from Image Comics, IDW Publishing, Dark Horse, Oni Press and a few others can also be spotted in the Kindle Store, and similar selections show up in the NOOK Comics section. Expect single issues, along with more and more publishers, to follow. The more places comics are available to buy, the better. It's the online equivalent of placing comics in convenience stores, drug stores and grocery stores. Put comics where people are and a growing number of people will realize comics are still being made.
Marvel is also working to put its in-house subscription-based digital comics reader Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited into a new format that will work on the iPhone, iPad and other tablets, another great move to make comics just that much more accessible to potential new readers using different technology. This model was innovated in the early '00s by CrossGen Comics, which saw pre-order sales increase after the launch of its Comics on the Web reader. About a decade later, it's finally becoming accepted theory that digital can work as a feeder to print. Or, to adopt the buzzword DC used at every opportunity during the New 52 goodwill tour, digital is "additive."
Manga made huge leaps this year, a complete about-face from its stubborn resistance to change. VIZ Media, the largest manga publisher in North America, canceled the popular anthology Shonen Jump, replacing it with the digital-only Shonen Jump Alpha, which embraced an accelerated release schedule to finally eliminate the translation lag for some of the most popular manga today. An app accompanied the ambitious and welcome move.
The final piece is having strong content, a reason for new readers to sample and stay. It seems comiXology announces new titles and publishers to digital at least every month. An ever-increasing variety is crucial, so it's good news to see new distribution deals for comic-strip perennials like Doonesbury and Big Nate, and indie classics like Too Much Coffee Man. Digital debuts are a great incentive, and now almost every major publisher produces some kind of digital-first material. Perhaps most notable is the digital-only publisher Monkeybrain Comics (or digital-only so far). The company excels at putting out accessible and entertaining stories that look great on digital. But leading the way on creating content for digital is Thrillbent.com. While it's great to be able to read old issues of Detective Comics on my iPad, most comics weren't made with computers or mobile devices in mind, so they don't always read as fluidly that way. Mark Waid and his team are creating brand-new stories that live and breathe online while retaining the very essence and strengths of comics. Their first stories just launched on comiXology, opening them up to people who may not have heard about them or given them a chance yet.
The next big move is to incorporate more webcomics into these digital-distribution networks. The upcoming app Comic Chameleon looks like it may answer that. comiXology and other digital distributors would do well to sell digital versions of print collections of successful webcomics, if a single comic-strip format doesn't synch up to their infrastructure. Of course, that would require webcomic creators' participation, but I don't exactly see Randall Munroe or Ryan North or Matthew Inman bothering to go through the Submit process. Some outreach is called for to get the ball rolling. Hopefully we'll see some movement in the coming year so we can continue to take down the walls dividing our little comic book fiefdoms and encourage more audience crossover.
While sales are increasing both in print and digital, we need to make sure they are quality sales to long term readers, and not unsustainable sales seen during the '90s boom. High quality stories, accessibility, wide availability and audience crossover are the strongest ways to keep this positive trend going.