Downloading the Cow: Hawkins talks Downloadable Comics

Offering comics on the internet is becoming unavoidable, with many comics being scanned and copied, not always legally, then posted for download on torrent sites and news groups. Preview pages being offered on comics news sites is becoming the norm in promotional campaigns for books. However, the majors are only now coming around to offering entire books online. Marvel and DC Comics are currently finalizing their strategies for online comics, and Top Cow announced at the New York Comic Convention that they have entered into a partnership with entertainment portal IGN.com to distribute downloadable digital editions of their back catalogue. The first fifty issues of Witchblade, Darkness and Tomb Raider will be sold as high-quality downloads from IGN's website.

CBR News spoke with Top Cow president and COO Matt Hawkins about their plans for digital comics.

As Hawkins explained, Sutton Trout, who runs the Direct2drive web site, used to be the main Marketing director at Eidos who we dealt with for years. He approached me with their plan and after reviewing the PC game downloads and their aggressive plans for TV shows, films, etc. they seemed a good fit for us.

Top Cow has complete approval over everything. Having said that, I'm a big fan of IGN and what they've done with their Direct2Drive site so I don't think we've had any big disagreements over anything yet.

Current plans call for only Top Cow's back catalogue to be available for download for the time being, in order to continue the company's support for comic shops. However, Hawkins has not ruled out the possibility of offering more recent or current books later on, which would then not undercut retailers.

I've spoken with several direct market retailers to get their take on this and what they felt would not hurt their sales. The direct market comic stores are incredibly important to Top Cow and our lifeline really. We'd be insane to cut that off at the source. At a minimum we're going to have the print versions out for at least a year.

We asked Hawkins to clarify how Top Cow's online comics would be priced for download.

The prices are going to vary, but be in line with what Top Cow's prices are for printed reprint volumes like the Compendium and large collected volumes. The downloads will also be sold in collected volumes meaning you can buy blocks of the individual issues almost like you would a trade.

Hawkins also confirmed that their downloadable comics from IGN would contain some form of copy protection or Digital Rights Management (DRM) software to prevent it being copied and made available on torrent sites and newsgroups.

They do have some form of security although it's proprietary software that IGN has developed so I can't really speak on it. IGN wanted it, I see the need for it, but we could have gone either way.

Asked whether he felt DRM was necessary for preventing or reducing piracy, Hawkins added, I think DRM is a mixed bag and agree somewhat with Steve Jobs posting recently about music and DRM.

Considering that DRM has hampered the sales of online music in the past, Hawkins acknowledged he would be monitoring the situation to see if the same thing would happen to the downloadable comics.

Certainly a concern, but keep in mind this is a completely new and untapped market for us that is currently 100% pirated. Any revenue we get at all is more than we were getting before. We have a short term on the deal so we can reevaluate pretty quickly and we have a great relationship with the principals over there. Everyone is interested in exploring this and seeing what it can yield.

Many, if not the majority, of web users do not like to have to pay for downloading their entertainment, especially if it has DRM software in it. Hawkins acknowledged that the copying and passing around of digital comics is a concern for Top Cow.

Our books are currently being pirated that way and are available for free on some bit torrent sites. What we're trying to do is offer a more pristine, higher quality version of the files for a relatively cheap download price in hopes that people will opt to pay a small amount for the better experience.

The issue of copyright protection and the safeguarding of intellectual property is an important one for all entertainment mediums, and comics are no different. The big question is still how properties should be protected.

I think all copyright holders of entertainment material are concerned about this, said Hawkins. Ultimately, if the people who make these things don't receive some kind of money there's going to become an increasingly giant chasm of giant entertainment companies who create content (a la News Corp) and garage people who do it in their spare time. The middle tiered companies are the ones who get hurt by this.

This still leaves some questions for not just Top Cow, but all comics publishers. Would the availability of a downloadable comic have an effect on the sales of the print version? While there is some suggestion that the readers who download their comics and the readers who buy their comics from shops might not necessarily be the same market, there has yet to be any hard figures to verify this.

I don't really have an answer for this yet, said Hawkins. I think there is a potential generational divide for this. My 20 year old nephew has no problem reading books on computer screens but at 37 I really hate it. Films and music are different from comics and prose books, so I really don't have an answer for this. Ultimately, our goal is to create great content and make it available on any potential distribution source we can generate revenue from. Cannibalizing is definitely a concern and we're certainly going to keep an eye out for that. That's the main reason we're limiting the downloadable content for now to primarily older stuff.

What the internet functions best as is a promotional tool. In offering its back catalogue for download, Top Cow has a chance to tap into a new market that might not have been aware of the books before.

Well that's certainly the hope, but again to be 100% honest I have no idea. This is unchartered territory for us. concluded Hawkins.

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