Manley: Big publishers rule on the iPad (Updated)

Joey Manley has a provocative post up this week about where the energy is in the digital comics scene. While webcomics are the realm of individual creators making a name for themselves in nontraditional ways, it's a different story on the iPad and other devices:

On my iPad, the best comics reading experience, bar none, is not from small, scrappy innovators. It’s from the big companies, via Comixology’s apps (the “Comics” one, which includes DC and a lot of other familiar publishers, and the “Marvel” one, which is exactly the same application, but limited in content to Marvel comics only). The deal is this: you buy “issues” of printed comic books, which have been repurposed and re-engineered to be read more easily on the device.

Manley gets right away that these devices are a digital newsstand bringing DC and Marvel comics to a new audience, and he thinks the publishers could be doing a better job of repackaging them, but his main point is that the big, clumsy comics companies of yesteryear are doing the best job of exploiting this new platform. Of course, that's because they have ComiXology to do the tech work for them; DC and Marvel are really just supplying content, and in this case, it's mostly content that has already been published in other forms.

In the comments, SLG's Dan Vado complains that indy comics are getting swept aside:

This is pretty much dead on. Comixology has all but stopped converting SLG titles in favor of, their words, “higher volume” sellers.

UPDATE: ComXology's David Steinberger responds to Vado and the others in the same comment thread, saying that they remain committed to indie publishers:

To be clear, we’re dedicated to the indie market, and are investing a ton of our resources to make the access to our platform more equitable. We took the opportunities that we created with this platform, and now we’re catching up to being able to continue to get great books from all publishers.

Others complain as well that the small publishers are getting squeezed out, and Ben Adams points out that creators could release their work as PDFs and encourage readers to use a PDF/CBZ reader like ComicZeal to read them on the iPad.

At The Webcomic Overlook, Larry Cruz thinks that DC's decision to remove Zuda from the web is their vote of confidence in the iPad as the comics platform of the future.

The whole thing put me in mind of Valerie D'Orazio's post a year or so ago about how the Big Two were going to dominate webcomics, although her scenario was a bit different—she thought the major publishers would hire the creators and set them up on corporate sites that are "authoritative" rather than "amateur" (her terms). A number of creators showed up in the comments to say they didn't need to suckle from the corporate teat, thank you, and I wrote a rebuttal myself at Digital Strips.

But the iPad turns all that upside down. The difference is simple: Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can get on the web, and if you're halfway decent and get a bit of knowledge, you can build a following. This is harder now than it was ten years ago, but it's still quite possible; we have new web phenomena every day. The iPad and other handhelds are different, though; they have gatekeepers, and you buy your content in a single store, rather than picking up bits and pieces via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and e-mails from friends. Everything is more controlled, so it's not surprising that a few players who really understand the market would dominate the game.

In that context, Adams's suggestion that creators use the web as a portal to the iPad is an interesting one; the problem with having all your content come through a single corporate gateway is that it tends to be pretty bland and commercialized. I'd love to see some guerilla webcomickers create an underground indy comics scene for the iPad and Android, using ComicZeal to bypass the iTunes store. The problem is the eternal one: Money for freedom, as monetizing a PDF is a lot harder than collecting a check from Apple for your iTunes app. Still, comics people are creative people, and I'm hoping that when I finally spring for an iPad, I'll be able to read more than repackaged Batman comics on its big, beautiful screen.

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