Red 5 founder talks digital strategy

Red 5 was one of the first comics publishers to jump into digital distribution, and Atomic Robo is one of the first digital success stories, so when Red 5 founder Paul Ens talks about his company's digital comics strategy at TFAW.com, it's worthwhile to listen in.

Red 5 led with the best-sellers, making their top titles, Atomic Robo and Neozoic, available for the iPhone back when each issue was a separate app. And Ens says the comics are selling, with both revenues and the number of comics downloaded increasing every month. "In terms of total sales revenue, it’s still small but growing," he says.

Earlier today, Mark Millar expressed some concern that creators would not make as much money from digital comics. Ens has a different take, and I'm going to quote his answer at length, because I think he nails it:

As I see it, the main advantages of companies creating their own stores are more money and more creative control. The publisher can avoid middleman percentages to Apple or the technology partner. Also, the publisher can avoid having works from other publishers vying for the reader’s attention. Unfortunately, these are advantages for the publisher and not for the reader.

The advantages of using digital distribution partners are numerous. The most obvious is that they specialize in creating and constantly improving a great user experience. Red 5 readers benefit from those improvements. For example, our comics launched on the iPhone, and are now available on the iPad, the Web, PSP and Android devices . . . all with a single purchase.

Similarly, if Red 5 made its own exclusive reader, then our readers would not have a choice if they prefer another approach. By being on multiple platforms, our readers can select the ecosystem they like best.

Finally, we think comic readers ultimately want their collection in one central place. They typically wouldn’t keep their Spider-Man [comics] in one room of the house, Superman in another room and Star Wars in another. Nor would they want to go to one store to buy Batman and a second store to buy Atomic Robo.

Some of the single-publisher apps that cooperate within a larger technology infrastructure have some merit. From a long-term reader perspective, an isolated ecosystem for a single publisher doesn’t seem very user friendly.

Red 5 doesn't do same-day releases of digital and print comics; they like to give the print comics a bit of a head start. Once that is done, however, they are quite aggressive: Ens says the entire back catalog is available digitally, and the company plans to release all this year's comics that way too. And they have announced a line of digital-first comics as well.

With regard to piracy, Ens points out that it isn't much of a problem so far for digital comics. In fact, all the piracy he has encountered so far has been scans of printed comics. He draws two lessons from the music industry: If the demand exists, pirates will fill it, and some people will never pay for their media. In short, he concludes, "The best way to combat piracy is to supply our product in the format the consumers want to see it. Otherwise, their choices are to steal or ignore."

Ens is pretty sanguine about the future of the direct market; he seems confident that digital and retail can co-exist, and he likes the idea of including some sort of unique code with print comics that would allow the purchaser to download a digital copy.

While creators like Millar may see digital as a step down from their ideal situation, for creative publishers like Ens (and the very media-savvy creators of Atomic Robo, it must be said), it is a step up to a much larger potential audience than the print channels can provide.

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