As established in my recent post, I don’t think the next generation of kids will have a problem with reading things digitally, and won’t miss the experience of print that so many of us romanticize. But that also means these kids are getting used to the idea that online reading is supposed to be free, and it’s going to be interesting to see if that can be changed.
One of the things we talked about at the ICv2 conference, which was also touched upon by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last night, is that there is a big psychological hurdle to get over in convincing people to pay for reading online. Everyone wants to follow the iTunes model, because it’s been very successful at convincing people to pay for what others were already stealing (via Napster, Limewire, etc.). iTunes is well designed, convenient, and easy to use, but I don’t think that’s what made it a breakout hit. The reason why the iTunes program works so well is because of SYNERGY with, and market penetration of, Apple's iPod players.
I’m willing to justify paying 99 cents for a song, because music lends itself to multiple plays. I love hearing the same songs over and over and creating different playlists and mix CDs for friends. And then I can put all this music on my iPod (which is produced by the same company) and listen to it on the go. And then I can also hook up that iPod to a little stereo, and have it be the music for a party. And new devices keep getting added to the iPod to get even more mileage out of those 99 cent songs.
Very few of the books I’ve read, I’ll ever get around to re-reading. Most people pass on their old books or donate them. For packrats like myself, printed books at least have an extended life, displayed on my bookshelf, potentially becoming a conversation piece when friends come over. Graphic novels have more of an advantage of not getting tossed, because, as fan of visual arts, I like to flip through people’s works for inspiration and just to appreciate the quality of the art, colors and printing. I agree with Art Spiegelman’s comment that this is why print will never truly die, and why comics will always be a part of it more so than prose books (which can translate to a Kindle without as much of the experience lost in the process). With print you can really appreciate things like different approaches to line art and small details instantly without having to click on the "zoom in" button. Ink and colors just looks very different on paper than they do on a screen.
E-books may never have the same kind of extended life as printed books because they don’t look nice as objects. You can’t display them, except as icons, and most files look exactly the same on a harddrive. For people who just want a quick read with little emotional attachment, that’s probably fine. And one thing e-books have over printed books is they are easily copied and shared with friends and the internet at large, which I’m sure most publishers don’t want to hear. Thanks to search engines and other webtools, it’s easy to find such files on the web, creating the potential for much larger audiences compared to those who wander into bookstores hoping to find something that speaks to them. So for now, e-books and webcomics work best as loss leaders, free previews, with the hopes of convincing enough people to pay for a printed versions down the line. Print collections and trade paperbacks allow authors and investors the most realistic chance to recoup their expenses, and maybe afford a nice meal every now and then. Plus as already established they look nice on your shelf and are fun to flip through. There will always be a small market for the novelty of print. Unless we run out of trees!
As Tokypop CEO Stu Levy theorized at ICv2, the only way the market will truly change to 90% DIGITAL is with the creation of a truly killer device that is still several years away. A device that is as omnipresent and as multi-use as the iPod currently is.
Let’s look at some of the current options:
I don't know much about this one except it's expensive. So let's move on!
Biggest draw is its connection to the website most people use to buy books from. The upgraded version looks much slimmer and cooler than the original (which was way too clunky), but display is still black and white and only serves as a device for reading. Most people will still need to also pack along a separate cell phone, game device and music player which is a lot of gadgets to stuff a purse with. In fact, they may also have…
This is getting very close to being “the one”. It’s slick and compact with a decent screen size and is also a phone, music player, GPS, and a billion other things. It's sexy and everyone either has one or wants one. But it is currently still BACKLIT, which means if you want to read a long novel, tiny type, or handwritten lettering, expect lots of headaches and eyeglass prescription upgrades. Granted, that’s the same case with your PC. But if you’ve stared at a monitor all day at work, reading a printed page that doesn’t shine light at you can be a nice change of pace. I think the future could be if Apple can create an iPhone/iPod Touch that can switch between backlit and a non-lit, Kindle-esq experience.
For webcomic surfing, current G3 technology can still make page downloads a slow experience. iPods also currently don’t support Flash, so not every type of comic site can be viewed on it.
Google Phones, Android and related other hi-tech phones.
I haven't used so I don't know if a comic you download on one type of phone can be transferred to read on a different kind of phone. Will your Iphone apps work on a Google phone? Is there consistency? Does a comic need to be adapted for each separately? What about Blackberrys? Which brings us to the topic of…
Lack of universal format.
Music has the mp3. Once you download a song you know that you can play it on your computer, transfer it to your iPod, or even a knockoff mp3 player, and it will work fine. Right now there is no universal format for comic files. The closest thing is the .CBR and .CBZ files, which can be viewed with PDF-like software and programs like Comic Book Lover (one of my favorites of this type). But these are mostly used for illegal scans and Creative Commons works. SLG Publishing’s Eyemelt is one of the few sites I’ve seen try charging for PDFs, or similar types of files.
Services like UClick and Iverse are cool for comics that work well as one-panel-at-a-time reading experiences. I actually think making a comic specifically for that format would be fun. It works best when the comics you download are simple, funny, or have a game-like quality to them. A choose-a-path comic would be great, and might provide a few more uses than a one-off story.
However, most cartoonists want variety to their panel sizes, and like to play around with page designs and spreads. It’s a huge part of what makes comics unique.
Question #1: Will the files you download now to your iPhone work on future devices? Or, will they become obsolete once the technology improves? Will there be a way to upgrade all your old comics to a better format? This is something that print will never have to worry about. I remember a lot of cartoonists formatting their comics to read on the Sony PSP and then the Nintendo DS, not to mention earlier versions of iPods. I don’t have the energy to keep reformatting my comics to catch up with the hot trends. I want a universal format that is cross-platform compatible!
IT ALWAYS COMES BACK TO MONEY.
The reason why magazines and newspapers have a hard time charging for reading content online is because so many people are willing to create similar content for free.
I have a friend who was a freelance writer for video game magazines, and was losing gigs because the editors could convince teenage bloggers to write for them in exchange for free swag rather than industry rates. And the lines between fanworks and professional product is starting to blur more everyday.
Few people have been able to make "Digital Subscriptions" work. Marvel and DC can maybe do it because they have a HUGE archive of material that people might want to pay to access. Newer comics can't do this because they need people unfamiliar with their content time to get comfortable with it. Therefore it needs to be free. And if they are going to upgrade to pay version or "premium content" type of thing the creators really have to bring the goods and bonus features.
And of course, you can’t escape the issue of piracy. Savvy folks can easily strip out content and place it somewhere else to share for free. So content-providers are forced to make online material free, so the kids won’t bother to steal it. Even then, I’ve seen cases where people will strip files out of ad-supported Flashplayers, and post them up on blog sites because they hated the viewer applications they were embedded in!
So all that us creators have left is hoping to create a sense of loyalty and support for original works (and perhaps the willingness of fans to buy t-shirts and merchandise). Because if artists keep getting stolen from, it gets harder and harder to make a living off doing the things that they love. It’s one thing to have a beef with big media giants, and it’s exciting to see the playing field leveled so that independent artists can get more exposure. But only if quality and true art can rise to the top (this is true in all markets). There are also plenty of reasons to be scared of the chaos that a lack of gatekeepers can bring!
I don’t think there is anything definitive anyone can say regarding a catchall plan for the future of comics. I’m confident that great content will always translate to whatever medium, texture, or device makes sense for it (even if that means many of us will be poor in the creation of said content). Some things lend themselves to multiple platforms, and others do not. Certain cartoonists' works will translate great for the web, and some will need the benefits of print. Some stories will be perfect for mobile devices, and others won’t make any sense there. They can all be different, and all be comics! The names and technologies will change, but the dreams of comic artists live on.
Here’s a great quote from Tom Spurgeon:
I think Spiegelman is succinct and wise about on-line comics: they'll be their own thing a la comic strips vs. comic books, and they'll be a way to disseminate older material. Everyone is going on-line and everyone will be on-line, so I don't understand the continuing chatter that people are somehow resistant to going on-line and will soon die as a result. Paper comics will likely continue to do well enough that somebody out there will want them, too. I never get that antagonistic thinking -- comics needs all the markets it can get and seems suited to many of them.