DIGITAL COMICS! These are the watchwords of the day, as everyone from the BigTwo to Mark Waid contemplates what this new paperless format means for our beloved medium, not just in terms of distribution, but also in terms of new storytelling opportunities. I mean, the future is limitless, right?
At least, that’s what I thought up until three weeks ago, when one-time digital comics app provider Graphic.ly announced that they were seismically altering their business model, effective immediately.
Let me back up a bit. See, from my perspective as a small press publisher, digital has long seemed like the ideal model for indie creators in that it: 1) effectively eliminates the largest cost – printing – from our already meager budgets, 2) opens up new advertising options in the form of clickable banner ads that lead curious parties directly to your digital storefront and, 3) levels the playing field so that all comics creators – from the majors to the minors –have a shot of reaching readers on a global scale.
And now that technology has finally caught up with our collective digital daydreams and tablets and smart phones of all shapes and sizes have become ubiquitous delivery devices, it should only be a matter of time before the canny indie comics creator with a knack for grassroots marketing reaches the same following as, say, Avengers Vs. X-Men on shared digital comics apps.
Okay, full disclosure time: my Miserable Dastards comics are available at Graphic.ly, with Return Of The Super Pimps soon on the way. I also have a contract with another digital comics app provider, Panelfly, but they are in the midst of some sort of corporate restructuring (at least, that’s what I heard during my last communication with them in Q3 of 2011; they haven’t updated their Twitter feed since December 31, 2012). And, for anyone who read the slow decent into madness that was my Wonder-Con 2012 coverage, you’ll know that I’ve courted/stalked ComiXology to carry my books, as well (no news on that front – go figure).
Which brings me back to Graphic.ly. What follows is my brief, uneventful history with them:
2010-2011 – I blind-submit my books to them via the (hard-to-find) submission guidelines on their website. No real response, other than automated “thank yous.”
June 2011 – Through a chance encounter at my day job at DreamWorks Animation, I actually get to meet Micah Baldwin, founder and front-man for Graphic.ly. He’s there on DWA business, but I mention my desire to get my books on his apps, and he puts me on the “short pile” to get my files onboarded.
July-August 2011 – For the next two months, I go back and forth over their contract, which is actually fairly comprehensive and well-written, compared to some of the other digital comics contracts I’ve encountered. We ultimately reach mutually-agreeable terms, sign and countersign that bitch, and it’s off to the races.
Early 2012 – I finally get my pdf files to Graphic.ly (my fault, not theirs). Due to the rocky production of the first few issues of Super Pimps (which is a whole other FAT article for a later date, after I’ve had a few drinks), I had to recreate a lot of those files, layer by layer.
Anyway, by mid-March of this year, my Miserable Dastards issues are all available for purchase (at extremely reasonable prices, I might add) on the Graphic.ly website. But not the iPhone app, as I was led to believe. Or the iPad app, either.
I e-mail my contact at Graphic.ly to see when my books will finally show up on those apps. I am told, without any warning, that they are no longer posting any new content on the mobile apps, which was the whole damn reason I signed with them in the first place. A forthcoming announcement, I am informed, will make everything clear.
Cut to April 5th, when Micah Baldwin issues a press release stating that Graphic.ly is no longer in the digital comics app business. From now on, they are firmly in the distribution business in that they will offer their FREE proprietary software to turn anyone’s pdfs into digital comics reader files, but then charge creators $150 per unit (i.e. per issue) to deliver those new files to any number of digital platforms (iBooks and Kindle Fire, to name two). Whereas the now defunct Graphic.ly apps used to serve as one-stop-shopping for customers to check out digital comics in a fairly egalitarian store set-up, it is now up to the indie creator to drive traffic to wherever you want Graphic.ly to digitally distribute your books. True, Graphic.ly now only charges you $150 up front as opposed to garnishing a percentage of your sales through their old apps but, once again, the onus is on small press folks to fight for shelf space at stores, be they digital or corporeal.
I guess my problem with this is that it’s basically the Diamond Comics Distributors business model, and we all know how well that works for indie comics. I can make my books but, if there’s no dedicated brick and mortar comics shop or digital storefront, there is no “place” for people to buy them. Yes, people do buy some graphic novels from the iBooks store but, as of today, I don’t believe that those people actively seek out comics there. They just happen to chance upon them. Compare that to a digital comics app, like ComiXology, which has been rated one of the top ten apps through the iTunes store for months now. Readers go there seeking out digital comics, and I cannot tell you the number of times I have gone into that app to buy one book, only to try out a couple of others because they are only just a click away. To say that the ComiXology sales model does not work is to say that iTunes is unsuccessful.
Bottom line: I now have to pay someone money to distribute my books to stores, which is pretty much where I was when I started with Diamond. The beauty of the digital comics app set-up was that it cut-out the “middle man” – it was just me dealing directly with the store (or app) on a modified consignment basis, without a third party distributor there to complicate things. Now, there is not only a new distributor (Graphic.ly), but three less stores to which they can distribute (the Graphic.ly iPhone, iPad, and Android apps)! Graphic.ly will still sell books through their website and Facebook pages, but these are only comics provided by already contracted publishers (lucky me, I guess) and – if you just click over to the Graphic.ly main page – you’ll see just how hard it is to find their shop (Indie Hint: middle of the page, far right).
So why did Graphic.ly change their business model? The most likely reason is that digital comics sales are still, relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket compared to the industry’s already paltry print figures. Graphic.ly was getting a percentage off of every book they sold via the apps but, if no books sell, then they get a percentage of nothing. A cursory check of Graphic.ly’s “social networking” component will reveal who bought what book and when. I ain’t no research scientist, but 99% of their sales appear to fall into two categories: purchases of The Walking Dead (where I’m sure Graphic.ly got most of their money) and “purchases” of free comics (where Graphic.ly gets nothing). My hunch is that they decided to forgo the “percentage of nothing” model in favor of the new “money up-front/bird in the hand” model.
Another, similar theory for Graphic.ly’s new paradigm that I’ve recently heard comes from the head honcho of another digital comics provider that shall remain nameless for right now since we are entering into preliminary negotiations to have my Dial “C” books put on their apps. His take on the matter is that old Graphic.ly went under because they had too much content. They didn’t say “no” to any publisher or creator (no matter how small they were) because they were playing the volume game. If your revenue comes from percentages of all book sales, the more books you carry, then the more money you make, right? Not so with Graphic.ly, obvious.ly. With that much content, the store becomes unwieldy and the content becomes indistinct. Nobody buys anything because it all starts looking the same. I don’t know that I completely agree with this perspective, but it does provide food for thought…
So, then, what does this mean for John Q. Indie? As near as I can tell, we’re back to square one (unless your stuff is carried by ComiXology, which now pretty much holds a monopoly on digital comics apps in North America). We’re still making our books, but we’re still looking for a central mega store in which to sell them, not piecemeal with one app here, one app there…
Anyway, this is all just my take on the subject based on my experiences with only a few digital comics providers. I’m certainly not an expert on the matter and am still looking for solutions myself so, if you have any advice to share, please comment away below.
Until next time…
Richard A. Hamilton is a Los Angeles resident for 12 years running and the writer/publisher of Return of the Super Pimps and Miserable Dastards. On his free time, he seeks out new Indie comics, local beers, and –on good days — both.