Welcome to bright future of Digital Comics, predictions, call-backs and ignorance abound. It’s a future filled with flying cars, lab-grown meat and comic creators getting paid for their comics. The bright future’s ahoy, and I’m going to suggest how it might play out.
If you’re like me you believe that digital formats can be the new Pulp – an affordable way to produce and distribute comics to a big audience at a good price. Digital is a disposable medium that encourages both readers and creators to take risks on new material and genres.
If you’re like me you believe that we need a wide range of content to regain comic’s once proud diversity of audience. And you’ll know that this revolution has already taken place in indie fiction, making megastars of some writers like Amanda Hocking, and creating surprisingly robust sales for others. All this with genres like Hard Sci-Fi, Paranormal Romance and Humour that mainstream comics hasn’t seen for a while.
If you’re like me you believe that amazing independent work, in a vast array of genres, by a diverse range of creators already exist as webcomics. That if we jettisoned the ‘web’ in webcomics and looked at the work, not the distribution-format, we could raise them to their rightful place alongside the best comics in the industry, thus changing the entire landscape of comics.
…if you’re like me you’re waiting for me to get to the predicting…
So here’s what happens in the bright future of digital comics (Hint: most of it is tied to last point).
> CHANGES TO FREE
Creators will use Free more selectively to gain and engage with their audience. Cheap is so cheap now that free will function as an easy stepping stone to affordable comic packages, rather than to merchandise or hardcovers. After all it’s a much smaller jump from nothing to $1.99 and the influence of App-Culture has already broken down our reticence to small purchases.
Established webcomics who successfully give away free comics supported by ads and merchandise will hold out, but new creators and works will use selective free for previews via the existing webcomic format, mailing list giveaways, exclusive downloads for media sites or the ‘first book for free’ format used in indie fiction.
Monkey Brain Comics - The first comic in a series is free, every following comic is cheap. Available only in digital stores, not as a webcomic. Comics now coming to print.
> CHANGES TO SCHEDULES AND FORMATS
Counter to the Solicitation Habit/Hangover or print, more comics will adopt the ‘it’s done when it’s done’ approach of both fiction and graphic novelists. Updates and new work will be released with less updates, but with more impact.
Comics will be released in larger chunks of on-going story or content, perhaps monthly or bi-monthly. Creators who wish to get a lot of work out there fast will group together and from digital periodical anthologies like the pulps of old, pooling their audiences, media impact and talents for collective gain.
… work will be released with less updates, but with more impact…
Daily strips will continue to supply content to the appointment viewers in their readership (Snackers), but will also sell Larsen-esque digital collections to readers who prefer to consume in large, occasional chunks (Sit-down Consumers) and never visit the site.
Long-form comics creators like me will learn lessons from episodic storytelling of TV and mainstream superhero comics, releasing self-contained ‘issue-based’ stories with a beginning-middle-and-end embedded in longer arcs. Releases will be thoughtfully constructed, tell complete (but linked) stories and be sold as the work is completed.
Someone will react against this, trying a ‘House of Cards’/Netflix model.
The Bunker - Free preview given in exchange for signing up to their mailing list, which is then leveraged at launch for paid instalments.
> CHANGES TO COLLECTIVES
Collectives will be making a comeback. Smaller or newer creators who don’t have pre-existing audiences or reputations will come together to form small publishing groups, sharing a combined publisher brand for media releases, e-stores and web-based activities (websites, blogs, mailing lists etc). The pressure to update content and provide momentum will be split across multiple creators or properties, sharing the load.
These collectives could be based around format (Thrillbent), methodology (Monekybrain), genre like the pulps of old, or even simple friendship. Cross pollination will factor big in future successes leading to shared resources (hosting fees, design fees and relationship building), shared releases and massive kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns.
… shared releases and massive kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns…
For example, I have a non-exclusive contract with Thrillbent, allowing them to re-distribute my comic Moth City via their site, every Tuesday. I can still print or sell my comics with whoever I choose, however I choose, but being in the collective and being able to leverage off the collective work is helpful.
I think of my developing comics career like an new indie band, I’m gigging around, playing to audience that get progressively bigger, being invited to play at larger and larger venues. Having my comic at Thrillbent is effective touring with Mark Waid (and more!) and playing the warm up set, which is fantastic.
Thrillbent - A collection of work centered about explorations in digital formats and storytelling.
> CHANGES TO PRICING
Current webcomics > The major change to current webcomic creators will be actually affixing a price to their work. If you broke audience commitment into three levels at ‘Browsing’, ‘Engaged’ or ‘All-in’ and gave each of those stages a monetary commitment you might posit:
Browsing: I’ll sample media for free (FREE)
Engaged: I think I’ll dig it, I can risk a few bucks (CHEAP)
All In: OMFG, I want to have children with this thing, wherein can I deposit cash?! (OPEN WALLET)
Us webcomicers tend to supply solutions to FREE (free comics) and OPEN WALLET ($35 Prints, $20 T-Shirts, $40 Hardcovers) and completely miss the middle ground of CHEAP ($1.99 Digital Downloads). One would assume that it’s easier to convert a Browser to an Engaged purchaser (or at least move through that step first) than it is to jump straight to All-In.
… who the heck would wear a Dan Brown T-Shirt…
In other words a lot of people bought Dan Browns books, but who the heck would wear a Dan Brown T-Shirt? I don’t love the guy, but I give him a few bucks to read his books.
I think some of the blame for this approach can be laid at the feet of ‘1000 True Fans’ (don’t worry we’ll look at that graph again later) or what is referred to in gaming as ‘Chasing Whales’ – squeezing a few rabid fans for all they’ve got.
Current non-Webcomics> Mainstream publishers will continue to price at $2.99/3.99 to protect their relationships with Brick & Mortar retailers. New collectives and creators working independently will take advantage of this by pricing at 0.99c and $1.99 and enticing new readers to try their work.
> CHANGES IN WEB INTERACTION – HUBS
Readers and creators will congregate around collective internet hubs more and individual’s sites less. Readers (and then following, creators) will spend more time at sites like Goodreads, comic collectives like Thrillbent, or at stores like Comixology and Amazon.
What initially sounds like a horrible split of focus for some creators will become a solution to one of our biggest challenges; browsing vs. visiting. Having visitors come to your site will still be seen as positive, but these bigger communities will introduce new readers to new work and leverage existing readers via organic algorithms that reward engagement and momentum.
Comic creators, perhaps using the limited-free approach will gain momentum on their own site, but instead of attempting to retain that audience week after week, they will instead funnel them towards the ‘point-of-sale’ sites like Amazon, allowing those purchases to impact and influence the much larger pool of potential readers.
… attract and move, attract and move…
Like indie novelists, they will attract and move, attract and move. They will treat their websites as a feeder pool for their personal store pages at Amazon or Comixology. Their personal sites will still form the basis of their hard core interaction, high end products and news distribution, but they will be used more like blogs, than the repository-of-all-content like today’s webcomics.
Goodreads & online forums – The place to gather and discuss good comics.
> CHANGES TO CREATOR WEBSITES
Creator’s websites will lose the bloat but keep the branding. They will become effective at a few tasks rather than trying to be everything-to-everyone. They may offer some free content, but mainly as a taster. Their new goal is not to give you 30 minutes of entertainment today, and again next week, but to get you excited and intrigued and then get you reading via a fair exchange of value.
Sites will come in two flavours, creator focused (look at all my amazing books, I’m frigging amazing) to project focused (this book is sweet, look I’ve got a quote from Lou Ferrigno).
… look I’ve got a quote from Lou Ferrigno…
Some websites, especially those with pre-existing fan bases and good exposure will sell via their own sites and collect most of the returns, Louis CK style. Others will show you a bit of leg before sending you elsewhere to get the rest of the story, hoping that the crowd you’re joining will draw another crowd at the new location (via algorithms etc).
Blog posts or tumblr style image posts will become the main focus of the sites, with intermittent but effective updates taking precedence over consistency. Blog posts may reintroduce older work, or highlight part of comic catalogue that deserves a push, taking advantage of the infinite shelf space of digital.
Panel Syndicate – The Private Eye - A clean and simple value proposition: a comic, pay what you want (but pay).
> CHANGES TO PURCHASING COMICS (Comixology and more)
Large e-stores like Comixology and iVerse will take advantage of tablet proliferation, rising acceptance of digital formats and their existing relationships. They will to grow steadily and will evolve in ways that encourage readers to try more books and reward movement of titles in a niches beyond the Top Ten. One of those two companies will probably bow out or become marginalised.
Comixology will continue to expand their Submit program, without fully letting go of their curatorial controls that specify quality. A sales dashboard will be developed to help creators and publishers fine tune their sales and marketing efforts, and a quicker (automated?) panel-by-panel Guided-View system will be put into place to transition this new content into the marketplace faster.
… they will aggressively chase the biggest stars of Webcomics…
They will aggressively chase the biggest stars of the Webcomic world, knowing that they will not only bring brand acceptance within the community, but also good sales and massive, pre-built audience to the platform. This diversity of content (Slice of Life, Horror, Humour etc) will vastly expand the reach of these stores, but also the perception of digital comics as a whole.
Smaller niche work will continue to be accepted and encouraged in an attempt to duplicate the Long Tail effect (there’s that graph again) that Amazon, iTunes and others enjoy wherein half of all profit is made up of the mass of products making smaller numbers of sales. In other words they need indies just as much as they need hits if they want to be successful content aggregators. (Now it’s worth noting that the long tail is mainly of benefit to the aggregator, not the creators, but hey)
They’ll still need their hits, and Comixology largely won the war of digital comic distribution based on their ability to deal with the biggest publishers in the mainstream industry (sans Dark Horse). Superheroes are still the marquee characters and brands of comics, and would only be challenged for this title if Comixology successful recruited big names from Webcomics or Newspaper strips to the platform.
Older out of print, or archived webcomics work will be solicited, re-formatted and added to the infinite digital shelves, revitalising some old cashbooks and stories and giving audiences access to the back catalogue of established creators.
Digital comic book stores will continue to evolve their suggestion engines and put books that are selling in front of buyers, better rewarding and encouraging momentum. They will improve their search functions and encourage browsing by giving better prominence to genre lists, ‘also boughts’ and suggestions.
Comixology will chase Manga (and the massive audience of tech-savvy American youth who read them) works as well as European comics, and enter markets such as China and South America with more multi-language content.
Sometime from now they may launch a digital imprint of their own, in the way that Amazon has, on multiple occasions. Dark Horse will probably join the fold realising that they’re missing out on all the ‘non-hardcore’ readers over at Comixology. DC and Marvel may join Image in creating their own independent e-stores, but law-suit/act-of-god/meltdown pending they’ll all stay where the audience is.
… law-suit/act-of-god/meltdown pending they’ll all stay where the audience is…
Comixology will eventually ditch the ‘Submit’ brand that defines independent work, and we’ll all just be comics again.
During this period Amazon and Kobo will wake up and get moving and provide competition and space for creators to find more readers. Amazon will drop its ridiculous 1995-esque delivery charges on creators that make a mockery of their drive for HD visual content.
Other companies like iVerse and others, will rise and fall and someone will try a flat fee subscription service for comics (ala spotify) which I hope for creator’s sakes fails horribly.
The future is bright. We are in a good place as creators and therefore we are in a good place as readers. We have the content, we have the distribution, now all we need is the movement.