SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — If you’ve ever purchased a digital comic, your experience probably went like this: you opened an app like ComiXology, paid around $1.99 to $3.99 — probably the same price as a number printed — but never downloaded the comic book file to your hard drive. It’s because you don’t really own it – you just cleared the right to watch it in someone else’s library.
It’s a digital sales model that’s been embraced by every major American comic book publisher – and most e-book publishers too — and was inspired by fears that piracy of digital copies would hurt not only digital sales but print sales as well. It also essentially prevented the readership of the comic (or at least, the legal comic book readership) to actually own any of the books they buy. At least until this morning when the comic Image Comics editor announced at its Image Expo convention that it will now sell all of its digital downloadable comics through its website for desktop and mobile users, making it the first major US publisher to offer DRM-free digital versions of comics . Readers can even choose the file format they prefer: PDF, EPUB, CBR or CBZ.
“My position on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment,” Image Comics publisher Eric Stephenson told Wired in an exclusive interview. “There’s a pretty strong correlation that things that suck aren’t highly pirated, while things that succeed have a higher piracy rate. If you publish a good comic, even if someone downloads illegally, if he enjoys it, then the probability that they will buy the book is quite high. Obviously, we don’t want everyone giving a copy to a hundred friends, but that argument has been around since home recording was supposed to kill music in the 70s, and it didn’t happen. And I don’t think that’s happening now.”
>’My position on piracy is that piracy is bad for bad entertainment. There’s a pretty strong correlation with things that suck not being heavily pirated.
Picture Comics Editor Eric Stephenson
And while Image’s comics will still be offered for sale on ComiXology, iBooks and all other platforms where they were previously available, Image’s director of business development Ron Richards says it’s important to offer direct-to-consumer downloads. “There’s something to be said for the ownership factor. If readers buy a book on ComiXology, it might be their library [on the service] but from what I understand it could be revoked. And heaven forbid, if ComiXology goes down or their data center suffers an earthquake, all of their hard drives disappear – then you have nothing.”
Indeed, there have been several snafus so far that have illustrated the limitations of ComiXology’s digital sales model. In March, a server crash caused by massive demand for a Marvel Comics promotion not only halted sales of new comics, but also stopped user access to the player and all comics stored in the cloud. In April, ComiXology refused to submit a problem from the famous comic book Image by Brian K. Vaughan Saga to Apple’s iOS store based on its sexual content, then removed 56 more comics for content issues. Other comics were “retired” after being purchased by readers and locked until a later date.
Image, which the comics include The Walking Dead and Saga, is currently the third-largest comic book publisher after “Big Two” superhero companies Marvel and DC, and has a long history of breaking with the corporate model of doing business. Founded in 1992 by a group of high-profile comic book creators who wanted to retain the rights to their work, Image remains a creator-owned content publisher – meaning that writers and artists retain the rights to their work – rather than the cash-for-work model that dominates mainstream comics, where creators generally receive no other royalties. This distinction, which lies at the heart of the most contentious legal and ethical issues within the industry, has made Image an attractive home for the original work of many leading superhero writers and artists.
But despite Image’s track record of innovation — and its snub to the corporate status quo — its decision was informed not just by ideas, but also by data. Despite initial industry fears that digital comics would hurt print sales or upset the fragile balance of the direct market at comic book stores, the exponential growth in digital sales has not hurt print. – and maybe even helped him.