The Ragamuffin Speaks: Digital Comics Float Up the Amazon

The big news in the world of comics this week is the acquisition of digital comic distributor ComiXology by the online book (and everything else) seller Amazon. In the early days of digital comics…well, some would argue that we’re still in the early days of digital comics, so…in the earlier days of digital comics the general consensus of opinion was that digital comics needed a “go-to” site that was synonymous in the minds of the buying public with digital comics, much as digital music has iTunes and online book selling has Amazon. There were many candidates touted as being just that, most notably Longbox. I’m betting that most of you don’t even remember Longbox, its clunky interface ultimately disappointing everyone on arrival and seeing it instantly sink without trace. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came ComiXology, and it managed to quickly cement itself as THE digital platform for comic books.

How did it do it? A mix of ease of use, intelligent pricing and canny deals with the biggest players in the industry. However, now that Comixology has been bought by Amazon the questions remains – what happens next? The general opinion I’ve seen expressed in all of the online commentary I’ve read on the deal so far seems to be – let’s wait and see, eh? Which is…well…unusually reserved for the comics industry, which tends to prefer apocalyptic predictions of doom and gloom.

I have, however, seen subtle murmurings that this might herald the end of the local comic shop as we know it. To be honest, there hasn’t been a development in the comics industry in the last decade that hasn’t been accompanied by subtle murmurings that it heralds the end of the local comic shop as we know it. The retail industry as a whole has suffered hugely, not only due to the prolonged recession but also due to the shift to online shopping. Many within the comics industry have tried to fend this off with what has generally amounted to little more than guilt trips. Pleas to support your local comic shop are common, despite the fact that this often leads to paying higher prices for your monthly books, missing issues that your retailer has forgotten to pull for you and that the general experience of entering a comic shop for people who aren’t straight, white males is often an unpleasant one. I’m going to be blunt here, calls to support your local comic shop tend to fall flat when it comes to UK comic creators. When you’ve released a fairly high profile graphic novel that’s been eagerly anticipated by many readers only to see a grand total of four orders placed by UK comic shops through Diamond, you start thinking, “Why should I support local comic shops when they don’t support me?”

Look, I understand that small comic shops have to be very careful when it comes to ordering indie books. I understand why they mostly stick to ordering books from the Big Two that they know they can sell. That’s just basic economics. But when high profile central London comic shops who undoubtedly get many tourists visiting their shop in search of genuine British comics don’t even have a single shelf in their store dedicated to UK independent comics then it starts to feel that the retail section of the UK industry just isn’t interested in seeing the creative side thrive.

Let’s contrast that with the support I receive from the digital side of the market. Comixology awarded my graphic novel, Hypergirl, the Comixology Comixologists’ Choice Award for best debut series and promoted it on their podcast. Their support people have contacted me on twitter to ensure that my creator page was accurate and up to date. My books have featured in their New Releases emails alongside books from Marvel and DC as they’ve treated indie books…including UK indie books…equally to books from the Big Two. Elsewhere in the digital comics world, Drive Thru Comics have repeatedly featured my work as their Pick of the Week and they went out of their way to find me and talk to me when I was exhibiting at C2E2 in Chicago to tell me how much they enjoyed my work.

To put it simply, the retail print side of the industry acts like I don’t exist, the digital side has done nothing but give me support and encouragement.

And, you know what? I don’t even read digital comics! I read all of my comics in print…but…I do order them online through the excellent Disposable Heroes. Because online shopping is the future of our industry, be it in print or digital. I don’t have to leave my house, I don’t have to engage anyone in awkward conversation, my comics just arrive at my front door every week (and sometimes they give me free comics too, thanks for the Moon Knight #1 guys!).

I don’t believe for a second that the future of comics is digital only. There’ll always be a demand for print comics in one form or another. All that is changing is the method by which we buy them…because the method by which we buy everything is changing. I tried to buy a DVD in central London the other day, I had to walk around for the best part of an hour before I found the one shop in central London that sells new DVDs. I could have bought the same DVD in seconds online. I had to buy car insurance the other day, everything was done online, my certificate of insurance was a digital document that I could print off at home. No need to call someone, no need for sending documents through the post.

So what does Amazon’s acquisition of ComiXology mean? It probably means direct ComiXology integration into the Kindle (well, the Kindle Fire at least), it probably means that when you search for pretty much any graphic novel or trade paperback on Amazon in the future you’ll have the option to buy the same material digitally and download it straight to your iPhone, tablet or Kindle. This can only be a good thing, from a creator’s point of view…if it is quicker and easier for people to obtain our books, even if they’re out of print or hard to get hold of in print, that can only work in our favour. For the UK indie scene in particular, for those of us who already have a decent presence on ComiXology, our work is about to get a whole lot more accessible.

Amazon wouldn’t have bought ComiXology if they didn’t believe that they could not only make money out of it, but also significantly grow the digital comics market. While the digital era hasn’t quite levelled the playing field between the indies and the Big Two as it initially promised it might, at least we are there, unlike in the print retail side of the industry, where our books are simply nowhere to be seen.

So, I’m quietly optimistic about this development. Or, in other words…I, for one, welcome our new Amazonian overlords.

Ian D Sharman

Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Fandom Wanderers.

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