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Year in Review: Digital Comics are Really Here

ComiXology leads digital revolution

While comic book stores were struggling (and in some cases closing) through much of 2011, the other major distribution outlet for comic books and graphic novels also faced a tough time. Book stores became a major outlet in the 2000s, primarily due to the manga explosion that brought a whole new audience back to sequential art in the United States. But with the dominance of Amazon.com and the rise of digital e-readers, book stores were forced to evolve. Unfortunately Borders, the second largest US book store chain and the first to usher in manga to American readers, failed to do so in time and went into bankruptcy this year and caused a ripple effect throughout the comics industry.

For some comics publishers, the effect was minimal, as previous payment issues with Borders caused some to shift their business away from them before the bankruptcy was announced. But others felt it more strongly, such as Los Angeles-based Tokyopop, the second largest manga publisher in the United States. In the beginning of the year, Borders stopped paying its vendors in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. This resulted in orders getting cut, and with Borders being Tokyopop’s largest customer account, income was severely damaged. Layoffs at Tokypop followed. Despite the late-entry hit manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, it couldn’t reverse the damage of a closing Borders, online piracy (and a digital strategy that amounted to too little too late), and the under-performing Priest feature film. By May, Tokyopop was holding a garage sale to empty out their LA offices. With their termination of US publishing, licenses were canceled, leaving a good number of manga series unfinished. It’s difficult to know how many casual readers of those series drifted away from reading manga and comics entirely after their favorite manga simply stopped coming out. In October, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy revealed that he is “continuing to explore any and all opportunities to relaunch the manga publishing operations” but it will require him having to renegotiate contracts with Japanese publishers. In the meantime, Tokyopop remains as a modest web-newsletter about Asian pop culture, in a partnership with GeekChicDaily.

Viz blazes own path, offers digital subscriptions to Shonen Jump Alpha

It was clear that another distribution outlet was needed, and fortunately one has been steadily growing over the last two years. Digital comics allow people to read print comics and manga on the web or mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, Kindle and Nook. Companies have been popping up to provide publishers with the service of configuring their comics to the digital landscape and selling them on these devices. The digital distributor ComiXology has pulled ahead as the clear industry leader, with an exclusive partnership with DC Comics and partnerships with almost every other major comics publisher and many smaller ones too. Other prominent digital distributors are Graphicly, with their focus on community-building, and iVerse Media’s Comics+. Some publishers have chosen to build their own in-house digital distribution systems, such as Dark Horse Digital and Viz Manga. Some publishers are even shifting entirely to digital or publishing digitally first, mimicking the successful web-comics model of building an audience to support print releases.

Most significant in 2011 is the near industry-wide move by comics and manga publishers to ramp up their digital output. This was most notable in numerous announcements by publishers to release digital and print versions simultaneously (frequently called “day-and-date”). Prior to this, digital comics were released erratically, sometimes as far out as 6 months after the print version, seriously undermining the ability of digital to be taken as a serious method for consumers to become engaged in specific titles. The brand new Kindle Fire tablet/e-reader, which had huge sales for the holidays, has available an exclusive set of 100 DC Comics graphic novels, along with a free, pre-loaded Comics by ComiXology app.

Before a lot of these digital announcements were made (and when most digital comics were only available through the iPad and iPhone), digital comics were showing significant growth as sales doubled for the first half of 2011. Prior to that, digital comics sales were estimated at $6 to $8 million for 2010. Print sales for the North American comic book industry were estimated at under $420 million for 2010. While still only a fraction of print, digital is still extremely young with immense potential to reach new and lapsed readers.

iBooks carries Graphic Novels even though they’re Not Real Stories

IDW Publishing made headway into semi-uncharted digital territory with their launch on Apple’s ebooks platform iBooks last week. The iBooks app comes preloaded on all Apple iPad tablets. With an estimated 20 million iPads sold, that makes for a significant potential readership.

IDW released nearly 20 graphic novels to the iBookstore, including the simultaneous print/digital release of Code Word: Geronimo, which details the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound by SEAL Team 6 as written by military insider Captain Dale Dye. Other graphic novels now on iBooks include IDW’s reprinting project of every Bloom County comic strip, and graphic novels based on True Blood, Star Trek, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and more. The San Diego-based publisher will continue to expand their catalogue in the coming weeks and months.

In addition to expanding comics into yet another digital marketplace, it’s also interesting to note that IDW has chosen to release graphic novels instead of single issues on iBooks. While ComiXology and other digital comics apps and services used by IDW and other comics publishers like Marvel Comics and DC Comics offer graphic novels, much of the focus is on shorter comic books, similar to most brick and mortar comic book stores. But with iBooks readers already expecting a book-length read, it’s smart to go for the longer form of graphic novels.

Currently Code Word: Geronimo is included in the iBooks store front under New & Notable, along with Jane Lynch’s Happy Accidents, Roger Ebert’s Life Itself and Michael Moore’s Here Comes Trouble. In fact, as of this writing, both Moore’s book and Geronimo have the same number of reviews, with the graphic novel rating slightly higher. Graphic novels appearing right beside prose books can be a powerful bit of messaging that comics are just as worthy a form of expression and literature as novels.

Of course, not everyone will receive that message. One of the two reviews is by a hoodwinked MikSud:

This is a comic. I thought it was a real story and account of what took place during the raid of Bin Laden. Utterly disappointed.

Maybe one day comics will be able to tell “real stories”. If they act nicely and don’t get too uppity.

Despite MikSud’s protests, more integration of graphic novels and prose novels in the digital space is bound to happen with the anticipated release of the first color Kindle, expected for a late November release. If comics publishers are smart, they will jump all over this with the deep Amazon and Android integration that could reach a lot of readers.

Comic-Con Wrap-Up: Digital

Foxtrot by Bill Amend notes the limitations of the iPad (originally published 3/21/2010)

Digital comics are gaining momentum as more people enjoy the convenience of downloading comics onto their tablet device and/or phone, and/or read them on their browser while they’re already at their computer. July has already seen a lot of announcements and Comic-Con, as expected, had a ton more. Here are the highlights:

  • Digital comics sales have doubled for the first six months of 2011, according to industry white papers presented by ICv2 Publisher and CEO Milton Griepp. Digital sales were estimated at less than one million in 2009, somewhere between $6 and $8 million in 2010, and will likely double that amount by the end of 2011. Despite fears of losing print readers to digital, the report states there’s little evidence to suggest a significant level of overlap between buyers in the two markets. Much of the growth is led by the strength of the iPad, with a lot of potential still expected from the Android and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook. Digital sales on PSP have mostly collapsed, likely due to a massive hacking incident on the Sony PlayStation network in April that resulted in the service being shut down for nearly a month and the compromise of millions of their users’ personal data. New additions to the PSP Digital Comics Store were discontinued earlier this month, although the program may get relaunched when Sony releases the PlayStation Vita, expected toward the end of the year. (ICv2)
  • Marvel Comics will begin transitioning to simultaneous print and digital releases (instead of waiting months to release the digital versions of their print comics) starting with this week’s Amazing Spider-Man #666, which kicks off the “Spider-Island” summer event, and the current X-Men event Schism. The Spider-Man family of titles will be released the same day and date in comic book stores and through web and mobile devices. Uncanny X-Men #1 and Wolverine & the X-Men #1 will follow in October and November. Marvel, the comics industry’s number one publisher, will look for more opportunities as titles hit good jumping-on points. (ICv2)
  • VizManga.com has launched from the largest US publisher of Manga, Viz Media. The site syncs with their iOS and Android apps, so manga bought at one can be read on the others. There is a 40% sale going until July 31 and the first chapter of each manga is available for free. There are currently over 40 series and over 300 volumes available, with more added each week. (Robot 6)
  • A collection of 39 Japanese publishers will launch JManga, a web portal to read manga online and interact with creators and fans, in August. Popular manga like One Piece and Naruto are expected to be part of the line-up, as well as more obscure titles that have never been licensed for US release. The cooperative initiative is intended to reverse shrinking sales that publishers feel are due to importing lag time, piracy, and the closing of Borders. (Anime News Network)
  • Top Shelf entered the digital space by launching over 70 graphic novels on the Comics+ app by iVerse Media. According to this interview with Robot 6, they want to have everything in their library that they can release digitally to be available by the end of the summer. They will also be launching on other digital distributors soon and will have their own apps, one for Top Shelf’s entire line and a Kids Club app for their all-ages material. They also have some books on the Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Google eBookstore. (Top Shelf)
  • Panelfly will be relaunching their app as Panelfly Prime and Panelfly Plus beginning in early August. The two apps will enhance the now-standard comics reader experience with videos, news and social media integration within the comic, an experience they’re pitching as SuperMedia. Their recently released Burn Notice digital comic is a template for what they’re building. (Comic Book Resources)
  • Graphicly is adding bonus features and other enhancements to digital comics. Similar to DVD bonus features, the first batch includes audio commentary tracks by creators and trailers, with more to come. (The Couch)
  • LucasFilm OK’ed the digital release of Star Wars comics, so the Dark Horse Digital Store now has tons of Star Wars comics, with more to be added every week. Dark Horse Comics has been publishing Star Wars comics for 20 years now. Part of the release includes Marvel Comics’ 1977 adaptation of the original movie Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. (Dark Horse)
  • Manga publisher Square Enix is running a special sale on their online reader site. If you “like” their Facebook page or got a special URL at Comic-Con, you can get the first volume of any of their 15 series (including Fullmetal Alchemist) for free. Books are usually priced at $5.99. The deal is good until August 10. (Robot 6)
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