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Publishers' choice: Will the iPad be the hero or villain of the comic book industry?

Michael Grothaus
Michael Grothaus|@michaelgrothaus|May 8, 2011 10:00 AM

Music piracy rose to epidemic levels at the beginning of the 2000s (although, according to Wired, those days are now over). There were many causes of this growth in piracy -- high speed internet access, easy-to-use P2P software -- but perhaps the biggest accelerator of music piracy was two-fold: the emergence of devices that allowed us to easily copy and then consume music (namely CD-burners, and then MP3 players) away from the computers we downloaded them on, and the reluctance of the record industry to embrace new technology.

In other words, once people had the hardware for consuming digital music, the record industry failed to give listeners the digital music they wanted at a reasonable price and in an easy-to-access centralized location. The same factors that lead to mass music piracy are now in place to disrupt another flavor of media -- comic books. The excitement and media attention around Free Comic Book Day yesterday shouldn't deceive anybody about the fact that there's trouble around the corner.

Why is the comic book industry set for a piracy tipping point? After all, people have been able to illegally download comic books on the Web for years. Why should it suddenly accelerate? One factor: the iPad.

Before the launch of the iPad, people who illegally download comic books read them on their computers -- compared to a printed comic book, a decidedly inferior experience. However, with the advent of the iPad and the tablet form factor that closely mimics a comic book, Apple's tablet is liberating illegal comic book downloads from the computer monitor and allowing them to be consumed in a much more appealing and natural way.

I first noticed this last year when I was talking to a friend who was complaining that his local comic shop was out of a specific issue of a comic book he wanted. I suggested to him that he buy it through Marvel's iPad app. However, Marvel's app didn't offer the issue in question. That's when another friend asked what issue the first friend wanted. The next day, friend #2 emailed him a CBR (Comic Book Archive) file containing a pirated copy of not only that issue, but every Marvel comic that shipped that week.

That instance highlights everything that's wrong with the legal -- and limited -- ways to get digital comics on the iPad and exemplifies the mistakes Marvel, DC and the other comic book publishers are making right now.

Open up the Marvel or DC iPad app, and you're presented with a range of comic book issues and series, but there's no rhyme or reason as to what's available. People who want to read their comics digitally (collectors and fans) don't want to have to wait months to get an issue that was on a comic book newsstand last August. They also don't want to pay the $1.99 to 2.99 per issue that comic books currently cost on the iPad. Granted, iPad comic book prices are much better than the $3.99 cover price you find on the newsstand, but that doesn't overcome the selection problems.

That leads to the second part of the problem: price. Digital content is, for the most part, a 99-cent economy. We want our music, our TV shows and our apps to be 99 cents (and between Amazon and iTunes, we can mostly get those price points). Younger people, namely teenagers and college students, who comprise a large part of the demographic of consumers of comic books particularly want those $0.99 digital issues. Why? Because they don't have the incomes that adults have, and if they can't buy what they want easily and cheaply, they are much more likely to pirate something.

The comic book companies might be able to get away with their seemingly blasé offerings through their iPad apps if there wasn't another option for getting those comics digitally, but as you've seen, there is. All one has to do is Google "comic book torrent" and then enter the week and year, and you'll easily find what you're looking for. More so, you can download the entire run of a comic book series in CBR files and read every single issue on the iPad using a CBR reader. I do want to point out that developers of CBR readers don't generally make the apps for the purpose of supporting piracy; they are used legitimately to read comics from publishers that sell in that format, and for users to read self-scanned CBRs, but it's probably fair to say that the majority of CBR reader users are reading pirated books some of the time.

Now, I'm not advocating piracy at all. I'm a published author, and my books are pirated as well. It infuriates me because, contrary to popular belief, most authors aren't rich and do work very, very hard on their books. However, piracy does tell us something. And right now the people who scan the comic books and upload them to file sharing networks are giving readers something they want that the comic book publishers aren't: cheap comics (in this case free) that are timely, and that offer the selection of issues, titles and series that readers want. And the scanners and uploaders are performing their "jobs" very well. One only need check out comic book torrents each week to see that the numbers of seeders are increasing all the time. That means the number of people illegally downloading the files are increasing as well.

This should terrify comic book publishers (including Steve Jobs, who is Disney's largest shareholder; Disney now owns Marvel) into getting their digital comic book strategy straightened out. I mean, a single issue of a comic book isn't being scanned and uploaded here and there; entire series, entire weeks of new issues at a time are, and they're all in one little neat CBR package.

But the good thing about all this is that comic book publishers don't need to scratch their heads and come up with a successful business model for digital comic distribution. The people who package the illegal CBR files have written the business model for them. In other words, comic book publishers: just copy the people who are copying your product:

  1. Release issues at a reasonable price of $0.99 to $1.99 each.
  2. Release issues the same day that print copies ship to comic book stores.
  3. Publish all current titles on the iPad.
  4. Begin publishing back issues and series in groups (ie: X-Men #1-100) and sell them in groups of 25 or 50 at a reasonable price.

If the comic book industry doesn't quickly learn from what's happening, it's going to face the same mass piracy that almost brought the record industry to its knees. When your target audience is younger, tech savvy consumers, you can't wait. The iPad has freed pirated digital comics from the computer screen and made them just as enjoyable to read as a printed comic; and what that young, tech savvy audience can't get easily and legally, they'll get illegally. Again, just ask the record industry.

The record industry, for the most part, did manage to save itself, largely thanks to Steve Jobs and iTunes. The iTunes Music Store brought a unified storefront to digital music and made it easy for listeners to find what they were looking for. The current strategy for selling comic books (and magazines) on the iPad, through individual apps per title, isn't the best shopping experience for users.

As with magazine publishers, comic book publishers are going to have to work with Apple to create some kind of unified iNewsstand store and app where it's easy to shop for and browse all our purchased issues and titles in one place. The way it stands now, with one-app-per-publisher or per-magazine, it's like making music fans buy their songs through separate Warner, Sony, EMI and Universal app storefronts and then making them listen to those songs through widely different jukebox software.

I'm going to end by saying that the comic book publishers, for their part, didn't sit on their heels as long as the record industry did. They managed to get apps and some digital content out fairly quickly. However, they're going to need to put in a lot of work and refine, or even revamp, most of their offerings, or else they'll suffer the same consequences the record industry did at the turn of this century.

Publishers, it's your choice: will the iPad be the hero or the villain of the comic book industry?