When Apple announced the iPad in January, consumers immediately buzzed about the potential of the device — not just for browsing the web, sending e-mails, or viewing photos, but as a digital reading platform. With a high-resolution, 9.7-inch color screen, it seemed uniquely suited for reading one medium in particular: comic books.
Comic book distribution — in print through small retail shops — has remained largely unchanged for decades. The computer and then the Internet both had little impact. But the iPad could shake all that up, industry experts say.
Comics have existed online in various forms since the 1980s, but have never really posed a threat to the print product for two major reasons. When the music market started to shift from CDs to MP3s, it was much more of an apples-to-apples situation: A song sounds essentially the same whether it's played on an iPod or a Victrola. But computers and mobile devices are ill-equipped to replicate the look and feel of reading a comic — that is, of course, until an ultra-thin device roughly the same size of a traditional comic book came along.
"So far, reading on it has been pretty much a joy," Spencer said.
The other obstacle that's blocked digital comics from truly taking off is product availability. Industry giant Marvel Comics released an iPad app on the same day as the tablet's release in April, but the titles for sale through the software are nearly all at least two years old, with the bulk from the last decade or the company's original boom period of the 1960s. Record labels are now releasing albums to iTunes on the same date, if not earlier, than the print product, but most major comic book publishers are thus far unwilling to follow a similar model.
Impact on small stores
For decades, "brick and mortar" specialty stores have been crucial to the comic book industry, with publishers forging a mutually beneficial relationship with the outlets. Pursuing digital distribution too aggressively could feasibly do serious damage to these stores, as seen in the number of music retailers that have gone out of business in recent years.
David Steinberger is the CEO of ComiXology, the producers of Marvel's iPad app. The company also has their own iPad reader and online store, which hosts a number of smaller publishers including Image and Archie Comics.
"Consumption of media is about what's best for consumers, and consumers will drive this long term," he says. "I believe in the next year or two we'll see a lot more day-and-date," referring to the practice of releasing content online and in print on the same date.
Steinberger is optimistic about the future of physical comic book stores, equating their situation to the recent trend of vinyl records making a comeback in the face of the iPod era.
"They're already a special thing for people to discover, so I don't think you're going to see that kind of impact," Steinberger says. "There is no 'Best Buy of comics.'"
J Keirn-Swanson, a blogger for Apple magazine Mac Life, isn't so optimistic.
"I think they're going to face the same sad fate of many small book stores, CD shops, and movie rental places," Keirn-Swanson told Newsarama. "Some will survive, that's clear, but I think most won't. I can't see how trends of this size get reversed."
Threat of piracy
With a shiny new object ideal for reading comic books, but a lack of any way to obtain the newest, most in-demand material, temptation increases for something that's plagued the music industry: piracy. Comic books have been illegally distributed online for years, through filesharing and torrent sites, and there are now several apps that make it easy to read pirated comics on your iPad.
"Up until now, a huge number of people haven't been grabbing those files, because they don't like reading them on a laptop screen, or a desktop monitor," Spencer says. "But when you're talking about them being on the iPad, that's a completely different experience. And with a million iPads sold already, that's a lot of people, and it's a very scary thing."
"There is a market for this stuff, and it's being served," adds Keirn-Swanson. "The real problem here is that it's being served illegally and Marvel and DC (and many, many smaller publishers) are missing out on that money."
The music business comparisons continue: iTunes succeeds because it offers customers a reliable product, without the hazards that come with illegally downloading, such as low-quality audio, misattributed files or the risk of viruses. Spencer says that's the formula comic book publishers need to thrive in the burgeoning digital market.
"A scan of a retail copy, which is what these pirates offer, is severely inferior to what an app like ComiXology can offer," he says. "The resolution's higher, the colors look better, all these extras that a scan can't provide. So we already got one really nice advantage there. But that's not going to count for anything if the reader gets used to pirating."