FRIDAY FEATURE: Comics and Digital Piracy

digital_piracy_image Join GS team member Leo as he and some creators from the comic industry who include Mark Waid, Jim Zubkavich, Rob Guillory, Scott Wegener and more delve into the controversial area of digital piracy.

As a comic fan, I’ve often thought a lot about how print comics fare when the internet making digital comics and even digital piracy more prevalent. I’ve had quite a few conversations with friends and fellow comic readers about the subject. It was after one such conversation with my friend Michael that I wanted to know not just what I thought or what my group of friends thought about digital comics and digital piracy, but rather what the people who bring us the floppy pages of comic joy that we read every month thought about it, and how they felt it was helping or hurting them and their livelihoods.

After a brainstorming session in which I attempted to boil down the digital controversy to just two questions, while leaving them open ended, I sent out a flurry of emails. For those creators that were kind enough to reply and answer the questions posed by this comic fan, I sent these questions:

Digital comics are making a huge impact on the comic industry. How do you think they’re affecting print comics and the industry as a whole?

Digital piracy is also a big topic in the comic community. What do you feel is the overall effect of piracy on comic sales, both digital and print? Do you feel like it wins over enough fans to make it possible to overlook, or is the effect totally negative?

The responses were varied and interesting. Below, I’ve broken down the responses by question as answered by each comic creator, and even one comic fan and friend. Let’s see what they had to say about the first question.

”Digital comics are making a huge impact on the comic industry. How do you think they’re affecting print comics and the industry as a whole?”

Digital media is changing the landscape for every outlet: music, video and print, so comics are being swept into that maelstrom just like everything else. The intensity of that change is reflected in the fact that comics are a smaller industry, so even a small shift in sales due to digital adoption causes a lot more upheaval than would be required to unbalance a bigger industry.

The good side of it is access to a much larger audience and the chance for more people to get their work out to market thanks to fewer barriers to entry. The down side of it is that traditional distribution channels and sales outlets are struggling to find stable financial ground as things shift over. The market is ‘flattening’ with smaller titles generally selling better than before, but the top end titles doing a lot worse. More titles seem to be needed to keep the market moving forward rather than a fewer number of best sellers. It increases diversity in the industry’s offerings, which is great, but it’s also a lot harder to manage.

For individual creators and the reading audience, there are a lot of great opportunities created by the adoption of digital comics and the global digital marketplace. For publishers, distributors and retailers it’s a tougher market that they need to get on top of in order to make the most of it.

—- Jim Zubkavich, writer of Skullkickers and Pathfinder

Only positively. I’ve yet to see a shred of evidence that they’re taking away from print sales more than they’re simply bringing more revenue into the market. Print number continue to shrink for smaller publishers, but just looking at the digital royalty statements on one of my titles, IRREDEEMABLE, I can report massive growth over the past year. Massive.

—- Mark Waid, writer of Kingdom Come, Irredeemable, Indestructible Hulk

I think we’ve only just begun to see their true impact. At first there was a lot of talk about how digital sales would cannibalize print sales, but I think publishers and retailers are beginning to see that that’s not the case. Now, it’s a question of how to fully integrate digital with print sales and make the two elements support each other. I honestly think nothing bad can come of the digital/print relationship as long as everyone is open minded enough to be innovative and accept the future. Digital IS the future of comics, no doubt about it, but that doesn’t mean print and direct market retailers can’t survive. It’s just going to take some adjustment and proactive thinking on everyone’s part.

—-Joey Esposito, writer of Footprints, Pawn Shop, Comics Editor at IGN
Well, in CHEW’s case, digital comics aren’t really hurting print sales, though we have various readers that prefer to buy floppies digitally. In our case, the readers that buy digital eventually buy the trades/hardcovers anyway because they want the book on their shelves. So I don’t think the digital/print debate is an either/or scenario in a lot of cases, but just a means of keeping up with your favorite comics without the clutter of floppies. I can’t speak to how it works for the rest of the industry, but that’s how it is for us. We reap the benefits in either medium.

—-Rob Guillory, artist of Chew

100% positively. On the Big Publisher end of the spectrum where Marvel & DC need their readers to commit to pretty large weekly purchases, digital comics make that more likely to happen because of the lesser financial burden on the readers. Except of course, when they charge full retail price, which is both unethical and a totally idiotic move in my opinion. If you can’t get new readers charging $4 for a print book, how can you even begin to think those potential new readers will be interested in a $4 digital comic?

On the small press side of things it allows people to see your work that otherwise would never have made it into comic shops, or that Diamond would not even carry because of low sales -which is actually something that I do not have a problem with. Diamond is in the business of bulk distribution, not boutique book sales. So with digital comics, which cost a fraction to produce and can reach a wider audience, the little guys finally have a fighting chance.

In our own experience digital comics have provided a cheap, and in some cases free, entry point for new Robo readers. Our TPB sales only really started to take off after we started making digital comics. iVerse and Comixology literally made Atomic Robo a success. We suddenly had a level of exposure that brick and mortar stores and our non-existent marketing budget could not come close to matching.

And don’t get me wrong. Comic shops have been GREAT to Atomic Robo. But they reach a more limited audience. And we’re happy that the digital comics seem to get people into comic shops to buy our stuff, and see other books as well. It is supremely human to enjoy a tangible thing over a theoretical product -which is kind of what digital comics are. And if you pick something up digitally and really like it, chances are good that you will seek out a physical copy of it. That’s been my experience anyway.

I see digital comics and physical TPBs as a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m not sure about the regular 22 page comics. They cost a lot and don’t offer the reader a whole lot for the cost. I won’t be surprised if digital comics eventually replace those.

—- Scott Wegener, artist of Atomic Robo
I’ve always preferred to read in the print format, and my guess would be that I always will. There’s no denying that digital publishing is here to stay, though. I think the biggest impact is probably on small press publishers and creators publishing their work on their own. Digital can be a good outlet for getting their work out there without the sometimes daunting overhead that comes with traditional print publishing.

—- Robert Venditti, writer of Surrogates, X-O Manowar
I have been resisting digital comics for a while now. I buy comics, I know they come with a digital copy, but have I ever removed that sticker? No. I understand the convenience factor… especially when I travel. Maybe because I do not yet own a “tablet” type device, I am still skeptical as to the comfort of reading a comic digitally… who knows. So, as you can see, from my point of view, they are not impacting MY small world of print comic collection. And that is what it is all about, COLLECTING.

My computer collects a lot of things digitally, mostly for work: Emails, Files, Photos, Apps, etc. Not Comics. I like the experience of holding a set of stapled pages – and I am not the only one. Thank goodness, at least for now, I think the people who want to collect physical books and READ physical books are enough to keep the printing presses humming.

I do fear that there will be a day that digital will overwhelm print, and that will be a sad, sad day, especially for retailers. Of course, unless there some model is developed where retailers can still have some claim in the process… maybe a kiosk? Something where you bring your device, scan through the titles and download? Who knows? All I know is that I LOVE my weekly (or more) trips to the Comic Store. It will be a shame if all that goes away because things become increasingly digital.

As far as the industry – too much currently relies on print. Covers, Variants, Advertisements, etc. Where would the Variant market go if everything went digital? In fact, where would the collector’s market go? People want to collect. If everything is digital, there is nothing to collect. We are safe… for now!

—- Charles Joy, comic reader, reviewer, and podcaster

Now, on to the second question, this one concerning piracy:

Digital piracy is also a big topic in the comic community. What do you feel is the overall effect of piracy on comic sales, both digital and print? Do you feel like it wins over enough fans to make it possible to overlook, or is the effect totally negative?

Opening up your content to everyone for free is the ultimate sales pitch because there’s no barrier for people to try it out. A lot of webcomic creators have done just that – offering content for free and building an audience over time. The difference with rampant comic piracy is that it forces that model on publishers and creators against their will. All the content is free regardless of their wishes.

It’s incredibly hard to measure the numbers in terms of sales being created by piracy. Every creator and every title has different circumstances. Free versions of my comics online have substantially increased my direct convention sales, but haven’t affected my regular in store sales positively or negatively much at all. That’s my situation, but it’s one I chose when I started serializing Skullkickers online because I could see that pirated versions of the issues were out there anyways.

Piracy is changing people’s perception of content and what it’s worth. If you’re downloading pirated music, software, videos or books what you’re saying is that these things don’t have any value until you choose to patronize them with a donation by buying the “real” thing. As a consumer that’s very empowering, but as a creator it’s quite scary. You have to look carefully at your production costs and final pricing to try and entice people to do the right thing.

I don’t think illegal activity should ever be “overlooked”, even if there’s technically nothing I can do to stop it. I think the situation is different for each creator/publisher and, ideally, it would be up to them to decide what they want to do with their content. Some content is going to go over better with an online audience due to style, pacing and genre, so I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying “Yes, piracy is always a good thing” or “No, piracy always hurts sales”.

—- Jim Zubkavich, writer of Skullkickers, Pathfinder

On a personal level, I have nothing at all against it and have evidence that the overall net is positive, that the attention it brings to your work may–MAY–mean more short-term loss on individual monthly releases, but that’s more than made up for in outreach to potential fans and readers who would otherwise have no access to your work. I find it tiresome and self-defeating whenever I hear of a fellow pro declaring that it’s not rising prices, shrinking physical distribution, or bad material that’s driving his sales figures down, it’s those darn pirates! Sigh. But that’s on a personal level.

On a professional level, I don’t think it matters one bit what you think about piracy, nothing’s going to make it go away, so my advice is to either make your own material available cheaply enough on the web so that it’s just as easy to obtain from your site as it is to look for torrents–and/or to use filesharing to spread your work and make fans aware that if they want to support you and want more work from you, they should come to your website or to a store and spend money. Our entire economy is being redefined in ways that benefit content-creators and dun monolithic distributors of old, just ask Louis C.K. Use “piracy” as an outreach tool to find your audience and then create a relationship with them. Or, alternately, just stand on your front porch and wave your cane at the clouds, your call.

—- Mark Waid, writer of Kingdom Come, Irredeemable, Indestructible Hulk

Piracy is a terrible thing to do, no doubt about it. If you pirate comics, you’re a jerk. That being said, I’m not sure there’s any real conclusive evidence that piracy has affected sales. I know the industry is quick to blame piracy for declining sales, but it’s not the only thing to blame. At the same time, I don’t think there’s any evidence that the whole “I pirate comics and then buy the ones I like” train of thought leads to more sales. There’s no way to measure these things. But I do think, that even though we can’t stop piracy, there’s a way to at least try and turn it to our advantage. If you look at what Mark Waid’s doing for Thrillbent, I think that’s a great step forward at turning this negative into a positive. He’s releasing the torrents himself — saying to pirates, “if you’re going to pirate my stuff, at least just use our own file” basically — and including a link back to the Thrillbent site. I think we, as creators, can use torrents to our advantage in ways like this. Pretending we can stop piracy as a whole is silly, but, just like retailers that need to adapt to the digital marketplace, we need to adapt to the idea that torrents will always exist and work on a way to turn it to our advantage the best we can, instead of using it as an easy target to blame.

—- Joey Esposito, writer of Footprints, Pawn Shop, Comics Editor at IGN

I’m kind of torn on the subject. On one hand, I’ve met a lot of fans that were first introduced to CHEW via illegal torrents, but then went on to buy the comic. So in that way, sure, it worked in our favor. On the other hand, I have friends whose creator-owned books have died because people didn’t buy it, BUT their illegal download counts are in the thousands. So really it boils down to: Should people pay for the experience of consuming media, the fruit of someone else’s hard work? My gut says “Yes”, but it’s a damn sticky topic.

—- Rob Guillory, artist of Chew

Digital piracy is a big topic in the comic community because it is an easy scapegoat that allows us to ignore the real problems with our industry. Primarily that the majority of what we produce is out of touch, misogynistic, and lacks broad appeal. Also, the mainstream comics community is no longer a community of readers, but a closed community of collectors. That’s a huge problem.

I have never seen a single shred of documented evidence that correlated one pirated comic to one lost sale.

I have had people come up to me at a convention and tell me that they’d pirated my work, and could they now please buy it from me.

Atomic Robo shows up on fifty file-sharing sites every time an issues drops -sometimes before the issue drops, so you know at least a few comic shop and/or Diamond employees are pirating our work. I see this as nothing more than free advertising. Our fans have made it very clear that they love supporting what we make. And if piracy gets us a few more fans then that’s just great.

Just as piracy failed to topple the music and film industries – (in fact they made record profits while screaming and crying about the rise in online piracy) – I think it has a minimal effect on the comic book industry. At worst it’s a neutral factor, and at best it leads to a few more sales.

I think that digital comics can go a long way towards curbing piracy as more and more people start seeing them as a viable format. But making them available is not enough. We also have to price them in a way that makes them appealing. Retail print price for a digital comic? Hell no, I’ll pirate the hell out of that. But a buck? Or two bucks? Okay, now you are in the realm of impulse purchases, and I will, (and have), buy a dozen digital comics at a go for those prices. And because digital comics do not require paper, ink, shipping, or storage, publishers can actually earn more money per book sold, even at these lower digital prices.

—- Scott Wegener, artist of Atomic Robo

Piracy is going to happen, regardless. Before comics were easily available for purchase online, people were still scanning and sharing. People love to get stuff for free. They don’t even see it as theft. That is the bad part. The either do not care or realize that by pirating something, they actually do harm. Sure, the big name companies don’t feel the pain as much as the independents or self-publishers, but there is still a negative impact.

There is enough of a problem with legit purchase of digital comics “stealing” business from print comics and the ability for Local Comic Shops to stay afloat, addition of digital comic piracy just makes that whole mess worse – in essence, it has made it much easier to pirate – no one has to sit at a scanner all night turning pages, there is no fidelity loss, so much more volume can be cranked out. It is a shame really.

I can sort of see the other side of the coin. Comics are expensive. Comic collecting and reading is an expensive habit… err… I mean hobby. That does not justify theft, and it never has.

Now, there is the argument of, “I download comics (pirated), then I go buy them if I like them” – sure, I am sure for some percentage of the population that is true, but most people wouldn’t bother. It is just too easy to access the information any time… Do I have a print dictionary on my desk? No, I go to the internet, type in, “define: tchotchke”… it is way easier. Which brings up a point… has Google/Bing “stolen away” business from Webster? Yeah, sure it has. But that is different, I guess. Hmm. Sigh. Maybe I should go buy a dictionary.

—- Charles Joy, comic reader, reviewer, podcaster

So, there you have it. By no means an exhaustive survey, but enough to get a general feel for how the creators feel about digital comics and piracy, while keeping the “normal” fan in mind.

As you can see, those professionals that responded feel no ill will toward digital, that it’s only exposing their work to a larger audience and letting readers access it more easily. There are definite points made about how publishers and retailers need to better understand and utilize digital comics, but, for the present, digital comics aren’t doing much, if anything, to hurt prints comics, according to these professionals.

As for piracy, it’s a bit mixed. Scott Wegener and Mark Waid both seem to fully embrace piracy, seeing that it helps more than it harms, and isn’t the scapegoat that the comics industry so often claims to be. Everyone else seems to see piracy as something that can’t be changed. It’s almost a force of nature at this point. Try as they might, piracy will still happen, whether they like it or not. The morality of piracy isn’t so much to be considered as what Rob Guillory said: “Should people pay for the experience of consuming media, the fruit of someone else’s hard work?”

The “normal” comic fan may not see quite eye-to-eye with the creators on the subjects, but I think Charles makes a good point about comics being more about collecting than reading, at this point, as so much of the industry is driven by collecting rather than just casual reading.

As for me, I have to agree with the creators. Digital is great for comics. Piracy, while not necessarily nice, can’t really be hurting them. I have to admit that I’ve pirated a comic or two, but I’m also part of the group that sticks by the “if I like it, I buy it” code. The one thing that I’ve found piracy to be good for, if it’s good for anything, is introducing people to comics. Dropping twenty bucks on a trade is a lot less desirable to someone completely new to comics than tying up a few megabytes of space on their computer with some torrented issues. As my friend Michael often puts it when we discuss piracy and digital comics, “I never would’ve bought comics if I didn’t steal them first.”

Originally featured in the GS Magazine.

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Source: Originally featured in the GS Magazine.

Reporter: Leo Johnson

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