Comic Book News: Picking Apart Diamond’s Digital Comics Initiative

Written by Books, Comics and Graphic Novels

A quick, close look at the new digital comics initiative from Diamond Comics Distributors.

TL;DR: Diamond’s new Diamond Digital initiative has some great ideas buried in some not-so-great ideas.

Just moments ago, Heidi MacDonald posted an extensive interview with Dave Bowen of Diamond on their Diamond Digital initiative. It’s a great piece, and I guarantee it will become the most picked-over digital carcass in a good long while; I personally look forward to hearing what David Brothers has to say over at Comics Alliance, as he’s become perhaps the smartest voice in the conversation about digital comics, and that includes most of the folks actually publishing and distributing digital content.

But hey, it’s early and I have a few minutes to get some fresh pokes in on the corpse, so let’s have at it.

THE BEAT: Let’s start out, suppose I am looking to buy the new issue of…let’s say Transformers. I walk into my comics shop. What’s going to happen?

BOWEN: If the comic shop has it on the rack, obviously you’ll probably buy it that way.

As someone in the comments points out, this is not a very auspicious start to the first public conversation about a new DIGITAL initiative. But fine, let’s give that one up. It’s interesting that at this point in the interview it immediately veers off into a tangent about Plexiglas display stands and Rick Geary. Not to be too hard on the guy but it would be nice to hear a simple, clear explanation of how the system works before we talk about how great it is going to be.

Harsh? Possibly. I’m an asshole.

But digital comics are becoming an important part of the landscape and the idea that a customer might be uncomfortable disusing their digital buying or reading habits with their comics shop is, I think, commonsense. It would be rude. I think some customers do it and some retailers are comfortable talking about it. But from talking to retailer we don’t get the impression that it’s common.

Yes, my gosh, how scary is it to talk about digital comics with a physical comics retailer! What if they banish me from their store and I can no longer purchase dollar back issues of Amethyst?!

This attitude frankly is hurting digital comics AND physical comics. It makes no logical sense. These days I’m not often the type to treat my local comic shop as Cheers for geeks, but I get that dynamic and I appreciate it. That said, if I were to talk to a retailer about digital comics and it became uncomfortable, I’d probably leave the store and maybe I wouldn’t go back.

It’s DIGITAL COMICS, not an intervention for a meth addict. Jeez.

We also have something called the Digital Plus version, which if you buy the print you get digital additionally. He decided on the fly that $2.99 made sense for the Digital Plus version of a full graphic novel. Essentially an aggressive retailer could make this a significant part of their customer interaction process. They could use the point of purchase materials, they could initiate discussions.

Digital Plus is a GREAT IDEA. It’s been part of the digital comics conversation for as long as I can remember. I’m excited about this and I think the system they’ve set up makes perfect sense. I’m not a huge fan of paying MORE to get both a physical and a digital copy but I would hope that gets smoothed out a bit over time. That said, paying an extra buck or two doesn’t seem outlandish, especially for a graphic novel. For a single issue, well, it’s kind of insane. But again, there will be smoothing. Great stuff.

I also love the idea of the Digital Plus concept being used to provide digital-only extras and bonus material. I will leave my home and speed to my nearest Diamond Digital shop the very MOMENT I can purchase a William Shatner comic book read by William Shatner.

The retailer will login using their Diamond retailer login and be presented with the opportunity to create store-specific, item-specific codes in whatever quantities they need. Then we’ll use some approved cryptographically secure method to generate random codes for the retailer to use. And we’ll format those in a PDF which they can then print out.

This is absolutely going to be the big issue that dropkicks the Diamond Digital initiative before it even starts: To buy a DIGITAL comic, you must purchase a PIECE OF PAPER in a BRICK AND MORTAR store.

Later in the interview, Bowen compares it to Gamestop’s method of selling Farmville items and bonus levels in their stores. The difference is that to play Farmville, I do not NEED to go into a Gamestop and buy anything. I can play with a credit card and a computer.

That brings us to the 30-day window, another giant roundhouse punch to the solar plexus of digital comics. In theory.

We have a logic problem that we have to work through with this. Why would someone come into a comics shop to buy a digital comic? One reason is it’s the only place you can get it for the first 30 days. Another is it contains material that is not available elsewhere. We think a lot of publishers will take advantage of that.

On its face, the 30-day window is insane. Clearly they are trying to find a way to emulate the various release windows in place for films, where you get your theatrical window, your DVD/digital window, and then later down the line pay cable and pay-per-view and basic cable and the ABC version where Bruce Willis yells “Yippie-kay-ay, Mister Falcon!”

The difference is that you are shackling a non-print medium to a print delivery system. It’d be like if you had to go to a movie theater to purchase a DVD of a movie before you could buy it at Target. It’s counter-intuitive, and again, you get back to the entitlement issue–what about a movie theater would make it any kind of appropriate place to stock and sell DVDs? What about a comic book store makes it any kind of place to sell digital material? Even with a wi-fi hotspot and some nice chairs, it’s digital. It’s about unshackling oneself from the physical and the freedom of communicating and consuming content from anywhere, anytime.

Having said that, I do support the release window strategy. It seems an easy way to support comic shops while keeping digital true to its core appeal. I’d have no problem with a book hitting print and then digital thirty days later. I just don’t understand why anyone would want to travel to a physical store to buy a digital comic book.

One alternate idea I’ll float is the concept of the “digital storefront” that has surfaced in the past. Diamond is attaching the physical store to the digital comic with the download code on the back end. Instead, what if the buyer could attach the digital comic to a physical store on the front end, or in the middle someplace? I open my iVerse app, and I set my “home shop” to Joe’s Comics and Smoothies up the street. Everything I buy that is attached to the Diamond Digital program results in a commission/royalty/percentage going to Joe’s. I don’t have to physically travel to Joe’s to buy it, although maybe I’ve physically traveled to Joe’s as part of the “home shop” authorization process, like the Foursquare-type system Bowen references.

And maybe there’s a communication system built into the digital store where retailers can easily send out weekly bulletins, info about sales, and Digital Plus content (free and otherwise) that can only be found in the store. So they’re still able to aggressively market and sell to this audience, toward bringing them into the store. You could add on a more developed functionality that would enable retailers to even stock local or indie creators at a grassroots level, the way they might buy a couple copies of a comic put out by one of their customers on a consignment basis.

I just think the 30-day window of a digital comic shackled to a physical store is a bad, bad idea. I have a feeling I won’t be alone in that, but perhaps I’m nuts. And again, I’m an asshole. Never forget.

When we take that out of the equation with the digital version what we hope will happen is that we retailer will successfully sell the digital version and think, hey, I can probably sell this in print too. That wasn’t very hard. Maybe I’ll start stocking that. We think there’s a chance to expand in that fashion and some of the things we’re going to do in the future are more interesting in terms of growing the market.

Isn’t the power and potential of digital in the fact that you could have the entire backstock of any given graphic novel or comic series available for instant purchase via the internet? NOT that a retailer could use a digital sale to increase physical stock, and then somehow manage to transform a digital customer into a print-only customer to buy that stock?

So, okay, that’s all I got. What do YOU think?