It may surprise many of you that I believe Microsoft may have been ahead of the game when it introduced the Zune and the Welcome to the Social campaign a few years ago. Granted, back then no one knew what the hell the software giant was talking about, but today, with digital comics about to bust wide open in a big way, applications like Comics by ComiXology, and companies like BOOM! Studios, DC Entertainment, and Marvel might want to revisit the Zune.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SHARING FILES LEGALLY
Anytime someone says ‘file sharing’ most of the rest of the message is bound to be lost, but instead of looking at shared files as stolen content, let’s consider a way to share a file legally for a limited amount of time. One of the great things about physical comic books is we as readers are free to give our copy to someone so they can experience the greatness in characters like Spider-Man, Superman, Wolverine, and Batman, or expose others to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid. It’s through this exchange of a physical object that others become interested in the subject matter, want to learn or read more, and thus go out and pick up a new issue at the local comic book shop or book seller.
But as Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in a Hybrid Economy (2008), when the world moved from an analog world to a digital one, where bits don’t degrade and a copy of a music file is just as good as the original, businesses and creators instantly saw a world where they could lose money by someone sharing a file. For better or worse, the music, film, and television industry have figured out how to make digital distribution work for them by finding the right price point, making the information readily available, and filling those files with accursed digital rights management (DRM). Today, companies are discovering that people are more than willing to pay less than a dollar for a digital copy of a song that is properly encoded, comes with additional material (liner notes and cover art), and doesn’t result in a nasty letter from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
KIDS THESE DAYS
The comic book industry is going through the same digital transition that cost the music and film industry millions of dollars, and while preserving the comic book shop, full of physical copies of the latest and greats issues, should continue to be a topic of discussion, bringing in a new group of readers through digital distribution should be the priority. An MP3 file is nowhere near the quality of an analogue recording, and depending on how it is compressed, the sound quality could suffer even more. Kids these days don’t necessarily care about the quality of the encoding – they listen to digital music through cheap and often crappy ear-buds – they just care about getting the content and being able to share the experience with their friends who are busy listening to the exact same song on their digital music player. Of course if a song is encoded poorly, it is noticed and will eventually be rejected, but the very nature of a digital song already puts the MP3 at a disadvantage over a 30ips eight track recording of the same song.
It’s the content the audience wants. It’s the ease of access to the content that makes it acceptable, and if the content is mind-blowing, the audience will talk about it. They will seek out more songs by that particular artist, and are willing to pay for it. And as odd as it sounds, as anti-social as an MP3 player is, it actually serves as a way for people to connect socially once they have a common vector for discussion.
WELCOME TO THE SOCIAL
By the time Microsoft introduced the Zune, Apple had pretty much secured the top spot as the de facto portable media player company. While Steve Jobs would like us to think the iPod and iPad are the end-all-be-all god device, the Microsoft Zune actually showed those devices up with its Welcome to the Social campaign. With built-in wireless technology, certain models of the Zune allowed users to legally share full-length music tracks with their friends with the same device. These digital copies didn’t come completely free; shared tracks could only be played three times over three days on the recipient’s device before the file would become non-playable, forcing the listener to buy the song from the Zune Music Store or delete the file from their device.
Why can’t the same thing be done with digital comics?
ComiXology has already solved part of the problem of reading digital comics only on the iPod and iPad with the introduction of the Comics by ComiXology desktop app that allows users to purchase digital comics on their iPad and read it on their desktop and vice versa. By adopting the same thought process used by the Zune player, digital comics could easily and legally be shared.
A recent poll on the Major Spoilers website shows that most comic book readers will read their purchased titles more than once. With a sharing option built into an app like Comics by ComiXology and Comics+ from Iverse Media, readers could share the latest copy of Daredevil with their fellow digital comic friends, the recipient could read the comic once, and if they wanted to read it again, would need to purchase it from the in-app store. Granted, some people may want to only read a comic once, but our recent poll shows those people are few. If ten thousand digital copies of Batman #700 could be shared legally, with a built in time limit, and only 50% of those people purchased that issue so they could read it again, then that is an additional $10,000 gross with very little effort done on the part of the publisher.
And of those 5,000 readers, what if 50% of those purchased 11 more issues of Batman over the course of the year? That’s $120,000 added to the bottom line take for the publisher. Depending on how writers, artists and the rest of the creative team worked their contracts, there is potentially more money filtering down to them as well. Instead of spending thousands in advertising, the social network that Microsoft tried to make a success for the music industry could be all the free advertising a comic book publisher needs in order to increase sales.
In his recent Harvey Awards Keynote Speech, Mark Waid said he was working on, and looking for, ways to make digital comics and the sharing work, he just needs to find the answer. The answer may already be right in front of Mr. Waid, and everyone in the form of an ill-timed and confusing campaign cooked up by Microsoft four years ago when it tried to dethrone the king of all music players.