A Modestly Indecent Proposal: Comic Piracy and the New 52

A column article, The Squeaky Wheel by: Kyrax2

We're pleased to welcome Kyrax2, "the Batgirl of SDCC," to Comics Bulletin! Each week Kyrax will be writing The Squeaky Wheel, a column devoted to her exploration of industry issues and subjects that are near and dear to her heart. Without further ado, we proudly present the first instalment of The Squeaky Wheel, complete with a reading of the article by Kyrax herself...

The Elephant in the Room

Remember that old chestnut, "98% of people masturbate, and the other 2% are liars?" I was reminded of it when thinking about illegal comic book downloading: everybody does it, no one will admit it. It's the elephant in the room that no one's willing to talk about, including and especially the 'Big Two', DC and Marvel.

Unfortunately, ignoring it isn't going to make the elephant go away. Widespread digital filesharing is here to stay and sites like The Pirate Bay spring up faster than they can be swatted down by authorities. People will continue to download comics, and music and everything else they can get their hands on. Why? Because it's easy. It's free. It's convenient.

DC has, with much fanfare, begun a distribution model that releases digital copies of their comics on the same day and date as the paper copies become available in-store. Unfortunately, the prices of these digital copies are the same as the paper copies.

Perhaps this is better than emulating the past mistakes of publishers of both ebooks and comics, some of whom actually priced the digital versions higher than the physical versions. As Nik Fletcher writes of overpriced ebooks, "I completely understand that there’s costs involved to produce an eBook version of a work. However, when you’re no longer smashing together some (entirely physical) pulp, pressing ink onto it, and shipping it some place, the idea that a premium should apply simply fails logic."

However, while they may not be charging an additional premium on top of the "cover" price, the cost of DC's digital comics is still "too damn high." The price of the digital copy is going to be a huge deterrent for a great many people who would otherwise have been happy to pay to download a bunch of new comics to read on their electronic device of choice. Many people simply aren't willing to pay the exact same amount for an ephemeral electronic copy and something they can hold in their hand, tuck in a polybag and keep forever.

Regular readers can already get DC's comics at a discount. For $24.99 a year, I can subscribe to Batman (and most of DC's popular titles). That means, for the price of about $2.08 per issue, I can have Batman delivered to my mailbox every month. (In fact, right now DC is selling 5 subscriptions for the price of 4, taking the cost down to $1.66 per comic.) Of this per-issue cost, how much does DC and the creators actually get to keep, and how much goes to printers and mailing costs?

A comic I got in the mail the other day weighs about two ounces. For the average Joe, shipping a two-ounce envelope by first class mail costs $1.08. For DC Comics, who ships at a presorted bulk rate, it costs...less than $1.08. How much less is difficult to say, because it depends on the number of pieces shipped out, among other things, so let's try to low-ball it and say it costs 35 cents for each comic that goes out to a subscriber. Printing is similarly tricky, so let's low-ball it again and say it only costs 35 cents to print each comic for a large run like one of DC's. Even with these possibly ridiculously low guesses, at least seventy cents of each comic produced for a subscriber goes to printing and shipping. It seems logical that DC could offer a yearly digital subscription at a cost of .99 or 1.25 an issue, paid in advance, and still make the same amount per comic that they do on a subscription now. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly what most fans perceive to be the truth.

Comic fans know perfectly well that the costs associated with creating and selling an electronic copy are lower than the costs associated with producing and distributing a paper copy. Charging $2.99 for an item that costs less to produce than its physical counterpart, whatever the justification, just comes across as greedy.

This doesn't even take into account the fact that a digital copy has zero resale value. You can't hope or expect a digital copy to accrue in value - you can't even re-sell it for a fraction of the cover price! You may get pleasure out of reading it, but as soon as you buy it, it's essentially worthless. This fact also makes the pricing of digital copies look ridiculously high. They are disposable versus collectible, and they should be priced accordingly.

Some of those who refuse to purchase the digital copy at $2.99 will go download illegal copies instead, because it is, as previously mentioned, easy, convenient and free. But a lot of people just won't bother to buy or read comics at all - and that's an even bigger tragedy. Because comics use a serial format to tell ongoing stories, the biggest challenge for comic companies right now in a dwindling market is getting new people hooked on their product.

Free is the Magic Number

I'm about to propose something that's going to sound so bizarre, so ridiculous, that it will likely have a lot of you screaming at the screen - but hear me out.

I think DC should do more than just drop the price on their digital comics.

I think they should give them away for free.

All fifty-two first issues.

For free.

Go ahead and scream in outrage. I'll wait.

Finished? Okay. Now, here's the thing: DC is rebooting its entire universe to make it more accessible to the non-comics-reading world at large. Now is the perfect time to pull a stunt like this, especially as the effect of the media blitz surrounding the first releases is wearing off. This would be 'Free Comic Day' on a HUGE scale - and with a fraction of the associated overhead.

Paul Coelho: Pirate Enthusiast

There has been much hand-wringing about piracy in every industry; music, movies and now ebooks. And yet, piracy can demonstrably improve sales. Take the case of Paulo Coelho, who stated in a Keynote speech at the Digital, Life, Design conference in Munich a few years ago that aiding piracy increased his sales in Russia by a factor of ten every year for several years:

"When my books started selling in Russia, well, first, Russia is such a big country, so we had problems with distribution. And I found one of my books, The Alchemist, in a pirate edition...And I said, "Okay. It's selling a thousand copies a year. Russia has a population of more than 100 million people. A thousand copies a year is not that impressive. So let's put this pirate edition for people to download. And in 2001 I sold ten thousand hard copies of the book itself. And everybody was puzzled. So, we came from zero to one thousand to ten thousand. And then the next year, we were over one hundred thousand. And my publishers started to ask, 'why is this changing? We still don't have publicity, we don't have something concrete.' And it was, believe it or not, the free download book on the internet, that people downloaded, started reading, and said, 'Oh, I like it! So I'm going to buy it! Where is it? Oh, it's not here, it's not there.' And then you reach a critical mass, and the distribution caught up with the demand. So in the third year, we had over one million copies. Now I am over ten million copies in Russia...I thought that, 'this is fantastic! You give to the reader the possibility of reading your books and choosing whether to buy it or not."

Coelho goes on to speak of how he eventually collected all the translated, pirated copies of his books he could find, put them all on a site called The Pirate Coelho, and linked to it from his blog. The more he gave his book away for free, the more his sales increased. He notes: "You see that there is no conflict between the fact that you have something for free and that at the end of the day people are going to buy it, because it stimulates people to read and it stimulates people to buy, because they have the possibility of trying."

Coelho's not the only one to discover the power of the free download. Neil Gaiman is another among the ranks of those that support and encourage the idea of giving away one's work for free. That's right, Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman and countless other classics, supports ebook piracy:

He talks about convincing his publisher to give away one of his books for free as an experiment:

"We took American Gods, a book that was still selling, and selling very well, and for a month they put it up completely free on their website, and you could read it, and you could download it. And what happened was, sales of my books through independent bookstores, because that was all we were measuring it through, went up the following month 300%. And I started to realize, that actually, you're not losing books. You're not losing sales by having stuff out there...You can't look on that as a lost sale. It's not a lost sale. Nobody who would have bought your book is not buying it because they can find it for free. What you're actually doing is advertising. You're reaching more people. You're raising awareness. And understanding that gave me a whole new understanding of the shape of copyright, and what the web was doing. Because the biggest thing the web is doing is allowing people to hear things. Allowing people to read things. Allowing people to see things that they might never have otherwise seen. And I think, basically, that's an incredibly good thing."

This May, a PDF started getting passed from e-mail to e-mail. It was a full copy of a parody children's book titled Go the F*ck to Sleep, inadvertently leaked long before the book was due to actually be published. Within weeks the book was a #1 seller on Amazon, entirely due to pre-orders.

Why were all these people ordering this book? After all, they already had it! They'd already read it in its entirety! Why in the world would they want to purchase a hard copy when they could open the file on their computer and read it any time they liked?

I Have to Have It!

The justification for charging the same price for digital copies as for paper copies of comics generally seems to be, "Well, charging less, or giving it away for free, would hurt comic shops. Why would anyone buy a comic when they could already get it for free?" I'd like to challenge this assumption.

First of all, comic book readers tend to be a self-admittedly geeky, net-savvy bunch. They can already get comic books for free. Name a comic book and, unless it's extraordinarily obscure, there's about a 99% chance that a digital version of the comic exists already and can be downloaded for free. People who buy paper comic books do so because they want to own paper comic books. Sure, some people do it to 'support the company' or 'support their local comic shop' or 'support the writers/artists' - but, let's face it, they also do it because they want to own the comic books!

The Kind of Profanity Even Your Mom Can Get Behind

Therefore, giving away the comic for free in a digital format seems unlikely to hurt hard copy sales to existing fans. The people already buying the hard copy will continue to buy it for all the same reasons that they were buying it before. What giving away the digital copy would do is create new fans. And while some people will download the free copy and shrug and say, "meh," there will be some that say, "Oh my gosh, I have to have this! Where can I get it?" As was the case with Coelho's work, they will say, "I like this! Where can I buy it?"

That's where comic shops come in. If more people become interested in comic books, the comic shops will be the ones to benefit. They are, after all, the only physical distribution point for comic books in most cities. If people want a comic enough to buy a paper copy and they don't want to pay shipping, a comic shop is where they'll go to find it. The most important thing is to get people through the door in the first place. No one goes to a comic shop unless they have a reason to go there. Give them a reason, and they will go.

If You Can't Beat 'em, Join 'em

The attitude that one should be able to "try before buying" is increasingly prevalent, especially in tough economic times. Companies see digital piracy as an attack, cutting into their profits. Yet it can also cut straight to the consumer, bypassing the normal defenses we've all built up to marketing gimmicks.

If DC were to give away every single issue #1, it would generate a tremendous amount of media buzz, and, most probably, a great deal of good will. Everyone likes "getting something for free." By making their own digital copy more accessible than the pirated copy, DC would also be able to ensure that the advertisements are included in the copy that most people will see, as opposed to being removed by pirate scanners. This is no small thing. Network television shows are far, far more expensive to produce than any comic book, yet they are supported entirely by the ad revenue they generate. How? Because enough people watch them that advertisers will pay huge sums of money for the chance at reaching their audience. Increase distribution of comics enough and the advertisers will jump at the chance to be included. The only way to be sure that people will see those advertisements, though, is to make sure that the digital copy you're providing is at least as attractive as the one offered by pirates in terms of accessibility.

Neil Gaiman: Way Cooler Than You

One last note: there is an assumption inherent in all of this that the product will be good enough to attract new readers. Neil Gaiman could afford to give his work away because it is so very good that, upon seeing it, people wanted to own it. If all DC is trying for in relaunching its entire line is a publicity stunt to sell a lot of first issues, it's succeeded. If DC wants to draw in-- and keep-- a broader audience long term, the key is to get the titles in peoples hands. Sales will follow-- assuming, of course, that their comics are good enough that people will want to continue reading them. If the comics aren't good enough to hold peoples' attention, they aren't going to survive anyway!

Widespread piracy is not going to go away. Given this, maybe it's time that comic book companies and comic shops stop focusing on how digital distribution can hurt them and start focusing on how it can help them. And it can help them, as others have demonstrated. The only question is, will they have the guts and the savvy to follow in Coelho's and Gaiman's footsteps?

The Final Squeak

The issue of illegal downloading is a personal one for me since, without illegal downloads, it's highly unlikely that I would be a comic fan today. For years my husband tried to get me into comic books, periodically dragging out his long boxes of bronze-age Marvel and showing me great arcs like early Alpha Flight or the X-Men's Brood and Phoenix Sagas. I always enjoyed reading them, but they never inspired me to seek out new comics. It took discovering a file containing every comic based on the Batman: The Animated Series TV show to do that. I devoured the files, and when I finished them, I immediately sought out paper copies on ebay.

Those first comics were a jumping-off point for me, and soon I found myself downloading other titles as well. I started out reading downloaded copies, because I wasn't sure if I would like them or not. As it turned out, I did like them. I began to seek out the comics I'd read and loved, gradually building a collection of trade paperbacks and comic books that continues to grow today. And, as I "caught up" on titles, I began to read them as they were coming out.

If I hadn't had access to those first files, though, I never would have discovered comic books at all...and DC comics would have missed out on quite a bit of my money. And wouldn't that have been a shame for everyone concerned?

You can listen to the audio version of this post below:

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