Comics Journalist writes about "The Economics of Digital Comics"

For RedEye

With so many Kickstarter projects looking for funding, you'd think there would be more devoted to the business of comic books. Apparently there aren't all that many, which is why Todd Allen's "Economics of Digital Comics" has gotten so much attention.

Allen is a former adjunct professor for Columbia College Chicago and current comics journalist for The Beat: The News Blog of Comics Culture, specializing in writing about the comics market. He is also the writer of the webcomic Division & Rush, which once ran on ChicagoNow and explored the celebrity that comes with being a killer who gets away with murder.

His book "Economics of Digital Comics" made it's minimum funding goal on Kickstarter, so now Allen is seeking to get it into the hands of as many people with an interest in the business of comics as possible.

With revisions on the current edition underway, Allen took some time to tell me about why he wrote the book; who the book is intended for; and how the digital comics market has been affected with Amazon entering the fray:

Geek To Me: Tell us about yourself. What have you been up to since your web comic on Chicagonow?

Todd Allen: At the end of 2010, I got caught in the middle of a truly bizarre fight between the Columbia College Chicago administration and the part-time faculty's union. I was part of the the roughly 100 part-time faculty members who were liquidated without notice. Two National Labor Relations Board lawsuits (won by the union). I've never seen anything like it and I don't know that it's completely over, three and a half years later. 

I just walked away from the entire situation.  There's a good chance I'm done with academia after that experience.  I ran out my lease and since since 2011 I've been bouncing between Iowa and San Francisco. 

I've been covering comics and digital publishing for Publisher Weekly.  I spent a year, 2011-12 very involved as a contributing editor for The Beat, that was nominated for an Eisner Award and named to TIME's top 25 Blogs of 2012 list.

I spent 2013 contracted with a digital publishing startup in San Francisco.  When they failed to get an anticipated funding round, I started thinking about modernizing my digital comics business book.  

Eventually, I need to get around to finishing the second story arc for Division & Rush, too.
Geek To Me: The subject of your book is digital comics. So what compelled you to write it?

Todd Allen: This is actually an outgrowth of my Master's Thesis.  I was studying "Internet Business & Media Convergence" at NYU and was doing a Thesis on monetizing online content.  I chose digital comics as a vehicle to explore the subject because I had access to actual data, not just widgets, and it was a reasonable scope.  After I graduated, it became apparent there was some demand for the information, so I wrote a book and this would be the third edition.
Geek To Me: Who did you have in mind when you wrote it? Comics readers or professionals?

Todd Allen: This has come to have more audiences than I would have initially thought.  Originally, it was more of a "how it works" book, which is good for professionals and aspiring professionals.  (Some would say most comics readers are aspiring professionals.)  Much to my surprise, it got picked up for a class at the Savannah College of Art & Design and has become an academic text. 

Earlier this afternoon, I was exchanging e-mail with a graduate student in Scotland who's wanting to use the new book for her dissertation.  I probably get a direct grad student inquiry every other year.  Not a ton has been written on the subject and apparently I'm more inclined to use real numbers and footnotes than some.  
Geek To Me: What are some of the lessons you hope readers take away from your book?

Todd Allen: The most important thing is that there are many different ways to monetize a comic.  How you do that depends a little bit on what your comic is.  Not everything is equally suited to merchandising.  You have to look at your property, look at the different ways people have monetized and make a judgment what's right for you.  One size usually doesn't fit all.
Geek To Me: So much was made of comics being made for tablets and mobile devices. Has it really changed the industry as dramatically as some had predicted/feared?

Todd Allen: That would depend on whose predictions you were talking about.  I've been saying that digital and print were largely separate audiences since around 2001 and that seems to have born out so far.  If you're talking the comic book side of things, reader vs. collector isn't a bad way of looking at it.

The digital comics market, particularly Comixology, has been overly concerned with capturing the weekly cycle of the comic shop.  The thing is, digital doesn't sell out if you skip a week, so parts of this will behave more like the book market and there's more long tail/backlist activity that didn't exist with single issues previously.

On the comic strip side of things, there's an argument to be made that this is just strips jumping out of the newspaper and the editorial and space restraints that come with it.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics now lists webcomics artist as a legitimate job, and that's as legitimizing as anything you could want.

Geek To Me: What about the sale of Comixology to Amazon? How has that affected the market?

Todd Allen: It hasn't... yet.  But it will very soon. 

How many book publishers do you see eager to sign an exclusive with Amazon?  You know every publisher with a Comixology contract is looking at Amazon's negotiations with Hachette and their DVD flare up with Warner Bros. and assessing how many of their eggs they want in Amazon's basket. 

It would not surprise me in the least if some publishers moved their company app off Comixology as a result, and I've been hearing rumors about that.  It would not surprise me if publishers made more efforts to diversify where you can buy their product.  DC, for example, lets you buy from iBooks, Google Play and Nook. 

You could see more companies behave like Dark Horse and take the monthlies to an in-house app with only the digital versions of trade paperback collections on the various eBook platforms. 

Frankly, nobody's quite sure what Marvel intends to do when their Comixology exclusive is up, past their announcement that they'll be selling new comics on their Marvel unlimited app. 

Frankly, not having a common, DRM-free format for ALL comics continues to be a problem for the industry.  You don't have to use 3 different music players, since MP3 is standardized. 

Amazon/Comixology might be the best bet for consumers, since they appear most likely to have the widest selection, but that locks everyone into their format and the publishers aren't keen to have another Diamond-style virtual distribution monopoly on their hands. 

Really, the Hachette negotiations make this an incredibly awkward time for Comixology's acquisition and you'll notice they haven't announced the deal has been closed.  We'll have to see what happens. 

Google appears to be thinking about this, having recently signed DC.  Apple could easily step in if they wanted to.  We'll see what happens with the third-party apps, now that the big guns of tech are all involved.
Geek To Me: What do you hope to accomplish with your Kickstarter?

Todd Allen: I've had to pause writing the book 3 times for various reasons, starting with the chaos at Columbia.  This is really about my making a commitment to sit down and finish the book and the audience making a commitment that they want to support the book.

My philosophy of Kickstarter is that I'm getting an advance from my readers.  If you approach it that way, it's a very pure thing.  I asked for a very minimal goal, just setup costs, and got that in about 19 hours.  Now I'm hoping to get a little bit of my actual labor time covered, but the book is definitely happening.
Read more of Todd Allen's work at THE BEAT.

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