Wednesday, October 5, 2011

52 to the Future

So, as anyone who has any kind of interest in comics knows by now, the entire month of September was given over to DC’s New 52, a relaunch of the company’s full lineup of comics. Making New 52 even more of an event was the fact DC decided to release the digital version of issues day and date, meaning you could (legally) download them the same day the floppies came out. What happened as a result?

Initial results are promising. Despite concern over what day and date digital release might do to floppy sales and comics retailers, not only have digital sales for DC gone up, but sales of floppies have increased, as well. It’s too soon to know whether this trend will hold and validate DC’s strategy to expand its customer base, but the one certainty here appears to be that digital sales will play an increasingly important role in the future of comics. And that means (since we all know the medium shapes the message) that comics will change.

Can we forecast any of those changes from here? Maybe. Here are a few thoughts and predictions:

When it comes to digital, the cover becomes less important. The cover of a floppy or trade has always been a crucial aspect of selling a book, serving as a miniature billboard that catches the customer’s attention as they browse the aisles. But when you’re browsing on digital distribution platforms like Comixology, the covers are literally the size of a postage stamp. As a result, a more important factor in getting undecided customers to buy a book will be whether or not they like what they see in the preview pages.

Right now, the previews stink. Given that they’ll become increasingly important in getting people to buy, why are they just three pages, often from what feels like an arbitrary point in the middle of the issue? By the time you reach the end you’re often still not really hooked into the story. Why not preview five pages? Seven? Giving the customer more free pages shouldn’t matter, so long as they feel compelled to pay the full issue price by the time they’re done, and getting them more fully immersed in the story would help make that happen.

Digital distribution will change comics story structure. This will happen because again, the preview pages are going to become increasingly important in generating online sales. 

Comics writers and editors might do well to take a cue from network television here: because the creators of network tv shows know the greatest chances of losing viewers come at the top and bottom of the hour (that’s when viewers are most likely to change channels to see what else is on), the writers will deliberately try to structure the biggest revelations, the most exciting plot twists, to occur before the very first commercial break (at the end of the short initial segment referred to as the “teaser”), and before the commercial break that occurs at the halfway point of the episode. 

In comics we’re already used to seeing a big, dramatic reveal or “cliffhanger” at the end of an issue, so that we’ll buy again next month. I think eventually we’ll start seeing the comics equivalent of structuring a teaser into the beginning of issues, so those pages will make for more exciting preview pages online – they’ll get customers to buy an issue the same way a good teaser on a tv show gets viewers to stick around through the commercial break.

But will such changes ultimately be enough to make comics a thriving industry, during a time all media platforms are going through upheaval? Or will even more drastic change be necessary? I personally suspect we're just seeing the tip of the iceburg. And that it’s going to be very interesting watching comics go through a period of unprecedented innovation.


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