Comic Creators Have No Reason to Fear Amazon

I’d like to think I “count” as a comics creator, although I suppose I’m still be perceived the way a film blogger is seen by a film critic: Not legitimate. Image Comics doesn’t publish my stuff, and I’ve never worked for Marvel or DC. So, despite the fact that new installments of Vengeance, Nevada come out every other month (paid out of pocket, by the way. No bullshit-y Kickstarter or Patreon here), I can understand why other comics creators might be dismissive of what I’m going to say. But I’m going to say it, because while I may be new to the comics world when it comes to the Internet, I know more than most.

With that in mind: Comixology Unlimited is a good thing for the comics industry and comics creators.

The response, thus far, from creators suggests otherwise.

For starters, the odds are good that someone paying $6 a month to Amazon (Comixology’s parent company), will sample a lot of books they might not have otherwise purchased. That’s a win for the creative team and the publisher because it works the same way advertising would for that book. Maybe even better, since the creators of that book didn’t have to pay to run the ad in the first place. And Comixology, as far as I can tell, isn’t making the entire run of a comic available for free. There’s enough to get you into the comic, and if you’re interested, you can purchase the next installment. So while it is true there might be a short term dip in terms of revenue for creators with that first book being made available for free, over time that should be more than made up for with future sales.

(Conversely, if a reader simply doesn’t like a book after sampling it on Comixology Unlimited, I’d argue that reader’s value to a creative team over the long term is negligible at best. They aren’t going to buy future work by you, they won’t pay to see you at a convention. You get the idea.)

From the publisher’s perspective, especially because Comixology isn’t carrying Marvel or DC books, the books that are being offered up as part of the subscription service are books that need a heavy amount of advertising and marketing to begin with. The comics industry as a whole seems to have some weird aversion to promoting their books (I have never once seen an ad during a DC television show promoting the Flash comic, which is insane when you think about it.) It is foolish to assume that there’s just this flood of people out there waiting to buy your book. There isn’t. Aside from the new Black Panther #1, the top-selling comic doesn’t often do more than 300,000 copies. That may sound like a lot, but it’s not when compared to other things people can buy with their disposable income in terms of sales volume.

Some might push back on that where Image Comics is concerned. But outside of The Walking Dead, as much as I love Image books like Revival and Southern Bastards, not many people outside of the comics world knows those excellent books even exist. I only learned about Revival, which is personally my favorite comic being published right now, because of an interview Tim Seeley did on John Siuntres’s Word Balloon podcast.

So if the idea of $6 for a ton of free comics from Non-Marvel and Non-DC publishers brings new readers into those books? We should all be happy about that. If there’s one thing the comics industry is short on, it’s initiatives to bring in new readers. All I ever see when it comes to “Free Comic Book Day” is comic shop owners, rightfully, complaining about it because it’s not free for them and the people who only come in that one day of the year don’t return to the store. Hold that point; we’ll get back to it.)

I saw there’s concern about reducing everything to “content”, but that’s deeply alarmist. And I’d argue that even if that were true, what do you then say for the people who buy something or sample it online, and then go out and purchase a physical copy? Since I started reading comics online, I have bought more print collected editions and omnibuses than I can ever remember. But forget that for our purposes. This sort of thinking (Art becoming “content”) puts the comics industry on this pedestal that it, historically, never aspired to be placed on. Comics were always cheap commodities put out by cynical publishers who jumped on every and any trend they could (Romance comics, westerns, monster comics, horror comics, and yes, superheroes.) Even today, the push for diversity in comics, as noble and right as it may be, is largely driven by a vocal online group that doesn’t seem to purchase the actual books they’re pushing for. (Note: This is a deeply controversial point, since nobody knows what the digital sales data looks like. I stand by this point, not because I disagree with this online community, I stand with them and want diversity in comics, but because I know that it is fact that the vocal contingent on any online platform like Twitter DO NOT AT ALL accurately reflect the opinions and thoughts of the larger group. For my part, almost the entire cast of Vengeance, Nevada is made up of women. The lead is Native American, and the only three white girls are villains. So, I can hear my fellow liberal friends getting worked up, and to that I say, I’m on your side. But. It is not fair or right to portray what “People on the Internet” think as a reflection of what everyone else thinks, despite the media believing and acting otherwise.

Be that as is it may, Stan Lee spent more time at Marvel trying to make the comics into movies than he did writing and co-creating characters with Ditko, Kirby, and others. National Comics (or what later became D.C.) purchased as many of its competitors as it could while glorifying, wrongly, Bob Kane and shunting Bill Finger and the creators of Superman off to the sidelines. Almost forgotten if not for advocates within the industry, faced with problems of their own when it came to ownership and compensation, who came to their aid. There wouldn’t be an Image Comics if Marvel weren’t a cynical enterprise that got consumed by a toy company, and later, a larger toy and film company. So the idea that comics are somehow not “content” to serve some other larger purpose before everything went digital is bullshit. Comics have always been content. We just don’t make them on cheap disposable paper anymore.

So what makes an online sampler through Comixology Unlimited different from a Free Comic Book Day sampler? For one, nobody is out any money (initially) with the subscription model. The product is still available to be purchased. I can just as easily buy a collected Transformers run from IDW on Comixology as I can get the first part of it for free. I can still go and buy that same Transformers book from the local store. With Free Comic Book Day, the store is out the money to order those “free” comics, not to mention, the money to arrange guests and other functions for that day within the store to keep people coming in. But more importantly, most online offerings like this are geared toward people with disposable income. Startups (and established tech companies like Amazon) have a formula for everything. They don’t just do something to do it. Or do something like this to screw over creators. Free Comic Book Day is like firing a bazooka and watching something burn for a while. Sure it’s fun, but someone has to clean that up. Then there’s the paperwork. Comixology Unlimited is meant to get you to download the app, get into the eco-system that they have, and entice you to buy comics. Once you’ve purchased them, and run out of the “free” offerings, your only recourse once within the eco-system is to purchase more. And really, the thing you wind up buying is likely to be more comics from the series you got to try for free. Why? Because now it is a known entity to you and not another random cover of a book that you have to decide whether or not to take the leap on. This is not a charitable move on the part of Amazon. They know this tactic will boost sales for everyone involved, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered.

The real concern here is that the comic publishers don’t properly compensate creators whose books are made available for free through Comixology Unlimited. This is a legitimate concern to have, especially because, as mentioned, the comics industry is notorious for low pay and for stiffing creators historically. (Until a settlement was reached just before the first “Superman” film came out, the creators of Superman were both nearly broke. Warner settled the long standing legal entanglement to avoid bad publicity for the film.)

There’s two issues at play here. The first is that creators are concerned, with the comic being made available for free, they’re out that money. So as mentioned, while that could be the case initially, it may not be the case over time as the new fan continues to buy up the book’s editions that they have to pay for. But let’s say that fan does stop reading the comic after the free stuff runs out. Then what? What needs to happen is for the publisher to compensate the creative team per download, regardless of whether or not someone paid for that download. Amazon won’t do it. Period. Full stop. A creative team with enough force / momentum / heat, whatever you want to call it, needs to ask for this type of compensation going forward. And once the precedent is set, other creatives should do the same and receive it from their publishers. I know, that all sounds well and good and easy, but I know it’s not. Which brings me to the last point here …

Comic creators do what they do because they love it. You don’t get into comics to be famous. Obviously, there are exceptions, but if you can name the team whose run on Guardians of the Galaxy heavily inspired the movie version (Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), you’re in the minority of the population. For every Robert Kirkman, there’s a Kate Leth and Brittney Williams (Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat!) who put out awesome comics but are not household names. It’s incumbent on the creative team, not the publisher, to find avenues for themselves to make money related to their property that go beyond just selling the comic. For Vengeance, Nevada, we’ll eventually have t-shirts, stickers, and bound and printed editions. There’s also a podcast in the works that will carry advertising. The new website, once it goes up, will also have advertising. I learned real fast when working with St. Martin’s Press (and other published authors will tell you the same thing about their book publishers) that the publisher’s only obligation to you is to make sure your book is in stores and available for purchase. You are otherwise completely and fully on your own.

So if Amazon wants to put out books that are creator owned, and the publisher isn’t appropriately compensating their creators to represent that, then that is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed, but it’s not an issue specific to Comixiology Unlimited. If a bump comes in sales, then everyone’s happy. But. What that also means is that the creative team has to do all that they can to monetize their book and push it out there to the larger public. To people beyond those true believers who still buy comics every Wednesday, regardless of their form. The good news is that Comixology Unlimited has now made it easy for new readers to download an app and enjoy the book, and since these things are aimed at people with more disposable income than others, there’s plenty of opportunities to convince those new readers to pay for the comic beyond the free stuff if they like it. All Amazon has done here is make it easy for more people to get hooked on comics. The rest is up to us.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of “Social Media Is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press.

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