I used to think that San Francisco comic book retailer Brian Hibbs was an anti-digital-comics crank. Now I just think that he thinks aloud, on the Internet, more often and more articulately than most comic book retailers do. And most comic book retailers are worried, to a greater or lesser extent, about the impact of digital comic book sales on their own businesses. You can’t really blame them (or him) for that. My gut feeling is that digital comic sales will improve print comic sales — but I don’t have my livelihood riding on that gut feeling. I’d be a lot more worked up about the matter if I did.
Love him or hate him, he’s always provocative on the subject of digital comics. He cuts to the center of the matter and says what he sees there. What he sees there is often the opposite of what I see, but the cutting to the center of the matter is a necessary and important role that he fills.
The latest of his “Tilting at Windmills” columns over at CBR has a couple of choice Hibbsisms:
1. He floats the idea of a “retailer’s Bill of Rights specifically vis a vis digital.” It’s hard to tell if he’s serious or not (the idea is floated in the context of a sentence that begins, “Has it come to the point where …” as if he’s throwing out wild hypotheticals, not actual ideas, but still, it also sounds like a trial balloon). If he is serious, and if he means what I think he does (which, again, is hard to tell), then that’s the best example of Buggy Whip mentality I’ve ever seen in the comic book field (which is full of buggy whip mentality). Because it sounds like he means that retailers have a right to be in business under the same rules that have applied for the past forty years, and that publishers should set in stone a policy that preserves that right. This is analogous to asking for a subsidy for buggy whip manufacturers after the popularity of automobiles destroyed their business prospects. Comic book retailers don’t have a right to be in business under the old rules. No business does. You either innovate when fundamental change comes along, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you go away. It’s not the publisher’s job to make sure that you don’t have to innovate. The things that Hibbs is complaining about (insert cards in comic books for digital copies of the same book, for example, as a “value add”) are not attempts to put him out of business: they are attempts to include him in the new model. They are stupid and clumsy attempts, I’ll grant you. Better attempts are possible — but they are unlikely, without the retailers themselves leading the way, and figuring out how to merge the two models. Head-in-the-sand protectionism, or a “Bill of Rights” for retailers, is the opposite of that. If, like I said, he meant what I think he did — and he gave himself plenty of wiggle room there to not mean anything at all.
2. He points out that the “‘new’ or ‘untapped’ readership” probably wants collections, rather than monthly 24-page comic books. That sounds like a way to carve out a niche for the retailer that safely segregates his business from the bulk of digital sales. I’m not sure if that would work. In the past, I would have thought I was a buyer of collections, but I’ve been hooked on the “same days as print” comics from Comixology (though I’m staying carefully one month behind — when # 3 comes out, I go buy # 2 — to save that extra dollar on each issue). This collection/periodical divide is looking really interesting to me, in light, especially, of the recent Kindle Fire exclusives announced by DC (all of which were “graphic novels”). I could be wrong, but it does look like the market is already starting to segment — even within digital — along precisely this dividing line. Comixology owns the digital periodical niche, but “graphic novel” collections are going to be sold directly by the publisher through the online stores of the ebook vendors themselves (Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, iBookstore, etc). There’s a few “graphic novels” in the Comixology catalog, but not really very many, and none of them (as far as I can tell) are the kind of “evergreen” hits like Watchmen & Maus that dominate the graphic book charts year after year. I’m not sure how this intra-digital segmentation affects the retailer, except to say that if the comic book retailer also thinks of him/herself as occupying the periodical niche, rather than the graphic book niche, then that puts Comixology and the Direct Market into a very competitive position indeed.
If I’m right about what Hibbs was trying to accomplish there. Which I’m very possibly not.
Help me out here. What do you think about all this?