Sacramento comic books: digital blows

The print vs. online battle arrives at your neighborhood comic-book store

Kenny Russell of Big Brother Comics (shown here in a 2007 photo) says it will be years before digital comic books impact sales at comic shops.

Kenny Russell of Big Brother Comics (shown here in a 2007 photo) says it will be years before digital comic books impact sales at comic shops.

Photo By anne stokes

Visit the comic-book shops featured in this story:
Empire’s Comics Vault, 1120 Fulton Avenue, Suite K; (916) 482-8779;
World’s Best Comics, 2608 Watt Avenue; (916) 973-8973;
Big Brother Comics, 1722 J Street, No. 2; (916) 441-6461;

Boom! Pow!

This is what the Sacramento comic-book community felt earlier this year when DC comics announced that, beginning this week, it plans to release all 52 of its relaunched comics on websites and mobile devices the same day as they come out in print. Those were game-changing blows that stunned the industry, an unprecedented move by one of the country’s two largest comic publishers—the other being Marvel Comics—and one that might possibly leave comicshop owners in a collective lurch.

Sacramento retailers, however, aren’t shaking in their boots. Even if millions of comic-book readers decide to buy DC’s digital copies instead of print ones and sales shrink in shops on the street, they insist that there’s something magical about the comic-book store that will keep them in business.

“I don’t personally think that it’s going to affect us in a negative way,” explained Ben Schwartz, who owns Empire’s Comics Vault on Fulton Avenue, “because the people who are reading comics online already are reading them for free because they’re bootlegging.”

According to Schwartz, comic-book stores have something digital stores will never acquire: knowledgeable and helpful human staff members. Someone new to comic books can walk into a physical store, tell the employee what he or she is in the mood for, and the employee can inform choices and discuss things with them that the publishers never will be able to do.

“When they ask me, they say, ‘I want a science fiction book,’ or ‘I was always interested in Green Lantern as a kid,’ I’m going to show them where to go,” Schwartz said. “I’m going to tell them about it. They feed off of our enthusiasm. A digital comic doesn’t have any of that.”

Schwartz did note that for-pay digital comics could lure customers if DC made them convenient enough. This certainly has worked with movies; people pay for Netflix’s streaming content even though illegal movie downloads and torrents abound.

“It could definitely be the same kind of relationship,” Schwartz said. “If you take away the wait, you’d be more than willing to drop $2 just to get [a comic] right then and there.”

This week, DC will begin offering most digital comics for $2.99 when released, the same price as their print editions. But the price for a digital copy will drop to $1.99 after it’s been out in circulation for four weeks, so patient readers will be able to buy the same content for a dollar less.

Meanwhile, for now, printed American comic books continue to dwarf their digital brethren in sales. Joe Field, president of ComicsPro, an organization for comic-book retailers, told the media outlet Newsarama in August 2011 that the digital market was estimated to be between $600,000 and $1 million in 2010, and the print market was between $640 million and $700 million.

Cover art from last week’s DC Comics releases. Beginning this week, DC’s comics will be available for purchase online.

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Dave Downey, who runs World’s Best Comics on Watt Avenue, has faith that Sacramentans will support his comic-book shop regardless. DC’s upcoming same-day initiative is new, but digital comics aren’t, he explained, and customers have still come through his doors despite online comic books.

“I just see it as another way of kind of expanding the whole readership,” Downey argued. “If you missed an issue of Spider-Man, and you can’t find it anywhere, you can always go online and read it that way.” He thinks digital options will complement print ones: If people miss an issue of an ongoing issue on store shelves, they can buy the digital copy.

During the changeover, DC has aimed to keep retailers in the loop. One letter to shop owners, from Bob Wayne, DC Entertainment’s senior vice president of sales, outlines ordering options and product discounts for shops, including the option to return many of the September books to the company for almost the full cover price. DC staff has traveled across the country to have meetings with retailers at different venues.

It remains to be seen, too, how successful DC’s digital initiative will be, because local stores have been the comic-book industry’s bread-and-butter distribution channels to consumers for decades.

“They understand that without retailer locations, there’s no way it could go completely digital,” Schwartz said.

But others think it’s only a matter of time before digital sales supersede physical ones, though those days could be far off in the future.

“It’s inevitable, and this is kind of the first step,” said Kenny Russell, who runs Big Brother Comics in downtown. “In no time, iPads are going to be good enough, and it’s going to be easy enough, and it’s going to come out the same day where people are going to just read their comics on their iPads.”

Russell adds that DC’s move will just be the first wave of a digital assault that will last for years, but, in the meantime, he’s not worried: His customers have assured that they don’t care about digital comics. They’re used to good old-fashioned print.

“I think we’re years off before it affects anything storefront wise,” Russell said.

And, for most readers, it again comes back to the community aspect of the store, something they can’t get from a digital download.

“In your average job, [comics aren’t] something you can talk about,” Empire’s owner Schwartz reminded. “When you bring it up, ‘God, did you read the new Green Lantern?’ They’re like, ‘Is that the new movie?’”

At comic shops, “you can come down and actually have a conversation about the books that you read, so there’s a lot more to it than just getting the product.”