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Digital Comics & eBooks – Gone Digital, May Be Out For a While

I’m a big fan of digital distribution of entertainment and I’ve switched to using it as much as possible, except for two frontiers: comics and especially books, about which I’ve been a traditionalist. This October I finally took the big leap from books and comics printed on dead trees to stuff made of bits – and it turned out to be a really excellent choice.


Comics, Not Dead Trees

As a child I read a lot of comics like Asterix, Tintin, Donald Duck etc, but I switched to more adult and underground stuff in the end of the 80′s, starting with Finnish underground publications such as Suuri Kurpitsa. From those I progressed to the usual suspects: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Sin City, Miller’s Batman stuff and the Gaiman’s Sandman comics. In the turn of the century I absolutely fell in fucking love with Transmetropolitan and enjoyed such stuff as Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Powers, Astro City etc.

I bought all the Sandman comics and some other miscellaneous stuff, but the others I borrowed from friends or from the library, which left me feeling a bit icky. I generally want to support the artists financially, but the older I get, the more I loathe having to own physical stuff. Buying graphic novels to gather dust in the shelf just wasn’t my thing, so my comics hobby petered out into borrowing a new comic or two per year from a pal and reading free web comics (and supporting them by buying merchandize or, grudgingly, a paper version).

Digital Comics from Comixology

I had been vaguely aware of Comixology, an iPhone powered comics store for a while, but I had written it off as some pointless thing with poor selection, high prices and clunky usability without even trying it out properly (well, that’s a fair assessment about far too many online media shops…). I actually drifted to using it by downloading the Scott Pilgrim comics from the App Store and realizing that the app is based on the Comixology shop system.

I checked what the shop had to offer and was thoroughly surprised about how much stuff they have and how easy the shop is to use. Three days later I realized that I had bought more comics than in the previous decade. A month later I had bought more comics than in my previous life combined.

I started reading the Comixology comics with my iPhone, which sounds horrible but is actually very handy. The viewer lets you read the comic by progressing from panel to panel, which works like a dream. At least with iPhone 4 the transitions are smooth enough, although now and then the phone gets stuck for a few seconds until it starts to react again. Turning the phone sideways makes it easy to read wide panels, since the phone flips the picture 90 degrees.

With iPhone it's easy to read the comics panel by panel, which flow on just by tapping the screen. For wide panels you can just turn the phone sideways.

I also read some comics on the Comixology website, where they have an excellent browser based reader. The page itself could be better, though. I spent quite some time trying to find the actual comic shop from Comixology.com, until I realized that you are supposed to click the webpage logo in the middle of the window. The site seems to be a weird mess of a social site and a shop, which seem poorly integrated. The connection between pull lists, App subscriptions, web subscriptions etc. feels so clunky that after a couple of tries I’ve given up trying to figure it out.

Maybe I'm a bit dense, but it took me quite some time to realize how to get to the actual shop from here. Then again, maybe not - the most common question from a friend I introduce to Comixology: "So, where the hell can I buy the comics in here?"

While I was in Frankfurt, I finally caved in, drank the last dregs of the kool-aid and bought an iPad – and that really made the digital comic experience shine. The iPad screen is close enough to a traditional graphic novel page, so reading comics on a full page mode feels really natural and enjoyable, with the added bonus of being able to switch easily to the pane-by-pane reading mode.

The iPad screen is close to the size of an average graphic novel page, which makes reading comics in full screen mode really comfortable.

The Comixology experience is good, but there is still room for improvement. You can subscribe to a comic, and when new issues come out on Wednesdays, you get a push notification about it. Unfortunately there isn’t a simple screen where you could see only the unbought issues of the comics you are subscribed to, so you’ll have to clumsily navigate to each series and scroll down to the latest issues before you can buy stuff. Buying the comics is really easy, though: just sign in once with your Apple ID and keep hitting buy-confirm until a little voice in the back of your head points out that you’ve spent 70 euros on comics in five minutes – again.

Browsing and buying new comics is quite easy, although there are still some small kinks that should be ironed out.

What Comixology did was to make me an active and paying customer for comics. I’ve sunk more money on them in the last three months than I want to think about, and I’ve paid for lots of stuff I enjoyed ages ago, but since I borrowed it from a friend or from the library, the creators didn’t see a dime from me. The best of all for me is that I don’t have to fill my shelves with stuff I don’t really want. Okay, if Comixology goes belly up, I lose my comic collection – but frankly, I don’t care. If I want to re-read something years from now, I’ll just buy it again from some other shop, or if my moral happens to be all stretched up and supple at the moment, perhaps just download it from a torrent site for a re-read, since I’ve paid for it once already.

Oh, one important point: Apple charges 30% of all the purchases made via iPhone and iPad apps, so if you want to maximize the amount of money that goes to the creators and to Comixology, you might want to buy the comics on the web: http://comics.comixology.com. Unfortunately not all of the comics, especially the ones that are on Marvel shop, are available on the web page.

There’s also another digital comic store I have quickly checked out that seems worth using: Graphic.ly. On a cursory look it’s much like Comixology – any recommendations as to what comics to buy from there?

Going eBooks with Kindle

Going digital with comics was easy, but ebooks have always felt a bit of a hurdle for me. As I wrote, I read a lot, practically every day before I go to sleep. During the last decade I’ve tried reading books from laptops, PDA’s and cell phones, but it just hasn’t worked for me – I just can’t read from a LCD screen. Last autumn I had heard a lot of good things about Kindles from a lot of people, I was looking at two months working abroad, and since our Christmas diving trip was cancelled, I had some surplus money (or credit anyway). So, I decided that fuck it, I’ll just order the damn Kindle and check it out. Maybe, if I really try, I’ll get used to it in a couple of weeks.

Boy, was I wrong.

It took me about 10-20 minutes to get used to reading from the brand new Kindle 3, and that’s how long it took for me to stop tinkering with the menus and seeing what all the buttons do. Then the thing just vanished from my hands like an ordinary book. The e-ink screen is almost as comfortable to read from as ordinary paper. The background is slightly darker, which is annoying in a very dim lighting, which would be slightly annoying with traditional books too.

The real surprise came a week or so later, when I realized that for me an e-book reader is actually far more comfortable to read  than traditional books. The places where I usually read are, in the order of frequency, a bed, a bar / lunch hour restaurant, and a plane/train. Unlike most books a reader is comfortable when held in one hand in a bed, and at a bar or restaurant table you can just put the thing down on the table, with no need to keep it open – which is handy when you are eating. In a plane the reader is very handy because it’s light and relatively small compared to most books, so it fits easily in your pocket, plus you can make sure you have enough to read for the trip. The only bad thing is that on planes they force you to put the Kindle away for take-offs and landings, even though you can read an ordinary book if you want to.

The Weirdest Defect Ever

When I was ordering Kindle, I had a brainfart – I thought for a moment about buying a cover that had a built in reading light, but in a moment of idiocy I decided to save an insignificant amount of money and bought one without it. Turns out the lightless covers were defective and caused the only gripe I had with Kindle in the beginning: random freezes and reboots.

The cover with the light takes its power from the fasteners that clip into the reader body. The lightless cover has identical clips, except they are painted over. Nevertheless they manage to form a short circuit of sorts randomly, which causes the reader to reboot. I heard this only after I had already ordered a new cover, but after I complained to Amazon, I got reimbursed the whole price of the lightless cover plus all the expenses. After that, no random resets or reboots, everything works perfectly.

In short, the cover with the light is an awesome thing. It’s only slightly thicker than the lightless one, and the led lamp is easy to pull out. The reading light is really handy especially when you are traveling, or if you just like to read in a bar with a mood lighting.

The cover with the pull-out reading light makes Kindle a perfect thing for a book loving traveller. Seven hour car trip - here I come.

Just Enough Functionality

The thing I love about Kindle is that it doesn’t have too much functionality. It doesn’t try to be a tablet computer or an iPad. You can’t really pop in to Facebook to check your comments or check out something online when reading. What you can do is to underline stuff and take notes in a very handy way – I’d love to try and study with a Kindle. The battery was a pleasant surprise too, since with one full charge I can read about three average novels.

Talking about studying, the Kindle has one functionality that actually helps me improve myself: built in dictionaries. I have a rather wide vocabulary of English, but nevertheless I still keep running into words and terms I don’t know. It’s been ages since I’ve been arsed to check those words from a dictionary, usually I just gloss over them and guess their meaning from the context. Essentially this means that my English has stagnated to a certain level, with no easy way to improve it.

The Kindle dictionary function was an unexpected but enormous bonus feature for me.

Checking unknown words with Kindle is as easy as clicking the four way controller and bringing the cursor next to the word. There’s a handy preview in the top or the bottom of the page, and if you so want, you can open the full dictionary entry. What this means is that I’ve been learning about ten new words per novel for the last three months, which fucking rocks – I’m actually improving myself while reading in a very concrete way.

Borders in a Borderless World

Of course, I don’t really control the books I buy from Amazon, who still has the power to close my account and at least in theory render all my books unreadable. In my case the same applies in here as with comics: I don’t really care. I’ve been getting rid of useless crap in our apartment in a steady pace for a couple of years, but for a long time the bookshelves stacked three novels deep have been The Great Untouchable. This year I conquered it too, and I’ve been taking my books to an antiquarian by the bagful.

It seems that I very rarely re-read books, even those I really like. If I do, it’s ten years later or so, and with that kind of frequency I can bloody well buy the book again, unless I want to borrow it from someone. As it stands the e-commerce system Amazon has suits me pretty well, except in three points:

1) The prices could be lower and the e-version of the book should be available at the same time as the hardcover.

2) Amazon should implement a way to lend books to other users. In our household it’s usually me who buys the books, and Susi reads them afterwards. Even if (or when) she buys her own Kindle, it’s going to be a hassle to figure this out. Well, a broken or unwieldy DRM model that bothers a paying customer is begging to be broken, so…

Okay, I'll just pirate it then. Happy now?

3) What really annoys me are the fucking arbitrary region restrictions. “This title is not available for customers from your location.” And why the fuck not? Yeah, I know, badly thought out publishing deals, greed and sheer stupidity from the fax/vhs/landline generation. The book publishing business is going to fall off the same stupid tree as the music business did in the turn of the millennium, and hit all the same branches, it seems – starting with pointless DRM and restrictions. This shit must go.

A Happy Digital Customer – But How About The Creator?

Neither the current digital comic shops or Kindle + Amazon are perfect, but even now they are very very good for a consumer like me. I’m paying for stuff I haven’t paid for before, I’m able to support the creators and publishers financially, and I can consume the entertainment in a way that’s very comfortable for me. I’ve actually been buying more books lately, since getting them is so much easier. Actually, looking at my bank balance, Comixology and Kindle make buying stuff even a little bit too easy, but that if anything is a #firstworldproblem.

Is this system good for the creators? The opinions differ on that. Some seem to be thrilled that they found a new venue to sell their stuff, some people in book publishing business sees this as the beginning of widespread piracy of novels, some are not so sure about if this is fair to the creators. Mark Millar has valid gripes with Apple’s 30% commission, but ends his post in a false point: “In other words, keep buying paper comics.

So, who’s reading digital comics? I think it’s fair to say that the answer to that question is “Not the same people who shop at Direct Market comic shops.” The series that sell online are, for the most part, ones that don’t sell half as well in comic shops. What can companies do with this data? For one, they can start figuring out who they’re selling comics to, since it clearly isn’t your traditional Wednesday Comics Crowd. If it were the same old readers, the charts would look a lot different. We don’t know who they are, but we can start talking about who they are not.

- Comics Alliance: The Dramatic Data About Who Is Buying Digital Comics — And What They’re Buying

Bloody hard to keep buying paper comics if you haven’t done so in ten years… It looks more like the digital distribution is opening new demographics and activating the lapsed comic fans, which I at least would consider to be a bloody good thing for the comics industry and especially the creator owned comics. Hopefully it will also drag comics out of the weird insular ghetto where they seem to be in the modern popular culture. Also, as already pointed out, if you buy the comics on the digital store website and not on the application itself, you can get rid of Apple’s 30% cut.

Be it as it may, the digital distribution of both comics and books seems to be barreling on, in spite of the skeptics and hand-wringers, which seem to infest especially the book publishing world. For a consumer like me, the future looks really really spiffy.

2 Comments

  1. Example on the creator part:
    Neal Asher started e-publishing his out of print books on Kindle, starting with the Parasite: http://theskinner.blogspot.com/2011/03/parasite-kindle.html

  2. Yep, the author is lucky if the publisher didn’t do a rights grab – and if he realizes how easy and lucrative it is to even self publish. The problem here goes in two directions: some publishers pay peanuts for ebook rights to the writer, and some writers ask exorbitant sums of money for the rights if the publisher wants to release the back catalog as ebooks… Too much stupid in the air with this.