Notes on Longbox

If you’ve been following comics discourse over the last few days, the public unveiling of Longbox has featured prominently. CBR’s article gives all that’s known so far, if you need to get to speed. The basic idea is that it’s an Itunes-esque solution for Comics. As in, it integrates a digital comics-reader with a shopping/subscription model. Like Itunes, the reader works with all commonly used digital-comics formats — and its quality as a reader should ensure a cross-over audience. Basic comics will cost a dollar a piece, though that’s at publisher discretion. It’ll initially support PC and Mac, but planning to expand to Linux, Kindle, iPhone, WiiWare, X-Box Live and anything else they can get it working with. It’ll be going live later in the year, and in a invite-Beta after San Diego.

Jamie and I saw Longbox in an earlier demo at New York Comic Con in February and were impressed. In fact, I was so impressed I made sure that a clause related to this kind of sales was written into the next comic contract I signed. Clearly, I have no idea if it’ll take off. I hope it does. I also think that Longbox does so many things right that it’s got the best chance I’ve seen for a digital-comics-format system to do so. This would be a good thing. In fact, possibly a necessary thing.

On a personal level as a reader, I’m in the market for digital comics and have been for a while. I do fall into the camp which believes that reading on a screen is a little inferior to the print copy. Conversely, I also fall into the camp whose ability to buy singles is limited. Not primarily by money — by space. I haven’t the room. I believe that single issues can be beautiful, life-affirming pop objects — there is a reason why Jamie and I did The Singles Club the way we have. But for most comics, which I buy primarily for the story, I am looking for a reasonably priced, easily accessible way to get hold of them at the same time as they’re available in other places.

More so, the reduced price means that I suspect I’d be following more books than I am right now. If I don’t have the worry of space plus the reduction in price… well, I’d be less bloody picky. I’d follow books which I’d even vaguely like. And most importantly, I’d be sure to find something I’m interested in. In the Indie field, I’ve been looking for a copy of CHEW and OLYMPUS since they came out. And no bloody luck. This immediately solves that for any book on Longbox.

Should shops and the traditional direct market be worried? Yeah, a bit. This could be bad for them. I don’t think it will be.

The thing with the lower price means that even if the talked about voucher systems — where you can get money off a real world trade if you buy the digital singles — don’t emerge, it means that I’m far happier double-dipping and buying both digital singles and trades. I’ll throw away six dollars on single issues which make up a trade and still buy the trade if I love it enough. Right now, only books I absolutely adore do I buy in both formats. If it’s six dollars lost, that would reduce to mere love. Hell — sampling a single issue for a dollar and then buying a trade if it impresses me enough strikes me as fairly likely. Point being, for me, I suspect my purchases in comic shops would at worst stay stable (as in, I buy the same number of trades as before, which is the majority of my purchases) and at best, increase considerably (as in, since I am exposed to more books, I buy more of those books). And this is only talking about the existent comics market. Longbox seems perfectly capable of opening up comics access to many more people, who will eventually want to buy something physical, even if it’s not for themselves. People like giving presents, y’know?

That’s me as a reader of comics. Let’s talk me as a creator, specifically as one half of Team Phonogram.

We have a few problems. Firstly, we make no money. Secondly, our comics aren’t available in enough places. Thirdly, we make no money. I say that one twice, because it’s the biggie.

Let’s deal with the smaller one first: while certain shops stock us very well, the vast majority don’t. Issues disappearing within hours of them arriving is pretty common. We lose any kind of casual floating readership who may just fancy the look of it. If someone reads a story about Phonogram and walks into a shop, they probably won’t find it. They’ll walk out. They’ll probably forget it. And that’s our basal-to-optimistic level. When we get stories about shops who literally refuse to order the comic, we just wince. Even worse, our comic has a considerable readership outside the traditional comics readership. Many of these don’t even live near a comic shop. Many of these may not even know that comic shops exists. Some of them are a bit Emily Aster and will refuse to go into comic shop on principle.

It’d be good to have a way to sidestep that.

The money problem’s the bigger issue. As we’ve talked about before, the single sales of the Singles Club were lower than we’d hoped for. They’re level with series 1, but due to the addition of colour, any profits evaporate. We make no money on the singles. We probably make a loss. We do well on trades — Rue Britannia is just about to go into its second printing. The first printing was about three times what we sell in issues. I suspect The Singles Trade club will do well too.

But long term, that isn’t a solution. At the moment, with our current methods, a third series of Phonogram is entirely impossible. Frankly, Jamie is too old and too talented to starve for half a year again. Even if he was willing, I wouldn’t want to ask him. If we’re going to do a third series, we’re going to have to work out a new methodology for it. We’re chewing over the options, and have a variety of purely hypothetical plans, but…

Well, if we sold as many copies of an issue on Longbox as we do at retail, Jamie would have close to a living wage. If we sold half as many, we’d have rent money. Even if we only sold one copy, we’d make more money than we do now. As I said, we make no money from the issues. While a dollar an issue (minus Longbox’s cut) may seem not enough to someone who doesn’t know the economics of comic production, it really is perfectly acceptable.

In other words, a model where we do all single issues on something akin to Longbox and then, when completed, collect in a real trade for a paper-audience is something which seems feasible. It’s certainly more feasible than what we do now. I suspect a lot of indie creators in a similar position to Jamie and I feel the same.

Will Longbox be a success? I hope so. I hope the big four publishers find a way to work with them, as a system which will be most effective if it’s comprehensive, and I think all publishers would gain a synergy by doing so which would actually help themselves more than trying to do their isolated own things — and actually, as a side-effect, help the rest of the industry too. But I also don’t think it’ll necessarily fail if they don’t – I think it’ll just slow down what I think could be a major step towards rejuvenating and reinventing the industry. Because this is going to happen eventually. I’d rather it happened now.

This post has been brought to you the word “hope”. It’s one of my favourites.