A couple of weeks ago, I shanghaied Dave Marchand’s More Cool Stuff column as an April Fools gag, and ironically discussed the subject of digital comics. What’s so ironic about that, you ask? All together now: I will tell you! Digital comics might be cool, sure, but they’re hardly “stuff” in that physical sense that we’re all used to, like sorting through all of our stuff after we get home from a con, or unloading our stuff after a large haul home from the comics shop on Wednesday.
Although, it seems that Diamond Distributors is trying to convince us otherwise, in the wake of their announcement that they are partnering up with iVerse Media to offer digital comics from various publishers such as Archie Comics, Top Cow Productions, and Top Shelf. Nothing odd about that; it’s most definitely cool, but the strange part is that this seemingly all-digital process has a puzzling wrinkle that oddly throws in some decidedly physical stuff into the mix.
The wrinkle is that, Diamond has provided for stores without any kind of online presence to be part of this online distribution chain. And for consumers to get ahold of this content within the first thirty days of its release from one of these stores, they must actually physically travel there, purchase the online content, and then get a printout of a code that they will in turn take home or enter into their mobile device that will allow them to access the comic. If Rube Goldberg were alive now in this digital age, he would be proud.
The intent, according to Diamond, is to supply exclusive digital content to all of the retail stores they serve, not just the online ones, for the first thirty days of release, so that readers who opt for digital releases can get them immediately through their local retailers, just as they do with print comics now. After thirty days, these releases will be made available publicly online.
So to Diamond’s credit, they are trying to hold a place for their traditional “offline” customers within the framework of a new, online business model. But the sad truth is, a brick and mortar comic shop with no presence on the internet has no real place in a digital distribution system. In trying to placate such rightfully concerned retailers, all Diamond is doing is inserting inefficiencies into a system that allows these retailers to maintain their status quo without changing their business practice, and creates a cumbersome process for customers dealing with a store whose sole way of doing business remains face-to-face contact. It’s like having to slow the rate of water coming out of the faucet so the clogged drain doesn’t cause the sink to overflow. Instead of just unclogging the drain.
Many have said that for a business to survive, it has to adapt. And while it’s laudable, I suppose, that Diamond is trying to provide a means for stores without an online presence to survive in a growing online market, it’s not an ideal solution. Or a permanent one. If movies, books, and music are readily available online without a trip to Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, or Sam Goody’s, how long will it be before comic fans decide that enough is enough, and dump a store that requires leaving the house in favor of one with an online storefront that allows them to access comics the same way they do any other media?
Locally, comic shops that were long mainstays in the area have gone out of business, one just within the past couple of months, in large part because of their clinging to dated business practices. Diamond’s move comes across more like one that’s rooted in sympathy for these kinds of retailers more so than one that’s intended to grow the distribution system; it’s like a professor who grades on a curve so low that every student passes, regardless of performance. Except that eventually, these students graduate and enter a real world that does not go easy on them, and the day of reckoning comes. And unfortunately, that’s all Diamond’s program is ultimately going to do for these retailers: delay the inevitable.