Interview: BOOM! Studios' Chip Mosher Talks Digital Comics, the Industry's Future, and Reaching New Readers
Back in June, comic book publisher BOOM! Studios announced that they would be making their entire back catalog of comics available digitally. This was an impressive move. Despite the fact that the comic medium seems inevitably headed, as I have argued, in the direction of digital distribution (though how long that may take is still up for speculation), many companies have seemed frightened by the format, utilizing the format in only minor ways. BOOM!, on the other hand, recognized the importance of this new part of the market and jumped into it, recognizing that its probable benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks.
Now, a few months later, I catch up with BOOM!'s Marketing Director, Chip Mosher, to see how this still-young project is working out for the company and to talk with him about digital comics and the comic book industry in general.
The Sci-Fi Block: Chip, thanks for speaking with me today.
Chip Mosher: Thank you!
SFB: BOOM! seems to be one of the more progressive comics companies out there today in terms of beginning to embrace the digital format that it seems we are gradually moving towards. You guys have recently implemented your plan to make all BOOM!’s back issues available digitally. I know this hasn’t been in place for a terribly long period of time, but can you tell us how it’s been working out so far?
Mosher: It’s been working out great! We’ve had a great response to our announcement, and people have been buying the books online.
SFB: Have there been any unexpected benefits you’ve seen from embracing digital, or has it all been the expected things like better exposure?
Mosher: Well, I think that the [digital comics] numbers have stayed pretty steady percentage-wise in some of the surveys we’ve done with some of our partners. Before we went whole-hog, spread-eagle on making the whole BOOM! Studios back list available, we parsed the data and found out that 40% of the consumers of our digital comics are foreign. They are overseas, outside the country. So, that was really interesting. And that has stayed true. In the other surveys we’ve done we’ve found that about 20% of the people had never bought a comic book before, and then the rest were people who just hadn’t been to a comic shop in the last ten years.
SFB: It’s interesting that digital, despite all the advantages it has over print, doesn’t seem to cannibalize print sales if you look at the companies that are currently experimenting with it. Do you think that is going to stay the way it is, or do you see digital overcoming print gradually as we progress into the format?
Mosher: I think it will be a generational thing before we see print recede away. A lot of people make the comparison between music stores and comic book stores and MP3s and CDs, and it’s not a similar comparison at all. I said somewhere it’s not even apples and oranges; it’s apples and steak. It’s just so different it’s not even funny. Music was consumed freely over radio stations for decades. Music stores were serving a mass market that was buying millions -- if not more -- CDs a year. And, you know, the bottom dropped out of the market when [consumers] could go digital.
[With comics] we’re talking about two markets. There’s the direct market, which services the comic book stores, and the mass market. The direct market is around 1800 to 2000 brick-and-mortar stores in North America, and it’s servicing on a month-to-month basis a core of around 300,000 hardcore fans. And that’s the market; that’s the whole sample. So, these people are hardcore comic book hobbyists, and they are buying print comic books every week or every month, and I don’t see that stopping for at least a generation or so.
In the early part of the year there was a lot of “The sky is falling” rhetoric that I was hearing from the comic book retail community, and I think what they didn’t understand was that -- well, some did -- but the people that were very vocal against digital comics in the retail community didn’t seem to understand that the people that are vested in buying print comics aren’t going to change their habits, on the whole. So, we have always seen digital comics as a way to reach new audiences, and the big problem with periodical comics has always been how to reach new audiences when you have these 2000 comic book stores which are really the only place, outside of a couple of newsstand venues, to experience a comic book. You know, how do you drive people to make a special stop to a comic book store if that’s not part of their regular life ritual? So, now we have these comic books available online.
Graphic.ly is a client-side application, Comixology has a website where you can buy comics directly, and they have their own app. They produced our app. Both of those are available on the iPod. And Panelfly is available on the iPhone, iPod, iPad, along with Comixology. And iVerse is available on the iPhone and the iPad. Now we have this different market for people, where the barrier to entry is whether people have these devices or know where to go on the internet to get the comics. So, the barrier to entry has been lowered, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to introduce people to the comic book medium. And we’ll see if month-to-month periodical publishing through digital comics is really the end-all be-all business model. I think that’s up in the air, but you know, it’s something that I think everyone’s trying out now.
SFB: A lot of this, it seems, has to do with the affinity that many comic book readers have with holding the physical comic book and reading it that way. I agree with you that it seems like the transition that is going to take place is going to be pretty slow -- a lot slower, for instance, than going from CDs to MP3, like you said--
Mosher: And no one’s sitting in their car riding around experiencing comic books for free. There’s a ritual involved in reading comic books. If there were millions upon millions upon millions of people reading comic books every month in the United States, then I think there could be some valid concern that a larger segment of the marketplace might move away. But, you know, I think there’s the fact that the medium is something that you have to participate in. You have to read it. There’s no passive listening. There’s no passive viewing of a comic book. And the other thing is that you just have this hardcore group of fans -- that I’m making my living off of, so I’m very happy for them! -- and they’re out there, and they are voracious readers of print material, print comics, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I hope we can get a whole new generation of readers that are not acclimated to going to the comic shop every week or every month to read digital, and I think we have the chance to do that. You know, we’ll see if that happens.
SFB: You spoke about the sort of “Sky is falling” mentality that we got around the beginning of the year. Do you feel that currently there is any contention between comic shops and publishers that are beginning to embrace digital?
Mosher: No, you know, when Marvel came out with their iPad app, and we came out with our iPad app, and DC came out with their iPad app, and you have three major players on the iPad, and people didn’t see their business change, I think that helped immensely. So, I think that debate is put to rest. I think the next challenge is, How do we get new readers reading comics on a month-to-month basis digitally? How do we even know if that’s something that will happen?
SFB: How do BOOM!’s writers and artists feel about digital comics?
Mosher: They’re all really excited about it. They love to see their work digitally. They love being able to carry their iPad or iPhone around and show [their comics to their friends] that may not be comic fans and may not be familiar with what they’re doing.
SFB: From what I’ve heard and read, it sort of seems that the creators themselves are actually a little more excited and more welcoming toward digital comics than a lot of the readers are. Do you find that to be the case?
Mosher: You know, I’m not really sure. I’m not really sure. I think there’s a lot of excitement out there in general about digital comics and what that means for the medium. In the past decade in the mass market -- getting back to this direct versus mass market conversation -- in the mass market we’ve had these really strong graphic novel sales. Watchmen, becoming a movie, sold really well. Graphic novels in general have been one of the few bright spots in the big box book stores in the last ten years. So, that’s evolving. Whether or not that will evolve into digital sales of graphic novels is anyone’s guess. It’s the wild, wild west out there, and it’s weird, and anyone who tells you that they know what they’re doing is lying. Everyone’s experimenting and trying new things. And at some point I think we’ll see some leveling out and some players come to the forefront and some players falling aside. And we’ll get a better idea in a year or so what digital actually means for the comic industry.
SFB: Have you found any actual disadvantages of the digital format compared to print?
Mosher: Just processing the damn files!
Mosher: -- going through the back catalog and exporting stuff and just some of the ways we do things here at BOOM!, editorially. When you’re publishing over five hundred pages of new comics every month, there’s sometimes some mistakes, though we rarely admit to them. And we like to fix those mistakes for the trade. And as we were making these individual issues available digitally, we realized we couldn’t go to the single issue files because a lot of those have tiny changes in the trade. So we had to basically reverse engineer the single issues from the trade paperbacks and go from there. So, that was a pretty arduous process. My assistant Ivan Salazar and the design team here were pretty essential in making that happen. They spent long weeks working on that to get that ready. But we’re really close to meeting our goals to have all the backlist up. You know, there’ve been some delays. Apple’s been really slammed on approvals, and I think that’s a fairly consistent story that you hear out there. Getting stuff approved isn’t as fast as anyone wants, as [Apple] have found themsleves having a lot of success with their app store and stuff like that.
SFB: You brought up a good point there that I never actually considered before. With digital comics it seems like if you do make a mistake, it’s easier to go in and fix it digitally than it is to change the printing in the graphic novels that you’re going to be putting out. Is that right?
Mosher: When we catch a mistake, we have to wait until we reprint the book to fix it. So, with digital we just have to re-upload the files. It is what it is. It’s definitely not the thing about the process that interests me the most. It’s the lowering of the barrier to people’s interest in comics that I’m interested in.
I think as a rule we as an industry have done a really, incredibly, horribly bad job of introducing people to our hobby, which is reading comics on a month-to-month basis. And we have that great event Free Comic Book Day, but I don’t think that Free Comic Book Day is really geared enough toward initiating people to the whole thing of going into the store on a weekly basis to read the new material. There’s a lot of people out there that just don’t understand that there’s new comics coming out every Wednesday.
So, I think that’s the story, that we as an industry do a really bad job of getting out there, especially as other periodical storytelling over the last fifty years has really gone by the wayside. You know, month-to-month fictional storytelling is only found in comic books these days. I think Tom Wolfe has serialized a couple of his novels in Rolling Stone, but I think the last time that happened was over ten years ago. I remember Bonfire of the Vanities was in the eighties, and I think that he did A Man in Full in the nineties, but I don’t think people are acclimated to month-to-month storytelling, so my interest right now is just [asking], “Can we get more than 200,000 people interested in reading comics in whatever form -- digital or print -- in a month-to-month periodical basis, or should our focus be on done-in-one storytelling as in, for instance, graphic novels?” -- whether that’s a good thing to promote.
SFB: Has BOOM! ever considered experimenting with going from a $1.99 price tag to a 99 cent price tag? Because it seems that taking that dollar sign off would remove a significant psychological barrier for people who are wanting to buy digital comics or even experiment and get into new comics. I say that from a consumer’s standpoint. How does BOOM! feel about this?
Mosher: You know, I’m pretty happy with the buck ninety-nine price point. I think when you’re spending 99 cents for a song, and it’s part of a larger album, that makes sense. But when you’re selling a single unit that is fairly self-contained, I think a buck ninety-nine makes sense. I think it’s in line with other ebook pricing. I think a lot of people who beat the 99 cent drum for comics aren’t really as familiar with the ebook pricing, and they’re really just basing it off of iTunes music pricing. So, I’m pretty happy with that. We’ll see, you know? The market usually tells you if you’re wrong or not. Our comics have been selling like gangbusters online, and I think Marvel and DC are $1.99, we’re $1.99, most companies are $1.99, and I don’t think for a comic book that’s too expensive.
SFB: Alright, well Chip, I know you’re very busy. Good luck with BOOM!'s digital comics, and thanks again for your time.
Mosher: Not a problem!
For more on BOOM! Studios, head over the the publisher's official website.