Independent comic book publisher Red 5 Comics, founded in 2007, burst onto the scene with a slate of creator- and publisher-owned titles, including Atomic Robo, Abyss, Neozoic, and ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. Since then, the publisher has won the Gem Award for Best New Publisher and been nominated for multiple Eisner and Shuster Awards.
They have also been very active on the digital front, partnering with iVerse and ComiXology, among other providers. We recently had the chance to interview Red 5 founder Paul Ens as part of our Digital Comics Month, and he provided us with some in-depth and thought-provoking opinions about the present and future of the industry:
TFAW.com: How many titles/issues do you currently have available? What do you project to have at the same time next year?
Paul Ens: We have about 60 titles available now though our partners. This represents the entire Red 5 Comics back catalog from our short history. We expect to have all our new 2011 titles to be available digitally as well. Some will debut digitally.
TFAW.com: How did you choose which comics would go digital first? What was your thought process behind your launch?
PE: We were one of iVerse’s original content partners, back in 2008 when the best option on the iPhone was individual apps for each issue of a comic. We started with our two best-sellers, Atomic Robo and Neozoic. Those enjoyed great success, so we kept moving down the list in order of print sales.
We were also one of ComiXology’s original partners, and used a similar best-selling-first strategy there. From there, we’ve been rolling chronologically with our print releases.
TFAW.com: How have digital comics been selling for you, compared to traditional comics?
PE: The total gross revenue from digital comics has increased each month in the two years since we started, as has the total number of comics downloaded. In terms of total sales revenue, it’s still small but growing. Some of our titles have gone on to sell more digitally than in print.
TFAW.com: Have you considered a digital-only option for comics that have lower sales? Do you think this is an opportunity to extend the lives of series that might otherwise be canceled due to financial realities?
PE: Red 5 tends to release limited series rather than ongoing titles. We’ve been fortunate thus far to have our series maintain readership through to the end. It would certainly be something we would consider under the right circumstances, rather than leave readers hanging.
TFAW.com: Do you have any plans to soft-launch any titles in digital and publish those titles that do well?
PE: As a matter of fact, in December Red 5 announced a line of digital-first comics. The first title launched as digital-first was Bonnie Lass: The Legend, and more will follow.
In our press release, I compared the comic industry to the film industry, likening monthly floppies to a theatrical release for early-adopters and opinion-makers, and trade paperbacks to home video release for its potentially largest market. But what movies have that comics don’t is a festival circuit, where new talent or specialty projects can gain build a buzz before going wide. In our opinion, the new digital-comic storefronts can fill that festival role.
TFAW.com: Currently, customers are still buying standalone issues. Are you planning to offer digital “graphic novels”?
PE: We’ve had digital “graphic novel” collections of some of our series at the ComiXology store for quite a while now. We’re all for it.
TFAW.com: Do you currently offer day and date comics? Will you offer more of those in the future?
PE: We haven’t yet. We’ll keep an eye on the trends as they progress, but we still like to give our print editions time in the sun.
TFAW.com: How did you choose to partner with ComiXology and iVerse? What are the advantages of working with a third party, instead of creating your own store?
PE: We chose iVerse and ComiXology because of excellent user interface and experience, and also because the people behind them are so knowledegable and passionate. Our material has begun appearing in Panelfly as well, and we will have announcements about other platforms in 2011.
As I see it, the main advantages of companies creating their own stores are more money and more creative control. The publisher can avoid middleman percentages to Apple or the technology partner. Also, the publisher can avoid having works from other publishers vying for the reader’s attention. Unfortunately, these are advantages for the publisher and not for the reader.
The advantages of using digital distribution partners are numerous. The most obvious is that they specialize in creating and constantly improving a great user experience. Red 5 readers benefit from those improvements. For example, our comics launched on the iPhone, and are now available on the iPad, the Web, PSP and Android devices . . . all with a single purchase.
Similarly, if Red 5 made its own exclusive reader, then our readers would not have a choice if they prefer another approach. By being on multiple platforms, our readers can select the ecosystem they like best.
Finally, we think comic readers ultimately want their collection in one central place. They typically wouldn’t keep their Spider-Man [comics] in one room of the house, Superman in another room and Star Wars in another. Nor would they want to go to one store to buy Batman and a second store to buy Atomic Robo.
Some of the single-publisher apps that cooperate within a larger technology infrastructure have some merit. From a long-term reader perspective, an isolated ecosystem for a single publisher doesn’t seem very user friendly.
TFAW.com: Digital comics have broken a lot of the traditional barriers of the direct market–they’re easy to purchase and less expensive than the paper versions. Do you think this will help publishers develop a wider audience?
PE: Absolutely. If the comics are going to become a broader mainstream form of entertainment again, then digital is going to be one of the important factors in getting them there. But it will have nothing to do with publisher-side economics.
It’s because when the upcoming generation has a few minutes to be entertained, they pull out a screen or one kind or another. On that screen they can get music, video, games, books and communication with friends. If comics are conveniently alongside those forms of entertainment, they will be viewed as equally valid entertainment. If not, then comics aren’t even considered.
TFAW.com: What do you think of the piracy issue that comes along with digital distribution?
PE: I’m not familiar with an argument that digital distribution of comics might lead to an increase in digital comic piracy. We’ve been distributing digitally for two years now, and still all of the pirated copies of our material come from scans of the print books. It’s hard to copy-protect a printed comic.
If we take lessons from the music and movie industries, we see that if there is a demand for digital versions of a product, then piracy will gladly fill the supply. We also see that a portion the public will gladly pay something for a legitimate and convenient copy when it is offered at a low enough price. We also see that a certain percentage will never pay any price above zero, and that we were never going to sell a book to them anyhow.
TFAW.com: If one of your digital comics readers wanted to get the hard copy after they read the digital comic, how do you help them find out where to get a copy?
PE: Our technology partners have built-in links to find retailers close to their geographic location, and also to e-tailers where a shop is not in proximity. They have been very committed to making that work naturally and seamlessly.
TFAW.com: What do you think digital comics will mean for traditional retailers in the upcoming years?
PE: Forgive me while I imperfectly borrow lingo from my economics classes.
While a digital comic is a good substitute for a print comic (like margarine for butter), it is not a perfect substitute (like one brand of corn for another). The experience of reading a print comic is not the same as a digital one. Factors like the feel, smell, sight and sound of the physical comic will remain important for some. These difference are so great, many will never embrace digital versions.
Additionally, comics have always had an inherent collectible element to them that comes in to play only in the physical realm.
Ideally, digital and print comics will achieve an equilibrium as some kind of complementary good, where increases in sales of the one drive increases in sales of the other. Print vs. digital will be a transparent format choice. Readers will talk about the actual content, which will drive purchases in whatever format each consumer prefers.
I think that traditional retailers will adapt to these changes. They will continue to be the best place to pick up comics in the print format . . . a format that isn’t going anywhere.
TFAW.com: Do you have any retailer incentives or plans to include traditional retailers in your digital comics program?
PE: Our partners have big plans in this area in 2011, but they will have to be the ones to reveal them. We’re excited about them and will definitely be working within these new opportunities.
One nut that I hope gets cracked soon would be something like the idea of “digital copies” of movies that come with Blu-Ray discs. A print copy of a comic would come with a one-of-a-kind code or something that lets the purchaser have access to a digital copy as well. I know I personally would love a best-of-both-worlds [option] that marries the collectibility and quality of print with the on-the-go convenience of digital. I’d even pay a little extra for it.
Our thanks to Paul Ens for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure to check out all of our Red 5 Comics titles here at TFAW.com. Plus, come back Monday, January 17 for our interview with Michael Murphey from iVerse Media!
What do you think of Ens’ comparison of the comics industry to the film industry? Post your comments and opinions below!