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Digital Comics in Libraries: The Next Frontier

Column by Rob Salkowitz

Published: 01/27/2014 03:15pm
Comics in libraries is a hot topic; digital books in libraries is a hot topic, and digital comics in general is a hot topic.  Put them all together and you get "The Evolution of Digital Comics in Libraries," a panel I participated in over the weekend at the American Library Association Winter Meeting in Philadelphia alongside digital app publisher Rob Berry (Ulysses Seen/Throwaway Horse), iVerse Media's John Shableski, graphic novelist Jamar Nicholas, and moderator David Lisa of the Camden Public Library system.

The session raised a lot of issues that tend to get overlooked in the broader conversation about the commercial potential of digital comics.  It also shed light on the current strategy of one of the pioneering digital comics distributors whose efforts have been overshadowed in recent years.

Comics have won the libraries--now what?  The debate over whether graphic literature "belongs in libraries" is mostly over, and comics have earned (sometimes grudging) respect among most librarians.  Graphic novels, both literary and commercial, are some of the top circulating materials in library collections these days.

This is a big win for comics but a challenge for libraries.  Even reasonably informed, well-meaning librarians may lack the critical knowledge of comics aesthetics or history to make informed judgments on what to acquire.  Libraries on limited budgets can't afford to take a flier on interesting small press or creator-published titles, or drop big bucks on deluxe editions of archival material that are published and marketed to collectors at premium prices. 

Digital to the Rescue!  Digital comics potentially solve a few problems for libraries. They present the content in a convenient, appealing and economical format.  They don’t get beat up through heavy circulation or stolen off the shelves.  They don’t take up space, and can be included in multiple catalog locations simultaneously.  And they allow libraries to offer new kinds of work that take advantage of the digital medium, like Rob Berry’s interactive graphic interpretation of James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses "Seen."

A properly constructed digital delivery model even offers a budget-conscious solution to the acquisition problem, enabling libraries to offer patrons a wide range of reading options without the cost of carrying physical copies, or the risk associated with unknown work. 

Borrow or buy?  The big problem here is the difference between real and virtual economics.  When a library buys a physical copy of a book, its circulation is limited to the local system; it can only be loaned to one patron at a time; it deteriorates and needs replacement. Most importantly, lending doesn’t compete with selling.  Borrowing a book (or comic) from the library is not the same as owning a copy for your shelf.  Yes, you can read it, but you can’t get it signed, re-sell it or benefit from its collectability.

None of that is true with online digital media.  A single copy of an ebook or digital comic is, technically speaking, ubiquitously available without limit.  Buy once, loan forever.  Ebook publishers get around these issues by imposing restrictive (and contrived) license terms on libraries, limiting the number of times a digital edition can circulate before it has to be repurchased and prohibiting simultaneous loans.  And even that sub-optimal situation only exists because Amazon, which has a vested interest in the success of ebooks and virtually unlimited resources, decided to force the issue.

Moreover, digital lending competes directly with digital purchasing, a model that a lot of people have spent a lot of time and money getting consumers to adopt.  Unlike the clear differences between print and digital, which turn out to be commercially complementary, it’s hard to see the marginal benefits of "owning" (actually licensing) a digital comic for $2-3 versus borrowing the bits to read from the library for free.  Even if publishers are compensated for library circulation, you can see why they might not jump at an arrangement that undermines the most successful distribution strategy they’ve developed in a half century.

Enter iVerse.  Despite these concerns, one established distributor has developed an innovative new product to address the untapped market potential for digital comics and graphic novels in libraries across the country and the world: iVerse Media.  Yes, iVerse.  Who did you think I was going to say?

iVerse Comics Plus Library edition provides a single solution for libraries to offer a range of digital comics and graphic titles while providing back end record-keeping and security.  Libraries can make available a selection from the company's catalog of over 10,000 comics, graphic novel and manga titles including popular books from Archie, Papercutz, VIZ, and BOOM! Studios/Archaia, as well a range of small press and creator-published work, while maintaining their own collection and circulation policies. 

Libraries pay only for titles that circulate and can set spending limits to stay within their allotted budget.  iVerse also deals with the thorny technical problems of authentication and security, taking steps to ensure that borrowers can't easily pirate and keep the titles they borrow.

Can they execute?  iVerse's solution seems well conceived and well suited to the market.  It’s also gaining support: last fall, they announced an agreement with the Houston Public Library, one of the largest systems in the US.

But caveats apply.  Because iVerse lacks agreements with the major comics publishers
(Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dark Horse), the inventory available to libraries is limited.  That could slow adoption and potentially frustrate patrons who come expecting Spider-Man, Transformers and The Walking Dead--although it is possible that libraries could reach separate agreements with publishers or purchase DRM-free copies of Image and Top Shelf books and offer them through a different platform.

The bigger question is can iVerse deliver?  An early contender for the digital comics crown, iVerse has slipped to “also-ran” status in the consumer market and has consistently had trouble bringing promising ideas to fruition.  Their library play is their best and maybe last hope to crack the market, and for the moment, they are the only comic-centric game in town.

-- Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and is working on a new project on the future of marketing and retail in the digital age.
 
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.

---Disclosure: ICv2 has a business relationship with comiXology as a representative for its Retailer Tools; ICv2 CEO Milton Griepp also serves on the board of comiXology.
 
 
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